The Corvette's second big styling advancement came with the '63 model year and the release of the "Sting Ray" design. The new look-combined with meaningful improvements to the engine and suspension-made the car an instant and overwhelming success. Chevy sold all the Corvettes it could build in its St. Louis assembly plant, and many drag racers competed and won driving fine-tuned stock as well as heavily modified '63-'67 Rays.
One of the most notable and successful of these racers was Dallas' Bill Hielscher, who drove a 327/350 '65 hardtop roadster. Bill was always quick to admit that he bought his Corvette mainly because his wife Mary always wanted one. (Wonder how many Vette purchases have been similarly rationalized over the years?) It wasn't long before Bill's hot-rodder instincts took over, and Mary's '65 found itself running on Southwestern dragstrips.
Bill's tuning abilities and sharp driving began to get noticed, especially after he won a couple of American Hot Rod Association eliminator titles. (The AHRA was a sanctioning body that competed against the NHRA during the '60s and '70s.) Bill's real forte, however, was marketing. As he puts it, "I was a damned good huckster, con man, and promoter in those days." He soon had the backing of the Bardahl automotive chemical company, and he ultimately became known as "Mr. Bardahl."
Bill told his story at hundreds of schools and car shows, where he talked up the sport of organized drag racing while promoting both his sponsor's products and himself. Although Bill and his race crew eventually fielded a fleet of eight Chevy race cars, mostly Camaros, Bill never forgot his '65 Corvette. He won loads of major event titles with the Vette, and he even set a bunch of land speed records at Bonneville by adding weight and engine modifications to meet various class requirements.
Another notable drag-racing Corvette was the '63 split-window coupe owned and driven by Pete Arend. Arend's "Mongoose" began when he became interested in making his then-stock street ride into a race car. Arend had a sizeable wallet to support his drag-racing habit, and after writing numerous checks he found his car sporting a tubular straight front axle, a sprint-car-inspired "quick change" rear, and a Hilborn-injected big-block Chevy. Arend wrote another flurry of checks, and the Chevy engine gave way to a race-built 426 Hemi that sported 30-inch injector-ram tubes, la the unblown Funny Cars. The Hemi was backed up by a clutch-assisted Chrysler TorqueFlite automatic transmission, further violating the defiled Vette.
Along the way, the car had its engine moved back, its interior completely gutted, and its rear wheelwells cut out to clear a set of big rear slicks. This egregious violation of the Corvette credo proved a really stout runner, winning the B/Modified Sports class and Street Eliminator at several major events. The Mongoose hauled ass, but Corvette purists may never forgive Arend for butchering the sacred split-window.
Compromised aesthetics notwithstanding, the Corvette continued to rank among the most popular platforms for Street and Modified Eliminator racers all the way through the late '70s. The smooth, sexy, aerodynamic shape produced excellent results during what is now regarded by many as the golden age of Corvette drag racing.
The Modified Eliminator class, composed largely of full-bodied, classic-hot-rod entries, was especially popular in the eastern regions, and many of the very best races for these sportsman-type racers were held at divisional "Points Meets." So popular was Modified Eliminator in the Southeast, Northeast, and Midwestern divisions that a typical divisional points race might require up to three hours to complete the first round of the class. Interdivisional rivalries were strong, and each region boasted its share of serious racers, many of whom chose the Corvette as their chassis of choice. Elapsed times for these cars ranged from the 12s to the high 8s, with trap speeds at times topping the 150-mph mark.
All national (and most divisional) cars ran with high-winding, seriously prepared engines. Most used manually shifted, highly modified four- or five-speed transmissions. Automatic transmissions were often found in the fastest, lightest cars, many of which were equipped with "Clutch-Flite" or "Clutch-Turbo" units that allowed the driver to rev the engine on the starting line and then release a manually operated clutch pedal to launch the car.
A competitive driver had to be adept at leaving at the exact instant the tree went green. Things were even tougher for stick-shift drivers, who had to execute lightning-quick "power shifts" (whereby wide-open throttle is maintained throughout the run, with a mere tap of the clutch pedal for each upshift) to preserve momentum. All this action happened while the race car was launching and accelerating hard. The front wheels were usually off the ground in First gear and following each upshift. Modified drivers were indeed very busy during their short, violent quarter-mile runs.
In our next installment:
The "Golden Era of Gassers" began during the '60s and lasted until 1981, when a reorganization by the NHRA of existing race classes effectively killed off the breed. But during those golden years, two of the most popular platforms were the C1 and C2 Corvettes. Chosen for their short wheelbase and slick profile, Corvettes made great Gas or MP race cars, and many drivers and engine builders built their personal reputations while fielding a Corvette. Seriously modified small- and big-block Vettes also helped solidify the car's status as a drag-racing vehicle that demanded considerable respect. That reputation carried over onto the street, where ownership and the application of that famed Corvette performance could earn a young guy or gal a reputation as "bad."
Pete Arend's "Mongoose" '63 split-window started out as a street-driven daily driver. Arend promptly sunk thousands into his project, and eventually it morphed into the beast shown here. Note the long intake tubes, "up in the air" stance, radically chopped rear fenderwells, and quick-change rear axle. Arend's Stingray went from its original small-block to big-block Chevy powerplants, and finally to a 426 Dodge Hemi. The 'goose is shown here running at Palm Beach International Raceway (now known as Moroso Motorsports Park).
Seeking an index advantage, many Corvette racers entered their cars in unusual classes. Econo Altered rules, for example, specified a single four-barrel carb, restricted cylinder-head modifications, and an automatic transmission. Even so, this '65 C/Econo Altered Sting Ray made enough horsepower to pull the wheels off the line at the Gatornationals in the late '70s. Photo by Marty Johnson, from the Jim Hill Collection
Double entendre aside, Jim Warter's '63 "Joint Venture" coupe once captured the Competition Eliminator points championship in the NHRA's Division 6 (hence, its No. 61 designation). The sharp-looking Vette had everything necessary for hard Comp Eliminator racing, including a 9,500-rpm small-block Chevy, a four-link rear suspension, polished lightweight wheels, and hard-starting line launches. Photo by Tom Schultz, from the Jim Hill Collection
The Reinford brothers, from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, began drag racing with a '37 Chevy Gasser dubbed "Moose" for its large size. They later graduated to this C2 Vette, running in both the Gas and D/Altered classes. In 2005, the Reinford brothers were inducted into the East Coast Drag Time Drag Racing Hall of Fame, in Henderson, North Carolina.
Heating the tires before making a run is a drag-racing ritual. Here, Berkley, Michigan's Paul Mercure warms the Goodyears at the NHRA Summernationals in Englishtown, New Jersey, during the late '70s. Mercure's "Check Mate" '67 was a stalwart Modified Eliminator competitor, running various lower Gas classes with small-block Chevy power and 9-second passes.