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."