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1962 Corvette Drag Racer - The Sportsman Cometh

Dudley Racing resurrects a dragstrip legend

Randall D. Allen Jul 25, 2007
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Hearken back to the heyday of Sportsman racing, when a righteous, Roman Red '62 Vette fielded by Spencer and Knape Racing Enterprises consistently appeared in such titles as Super Stock & Drag Illustrated and the AHRA's Drag World. Undoubtedly one of the winningest cars in Sportsman-racing history, the Vette competed in the AHRA Grand American series from 1971 to 1984. Of 77 national event entries, the car netted 76 class wins, 15 eliminator wins, and 12 eliminator runner-ups. The Spencer and Knape team also set 12 world records and finished in the top 10 in AHRA points every year from 1972 through 1984. Although never national champions, the team was AHRA's Stock Eliminator runner-up from 1977 through 1979. Spencer and Knape ran in the Stock Eliminator class from 1971 through 1981 before moving up to the faster Modified-Super Stock Eliminator series from 1982 through 1984.

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Appearing almost as it did early in its racing career, the Vette's only visible changes are the lack of decals on the rear quarters and the addition of the car's current sponsor, Riba Foods. Many of the original decals were painstakingly reproduced with special assistance from CRC Industries.

According to original owner Don Spencer, "I purchased the Vette in 1965 as a car to drive to work and have a bit of fun on the street with. After driving it for a while, the original 327 was pulled, and a replacement short-block was installed along with headers and slicks. The first time the car went to a dragstrip was in 1966, in Houston, where it ran a best of 13.65. For an almost-stock '62, it was very quick, given that the class records at the time were only a few tenths quicker.

"Around 1970 I retired the Vette from daily driving duties and decided to get more serious about drag racing. My high school friend Ron Knape and older brother Gene starting pitching in with mechanical and tuning assistance, and Spencer and Knape Racing Enterprises was formed. In 1971 the team decided to compete in the AHRA Grand American Series and race in the Stock Eliminator class. We started out running in E/Vette and chose AHRA because there were more AHRA-sanctioned tracks in the Southwest area, and the payouts in AHRA were significantly more than the rival NHRA."

When Sportsman racing ruled, the Vette's simplicity gave it an advantageous weight-to-power ratio that was hard to beat. Weighing a mere 3,150 pounds, the stock-bodied Vette relied on the stock frame, with modifications limited to a custom-built three-point rollbar, Jenkins Competition adjustable traction bars, Moroso heavy-duty front springs and 90/10 shocks, and the deletion of the front sway bar.

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Don Spencer (right) and Ron Knape are photographed receiving their Stock Eliminator winning trophy (from a Playboy centerfold!) at the 1976 Gateway Nationals in Saint Louis.

Power came courtesy of a '64 327 block that displaced the class maximum of 331 cubic inches. A pair of 300-horse double-hump heads pushed compression to 11:5:1 after the combustion chambers were reworked to come in at the minimum allowable volume of 62.2 cc's. Stock-sized (1.94/1.50) valves were actuated by factory stamped-steel rockers. Stock rods with ARP bolts and a stock polished crank comprised the rotating assembly, which was routinely pushed to 7,500 rpm before shifts.

Intake duties were initially handled by the stock Carter No. 3721 AFB and cast-iron small-block manifold. Following a switch to Modified Super-Stock in 1982, a Holley Strip Dominator manifold and a 650-cfm double-pumper carburetor handled the induction. A more aggressive camshaft profile was also allowed, thanks to the class change, resulting in the 327's sporting a custom General Kinetics solid cam that measured in at 310/314 duration and 0.579/0.590 lift. Open Hooker long-tube headers expelled the high-velocity exhaust gasses.

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The red interior is replete with an AHRA-compliant three-point rollbar and four-point safety harness.

The transmission is the venerable Borg-Warner Super T10 four-speed, actuated by a heavy-duty McLeod clutch and pressure plate. The stock 10-bolt, carrying either 4.88 or 5.13 gears and Summers Brothers axles, soldiered on until 1982, when the rearend broke during the AHRA Nationals in San Antonio, snapping the team's 11-year winning streak of national class wins. In its place resides a fully prepped Mark Williams Dana 60 outfitted with a racing spool, super-strength axles, and 5.13 gears. Simple but effective, the combination's key was the rugged reliability of the chosen parts and the attention to detail necessary to rise to the top of the field.

Says Spencer, "Rather than trying to field a car ourselves on a very limited budget, we aggressively marketed the car to major sponsors and had sponsorship deals in place with Holley, Hooker Headers, CRC Industries, General Kinetics, Pennzoil, Champion, The Block Shop (in Pasadena, Texas), and a host of others. At the time, our marketing approach was very cutting-edge, and the team worked extremely hard to promote the sponsors' products.

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The '62 held the E/Vette AHRA world record for 13 straight years, from 1972 through 1984.

"Our biggest thrill was attending the six-day 1972 National Challenge in Tulsa, which pitted the NHRA versus the AHRA on Labor Day weekend. We qualified number 12 in a 32-car field in Stock Eliminator and went to the semifinals. We represented the Sportsman racers, and Don Garlits represented the professionals.

"Although out of racing now, Ron Knape was recognized as one of the finest crew chiefs in Sportsman racing. With Ron's detailed preparation and the assistance of my older brother Gene in [engine] development, the Vette ended up breaking record after record until it ran a best of 12.34 at 112 mph." Named the AHRA Sportsman Driver of the year in 1975, Don Spencer was one of the best drivers Sportsman racing has ever seen.

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The '64 327 was built in 1982 by Ed Swaney (of the Block Shop in Pasadena, Texas) and Ron Knape. Displacing 331 cubic inches, the small-block's power lies in the attention to detail in the engine build.

After the AHRA ceased operation in 1984, the car was stored in Don's garage, untouched, until 2002. It was then that a chance meeting resulted in Don's meeting up with David Dudley, an associate at a firm where both men had worked years before. Before long they were talking about racing, and Don mentioned that he was interested in selling the Vette to a collector who would honor the heritage of the car by racing it.

Shortly before Christmas 2002, David Dudley decided to strike a deal and make the '62 Vette the first Chevy-badged addition to his arsenal of racing Pontiacs. After all, doing so would allow him to hand the keys of his '79 Trans-Am drag car to his 16-year-old daughter Jessica and fulfill a teenage dream of racing an authentic Sportsman Vette. According to Dudley, "After getting it home I started examining the fuel and electrical systems in preparation to fire up the engine. The electrical system was fine, but the gas tank had to be cleaned and flushed, and various other components needed to be replaced or rebuilt." With a fresh battery and fluids, the engine fired right up, but it only ran for a few minutes before corrosion from the gas tank stopped the fuel flow. Rather than starting over on the fuel system, a fuel cell was utilized to ensure a corrosion-free fuel source and enhance the safety of the Vette at the racetrack.

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Don Spencer and David Dudley (standing) proudly display an AHRA National event plaque and Super Chevy Magazine Editor's Choice award beside the '62.

Next up were the brakes. After flushing out the lines and replacing the components, the original drums were turned, and new pads fitted. For the next nine months, David freshened up the interior, including constructing a fiberglass cover to repair the transmission tunnel's "easy access" hole, which resided there to facilitate quick trans and clutch changes. Other than re-covering the driver-side seat bottom, replacing the carpeting, and installing gauges to cover the hole where the radio used to reside, David left the interior as it was at the time of purchase.

Hours of family time devoted to restoring the brilliance of the paint and detailing the car just added to the anticipation of finally getting it back on the strip. After replacing the tires with new Goodyear rubber, the car was taken to Houston Raceway Park and let loose. On its second full pass, the Vette turned a 12.58, not too far off its previous AHRA times. After destroying the transmission on a routine 6,000-rpm launch, David rebuilt the gearbox, and the old Vette resumed its march down the tarmac. That the car's engine was built in 1982 and routinely sees 7,500-rpm shifts is a testament to the fanatical attention to detail that Spencer and Knape put into the car. Even in the blistering Texas heat, the Vette runs consistent 12.30s, with a best of 12.29 at 109 mph.

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Spencer and Knape Racing Enterprises aggressively marketed the '62 to all of the major contingency sponsors across the nation.

Thanks to the addition of the Vette, the Dudley racing team-consisting of David, his father H.R., and daughter Jessica-was awarded the 2005 Race Team of the Year by a local car club, and an outstanding performance award was bestowed upon David for his point-total achievements in the Texas Muscle Car Club Challenge Series.

The red Vette was a very popular car with the fans and media during its original racing career, and the same holds true today. In fact, the car was awarded an Editor's Choice award at the 2004 Super Chevy event held in Baytown, Texas. Competition these days is limited to races throughout Texas and the surrounding area, but watching the '62 compete in the King Muscle class at a Texas Muscle Car Challenge series-against both classic and modern musclecars-was a treat for all fans of racing. After all, how many authentic Sportsman racing entries are still pounding the strip while wearing their original paint and period-correct drivetrain? Some 22 years after its last AHRA win, this red '62 Vette still waves the Corvette flag with authority.



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