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.
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.
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.