The short-wheelbase early Corvettes were blessed with a very good front-to-rear weight bias, a characteristic that predisposed them to extravagant wheelstands. Most racers installed wheelie bars-small auxiliary wheels mounted behind the car's rear axle that limited front-end lift when leaving the starting line. Still, there were numerous examples of wayward race cars jumping straight up and careening into the Christmas Tree, the guardrail, and even the car racing in the opposite lane.
One of the most spectacular of these mishaps occurred in the final round of the '76 NHRA U.S. Nationals, when two Corvettes squared off for the Modified Eliminator national championship. In one lane was the feared Albert Clark-built, Wayne County Speed Shop-powered G/Gas '67, driven by Don Coonce. It faced the H/Gas '63 split-window of Dayton, Ohio's Jerry Ault. Ault's lower-classified H/Gasser was scheduled to get the green light first. Ault staged in the right lane, but as the countdown began, he shaved the Tree a little too close. The red foul light came on immediately as Ault's gleaming black '63 launched. Coonce left on an equally close light, but got a legal green and the immediate win. What happened next will forever be a part of drag-racing history.
At the top of First gear, Ault's 288ci small-block was at its near-10,000-rpm peak. Just as he reached for Second, one of Ault's aluminum connecting rods disintegrated into quarter-sized chunks. The carnage immediately knocked a fist-sized hole in the oil pan, spewing oil underneath the car and onto the track. Hundreds of aluminum pieces bounced on the track, and quarts of hot oil began to pour under one of the rear slicks. Instantly, Ault's car made a sharp left-hook turn and headed across the centerline, straight for the safety guardrail.
Every one of the 50,000-plus spectators who watched the drama unfold wondered how Ault avoided crashing into Coonce and the guardrail. Scores of photographers who had lined the track to get an action shot of the final run scattered as chaos reigned. Don Coonce headed safely down the track, the winner of his first NHRA Modified U.S. Nationals title. It was all a part of the wild and woolly racing in Modified Eliminator, where the '53-'67 Corvette was king, and each race drew hundreds of top-notch cars.
The legend of Gassers, roadsters, and Modified Productions came to a controversial halt in the fall of 1981. Claiming a downturn in contestants, the NHRA decided to drop Modified Eliminator, ignoring considerable protests from the hundreds of Mod racers and the legions of fans that followed them. Those who opposed the move were quick to note that the '81 Nationals Modified drew nearly 150 cars, all competing for a 48-car eliminator field. During the Nationals, more than 100 mod racers showed their displeasure by slowly driving down the Indianapolis Raceway Park return road, protest signs taped to their race cars and tow vehicles. But, the demonstration was for naught, as NHRA officials stuck with their decision and dropped Modified for good after the Pomona World Finals.
The wheelstanding Modifieds were replaced with the "Super" e.t. bracket categories of Super/Comp, Super/Gas, and Super/Street. This throttle-stop-dominated segment was a far cry from the Gasser, Modified Production, Stock, and Modified Sports classes. The change sidelined many of the best racers from the '60s and '70s and swept away the hundreds of mostly '55-'67 Corvettes that had been carefully crafted to run in the Gas or Modified Production class.
After that, a few of the remaining '55-'67 cars could be found in the Super Stock classes, and a handful of C3s (mostly the '69 427/425 L-72 and later 454 cars) found their way into classes where their engine combinations made them competitive. The minimal performance potential of the C4 Corvettes meant they were rarely considered for NHRA or IHRA class racing.
Today, C5s and C6s remain a curiosity in those classes of racing, and no major eliminator has yet been won by one. However, the enormous interest in GM's LS-series engines has sparked an upswing in fifth- and sixth-generation Corvette racers. There's certainly no shortage of interest in highly modified, LS-powered Corvettes running in illegal street races, and some of these cars are capable of 9- and 10-second, 140-plus-mph passes when run down a dragstrip.
The use of Corvette bodies for Funny Cars has, surprisingly, been a hit-or-miss affair. In the late '60s there were a few Vette bodies hung on tube-framed Funny Car chassis. The best example was New Englander Frank Federici's "Shark!"-a '67-bodied Funny that sported a blown-and-injected, nitro-burning, big-block Chevy. The car was a regular at East Coast events, and Federici campaigned it with reasonable success.
For some reason, superstitious racers labeled the C3 bad luck for Funny Car use. The prevailing urban legend held that Corvette Funnies were destined to meet with a violent, disastrous end, mostly on fire and burned to the ground. The "on fire and burned to the ground" part often proved correct, but it should also be noted that in those days, nearly all Funny Cars ended their career in such a way. So much for superstition.
In our next installment:
The C3 Corvettes certainly looked fast, but along with their sexy good looks came a reputation that pegged any shark-bodied Funny as an ill-handling deathtrap. This unsavory rep grew considerably in the late '70s when nitro-powered Funny Cars began regularly visiting the other side of 230 mph. It took a racer with a bit of aero curiosity (and the quickness of a "Mongoose") to firmly plant the flighty shark Funnies. But, by the time the instability issues had been settled, the use of Corvette bodies on Funny Car chassis' had moved into the twilight. Nitro-engine technology had leapt exclusively into Hemi territory, and body makers were switching over to replicas of the higher-volume models favored by sponsors.
By the mid-'70s nearly all Nitro Funny Car teams had made the switch to aftermarket 426 Hemi clones from Keith Black, Milodon, or Donovan. The Mark IV 427/454 was a sturdy powerplant, but with nitro percentages and blower boost pressures growing ever greater, the iron-block Chevys just weren't up to the task. The lighter, stronger, aluminum Hemis offered the proven hemispherical combustion chamber design and huge valves that were notably more efficient when nitromethane fuel and blowers were used. A few "low-buck" racers continued to stick with the Chevys, but they soon fell by the wayside or converted over to the fuel-friendly Hemis.