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Air 1968 Corvettes L88 - Hollywood Blockbuster: The AIR Corvettes

The story behind the No. 44 James Garner/AIR Vette

Bob Dunsmore Jan 23, 2006
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Photo by Bob Dunsmore/Dunsmore Racing Photography

Bolstered by their on-track success and celebrity mystique, JamesGarner's American International Racing (AIR) team cars are among themost storied vehicles in the history of Corvette racing. VETTE talkedwith Dave Herlinger recently to get more details on the No. 44 AIR carowned by his brother, Jim.

Jim Herlinger first got the racing bug through his work with Ford, wherehe worked as an engineer in the company's performance division. When Jimquit Ford, he continued to race in various SCCA series and eventuallygraduated to two-liter sports racing cars. In his travels, he metCorvette engineer Gib Hufstader, who encouraged him to think aboutracing a Vette.

In 1972, Jim decided he wanted a big-block V-8 car to campaign in theupcoming season. He and his brother saw one of the Dick Guldstrand-builtGarner Vettes in an AutoWeek classified ad late that year. Jim evaluatedthe car and liked what he saw.

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The Birth of AIR
The story of the AIR cars begins late in 1967. In November of that year,three factory-built L88 cars left the St. Louis plant to become part of Garner's AIR team. These three LeMans Blue convertibles werepre-production COPO (Central Office Production Order) models featuringthe new L88 engine, which would not be available to the public untilApril 1968. These three Vettes, plus four "lightweight" cars equippedwith second-generation open-chamber heads, were GM's rolling testbeds,specifically prepared for very special customers.

The cars were actually ordered in the name of Herb Caplan, a West CoastSCCA national champion who put up the necessary funds before sponsorfinancing for the AIR team actually arrived. Clippinger Chevroletsalesman Bob Wingate ordered the cars through Fred Gledhill Chevrolet inHarbor City, California. In return for its extraordinary work in helpingthe AIR team obtain performance parts, Clippinger Chevrolet was laterallowed to display two of the completed cars in a special PR event.

Another unusual aspect was that the cars were actually picked up at GeneJantzen Chevrolet in St. Louis and driven back to California. Thedrivers were Dick Guldstrand, Bob McDonald (Caplan's crew chief), andPerry Moore (a former Caplan employee). Although delivery was recordedas being at Fred Gledhill Chevrolet, it's much more likely the cars weredriven directly from St. Louis to the first AIR shop in Culver City,just two doors down from Guldstrand's new shop.

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This recent photo shows the restored AIR No. 44 car being raced by ownerJim Herlinger.

The cars were raced only once under the AIR banner, at Daytona in 1968.After that, the team moved over to Lolas, and all three Corvettes weresold to mobile-home manufacturer John Crean. Crean, in turn, sold thecars individually.

In midyear 1969, the No. 44 AIR car was sold to Gerry Gregory. Althoughthe race season was already well underway, Gregory obtained a wild-cardentry to the ARRC runoffs at Riverside Raceway at the end of the 1969schedule. He qualified on pole! Unfortunately, because there were nodefaults in the regular-entry field, he was unable to compete. Thefollowing year, Gregory made it to the run-offs on his own merits, butDNF'd after running as high as Second. At this time, the car stillfeatured the AIR emblem on the hood.

At the end of the '69 season, the car, still in its LeMans Blue livery,went to Gene Cormany. Cormany was the head of Zollner Corporation, theworld's largest producer of pistons, and was a longtime SCCA racer inthe Indiana district. Gene raced the car for two years before his son,Dave, acquired it. In 1973 the car was sold once again, this time to oneJim Herlinger.

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James Garner stops by AIR headquarters in Culver City, California (December 1967).

The No. 44 Car Hits the Track...Again
Shortly after acquiring the No. 44 AIR car, Jim landed Coca-Cola as asponsor, forcing a color change from blue to red and the addition of the"Enjoy Coca Cola" logo in white letters. Being new to big-blocks, Jimand Dave knew little about setup procedures on the originalTraco-prepared L88 motor. Obviously, they needed to find out more abouthow the car had been delivered and set up for the AIR team. Dave startedcalling around GM. He didn't exactly know whom to phone, so he startedwith a couple of numbers and talked to whomever he could get. Finally,he contacted a lady who had once been Duntov's secretary. When Daveasked about Gib Hufstader, she knew who he was and how to get in touchwith him. The next morning Gib called Dave to discuss the car.

Jim entered the season running SCCA A-Production West Coast "national"events at Portland, Seattle, Sears Point, Willow Springs, and LagunaSeca. The first race for the ex-No. 44 car was at Willow Springs inSouthern California. Incredibly, Jim put the car on the pole, set a newcourse record for A/P, and won the race on Sunday.

Laguna Seca was the next race, two weeks later. Jim again took the poleand won his class. He almost won the race outright, but spun out whilein the lead and was ultimately beaten by Walt Maas in a 150ci Datsun. Itwas a fluke, but Jim still placed Second overall and First in class. Thecar was raced for the rest of the year and into 1974 before again beingsold.

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All three cars take shape in AIR's Quonset-hut shop (December 1967)

Jim sold the car to Gregg Peterson, on the condition that he be allowedto codrive at some of the upcoming year's events. Peterson drove solo atWillow Springs, placing Second in A/P. Then, at the first joint race ofthe season at Laguna Seca, Jim blew up the original Traco motor and spunthe car. Peterson went on to run two more SCCA races at Sears Point andOntario (minus the Coca-Cola sponsorship), and finished the IMSA seriesin Second place in the West Coast division.

From here the car went to David Magaw, of Tucson, Arizona, who ranmostly regional SCCA events in 1975 and entered several National SCCAA/P events in 1976. Partway through the year, the Vette was sold to MikeAlles, of Grand Haven, Michigan, who raced it during the '77 SCCAseason. The car resurfaced when "Corvette Sleuth" Dave Reisner trackedit down for Jim Herlinger.

Since acquiring the No. 44 car for the second time, Dave hasorchestrated a complete restoration. The restored car made its firstappearance at an all-Corvette night at the Candy Store in the fall of1998, and its first race was at the Wine Country Classics at Sears Pointin June 1999. Guldstrand drove the car at the Monterey Historics inAugust 1999 and again for the 50th Anniversary of Corvette event (alsoat Monterey) in 2002. The car has also taken several concours awards atthe Palo Alto, Hillsborough, and Monterey events.

Look for more information on the other two AIR cars in future issues of VETTE and on



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