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."
Frank was not prepared, however, for what it would be like to drive the '61 in competition. Although Engelhard had built a performer, like any race car it had gremlins. No one anticipated how long it would take to chase down all the bugs.
Frank's first outing in the '61 was at an SVRA event at Road America in May 1999. "It was a learning experience for me and a shakedown period for the car," he says. "The second year was not much better. It wasn't until the third year that we had all the problems sorted out and I started to be competitive."
Frank found the Vette's biggest problem was instability when braking into turns at high speed. "The car floated," he says. "In the S-turn at Watkins Glen, the car looked like a snake going up a hill." SVRA officials questioned Frank's driving ability until more experienced drivers took the Vette out on the course and could do no better.
What no one realized was that the upper control arm had previously been secured to the crossmember with a weld. (The original connection was the inner shaft into a bushing that permitted some movement.) "This worked OK for street cars," Frank explains, "but racing broke the connection, and my alignment changed every time the car got loose. I don't know why it took so long to find the problem. We rebuilt just about everything possible on the front end, which helped me, since we located a bushing-repair kit that corrected the problem."
By the fourth year, the Vette was finally sorted out, and Frank was able to give Rich good feedback on how the car was handling. He and the car were finally competitive. "That's when the SVRA told me I would be going back to drum brakes the next year," Frank says. "The transition from the efficient front discs to less effective drums was not only complicated from a driving perspective, but finding the right combination of parts was equally complex. Developing an effective all-drum braking system that didn't cost an arm and a leg took two years of trial and error. To afford a set of original 1961 RPO 687 Heavy Duty Brakes would require a second mortgage on my house."
The team began work on building an effective braking system that could handle the punishing effects of racing. "We started by modifying Chevrolet backing plates with a spacer," Frank says. "We opened the plates and screened them for air to pass to the brakes. This setup, along with Buick drums, came close to replicating the original Corvette heavy-duty brakes." Finding brake linings that can last an event and stop the car in a straight line without burning up is an ongoing project. "You name the material and I have tried it."
Balancing the piston sizes to get stopping power and reasonable pedal travel was another challenge. With the all-drum braking system, driving the car required a totally different approach. "It's certainly not like my '92," Frank laughs. "You drive the car as if you were skating. Most of the directional change is done with the gas and brakes to shift the weight of the car from front to back. This promotes understeer and oversteer as necessary to get through the turns and be competitive."
This year the Vette is powered by a 500hp 330-cid small-block built by MPG, of Highland Park, Illinois. "I came in Third overall in Group 4 at an SVRA event at Mid Ohio last year and hope to do better this year," Frank says.
With the Vette running strong and getting more competitive each year, Frank has no plans to quit anytime soon. If he did, then all he'd have left to do is polish the fenders. That's not his idea of retirement.