Racing is as much a part of Corvette DNA as the V-8 or the crossed-flags emblem. During the '80s, that was good news for Corvette, not so good for competitors who were becoming experts on Corvette taillights. In most every class, the only real race was between Corvettes up front and the back-of-the-packers dicing for leftovers. From the promoter's perspective, runaways demand correction as they are kryptonite to ticket sales. With the C4 on top of the racing world, the SCCA faced a situation.
"In the late '80s, Corvettes were dominating everything when they raced in SCCA," says Lance Miller, senior manager of Carlisle Events, and son of Carlisle's Chip Miller. "Lotus, Porsche, all the other competitors were complaining to the point that they threatened to pull out."
The solution came from John Powell, a journeyman racer, team owner, and organizer. Since the Corvettes were in a class by themselves anyway, John's proposal was to set up a separate class for Corvettes only, have Chevrolet build a special package, prep the cars for the top performance, and have them race for the largest purse ever seen at this level of racing.
Everybody seemed to like the idea. It relieved a big headache for SCCA, gave GM a high-profile venue to showcase its flagship sports car, offered a competitive triple-A series for up-and-coming drivers to demonstrate their talents, and provided sponsors with plenty of stylish, bright-colored bodywork to paste their decals on.
The inaugural season was 1988. Chevrolet came up with 56 identically built coupes, painted in any of seven colors, and spec'd out with the 245hp Cross-Fire 5.7 V-8. Chevrolet built the engines identically, but selected engines that were equivalent in output, sealed them up, and shipped them from the Flint engine plant to the Corvette plant in Bowling Green. Other equipment included:
* Doug Nash 4+3 manual transmission
* Z51 Performance Handling package
* AC3 Six-Way Power Driver Seat
* UU8 Delco-Bose Stereo
* Z6A Side Window and Side Mirror Defog
* 24S Blue-Tint Glass Removable Roof Panel
For this option package, Chevrolet issued the package code B9P.
Next stop for the Challenge cars was the Protofab shop in Wixom, Michigan, where they installed rollbars, racing seats, an on-board fire extinguisher, a set of Bilstein shocks, and four Dymag wheels. Six cars built for the Corvette Challenge did not receive this conversion.
Pricing was $33,043 for the B9P car, and an additional $15,000 for Protofab's additions.
Exxon signed on as a major sponsor, and at season's end, a Corvette won! Stu Hayner was the '88 Corvette Challenge Champion. The Corvette Challenge had a huge impact and attracted a wealth of driving talent, such as Andy Pilgrim, Scott Lagasse, John Greenwood, and Boris Said, to name but a few.
For 1989, the wave of success continued. Chevrolet built 60 Corvette Challenge cars under code R7F, but the car got a ZF six-speed manual transmission. The schedule was expanded to 12 races.
This time, the colors were limited to five, and 12 of each color were built. Of those 60, only 29 were converted to race trim. Two backup cars were converted in case a racer might have a sudden, desperate need for a fresh car. Through the season, nobody did, which stands as a testament to the Corvette's tough build quality. At the season's end, the red No. 3 car, driven by Bill Cooper, was the overall winner. The Miller family owns that one too. It would be the last year for the Corvette Challenge.
"My dad absolutely adored the Corvette Challenge series," says Lance. "Every single race had a story. He knew a lot of the drivers, and it's fun to watch racing when you know people."
Chip had his eye on the black backup car that always showed up at the races, but was never raced. In October 1989, at the last race of the season in St. Petersburg, Florida, Chip bought it from John Powell. It is the last of the Challenge cars to be built. The analog odometer on the otherwise digital dash showed only 100 miles.
Chip kept a book of notes about each of his cars. The following entry says a lot about the man: "The day the car was delivered to the Carlisle Fairgrounds, Lance was there with me in preparation for a father/son surfing trip. I drove him around the fairgrounds at speed and then changed seats before we parked it. He fell in love. In love with this car, in love with high-performance cars, in love with race cars, in love with fast driving. It was one of the greatest days of my life! We agreed to share the car from that point on."
The grins, the rumble of the exhaust, the thrill of the power, the way the world looks as it goes rushing by on the other side of the windshield, the introduction to how fun driving a fast car can be-it was all burned deep into Lance's memory.
In 1990, they wanted to take the car to Bloomington for a shot at Gold Certification, but all the judging slots were full. It would have to wait until the next year.
In 1991, Chip and Lance again set out for Bloomington, and this time they came back with a Gold Certification.
There are 25 other Corvettes in the Miller collection, and it continues to grow, but this one is Lance's all-time favorite. Not a bad resume for a backup car.
Corvette Challenge Race Schedule 1988-1989
Lance has put together a well-done web site for the Corvette Challenge, www.showyourcorvette.com.