1969 Chevy Corvette - Lightweight Champion

The Story Behind The Caplan/Barber/Stiles L88 Racer

Wayne Ellwood Oct 1, 2008 0 Comment(s)
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Jim Barber leads Dave Mock and Rich Sloma early in the FAR Performance Challenge, 1972.

Herb Caplan, Jim Barber, and Phyllis Stiles were well-known names on the West Coast racing circuit in the '60s and '70s. Their stories are closely interconnected, and each of them contributed to the legend of the '69 Corvette racer that appeared at last year's Walter Mitty Challenge historic race ("History with Side Pipes," Feb. '08). This is the tale of that car's long journey from inception to its final win at the SCCA's last A-Production National Championship in 1978.

The story begins with Herb Caplan. After serving in World War II, Caplan became a self-made success in the area of heavy-construction equipment. Flush with cash, he soon developed an extraordinary passion for auto racing. In 1963, after taking the obligatory driver training, Caplan purchased a new Z06 coupe and ran it for two years in SCCA regional competition. The car was notable for its street-legal configuration and for the fact that it still carried many of its original factory options. It was driven to and from the track, and Caplan was even known to roll onto the starting grid with the radio cranked.

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Jim Barber's skill as a driver often allowed him to outrun his professional-level competition.

In 1965, Caplan decided to move up to a new 396-cube Vette. He sold the Z06 to Jim Barber, who had entered racing a few years earlier. Barber successfully raced the Z for a couple of years, leaving it set up much the same way as when Caplan had driven it.

In 1969, both Caplan and Barber changed cars again. Caplan purchased one of the first four "Second-generation" L88s equipped with open-chamber heads, which were sold to select racers through GM's "buyer's key pass" program (see sidebar). Barber, meanwhile, bought one of the '69 Trans-Am AMC Javelins (this one formerly campaigned by Ron Kaplan and Jim Jeffords) and updated it to '70 specs.

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Car owner Phyllis Stiles was a fixture at the races during the Barber-Senn and Forbes-Robinson eras.

Caplan raced the L88 car over the next two years, adding to the string of victories he had achieved with his '63 and '65 Vettes. He won six SCCA San Francisco Region A-Production championships as well as six West Coast A-Production championships. In his last 46 races, he scored an amazing 44 victories.

In 1970, Caplan changed roles from driver to team owner and entered Can-Am, using a series of McLaren cars. The '69 was sold to another West Coast racer, Gary Bergman, who had TRACO overbore its 427ci engine to 464 cubes to extract 585 hp. Unfortunately, this was far too much power for the tires of the era, and Bergman crashed the car. Unable to afford repairs, he parked the car and purchased one of the ex-Owens-Corning Vettes from the Eastern United States.

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Herb Caplan was affectionately known as "the Jewish Kamikaze," not only for his driving, but also for the Star of David posted prominently on the headrest of his car.

In 1972, Phyllis Stiles bought the wrecked car from Bergman and had Jim Barber and Joe Senn's Barber-Senn Racing Team undertake a complete rebuild. The engine was sent to TRACO for freshening, the front clip was replaced, and the frame was straightened. The stock wiring harness, which weighed around 40 pounds, was jettisoned in favour of a streamlined version. The roll hoop was upgraded using the first Jerry Thompson/Troy Productions unit on the West Coast. The old fuel cell was replaced with a proper ATL unit, and a Halon fire-suppression system was added. Finally, the car received a proper Simpson racing seat and harness.

The reborn car first hit the track in 1973 at Laguna Seca but was felled by a cracked water jacket only a few laps into the race. Apparently, TRACO had missed the crack when it performed the original build for Bergman a few years earlier. The team couldn't afford to build an all-new L88, so TRACO instead found a 454 and rebuilt it to stock L88 specifications. As delivered, the engine produced a dyno-verified 565 hp using only L88 parts. Once back on track, Barber captured numerous class and overall victories, setting a number of track records in the process.

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