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Chevy Racing History - The History Of Chevrolet, Part XI

SC Takes A Look At The History Of One Of America's Best-Known Companies

Shane Reichardt Nov 1, 2000
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Editor's note - Heading into the new century, we felt compelled to take a look back at what will undoubtedly be one of the 20th century's biggest contributions to daily life-the automobile. Of course, Super Chevy looks at the history of the automobile through the eyes of the Chevrolet enthusiast. The following is the eleventh in a series that will run throughout the year 2000 and cover the highlights of Chevrolet-from the creation of a company at a time when 270 other companies were vying for buyers of new automobiles, to the present day, when the competition is limited to just a handful of serious automobile makers. Much of the information is taken straight from Chevrolet sources, and some will be from the pages of this magazine's more than 25 years as "The # 1 Chevrolet Enthusiast's Magazine."

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Racing Through The Years
If it weren't for his enthusiasm for racing, Louis Chevrolet might never have been picked by William Durant to help start the company that bears the name Chevrolet. Louis, along with his brother Arthur, raced just about everything on wheels at the time. Therefore, it only seems natural that Chevy has a long and colorful history in automobile racing. The players had names like Coo Coo Marlin, Earnhardt, Rex White, Smokey Yunick, Jim Hall, Zora-Arkus Duntov, Mears, Pensky, Donohue, Grumpy, and even Force, to name just a few. As for the cars, well, let's just say that wheels were the only true requirement. The old saying that the first race occurred the day the second person in town bought a car is certainly accurate.

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Chevrolet's racing history before the introduction of the 265-cid V-8 small-block in 1955 was for the most part small-time. The small-block was inexpensive and very easy to work with, making it highly popular with tuners and enthusiasts. It didn't take long at all before modified, high-performance versions hit the streets and the tracks. And it didn't take too long before it became a winner.

In June 1957, the Automobile Manufacturer's Association (AMA), in cooperation with GM management, banned automakers from direct participation in racing. The ban came at a time when the Chevy small-block was just beginning to reach impressive milestones. Zora Duntov and John Dolza added fuel injection to a bored-out 283 and promptly produced more than 290 horsepower. The package was advertised by Chevrolet as "one horsepower for every cubic inch" and was sold as a 283-horse engine in the '57 Corvette.

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For a number of years Chevrolet, like many other manufacturers, stopped all official support for racing. But the rumors about back-door support have become legend. Many of the Chevy engineers were very enthused about the products they were developing and wanted to see what their inventions were capable of on the track. Covert support ranged from off-the-shelf parts to special, top-secret R&D components offered to select racers to validate the part's abilities.

Dealerships also exploited every loophole possible to support racers in ordering factory "race cars." Dealer-built performance machines were highly popular during the heyday of musclecars. Many of these were basically race cars that had a DMV street title.

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Chevy Racing History Timeline
Auto racing events conducted at the famous Indianapolis 21/2-mile oval originally took place over a bumpy surface of crushed rocks and tar.

On May 30, 1911, Louis Chevrolet supervised the crew of his brother Arthur's racer, in what was the first Indianapolis 500 race. Arthur was one of 40 starters.

A 21-year-old man drove a Chevrolet roadster 2,020 miles, from Los Angeles to Omaha, in 56 hours, 47 minutes. He set the record for automobile drive time between the two cities and beat the fastest train by approximately two hours.

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Driving a '40 Chevrolet, Juan M. Fangio, a General Motors dealer from Argentina, won the Race El Gran Premio Internacional Del Norte. Fangio began the 6,000-mile race in Buenos Aires and tracked through the 15,000-foot-high Andean peaks in 109 hours, 36 minutes.

Chevrolet set out to offer the most efficient and affordable V-8 engine possible. Ford and many other manufacturers had been offering V-8s for years, but Chevrolet was the first to offer an incredibly simple, compact, light, and affordable V-8 with a base rating of 162 hp (180 hp with the addition of an optional four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust).

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On September 9, 1955, a production-class Chevrolet driven by Zora Arkus-Duntov climbed Pikes Peak in 17 minutes and 24 seconds, setting a new record. Since there was a disagreement over timing authority, Chevrolet entered three factory-equipped cars in the hillclimb the following year. Jerry Unser and another driver drove two of them to first and second place finishes, and Duntov's previous record was lowered by an "official" 1 minute, 16 seconds-a record that would stand for 13 years.

This year's NASCAR season saw Chevrolet post three wins in the Grand National, 10 in Convertibles, and an astounding 25 wins in Short Track racing! Zora Arkus-Duntov began developing fuel-injected Corvettes, with a goal of reaching 150 mph in a production car. He broke the "flying mile" record in a '56 Corvette at Daytona Beach with a speed of 150.583 miles per hour. The SR-2 Corvette was aerodynamically improved with the addition of a full-length belly pan, and the removal of the windshield. The cockpit was enclosed with a flush fiberglass tonneau, and a headrest/fin was also added.

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In the late '50s, Chevrolet wasn't building race cars-merely offering production sedans equipped with optional heavy-duty parts. As wheels, axles, and steering arms broke, Chevrolet produced heavier-duty ones to replace them at affordable prices.

Zora Duntov and John Dolza added fuel injection to a bored-out 283 that produced more than 290 hp, (and advertised as one horse per cubic inch). It was sold as a 283-horse engine in the '57 Corvette.

In June 1957, direct factory involvement in racing was banned. Despite this blow, production Corvettes came of age when Dr. Dick Thompson, a Washington, D.C., dentist-turned-racer, and one of the most memorable names in early Corvette racing, finished 12th overall and first in the GT class, 20 laps ahead of the nearest competitor.

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Chevrolet unveiled the Corvette Sting Ray in the summer of '62. At the same time, Zora Arkus-Duntov was building a radically designed Corvette known as the Grand Sport, which boasted thinner body panels and lighter components, to compete in international racing.GM management soon announced an end to the Grand Sport program due to a redirection of corporate policy. The five Grand Sports that were built or under construction were to be scrapped, sold, or used as test vehicles, ending the possibility of factory-backed racing success, except for privateer efforts.

A new series was born, and with it a new Chevrolet milestone. A Corvette, driven by Dave Heinz, won the GTO class in the inaugural International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) Camel GT race at Virginia International Raceway in Danville. Corvette took Grand Touring Over 3.0 liters (GTO) honors in five of the six 1971 Camel GT events and won three overall, including the GT class (fourth overall) at the 24 Hours of Daytona, the GT class at the 12 Hours of Sebring, the GT class at the Watkins Glen 6 Hours of Endurance, the SCCA A and B Production National Championships, and the IMSA GT Manufacturers Championship.

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The NASCAR "Modern Era" began when R. J. Reynolds Tobacco became the prime sponsor and narrowed the Grand National tour to a total of 31 races per season.March 26, 1972, marks the first "Modern Era" win for Chevrolet. At the Atlanta 500, Bobby Allison made up a seven-second deficit in the final 30 laps at Atlanta International Raceway (now known as Atlanta Motor Speedway) to beat A. J. Foyt to the checkered flag by 0.16 seconds!

In 1974, at just 28 years of age, Darrell Waltrip fielded his own team (with himself as driver and wife Stevie as owner), entered 16 races, and led 15 of them! After decades of NASCAR racing, he still remains competitive in his #17 Western Auto/Parts America Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

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Cale Yarborough claimed the first Winston Cup Grand National series championship won by a Chevrolet with nine wins, 22 top-five, and 23 top-ten finishes for the series.

Janet Guthrie, at 38, foiled in her attempt to be the first female driver at the Indianapolis 500, drove the #68 Lynda Ferreri Chevrolet to a respectable 15th place at the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 30, 1976.

Chevrolet had a new vehicle design for the 1977 NASCAR season, the slope-nosed Laguna S-3, which was deemed the car to beat that year. Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip proved it so, winning 15 of the 30 Winston Cup races that season.

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Yarborough also became the first driver in NASCAR's "Modern Era" to finish all 30 races in a single season, driving the #11 Chevrolet Laguna.

Janet Guthrie became the only woman driver ever to lead a Winston Cup Grand National race during the Los Angeles Times 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway on November 20, 1977. She was also Top Rookie at the Daytona 500, Rockingham, Charlotte, Richmond, and Bristol in 1977.

On September 4, 1978, Terry Labonte, a rookie from Corpus Christi, Texas, drove in his first Winston Cup race, taking fourth place at the Southern 500 at Darlington, South Carolina

February 18, 1979, a major television network broadcasted the Daytona 500 unedited from start to finish on live television.Dale Earnhardt won his first Winston Cup race, the Southern 500, at Bristol, Tennessee, and was also named 1979 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year.

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Dale Earnhardt became the 1980 NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National champion, the first driver to ever win Rookie of the Year and a championship back-to-back!The 1980 Winston Cup championship also saw a Chevrolet vehicle place 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the final point standings (Earnhardt, Yarborough, and Benny Parsons).

This was the last year older and larger (115-inch wheelbase) cars were used for NASCAR Winston Cup racing. The shift to smaller cars caused big problems, as many drivers experienced difficulty maintaining the cars at high speeds, resulting in serious crashes. NASCAR eventually increased the size of the rear spoilers from 250 to 276 square inches. Chevrolet posted only one win during the season, by Bobby Allison at the Winston Western 500 at Riverside, California.

Sterling Marlin won the 1983 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year honor, placing 17th in point standings.

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Jeff Gordon was NASCAR Busch Grand National Rookie of the Year. Two years later he would claim the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award.

Jeff Gordon won eight poles and seven races on his way to winning the 1995 Winston Cup series championship, making him the second-youngest champion in the history of the sport.

Chevy finished the 1995 inaugural season of NASCAR SuperTruck in the victory circle and claimed the Manufacturer's Championship. According to a 1994 NASCAR market survey, 89 percent of truck owners have an interest in racing.

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Terry Labonte powered his Monte Carlo to victory in his first win at Charlotte. Along the way, Terry captured wins at Bristol, Richmond, Phoenix, Rockingham, Darlington, Pocono, Talladega, Sebring, and Daytona, to name a few. Chevy Trucks took 1st-4th at Watkins Glen, driven by Ron Hornaday Jr., Joe Nemechek, Mike Skinner, and Jack Sprague.

In the late '90s, Chevrolet made an official return to drag racing with a contingent including Pro Stock S10 trucks and Camaros in both Pro Stock and Funny Car.

Chevrolet As A Hot Rod
Hot rodders found a true supporter in a man named Zora Arkus-Duntov. Born in Belgium, Duntov was a German-trained mechanical engineer-and a real high-performance enthusiast. Upon seeing the first Corvette (the XP-122 prototype) in GM's Motorama display, Zora sought a position with Chevrolet. He was a key player in the design of the small-block V-8.

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Duntov's affection for the Corvette and determination to make it a world-class performer is the primary reason for the car's current status as the greatest American-made sports car of all time.

Fairly new to Chevrolet, Duntov penned a bold missive aimed directly at placing Chevy on top of the hot rod world, titled, "Thoughts Pertaining To Youth, Hot Rodders, And Chevrolet." Selected sections of that letter follow:

The Hot Rod movement and interest in things connected with hop-up and speed is still growing. As an indication: the publications devoted to hot rodding and hop-upping, of which some half-dozen have a very large circulation and are distributed nationally, did not exist some six years ago.

From cover to cover, they are full of Fords. This is not surprising that the majority of hot rodders are eating, sleeping, and dreaming modified Fords. They know Ford parts from stern to stern better than Ford people themselves...

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Should we consider that it would be desirable to make these youths Chevrolet-minded? I think that we are in a position to carry out a successful attempt. However, there are many factors against us...When a superior line of GM V-8's appeared, there where remarkably few attempts to develop them, and none too successful.

Like all people, hot rodders are attracted by novelty. However, bitter experience has taught them that new development is costly and long, and therefore they are extremely conservative. From my observation, it takes an advanced hot rodder some three years to stumble toward the successful development of a new design. Overhead Fords will be in this stable between 1956 and 1957.

The slide-rule potential of our RPO V-8 engine is extremely high, but to let things run their natural course will put us one year behind-and then not too many hot rodders will pick Chevrolet for development. One factor which can largely overcome this handicap would be the availability of ready-engineered parts for higher output.

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If the use of the Chevrolet engine would be made easy and the very first attempts would be crowned with success, the appeal of the new RPO V-8 engine will take hold and not have the stigma of expensiveness like the Cadillac or Chrysler, and a swing to Chevrolet may be anticipated. This means the development of a range of special parts-camshafts, valves, springs, manifolds, pistons, and such-should be made available to the public.

To make good in this field, the RPO parts must pertain not only to the engine but to the chassis components, as well. In fact, the use of light alloys and brake development, such as composite drums and discs, are already on the agenda of the Research and Development group.

These thoughts are offered for what they are worth-one man's thinking aloud on the subject.

Signed: Z. Arkus-Duntov
Dated: 12/16/53

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Draggin' The Line
The closest link between Chevrolet race cars and those the company builds for street driving is without question the sport of drag racing. Quarter-mile competition has been dominated by Chevrolet machines since the late '50s, when the small-block literally powered its way onto the scene. For the sportsman or hobbyist racer, the advent of the '55 Chevy was a dream come true. Coupled with a few aftermarket "speed" parts, the Shoebox was a definite force to reckon with.

In the '60's, a handful of big-name drag racers turned to FX (factory experimental) competition. Though the factory's involvement was limited to "back-door" help, the stage was set for better high-performance engines, transmissions, suspensions, and even lightweight parts being made for the masses. Cars like the 409/409 Impalas and the special limited-production '63 Z-11 Sport Coupe were basically race cars in street-car clothing, built on the assembly line. With these, the weekend racer could drive to the track and go a few rounds before driving the streets back home-most often with the trophy, to boot!

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With the birth of the big-block "Rat" motor in 1965, Chevrolet cemented what would become the most common high-horsepower engine design used in competition. (Today, many aftermarket manufacturers build engine blocks and heads that are direct descendents of the original Rat.) Showroom stock big-block Impalas and Chevelles brought fear to those driving other brands, and when those engines were installed in lighter cars like the Nova and Camaro, they were nearly impossible to beat.

While there were many, many groundbreaking Chevy drag racers who made a name for themselves during the sport's infancy, there are a few who stand above the rest. Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins, commonly referred to as Mr. Chevrolet, led the charge with Chevy IIs, then Camaros, and most recognizably, his small-block Vegas, toward what would eventually be the unofficial "Factory Hot Rod" category: Pro Stock. Racing against early pioneers like Paul Blevins, Frank Iaconio, Sonny Bryant, and Gordie Rivera (to name just a few), Jenkins opened the "back door" at GM a little wider for the quarter-mile enthusiast. The help some of these racers received was limited, but it did directly contribute to helping the R&D department create better performance equipment.

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It wasn't until the advent of multiple Pro Stock champion Lee Shepherd, behind the wheel of the Reher Morrison car, that Chevrolet stepped up with a direct racing sponsorship. The team's success, which was cut short in its prime when Shepherd was killed in a practice session, swung the door wide open for competition parts built at the factory level.

Today, every level of drag racing is deeply rooted with Chevrolets. Whether it be the replica Camaro and Corvette fiberglass (and carbon fiber) bodies that are used in nitro and alcohol funny car competition or the mega-inch direct descendents of the Rat motor that power 90 percent of all of the sportsman "Super" categories. When you think of drag racing, you unquestionably think of Chevrolet.



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