Imagine being retired and owning a '61 Corvette. You'd spend a lot of time pampering your Vette. Washing and waxing would be an almost religious experience. Driving it would be relegated to sunny Sunday mornings, way early, before anyone else is on the road. You might take it to an occasional Corvette show, where you'd primp and polish and even pick the pebbles out of the tire tread with your official Corvette pocket knife.
Or you could be like Frank Morelli.
Frank's a "semi-retired" homebuilder from Evanston, Illinois, and he's got a '61 Corvette. Does he pamper his Vette? Not a chance. He's too busy racing it in SVRA competition. Frank attended his first racing school when he turned 50. "It was a gift from my wife," Franks says, "who has regretted giving it to me ever since."
During the three-day driving school held by John Powell, students drove new '90 Corvettes. "I was addicted," Frank says, "and two years later I bought a '92 Corvette." Frank added "every Doug Rippie modification available" to the car and took it to Track Time Performance driving schools. Two years later he started racing with the Mid West Council and got a full competition license. "The '92 was a great car to learn to race [in]," Frank relates. "If you made a mistake, it forgave you and gave you many chances to recover."
After driving a '62 Corvette (the famous "Old No. 69" that's now in the hands of Mid America's Mike Yager) in the Chicago Historics at Road America in 1995, Frank decided he wanted to campaign an early Corvette instead of his '92. He found he preferred racing in Group Four competition as opposed to the more manic Group Six class. He commissioned Rich Engelhard from A&R Corvette, in Patterson, New York, to find and build a straight-axle car for him. Rich had handled the restoration and prep for the Old No. 69 car Frank drove at Road America.
In 1996, Rich found a '61 rolling chassis in Eastern Pennsylvania that had been mildly prepared for racing, although it had no documented competition history. Frank purchased the chassis and took it to Rich's shop, where it underwent a three-year rebuild into a legal SVRA racer.
The body was removed and the frame and suspension components were sent to JY Racing for SVRA-legal modifications. The suspension was strengthened by replacing the tie rods with thicker components, and large-diameter stabilizers were added front and rear. The front crossmember was shimmed for caster, and the front upper control arms were modified for camber.
With the chassis and suspension race-ready, the parts were shipped back to Engelhard for the next step in the project: brakes and drivetrain. "Reliability was the key factor that guided this phase," Frank says. "A lot of what went into my '61 was learned from Old No. 69. We learned what the weak links were."
The rear brakes were drum, but discs were installed up front, thanks to the SVRA. "They granted me temporary permission to have front discs," Frank explains, "to facilitate getting the car race-ready and to give me time to learn to drive a car that performed differently from any other vehicle I had raced." The SVRA rulebook required two master cylinders, so Tilton brakes and clutch master cylinders were installed.
The first engine Rich installed in the '61 was a Chevrolet small-block built by Speed Parts Center, in Elmsford, New York. At 287 cubic inches, it produced over 400 hp. Rich kept the engine simple to meet SVRA specifications but also to make it easy for Frank to learn to drive the car. "There were no electronics except for MSD," Frank says. "The engine's internals were all steel, with no roller valvetrain." Rich located a Borg-Warner Super T10 transmission that was modified for racing and installed a Ford 9-inch rearend disguised to look like a stock Corvette rear.
The body was the next phase. Frank wanted the Corvette to look "one hundred percent 1961" while still accommodating the bigger tires permitted by the SVRA. That required some work to the wheel openings. Keeping the stock appearance also applied to the windshield. "We decided on a stock windshield instead of a wind screen," Frank explains, "which was common in the '60s for safety."
In line with SVRA specifications, a rollcage was also installed, along with a pair of racing buckets. "We installed racing seats for both the driver and passenger to permit better driver training and rides," Frank says. A fuel cell was installed behind the driver seat for balance. Also, it gave Frank a quick-release fill cap on top of the car, which provided the look he wanted. All the modifications made to the body are subtle enough that most people don't pick up on them. "Most of the changes are noticeable only to a few purists. The car looked and performed beyond my expectations."