Corvettes in Drag Racing: Part I

Part 1: The Early Years

Jim Hill Sep 13, 2006 0 Comment(s)
Vemp_0611_01_z Corvettes Drag_racing 2/18

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.

Vemp_0611_02_z Corvettes Drag_racing 3/18

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.

Vemp_0611_06_z Corvettes Drag_racing 7/18

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.

Vemp_0611_12_z Corvettes Drag_racing 11/18

Terry Sherrill's beautiful A/Modified Production '57 Corvette leaves the line at Pomona. Sherrill's big-block powered 'Vette has clean paint and graphics, lightweight alloy wheels and eight-second timeslips in this late 1970's hot at Pomona. NHRA discontinued Modified Eliminator at the end of the 1981 season, forcing cars such as this into either Comp Eliminator or Super Stock. Many of the former Mod racers chose to quit instead. (Jim Hill Photo)

The early days of sanctioned drag racing found most Corvettes competingin two basic class categories: Stock Sports and Modified Sports. In theStock Sports classes, the cars were permitted very few modifications,and those were severely restricted. In contrast, the Modified Sports wasvastly more liberal, allowing roughly the same modifications as Gassers.The only rule that designated them as "Sports" came from the basic bodyand chassis, which had to originally have been built as a two-seater. Bythe early '60s the rules allowed Corvettes to be used in Gas andModified Production classes, and the first- and second-generation carswere huge favorites with serious Gas and MP car builders.

The NHRA rules for Gassers allowed any American-made coupe or sedan asthe starting point. Front and rear axles could be replaced, and somebody customizing--usually a chopped top and shaved emblems--waspermitted. The basic stock frame had to be retained, but chassisstrengthening and safety equipment, such as a rollbar, was encouragedand even required in the faster classes. Engines could be relocatedrearward to increase traction. A maximum engine setback of 10 percent ofthe vehicle's factory-listed wheelbase was permitted, and was measuredat the front spark plug of the engine.

Engines were allowed extreme modifications, including fuel injection ormultiple carburetors. Blowers were permitted, but only in theSupercharged Gas classes. All cars ran on a "cubic inch to weight"break, beginning at 7 pounds per cubic inch. This was listed as A/Gas.B/Gas was 8 pounds per cubic inch, and so on. The A through F/Gasclasses were for overhead-valve V-8 engines. G/Gas was reserved forflathead V-8s and inline OHV six-cylinder engines.

Vemp_0611_14_z Corvettes Drag_racing 15/18

This late 50's photo taken at Amelia Earhart Field, Hialeah (South Florida), Florida, features a B/Gas '32 Ford Victoria sedan getting ready to run Don Gist's 1959, 290 hp, 283 Corvette. Class rules required 7" maximum width tires. Because of this, "Cheater Slicks" or Atlas Bucron rubber (softer compound) tires were popular before M&H Racemaster, Firestone and Goodyear offered better options. It appears that the Vette's driver, Don Gist is indicating that his rear axle may have decided to take the rest of the afternoon off. (Jim Hill Photo)

The NHRA continued to add classes. When it discontinued ModifiedEliminator in 1977, all the Gassers, MP, and Mod Sports classes that ranin Modified were moved into either Competition Eliminator or SuperStock. By that time the V-8 OHV classes ran all the way to H/Gas, whichwas a 13 pounds per cubic inch. In the late '60s, asmall-block-Chevy-powered C/Gasser running a 301ci engine (achieved byboring a 283 block out to 4.00 inches and using the stock-strokecrankshaft) had to weigh 2,709 pounds at the C/Gas break of 9 pounds.The second generation of Corvettes was favored for nearly all theseclasses. Their short 98-inch wheelbase, nearly 50/50 front-rear weightbias, and slippery shape made their use as Gassers or ModifiedProduction cars attractive.

Modified Sports classes ran on rules similar to the Gassers'. UnlikeGas/MP cars, which could use any U.S.-made coupe or sedan body, ModSports cars were required to use a two-seat vehicle (U.S. or import)designated as a "sports car" by the NHRA tech staff. Some racers choseimport sports cars to meet these criteria, while others looked nofurther than the then-affordable '53-'67 Corvettes. Three ModifiedSports classes were offered. NHRA rules permitted most of themodifications allowed the Gassers, including the 10 percent enginesetback. The result was a very fast race car that looked at leastsomething like a sports car yet commanded respect by virtue of itshighly modified V-8 engine.

In Stock Sports there were three classes: A, B, and C/SP. Just like theNHRA Stock classes for sedans, the Sports classes were divided by thefactory-listed horsepower rating and the factory-assigned shippingweight. Obviously, a lot of latitude existed, but it was a startingpoint. For example, a hot '65 Corvette with the awesome 327/375small-block--with its Rochester mechanical fuel injection, big-valveFuelie heads, 11.0:1 compression, and 30/30 Duntov solid cam--was at thetop of the class, in A/SP. The lesser engines--the 365hp, 350hp, and340hp 327s--fell into lower classes. NHRA quickly added classes forStock Sports entries, opening up the possibilities for crafty dragracers to research the "softest" class where they could run at thegreatest advantage. By the late '60s these included A through E/SP, andCorvettes dominated them all.

The E/Sports class was the home of the very competitive 327/340Corvettes. This engine's output was reportedly underrated by Chevy, afact not overlooked by racers seeking a soft engine factor as a classadvantage. In fact, the 327/340, properly tuned and blueprinted to themax allowed in the rule book, probably made more than 400 hp. This madeit a favorite, and many successful race cars used this enginecombination.

In Our Next Installment

Chevy gave the Corvette a cosmetic makeover for 1961, resulting in alook that better matched the "go-go" attitude of the '60s. This newstyling and the new-for-'62 327 engine were well received, furtherenhancing the already solid Corvette mystique.

The '61 and '62 Corvettes were quick to take to the nation's dragstrips,and it wasn't uncommon to find a showroom-new example, complete withtemporary dealer tags, exploring the edge of the performance envelope.One of the most notable drag-racing applications for this body stylecame in the form of a candy-apple red '62 Vette that featured thepolished scoop of a Hilborn four-hole injector resting menacingly atop a6-71 GMC blower. Other than this noticeable modification, there was adrag chute and six--not four--Corvette taillights. (Who could forget Janand Dean singing about the deadly Corvette-versus-Jaguar street race andthe phrase "...and all the Jag could see was my six taillights"?)

This not-so-subtle package was the famed B/Modified Sports '62 of "BigJohn" Mazmanian. Big John's Vette was capably driven by notableCalifornia Gasser pilot "Bones" Balough and later by Mazmanian's nephew,Rich Siroonian. The car earned a national reputation for "bad" as wellas a Winternationals trophy for Middle Eliminator at Pomona.


A look at the drag racing history of the early Corvettes in the various classes of drag racing across the country
Jim Hill Sep 13, 2006


Connect With Us

Get Latest News and Articles. Newsletter Sign Up

subscribe to the magazine

get digital get print