Penske Racing has the honor of being the winningest team in the history of the Indy 500. And since auto racing is considered an athletic sport, some say that by the percentages, Penske Racing is the winningest team in all of sports! Roger began his racing career in 1958 at the Marlboro Motor Raceway in Maryland and by 1960 he won the Sports Illustrated SCCA Driver of the Year award. His prowess on the track got the attention of Zora Arkus-Duntov and he was hired as part of the team of drivers for the 1963 Grand Sport Nassau assault. This lead to a friendship with Zora that was directly responsible for Penske’s becoming a successful race car team owner.
Race cars were becoming brutally fast and many talented drivers were becoming seriously hurt, and worse. In 1965, Penske decided to hang up his helmet and focus on his new Chevrolet dealership. Roger also entered a new chapter of his life, as that of a race car team owner. After getting his dealership up to speed, Penske decided to field a Corvette race car as a promotional tool. So, Roger reached out to his friend Duntov for some assistance.
By the early 1960s, the C1 Corvette had become a formidable opponent in SCCA B/Production and A/Production racing. The all-new 1963 Sting Ray was designed to be a game changer. With its new perimeter frame, lower center of gravity, four-wheel independent suspension, plus the new RPO Z06 Special Performance Equipment option, this was the combo that was supposed to keep Corvettes in the winner’s circle. Carroll Shelby’s Cobra put an end to that and sent Duntov and his crew back to the drawing board, which in the long run, turned out to be a good thing. Chevrolet began working on a new version of their 348/409/427 big-block W-series engine in 1962. A few prototypes were let out the back door to be used in NASCAR competition and caused quite a stir. Car magazines called the new engine, “Chevy’s Mystery Motor.” The new big-block finally made it into production in 1965 as the L78 396 with 425-horsepower and in 1966 as the L72 427 with 425 horsepower. The press was euphoric and as usual, Duntov was several steps ahead of everyone. Zora joked that the displacement increase from 396 to 427 was to lighten the engine, because 31 cubic inches of less steel saved weight!
Duntov helped connect Californian racer Dick Guldstrand with Penske because Roger needed a driver and someone with Corvette experience to set up a new 1966 427 Corvette race car. Penske had worked out a one-race sponsorship deal with Sunoco and assembled his team to run in the 1966 24 Hours at Daytona. Guldstrand was hired by Penske and moved to Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, where Penske’s shop was located. Dick’s first assignment was to fly to St. Louis to pick up a special-optioned, Rally Red 1966 L72 427/425 Corvette Coupe.
Right off the assembly line, the car was a beast. The L72 engine had 12.5:1 compression, solid-lifters, a racing camshaft, a big 850 Holley carb with no cloak, an aluminum intake manifold, and a TI ignition. This was not a street car engine. Also included was the J56 heavy-duty brakes, a 36-gallon fuel tank, the F41 heavy-duty suspension, a prototype positraction differential with 2.73 gearing, the M22 “Rock Crusher” transmission, off-road exhaust, teakwood steering wheel, telescoping steering column, heater and radio delete, and a special prototype cowl-induction hood. The L72 was initially rated at 450-horsepower, but was reduced to 425 for administration reasons.
When Dick picked up the car at the St. Louis assembly plant in January, it was brutally cold and the 427 Corvette wouldn’t start. The disgusted workers pushed the car off the line and told Guldstrand, “This is yours kid. We don’t want anything to do with it. Just get it out of here!” Dick got the car started and then had to drive the car 800 miles to Penske’s Pennsylvania shop, in January, with no heater, and just a furniture blanket to keep warm! Despite the extreme conditions, Guldstrand had a blast!
Once in the shop, the car was taken apart and prepped for racing. Several hundred pounds were removed and many parts were replaced with aluminum. Racing magnesium wheels with wide tires necessitated small aluminum flairs on the wheelwells. The rear fenders were bulged out and the trailing arms were notched to accommodate the wider tires. Suspension bushings were replaced with aluminum spacers, dual electric pumps and an engine oil cooler were added, and extra-large header side pipes installed. The interior received a rollbar, racing gauges, shut-off switches, and every nut and bolt on the car was safety wired. (Later, for the Sebring race, clear headlight covers were added, the car was painted Sunoco Blue and the side-pipes and American mag wheels were painted yellow.)
Duntov sent Penske the prototype engine that was not designated as an “L88” but you could consider it a “preproduction” or “development” L88 engine. Penske then sent the prototype engine to engine-builders Travers and Coons (TRACO) where the compression was reduced so that it would survive a 24-hour race, as well as modifying some parts for durability. Duntov had a second prototype engine sent to TRACO to be race prepped and then sent to the team the day before the Daytona race. The team worked around the clock up to the day of the race.
All long-distance racing is filled with drama and the Penske 427 Corvette was no exception. The race’s sponsor, Pure Oil, took issue with Penske using Sunoco 260 gas, and tech inspectors didn’t like the wheel flairs and a host of other minor issues. Out on the track, the experimental 427 showed its mettle by hitting 185-190 mph, almost staying with the prototype cars, according to Guldstrand. The team started from the 21st grid position and was the fastest of the GT cars by nearly 20 seconds a lap and was only 13 seconds slower than the pole-winning Ford GT40 MK II prototype. Mighty impressive for a production-based racer!
It turned out to be a very tough race with Guldstrand, George Wintersteen, and Ben Moore driving. In the middle of the night Wintersteen T-boned a slower car and blew off most of the front end. The team wired the body together and went back out on the track—with NO headlights! After a lap Dick came back into the pits telling Penske, “I can’t see!” Penske had a lot on the line and barked, “Hey, are you a candy-ass or are you a race driver? Get back in this thing!” Dick was promptly black-flagged for not having “forward facing white lights.”
Chevrolet engineer Gib Hufstader “just happened to be on vacation in Sebring” and was on hand to help. Gib taped flashlights to the front fenders for light, leaving Guldstrand to drive by following the taillights of the leading Ferrari. Dick later said, “I still couldn’t see anything, but at least I had forward-facing white lights. So, I picked up on the lights of one of the prototype Ferrari cars that I could stay with. I set another track record at 2 a.m. on the back end of a Ferrari. I was concentrating on his taillights because if I’d lost that guy I was dead meat!” At the end of the race, the team won 1st in the Grand Touring over 3 liters class and 12th overall. The second-place GT car was 48 laps and 183 miles behind the Penske Corvette.
Sunoco was so pleased with Penske’s performance that they extended the sponsorship for the 12 Hours at Sebring, where they won the GT class and came in 9th place overall. Thus, Roger Penske’s new career as a team owner began. Roger sold the car to Joe Welch after the Sebring race and like many used race cars, it was bought and sold and raced in many variations. It was even converted into a street machine after 1972! The current owner, Kevin Mackay found the car in 1983 but vintage racer Gene Schiavone bought the car before Mackay could and restored it back to the Sebring 1967 livery. Finally, in 2002 Mackay was able to buy the car and restored it to its 1966 Sebring “Sunoco Blue” livery.
Kevin still owns the car and has earned the NCRS American Heritage Award. Today, the car is completely functional and considered by many to be one of the finest examples of Corvette racing history.
K. Scott Teeters has been a contributing artist and writer with Vette magazine since 1976 when the magazine was titled Vette Quarterly. Scott’s Corvette art can be seen at www.illustratedcorvetteseries.com. His muscle car and nostalgia drag racing art can be found at www.precision-illustration.com.