Classic Corvette Car Racing - Something in the Blood

For Bernie Chodosh and sons, racing vintage Vettes is a family affair

Stephen Hathaway Jul 12, 2006 0 Comment(s)
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We first met Bernie, Simeon, and Adam Chodosh over a cappuccino in BarItalia in Soho, London a few weeks ago. Less than five minutes into themeeting it seemed as though we had known Bernie for years. And the carstories just flowed.

Bernie is a 52-year-old Brit who's been into American cars and racingsince he was 13. His love for the hot-rod scene and the cars thatcomprise it started when he traveled from his home in England toCalifornia with his parents in the early '60s. "I saw these amazing carswith bits taken off them exposing the wheels and engines, and that wasit," he says, smiling as if it were yesterday. "So, as soon has I wasold enough, I started to race cars, and I've been mucking about withYank cars ever since."

At the age of 16, he started to race karts. A year later he obtained hisdriver's license, which allowed him to race down the nearest dragstripin whatever car he happened to get his hands on. "Back then," he says,grinning again, "you raced whatever you were driving--we all did. I got the bug in a big way, and it's still with me," he laughs.

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That same year, Bernie bought his first American car, an early '60sDodge Dart with a 318 under the hood. "I got it because it looked like acool American car," he says. Insurance was high even then for a17-year-old, so as his passion for hot rods developed, Bernie boughtcars that were stripped down to at least look fast even if they weren't.There followed a succession of American cars--including a '32 Fordthree-window coupe, an E83 woodie, and a '28 Model A two-door sedan--mostof which Bernie hot-rodded after purchase.

Even then, one of his favorite cars was the Corvette. "I've always likedVettes, but as a kid I never thought I'd own one. Back in the '60s and'70s they were always out of the price range of us normal Joes," hesays. "To run a Corvette back in the day, you had to be a film star or anight-club owner or entertainer--you know, people like that."

In the early '80s Bernie started to bring in cars from the States andsell them in the UK. He remembers finding himself in some out-of-the-wayplace in the middle of America, buying an old '55 Chevy or the like thathe could sell back home for 2,500 to 5,000 pounds. He suddenly realizedhe could expend the same amount of effort buying and sellingbetter-quality cars that would sell for 10,000 pounds or more. The onlydifference was the initial outlay of cash. Once Bernie worked that out,he started looking exclusively for Corvettes, and his love affair withChevrolet's two-seat sports car began in earnest.

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We asked him if he ever considered keeping any of the Corvettes hebought. "Sometimes," he replied. "I used to buy around four or fiveCorvettes at any one time, and, on one trip, one of the cars I got was aCoddington Corvette." He then described in great detail the black-on-red'56 convertible. "This car was beautiful, and I decided to keep it.Anyway, four months down the line some geezer made me an offer Icouldn't refuse. And to be truthful, I've never been able to hold on toanything like that."

The need for speed took over in the late '70s when Bernie got his handson an old Vette engine and spent the next few months messing around withit. "Yeah, I remember taking it down the strip and thinking I'd donepretty good running 13s," he laughs. "Then the next guy would go and runa second-and-a-half quicker. I thought, That's not a big difference, Ican do that. But we all know it's more difficult than it sounds.

"But, I'll tell you, those guys back then knew what they were doing.They really knew their engineering and how to massage the last ounce ofpower out of their engines."

One day in the late '80s, a friend suggested to Bernie they go toSilverstone to watch some circuit racing. In one of the races, Bernienoticed a '69 big-block Corvette on the front row. As the race started,he looked at his friend and said, "That's the car for me," and neverlooked back.

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"Basically that was it--the search was on," Bernie says. "I used to go tothe States every couple of months looking for cars to buy and sell, so Istarted specifically looking for one I could make into a race car. Butevery time I bought one and got it home, I'd look at it and think, Well,I could do it up, sell it, get some more cash, and get a better one nexttime."

Eventually, during one of his Stateside car-finding trips, Bernie received a call from a friend in the UK who had just bought a '58 Vette and wondered if Bernie might be interested. "I got the very next plane home from Florida," he says.

Bernie went immediately to his friend's place and became the owner of the '58. A quick lick of satin black paint to make it look mean and moody, and the Vette was on the trailer heading home. Bernie's wife wasn't too impressed with the car, what with its huge wheels and tires and its high-rise blower sticking through the hood. "She took one look at it and said, 'What's that?' I said, 'A race car.' 'What do you want a race car for?' she asked. 'To race,' I answer. She didn't speak to me for a couple of days and has never brought the subject up again. That was over 20 years ago," he says, with a huge grin on his face.

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Once his Vette was in race condition, Bernie decided to take racing lessons before his inaugural race at the Brands Hatch circuit. "Eventually, I was let out on the track on my own," he relates. "After a couple of laps [the course workers] black-flagged me and called me in, where I was told that I was way too quick, that I was all over the place, and that I didn't know what the hell I was doing. Luckily, they let me drive, but they warned me that if I didn't improve on the track they would pull me in.

"On the day of the race, I managed to qualify 20th out of 28 starters. It wasn't because I was a good driver; it was because I had a fast car," he admits. "Come the start of the race it rained, and I couldn't see where I was or what I was doing. All I knew was I was scared and wanted to come in! I have never been so glad for a race to finish," he chuckles.

It wasn't until his second season that Bernie began to develop his unique driving style. "I found out that when driving these solid-axle cars, you have to nail them down the straight, find your point on the apex of the corner, and turn in," he explains. "Then hit the gas and let the tail slide like a dirt-track racer. When you get it right, you think you're doing something fantastic, but what you're really doing is slowing the car down. That's the only way to get these early Corvettes around a corner."

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Bernie's '58, nicknamed "Blood & Thunder," was actually built as a dragster back in California in the '60s. Accordingly, it came tubbed and raked, with 15x15-inch rear wheels and a Chevy 396. Under Bernie's stewardship, the dragster began its transformation into a road racer. Over the years the Vette has seen a number of changes, including a new flip-up front, a lightweight rear, a '60s Camaro front end, front and rear disc brakes, an M21 close-ratio trans, and a 12-bolt Posi axle. It currently runs a 400-inch Chevy that pushes out 545 hp and 520 lb-ft of torque.

The overall silhouette of the '58 has remained almost unchanged, save for the four 48 Webber IDAs that ram their way a good five inches through the hood. The flamed car has raced successfully all over the UK and Europe. It even made two trips to Sebring-in 2000 and 2003-where it appeared in a 12-hour support race organized by Bernie and the HSR.

The silver '59 is a very different car. Over the years Bernie has picked up quite a lot of helpful information, both from racing his '58 and from other drivers and engineers. He applied this knowledge to the newer Vette, which took five years to construct and is billed as "the fastest pre-'60s Vette in the world."

To back up that claim, the car has a full subframe chassis utilizing a Watt's linkage and a four-bar setup with coilover suspension at each corner. It's also been channeled and sits a few inches from the ground. The engine has been offset and moved backwards to help achieve a 50-50 weight distribution, and the car weighs in at a mere 2,117 pounds.

Power comes from a 350ci Chevy that pushes out 530 hp and almost 495 lb-ft of torque. The body is custom-made from fiberglass and features a built-in hoodscoop to accommodate its air cleaner. Despite being almost all custom built, the Vette still retains its original doors and windshield.

Although it's still in its first season, Bernie's flamed-and-silver '59 has seen action on most UK circuits and managed to finish a very respectable 12th (in a field of 70) after encountering mechanical problems at Spa in Belgium. After seeing this car on the track at Snetterton recently-where it left many of its modern rivals in the dust-we think it's only a matter of time before its driver lands on the podium. It just depends on who's behind the wheel: Bernie, his son Simeon-who's been racing the '58 for the last seven years-or his other son Adam, who just moved over from MG racing.

In addition to competing in the Heritage Grand Touring Car series this year, the Chodosh family is in the process of building another '59 Corvette. This one will be historically correct, with drum brakes all around and a 283 under the hood. The Chodoshes are building this car so Bernie and his sons can compete at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Classic Le Mans Series.

We asked Bernie if there's anything else he'd like to do with the cars. He thinks for a while and says, "One thing I'd like to do is take the Vettes over to the States and show just how fast they are. But to do that, I'd need sponsorship. Hey, do you know anyone who'd like to give me some money?" he laughs.

We hope Bernie gets that sponsorship. One thing's for sure: The Chodosh family will give anyone a good run for their money-on either side of the pond.

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