The first time we met was at the home of a mutual friend in the Washington, D.C., area in February 1998. Our friend hosted a meeting that included the two of us, two other D.C.-area men and himself, for the purpose of planning to field a car for the 1998 La Carrera Panamericana Road Race in Mexico. (Its website, www.lacarrera.com, contains considerable background on the race, some tales of the original races, which ran from 1950-54, and the official results of the 1997-99 races.) At that meeting, we reached an agreement to prepare and enter a '65 Porsche 356.
Fast forward to October 1998 in a hotel parking lot in Guadalajara, Mexico, where the five of us are working at 3 a.m. to replace the engine in the Porsche, which had blown in the third day of the six-day race. While we were working on the car, Dick commented to Bruce that the Porsche was not proving to be the ideal car for the race, and that he would love to run the race again the next year in a more powerful, better-suited car. Bruce asked Dick what his choice car would be and without hesitation he replied, "A race-prepared mid-year Corvette would be perfect." (The event is open to cars built between 1930 and 1965.) Dick's statement was duly noted.
When Bruce returned home from Mexico to Binghamton, New York, he started to look around for a project mid-year. In February 1999, he notified Dick that he'd found an appropriate '65 roadster in Buffalo. The owner of the car had purchased it from a local schoolteacher in 1985. It had been the teacher's daily driver since 1973. In the spring of '86, after owning the car for less than a year, the gentleman we purchased the car from was involved in a low-speed collision with a Pinto. The Corvette was driven from the scene, but on the way back to the owner's home, the frame broke (presumably from the stress of the accident, not to mention at least 12 salty Buffalo winters) at the rear-wheel kick-up. The Vette was disassembled to the bare frame for restoration/repair after the accident and was never reassembled.
On February 4, 1999, we hauled the '65 from Buffalo to Binghamton. The gutted interior was stuffed with boxes of parts, as was the bed of the Chevy pickup we towed it with. The frame had already been acid-dipped and sandblasted to remove all rust, the rusted sections were replaced, and the entire frame had been continuous-welded. The front and rear suspension had been reassembled. The body had been stripped of paint, and a one-piece replacement front fender/nose assembly had been grafted to it. The body had been hung on the frame, and junkyard tires and wheels enabled the car to be rolled. The original, numbers-matching drivetrain had not been touched or reinstalled. When this car came from the factory, it was Nassau Blue with a blue interior, both tops, a 300hp small-block, an M20 four-speed, a 3.36:1 rear, a teak/tele steering wheel, standard wheels, and side exhaust. All the original components were with the car and in restorable or repairable condition. The car was very complete.
Our goals for this car were to build a race car capable of competitively withstanding the seven-day, 2,400 mile race; to complete the project without modifying the body's original configuration or destroying the original drivetrain components; to make it marginally street-legal; and to win the Historic C class of the Pan Am!
We set about the task in the following manner: After cleaning, sorting, and cataloging all the components, we had the car painted Ermine White with a Nassau Blue stripe from nose to deck, and then pulled the body off the frame and stored it on a dolly. No body modifications were made, with the exception of substituting a '65 big-block hood for both appearance and air cleaner clearance. All the original wiring was removed and a replacement American Auto Wire harness installed. The headlight and taillight assemblies were replaced or rebuilt as required. We removed the heater assembly and set aside the immaculate, original instrument cluster along with the teak/tele column, convertible top assembly, and the original drivetrain.
After purchasing a bare, used four-bolt main 350 block, we contracted Matchmaker Machine in Verona, New York, to build the engine. The Pan Am rules stipulate that cars competing in the Historic Division must have engines that do not exceed the original displacement. A service bore of up to .040 is allowed. A 1969 wide-journal 327 crankshaft was located, balanced, blueprinted, and installed. Lunati rods and Clevite 77 rod bearings were connected to the crank, along with SRP 11:1 pistons and Speed Pro rings. Dart Sportsman heads were ported and polished, then flowed and fitted with Manley valves, Comp Cam roller rocker arms, and stud girdles. Fire to the cylinders was accomplished with an MSD billet distributor, coil, and 6AL ignition box. A Tilton Super Starter spins the engine over. We used an Edelbrock RPM intake manifold and a Holley 750 double-pumper with mechanical secondaries for induction. We installed a Hooker side-mount exhaust system, less the baffles. The bottom end of the engine was enclosed within an eight-quart, flat-bottomed Canton road race oil pan. A balanced Hayes flywheel and Centerforce Dual Friction clutch were installed. We used an overhauled, stock Chevelle Muncie M21. A used differential housing was purchased and fitted with Richmond 3.55:1 gears. The driveshaft and both halfshafts were balanced and installed with Spicer Brute Force universal joints.
The race rules prohibit serious modifications from the original suspension's configuration. With these limits in mind, we rebuilt the suspension using polyurethane bushings, heavier front and rear stabilizer bars, a fiberglass rear spring, and Bilstein shocks all around. Otherwise, the suspension remains stock. The original, non-power assisted four-wheel disk brakes were rebuilt with stainless steel sleeves and pistons, and a new master cylinder and lines were installed. Race rules limit tire and wheel sizes to original, so the original-size 15x6 wheels were used with General XP 2000 V-rated police cruiser tires.
After bolting the body onto the frame, we re-installed the original grille and bumpers, and replaced the stock radiator with an aluminum one from Griffin. A racing steering column was used with a Schroeder quick-release steering wheel. We made a stainless steel instrument cluster bezel and fitted it into the stock dash pod and installed an Auto Meter speedometer, plus oil pressure, oil temperature, water temperature, and voltmeter gauges. A stainless steel insert was put in place of the radio grille, and an 8,000-rpm Auto Meter Memory Tachometer was mounted on top of it with an Auto Meter oil pressure warning light alongside. An Auto Meter fuel pressure gauge is mounted on the driver's side defroster grille. A six-point rollcage designed to accommodate the removable hardtop was fabricated. Kirkey Speedway Deluxe Layback seats and five-point harnesses were installed.
The car was started for the first time on Labor Day weekend, 1999. It was licensed for road use and we put 1,000 miles on the clock before trailering the car to Tuxtla Gutierrez, capital of the state of Chiapas, Mexico, just a few miles from the Guatemalan border, and starting point of the race. The car passed technical inspection and left the starting line on October 23. The Corvette proved to be brutally powerful, reliable, a total crowd pleaser, and an awesome sound experience for spectators when it was at full song. This wild Corvette stands ready to go on to a successful vintage racing career that started in its 34th year, or it could be returned to its stock configuration.
The Mexican government sponsored the original La Carrera Panamericana race in 1950 to celebrate the then recently completed Pan American Highway, which runs the length of Mexico. The race immediately became internationally famous, and was run until 1954, when it was cancelled because of a large number of spectator fatalities. The original Pan Am was flat out road racing from the start-which was Tuxtla Gutierrez even then-until the finish line at the U.S. border at Texas. The race was resumed in 1988 in modified form. The wide-open, frontier mentality of Mexico in the early '50s is simply no longer the case, and the population is too dense to tolerate the former style of racing that saw European marques such as Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Mercedes competing against many American-manufactured cars like Hudson, Mercury, and Oldsmobile.
Beginning in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the race covers 2,300 miles in six days, currently ending at the border town of Nuevo Laredo. In its modern day format, the race is part rally and part speed sections (velocity stages), but it is still run on public roads and highways, with the cooperation of the Mexican Federal Highway Patrol. The course starts at sea level and quickly climbs into Mexico's central mountain range, reaching elevations of 7,000-8,000 feet, and returns to sea level for the final day's numerous velocity stages to the border, across Mexico's northern, near-desert terrain. The race covers about 400 miles per day, with rapid changes in altitude, and includes velocity stages through several extremely difficult mountain sections. All in all it's a difficult challenge for the cars and teams, requiring close coordination between driver, navigator, and maintenance crews. It is not surprising, therefore, that the race is internationally famous, and generally considered to be the crown jewel of vintage road racing. Typically, about 80 to 90 cars compete each year, with entrants from Europe, South America, the U.S., Mexico, and sometimes as far away as New Zealand. Because of the difficulty of this speed and endurance event, only about 60 cars typically cross the finish line under their own power.
We are obviously very proud of the fact that we put our Corvette together in only about six months (working every weekend-we're both employed full time, and live in cities a good distance apart), were successful in the car's first competitive event, and above all we are proud of the fact that this is the only Corvette to ever win this race in any class!