Corvettes in Drag Racing: Part I

Part 1: The Early Years

Jim Hill Sep 13, 2006 0 Comment(s)
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Phil Parker's B/Modified Production '59 lifts the wheels at the NHRAU.S. Nationals. This Texas-based flyer ran a small-block Chevy andfive-speed transmission and was sponsored by Shioleno and Coleman, whomade specialty shifters for the Doug Nash trans. Photo by Ted Robinson

When the Chevrolet Division introduced its all-new, two-seat "sportscar" for the '53 model year, the GM brass had no idea theirrevolutionary, fiberglass-bodied beastie would ultimately become themost successful specialty vehicle ever created by a domestic carmaker.Not only has the Corvette marque managed to pass the magicalhalf-century mark, it also has created an entire culture of Corvetteowners and admirers.

When the Corvette first appeared, it was anything but the world-classperformance vehicle that would later captivate generations of young menand women. During the first two years of the car's existence, thetriple-carb, 235ci Blue Flame Six was as good as it got for performance,and that performance was very weak indeed. It seemed that any punk kidwith a hopped-up, flathead-Ford-powered hot rod could smoke the newChevy, and early Corvettes quickly attained a well-deserved reputationfor pooch-like performance.

That all changed dramatically when the '55 model year saw theintroduction of Chevy's lightweight 265ci V-8. Immediately, theCorvette's reputation was enhanced, and its performance fate was sealed.The "small-block Chevy" impacted not only the Corvette's performance, italso boosted sales, as buyers eagerly sought one of the sporty-looking,tire-shredding new '55 models.

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Purists will surely howl at the sight of this pristine '57, framed upand tubbed for those big, wide slicks and running in the NHRA's SuperGas category. S/Gas runs off a 9.90-second e.t. breakout, and140-150-mph numbers are common.

Many of those first V-8 Vettes were quickly hauled into garages andprepped for weekend racing. Aware that the new Corvette had greatcompetition potential, Chevy responded with power-enhancing engine partsand suspension components. These factory-engineered, reasonably pricedcomponents made the Corvette a competitive ride in both sanctioned dragracing and the illegal (yet hugely popular) "sport" of street racing.From Main Street to Pomona, the legend of the Corvette had begun inearnest.

In 1957, Chevy factory engineers released a new, 283ci version of thesmall-block V-8. This upped the ante for Corvette performanceconsiderably. Along with this came a refined and enlarged list of hotfactory parts intended to slam-dunk the Corvette into the upper echelonsof racing. Topping that list was the 283hp Rochester fuel-injected 283engine. Immediately identifiable by the distinctive whistling sound itgenerated, the "283/283" was truly a heart-stopper that came withgenuinely serious race potential right out of the showroom. Equippedwith better-breathing cylinder heads and a wilder, solid-liftercamshaft, the 283/283 eagerly reached the 7,000-plus-rpm point. At last,an American production engine had been produced that easily reached theone-horsepower-per-cubic-inch mark. Even better, these engines could bebuilt to produce over 400 hp using modified factory parts.

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This Canadian B/Modified Production '59 sports a Formula 5000-stylesnorkel hoodscoop to ram cold air to its twin-Holley-carbed big-block.The 1135 number on the side glass indicates that the car hails from theNHRA's Northeast Division 1.

The 283 was also available in a slightly more docile 270hp version thatused the same solid-lifter 098 Duntov cam as the 283/283, but with twinRochester 4-GC four-barrel carburetors instead of the FI. Both enginesfound plenty of action on the street as well as on the increasing numberof sanctioned and non-sanctioned dragstrips and road courses around thecountry. No longer could a kid with a flathead Ford hot rod dust off aVette. The 283 engine and a few aftermarket parts could boost theCorvette to the top of the heap on the street or at the strip.

Soon after the 283 heralded serious performance for the Corvette, thoseanemic six-cylinder '53-'54 models became plentiful and very affordable.Young men were able to buy an early Corvette and instantly breathecompetitive life into it merely by dropping in a hot-rodded 283. Inthose days there was no "collector market" to drive prices sky-high, andwell into the '60s many early Corvettes were stripped, gutted, andmodified into all-out drag warriors. The nation's dragstrips hosted manyof these cars, extensively modified and competing in the Modified Sportsclasses of the NHRA and AHRA.

Today, Corvette purists and collectors cringe at the thought of thoseprecious '53, '54, and even '55 Corvette bodies being unceremoniouslystripped, their rear fender wells jigsaw radiused to clear a pair of bigracing slicks, and a bored-out 283 or a 327 small-block stuffed into thecompartment formerly occupied by a discarded 235 six. One can only guesswhat became of all those 235 engines and their unique multi-carbmanifolds. The sad reality is that there was very little interest and adirt-cheap market for the first-generation Corvettes in those days.

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