The heyday of "big-bore" production-based sports car racing was a period between the late '50s and the early '70s. These glorious cars were loud, obnoxious, and incredibly fast. Nearly every weekend, fans in some part of the country went wild over the intense competition between Corvettes and Cobras, and a few high-priced European cars like the E-type Jaguar. The various manufacturers battled, sometimes openly and sometimes surreptitiously, over who owned the track.
But what happened to these old racers over the years? Many cars didn't survive the intense competition, being destroyed in multi-car pile-ups or an unfortunate solo encounter with a wall. A few may have been converted for street duty, others were handed down and modified to meet ever-changing class rules until they were too obsolete to be competitive in any venue, and a fortunate handful ended up forgotten in a barn or garage, only to be rediscovered years later.
This 1966 Chevy Corvette roadster, which is now on its eighth owner, has been raced since it was brand new. It was originally ordered in November 1965 by one Lynn Butler, through Gordon Wilson Chevrolet in Salt Lake City. The order sheet specified an L72 427/425 big-block, a M22 "Rock Crusher" four-speed, heavy-duty ignition, heavy-duty suspension, heavy-duty power disc brakes, and Silver Pearl paint.
Immediately upon delivery, it was shipped to Bruno's Corvette Repair in Studio City, California, where all street equipment was removed and replaced with racing gear like a rollbar, 3-inch lap belts and SCCA-approved safety harnesses, and racing shocks. The original front clip was cut off in the center of the front wheelwells, and a lightweight replacement was grafted on. A scattershield replaced the stock bellhousing, and the engine was sent to famed racing engine builder Traco for a full blueprinting. The finished racer, nicknamed "Leonard," was returned to Gordon Wilson Chevrolet, joining two other Sting Rays as the "In Team" under the dealer's sponsorship. Shortly thereafter, all three were painted white with matching paint schemes, and "Leonard" was assigned #14 to compete in SCCA's A-Production class.
Lynn Butler only competed in regional events, but was considered a threat to the national competitors as he made his mark in A-Production competition. Butler was a 25-year-old rookie race driver, but possessed an innate, natural skill at manhandling the potent Sting Ray around road courses in the region. "Butler...guided the sleek Corvette around the blacktop like a tested veteran," a Salt Lake City Tribune sports writer wrote at that time. Butler campaigned the Vette until 1970, when he sold it in favor of a newer and more competitive Corvette.
The car changed hands three times over the next 10 years, but its racing record during that period is a little foggy. In 1980, "Leonard" was purchased by Mark Kiesel, who extensively reworked it to compete in SOLO II events by adding huge fender flares to accommodate 10-inch-wide rubber in front and 11-inchers in the rear. The stripped, stock interior was replaced by polished aluminum panels and a fiberglass racing seat. The obsolete single-hoop rollbar was replaced with a full cage and five-point harness. At some point in the prior decade, the original big-block had disappeared, so Kiesel fitted a 500-plus-hp 355ci small-block in its place. The car was finished off with a silver and blue paint scheme and a ridiculous (though appropriate for the era) set of shark teeth in the grill opening, apparently to go with the car's bad attitude. Mark successfully competed in SOLO II events until 1987, when he passed it along to its sixth owner.
This individual kept the car for just a few months (maybe the teeth scared him!), then sold the old Sting Ray to Mike Sepe. Mike began to research the history of the car, ultimately contacting Lynn Butler's grandmother. Amazingly, she had saved many of the photographs and newspaper clippings from the old Vette's heyday, and it wasn't long before Mike had compiled a book stuffed with all kinds of pictures and info on the car, including the original order sheet, and the bill of sale. Sepe decided to right the wrongs inflicted on the old racer over the years. He replaced the huge flared fenders with stock panels and refurbished the interior with original-style components. And, in a move that was vital to the old racer's character, yanked out the small-block, placing a mighty 427 in its rightful place in the engine compartment. "Leonard" was returned to 1966 "as raced" condition, right down to the white and purple paint and Gordon Wilson sponsorship. Then in '96, it went up for sale once again.
Jack Gersh of Thousand Oaks, California, was already up to his eyeballs in vintage racing. He owned two small-block-powered '65 Corvette vintage race cars, and was looking for a big-block Vette from the same era to race. When he heard about "Leonard," he had to check out the old car. In many ways, it was a typical old race car with the usual wear and tear, but the one thing that caught his eye was the book put together by the previous owner. "When I saw the book, I bought the car." Jack said. However, the "as raced" condition didn't measure up to Jack's standards. "It wasn't even close to race condition...we basically pulled the car completely apart," Jack explains. The 427 was pulled out and sent to Marconi Automotive, where it was treated to a full blueprinting, complete with Brodix heads, a Brodix intake, and a Holley 850 carb. A Jerico four-speed handles all 550 horses. The "Gordon Wilson" paint scheme was freshened up at Tom's Auto Body in Anaheim, California, with a new coat of Pearl White and purple striping. The suspension was refurbished with aluminum bushings, 800-pound front coil springs, and Penske nitro-charged shocks. A set of PS Engineering five-spoke wheels and Goodyear slicks provide grip in the corners. Jack and his buddy Jim Johnson performed most of the work on the car. Stewart Racing, based at Willow Springs International Raceway, finished off the race preparations, and Carlos Vivas of C&S Restorations in Torrance handling the final detailing.
Once the car was restored to its former glory, Jack wasted no time getting the Vette back on the track. But instead of competing against much newer cars in SCCA production-class races, "Leonard" is saved for vintage racing. There, with its thunderous exhaust and explosive speed, it races with some of the same cars it battled over 30 years ago. When Jack's on the track, he doesn't hold back, and he has an impressive collection of checkered flags to prove the point. You could say that "Leonard" has come full circle. The old racer underwent a lot of changes-good and bad-over the years, but has ended up close to how it began-in its glory days.