Think back several decades to 1966. It was a time of breathtaking contrasts: Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. made us laugh; Vietnam made us wince; the Monkees toured with Jimi Hendrix as their opening act; the Summer of Love was in full swing while race riots erupted in Atlanta, Chicago, Lansing, and Omaha. Through it all, we took to heart the Beatles No.1 hit, "We can work it out."
During this time period in a quiet, little town deep in the Florida interior, racers gathered next to Hendricks Field-a WW II-era airfield for training B-17 bomber crews, just outside of a town called Sebring-to continue one of the most respected racing traditions in America: the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Those attending the '66 Sebring event were witness to another contrast: the passing of the torch from the magnificent Grand Sport small-blocks to a new generation of big-cube superpower that would become known as the L88. The L88 was not quite ready for showrooms, but because of outings like this, it was race-proven before the public got its hands on it, which would ensure the L88 was ready to hit the ground running.
At Carlisle 2006, two thunder-and-lightning legends-the No. 001 Grand Sport and the '66 L88 development car-were reunited again, just like Sebring 1966.
'63 Grand Sport, Chassis No. 001
As the solid axle years were wrapping up and the Sting Ray era was dawning, Corvette intended to take things to a new level, but first it had to prove its new mettle in the showroom, on the street, and at the racetracks.
Talk about a tough neighborhood. Places like Sebring, Daytona, Nassau, and Watkins Glen were snake pits infested with venomous competitors such as Ferrari, Jaguar, Maserati, and archrival Ford Cobra. It was a strong field full of accomplished athletes, and just about the worst possible place to be the new kid. It's said that to be the best, you have to beat the best. Corvette had its work cut out for it.
When the '63 Z06 cars proved too heavy and hard on their brakes to knock off the front-runners, Chevrolet's inner sanctum had Plan B already in progress. It was the most radical Corvette to date. The new car, known as the Grand Sport, went on a crash diet-nearly every part normally constructed of steel or iron was built of aluminum: door hinges, door mechanisms, body brackets and members, windshield washer/wiper systems, steering box, differential housing, brake calipers, and the list goes on.
Bodies were built in the basic shape of the Corvette coupe, but the fiberglass process was changed to greatly reduce weight. The Grand Sport fiberglass had a different texture because normal production layers were omitted, and its thickness was also reduced, making the body basically a thin shell. Headlights were fixed to reduce the bracketry and covered by clear plastic covers.
Because the rest of the car now weighed far less, normal steel parts could also be lightened for the reduced load. The frame (which was tubular instead of conventional steel), suspension control arms, spindles, and rear suspension were all lightened through revised castings or by drilling holes in the regular parts.
Originally, the Grand Sport ran with a modified fuel-injected 327, though a much more aggressive 377ci engine with Weber side-draft carbs was in the works.
After testing and racing in the hands of privateers (Chevrolet was officially not racing), the design was debugged and fitted with larger brakes, big cooling slots behind the rear wheels, the signature rear fender flares, wider 9.5-inch wheels, and an oil cooler for the differential.
The first taste of victory came on August 24 at Watkins Glen when driver Dick Thompson took the overall win. At the '63 Nassau races, it all came together on Friday, December 6. Three Grand Sports were entered in the 112-mile Governor's Trophy race. Dr. Dick Thompson's Grand Sport DNF'd with a blown engine, but chassis No. 3, driven by Roger Penske, won the Prototype class and took Third overall, while chassis No. 4 and No. 5 won Second and Third in class, and Fourth and Sixth overall, decisively beating the Cobras.
Concluding the racing was the 252-mile Nassau Trophy race, run on Sunday, December 8, where the Grand Sports continued the strong showing, winning the Prototype class and taking Fourth overall, and winning Third in class and Eighth overall, far ahead of the Cobras.
Next on the racing calendar was Daytona. Prior to the big event, the bodies of Grand Sport No. 001 and No. 002 were radically altered when their tops were cut off to convert them into roadsters. New hoods were also fitted to relieve pressure that built up under the front end.
This was the end of the line for Chevrolet's official/unofficial involvement. The success at Nassau focused unwanted attention on Chevrolet's racing exploits, and executives ordered the Grand Sports destroyed. But the two roadsters were quietly hidden away within a dark building at GM, while the remaining trio of Grand Sports coupes-No. 003, No. 004, and No. 005-were quickly handed to John Mecum, who ran a private team in Texas. Roger Penske bought the roadsters in 1966. At a yet undetermined time prior to the Sebring '66 12-hour race, a heavy-duty 427 was installed in Chassis No. 001. Both cars ran with these engines at Sebring that year.
Today, chassis No. 001 is based in Cincinnati, Ohio, and proudly owned by Harry Yeaggy.
'66 L88 Development Coupe
Fans of the L88 know it was introduced in 1967. Or was it? the public got its first shot at the new 427 powerhouse as an option on the '67 Corvette, but for the select few who knew where to look, the L88 had made a few fleeting appearances well before then.
Chevrolet's Engineering Center had been hard at work developing the Mark IV big-block, and in October 1965, after that year's racing season had concluded, Zora Duntov placed a call to one of his key connections.
Roger Penske, one of racing's brightest young stars, had just announced his surprise retirement as a driver in 1965. Walking away from a career that included numerous records, being named Driver of the Year in 1961 by Sports Illustrated, in 1962 by the New York Times, and having won USAC and SCCA championships may have seemed odd, but Penske's career path was about the business of racing. He had graduated from Lehigh University in 1959 with a business degree in industrial management, and had served as general manager of McKean Chevrolet in Philadelphia since 1963. Now Penske was forming a race team of his own.
On the phone, Duntov explained to Penske that he had a hot new experimental 427 engine that he'd like "field tested" at the upcoming Daytona 24 Hour Continental. The engine had been in development since 1962, and its code name was the Heavy Duty 427.
Penske hired Dick Guldstrand, a West coast driver who Duntov had recommended, and added co-drivers, George Wintersteen and Ben Moore.
Two of the handful of prototype L88s built were set aside for the Daytona effort. One was shipped to engine builder Traco in Culver City, California, while the other went to the St. Louis Assembly plant for installation into a Rally Red coupe earmarked for Penske. This car was specially built with the M22 four-speed, J56 HD brakes, F41 suspension, 36-gallon fuel tank, transistorized ignition, 2.73:1 differential, prototype cowl induction hood, heater delete, no radio, and a lighter '65 front grille. The car was scheduled to be completed at the St. Louis plant on January 14, 1966. Penske assigned Guldstrand to pick it up.
St. Louis in mid-January is a deep freeze. "Guldstrand watched the car come off the line," owner Kevin Mackay has learned in interviews with Guldstrand and tells us, "It would not start. Workers pushed the car over to the side and handed Guldstrand the keys, saying, 'This is yours kid, we don't want anything to do with it. just get it out of here.' Guldstrand popped the hood and poured fuel down the carburetor. Of course, without a choke, it was very hard to start. Finally, the engine came to life but would barely idle at 1,500 rpm. It was also making a nasty showing by shooting flames out the exhaust. After sorting things out, plant workers shook hands with Guldstrand and gave him a furniture blanket for warmth; this Corvette was heater-delete and it was very cold. Guldstrand drove the L88 back to Philadelphia, where they began prepping it for Daytona with a complete disassembly."
In practice at Daytona, the high-powered Corvette had one of the best lap times, but was a handful to control. Guldstrand spun out in qualifying and nearly got bounced from the team, but Jim Hall and Phil Hill talked Penske into reconsidering.
Penske landed Sunoco as a sponsor, but hadn't yet hit on the classic blue and yellow colors for the car. When the red coupe rolled into tech, inspectors knew that Guldstrand was one to watch. They nixed the big fender flares, but didn't object to the aluminum suspension bushings that replaced the factory rubber. Other racing mods, such as dual electric fuel pumps, oil cooler, extra-large sidepipes, full gauges, quick-release fuel cap, Torq-Thrust D mags, rollbar, racing seat, and a power cut-off switch, were added. Lucas headlights and "Flame Thrower" fog lights were wired up for night driving, and lights were added to the doors so scorekeepers could see the numbers.
But the biggest mod came just after qualifying when the Traco race engine was flown in and installed. This was after the car had passed tech, so this was definitely "bending the rules." During the race, illegally large tires were installed at the first pit stop. By nightfall, the No. 6 L88 was leading the GT class, but ran into the back of a slower moving Triumph, heavily damaging the front end. Gib Hufstader, a GM engineer and close associate of Duntov, wired the fiberglass together, but officials were going to disqualify it since it now lacked the required headlights. Hufstader grabbed a pair of big flashlights that Bill Preston, one of the Sunoco R & D guys, had brought and taped them to the damaged front end. This technically satisfied the rulebook, and the car was allowed to resume racing.
But more damage remained-a big radiator leak. Having no replacement, the team went into the spectator parking lot, found a '66 big-block Corvette, helped themselves to the radiator, and left a note on the windshield for the owner. In the pits, the radiators were changed.
Shortly after, Guldstrand was back in the pits explaining the flashlights didn't give enough light. Penske implored him to "go out there and try to follow somebody's taillights." He did, unaware he was following a fast Ferrari team car.
By the time the checkered flag flew, they had broken the GT record, won First in class and Eleventh overall. The L88's strong showing as a stock qualifying engine and modified race engine cemented in Duntov's mind that this needed to become a production option, and impressed Sunoco enough that they extended sponsorship to the upcoming 12 Hours of Sebring.
Back in the Penske shop, the body damage was repaired; the fenders widened a bit, and at the sponsor's request, painted the classic Sunoco colors.
At Sebring, the L88 coupe was joined on track by the Grand Sport (Chassis No. 001) roadster, which Penske owned. The Grand Sport spun during the race, knocking the exhaust into the oil pan, eventually forcing its retirement. But the big L88 coupe opened up a six-lap lead over the second place Corvette of Harold Whim and Don Yenko. Despite fading brakes in the closing hours, the L88 led its class start to finish and came in Ninth overall-best finish ever for a Corvette.
A month later, Penske sold the Sunoco Special, the development L88 Corvette, to Joe Welch, who raced it the rest of the season as a Penske entry. At the '67 Sebring race, the new owner asked Penske's newly hired driver, Mark Donohue, to qualify their car. He did.
Until 1972, this irreplaceable Corvette thrived in its racing career. After that, it was converted into a street driver.
Kevin Mackay, owner of Corvette Repair in Valley Stream, New York, saw it at a New Jersey Corvette show back in 1983, when production L88s were going for $25,000 to $35,000.
"It was Nassau Blue with a tri-power setup," Mackay says. "All its original exterior and interior trim were in place. The owner knew what he had and had a $100,000 price tag on it." A strong price, but it sold in 1987 for much more. New owner Gene Schiavone shipped the car to Dick Guldstrand to determine if it was the genuine item. It was. Schiavone restored it to its '66 Sebring appearance and vintage raced it along with the No. 001 Grand Sport, which he had also bought.
The prized racer had gotten away, but Mackay kept watching and waiting for the right opportunity. In 2001, the planets aligned and he became the proud owner of the racing legend. "My dream was to have this car completely restored exactly as it raced as No. 9 at the '66 12 Hours of Sebring," he says. "Our extremely talented staff started the restoration on October 1, 2001, and finished on August 1, 2002, nine months later."
The body was stripped and all previous damage was repaired with only perfect N.O.S. panels. All seams were reglassed using no filler, and endless hours were spent on the body to ensure perfection. Mechanically, the frame had only 13,646 miles. Everything that could be rebuilt was, and the only replacement parts used were parts with correct numbers and date codes. Gib Hufstader helped provide exact replacement racing seats.
After long days and 2,750 man-hours, the unique L88 went on a national tour, hitting Meadowbrook, the NCRS National Convention in Monterey, California, then Pebble Beach. Last stop was Corvettes at Carlisle, where it was photographed for this feature.
A trumpet fanfare to all who dreamed, built, raced, preserved, and restored these incomparable examples of Corvette royalty.
From the National Corvette Musuem web site, http://www.corvettemuseum.com/library-archives/timeline/1960.shtml. The National Corvette Museum cites these sources:
Popular Hot Rodding's Corvettes 1980
Corvettes-The Cars that Created the Legend, by Dennis Adler, 1996
Vette, January 1993, Volume 17, Number 1