The Winner's Circle

The Story Behind The Most Successful Corvette Race Team Ever

Patrick Knight Dec 12, 2006 0 Comment(s)
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For many of us, Corvette race cars over the years have created much of the mystical attraction to America's only sportscar. The racing team with the longest winning streak in Corvette racing history is a huge part of this rich racing heritage. The V.V. Cooke Chevrolet SCCA racing team actually got its start with the meeting of V.V Cooke Jr. and the Barker brothers, Allan and Donald, in 1958. At the time, V.V. Jr. was competing in his personal '58 fuelie, while the Barkers were racing their Austin Healeys. To some Vette owners, an afternoon drive on a rural road with the sounds of a dual exhaust and the feel of a four-speed shifter in your hand is heaven on earth, while others, like the Barker brothers, had to prepare and take their Corvettes to the limit in competition.

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Delivery photo of of the first '53 Corvette.

The V.V. Cooke Chevrolet SCCA racing team officially commenced with the purchase and preparation of a '63 Z06 fuel-injected roadster with which they dominated the B-production class in 1969 and 1970. The next move for the team was the purchase and frame-off preparation of a '69 Corvette roadster for the '71 SCCA season, again for the B-production class. This '69 Corvette was a very rare special-order (only documented black/saddle interior L88 roadster still in existence) L88 roadster that was delivered by Williamson Chevrolet to the original owner, Doug Bergen in Marietta, Ohio.

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The '63 Z06 roadster.

This L88 was destined to race from the very beginning; the car's first outing was the 24 hours of Daytona in 1970. Unfortunately, the car did not finish the race. Next up was the 12 hours of Sebring where it placed second in the GT class in 1970, behind the famous Owens-Corning L88 car. Under the careful guidance of the Barker brothers, Donald, the chief mechanic, and Allan, the driver with sponsorship from V.V. Cooke Chevrolet, the SCCA B-production class was dominated by this race team for four years with 26 race wins in a row and four national championships from 1969 to 1972 with the '63 roadster and the '69.

The '69 car was then sold to Bill Jobe of Dallas, Texas, who continued the car's winning ways with two more B-production titles in 1973 and 1974.

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The '69 L88 roadster at speed, circa 1972.

In the late '70s, the L88 was sold to David Preston, who stored it in his front yard on a car trailer with only a car cover to protect it from the elements for almost two decades.

Kevin Mackay, an L88 expert from Valley Stream, New York, eventually found the car (still sitting in the front yard) and struck a deal with David in 1995 to purchase the car and the extra parts. Kevin carefully prepared the engine for starting after returning to his shop, and start it did, running just as well as it had over two decades prior. After much detailing, the race-winning Corvette was returned to its original appearance as it ran during the mid-'70s. The car still carried the original paint and interior. Father Time had taken its toll on the original decals, but help reapplying them was cheerfully supplied by the Barkers.

The next owner for this historical Corvette was Larry Bowman, who sent it to Legendary Motor Company for restoration and preparation for the '02 Monterey historic races at Laguna Seca raceway. After a thirty-two-year retirement from competition, Allan Barker was commissioned to drive the No. 80 Corvette once again. Donald was there overseeing the mechanical needs, creating a reunion of the race team and a rare opportunity to relive the past again at full speed!

Larry Bowman still owns the car today.

V.V. Cooke Chevrolet, The Sponsor

Recently, the interest in dealer involvement in the '60s performance market has reached an all-time high. Prominent dealers in the Midwest and northeast United States are now well known to the performance-oriented crowd, primarily due to the numerous articles that have documented their place in performance history. Across the country there were other dealers who also played roles in the horsepower wars. V.V. Cooke Chevrolet in Louisville, Kentucky, was one such dealer. High-performance cars and performance enhancements were daily activities in the sales and service departments for Chevelles, Chevy IIs, Corvairs, Corvettes, and Yenko-prepared cars as well.

With public interest in racing high, V.V. Cooke Chevrolet also sponsored another race team. Gerald Newman built and Roy Wathen drove a number of stock cars for eight years, beginning with a '62 Chevrolet 409-powered Belair. Next up was a '65 Impala, followed by the '69 Z/28 Camaro that was pictured on the cover of the Fairgrounds Motor Speedway program from Louisville, Kentucky. This team's winning ways led to four track championships locally, as well as wins in the ARCA series. One such win with the '65 Chevrolet was on October 1, 1967, at Louisville Downs, a one-half-mile horse track with a crushed limestone surface. The hundred-mile ARCA race was the first time Roy Wathen had ever driven on anything but asphalt! Gerald Newman by day was a very competent front-end mechanic at V.V. Cooke, retiring after 30 years with the company.

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V.V. Cooke Chevrolet, The Dealership

The dealership was established in 1930, operating with great success for two decades in two locations as it grew. A new state-of-the-art facility was designed and built for the '52 model year. The opening of this operation was announced to the public with a twelve-page supplement to the local newspaper and an eight-day celebration.

Mr. V.V. Cooke Sr. ran a very tight ship and in doing so garnered respect and dedication from his employees, which at one time in the '60s exceeded one hundred. His technicians were so well trained and proficient that performance-seeking customers came from all over Kentucky, as well as Indiana and Tennessee, for their expertise. An in-house apprentice program placed young mechanics with a seasoned veteran for 1-2 years upon arrival.

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Letter written by V.V. Cooke Jr. about the first '53 Corvette sold.

The sales department was second to none, as were all the members of the staff. In 1990, a list was comprised of over 75 automotive businesses spawned by previous mechanics, salesmen, and bodymen who had learned their automotive trade there.

As V.V. Cooke Sr. eased into retirement, V.V. Jr. took the reins in the '60s during the performance era. This fit V.V. Jr.'s interest perfectly, and the Corvette was his car of choice for his personal drivers. They were always modified and painted with a tasteful combination of red, white, and blue, which were also the chosen colors of the '63 and '69 Corvette race cars. At the close of the business in 1981, V.V. Jr.'s Corvette collection was an even dozen, one for each era and each body style. Advertisements for the performance business with his own winning B-production Corvette and oval track '69 Camaro clearly identified V.V. Cooke Chevrolet as the high-performance leader.

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Grand opening ad, circa 1951.

One Such Two-Page Ad Stated:
"Does our racing give us an edge? We think you'll agree that it does because it shows that our service department has the mechanical know-how and skill to compete successfully in the demanding world of high-performance racing. Because of the extra effort required, our parts people are probably better equipped with technical know-how on what parts your car needs for its best performance. Our racing reputation keeps our sales department on their toes with the knowledge and the experience to help you choose the right car for your specific needs. Ok, racing does develop skills and knowledge that make our mechanics top drawer, but the real 'edge' comes from the teamwork experienced throughout the company, keeping our cars winning.

"Allan Barker took the V.V. Cooke Chevrolet race Corvette to the top at the American road race of champions last Sunday at road Atlanta. This is the contest that settles all the arguments. Our car, with Allan at the wheel, has brought home the top honors in this class for three years in a row. No one has ever done this before. We not only beat all of the cars in our class (B-production) but we also clobbered 11 class A-production cars in the process. To tell the truth, we're so tickled at having won this very important event that we have declared this coming week 'Corvette Champion Week.' Our entire showroom will be devoted to these great cars. Right in the center, all shined up for the occasion, will be the winning car itself. Allan will be on hand at certain times to talk racing with anyone interested. One other thing: The red carpet is out for Corvette shoppers this week because we think we've got a big edge on knowledge, understanding and experience with these magnificent automobiles. To help spread enthusiasm around, we've made a substantial reduction in the price of all Corvettes now on hand for this week only. We've got the best selection of Corvettes in this area including coupes, convertibles, automatics and four speeds, some with air, stereo and electric windows."

V.V. Cooke Chevrolet, Seller Of The First Corvette In Kentucky

When the '53 Corvette came out, V.V. Cooke Chevrolet received the first one delivered in Kentucky. Upon arrival, V.V. Jr. was enthralled with its striking appearance and sports car appeal. The car was so unique that Chevrolet Motor Division sent in a service technician to go over the car with the dealership mechanic. With this formality out of the way, V.V. Jr. just had to try it out. What an afternoon that turned out to be!

Printed for you, with V.V. Jr.'s permission, is his personal description of that day's events and a photo of the eventual purchaser, Mr. Volz of Volz Chevrolet in Madison, Indiana, seated in his new Corvette at delivery time. It is still unclear as to whether Mr. Volz was informed of his Corvette's first days outing. This letter was presented in 1999 to Jim Mayden, who performed the body and paint work on the Corvette race cars, as well as V.V. Jr.'s personal Corvettes. Jim was a 20-year-employee of the company and now operates the Jim Mayden body shop in the same facility.

SPECIAL THANKS TO:

The personal collections of:
Robbie Albers
Allan & Donald Barker
David Beumer
V. V. Cooke Jr.
Patrick Knight
Jim Mayden

Sources

Corvette Repair
Valley Stream, NY
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