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.
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.
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.
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.
Due in large part to Barber's excellent driving, the team shot to the front in the SCCA's West Coast Regional Racing Series by the end of the '73 season. Barber took four Firsts and two Seconds in the first six races. He also won the A-Production class in the Gold Rush Series, which was designed to give amateur racers top-level exposure. Barber even took the '73 Bondurant Challenge Cup at Laguna Seca, an invitational race featuring the best of the West Coast racers. As reported in Corvette News, this was one of Barber's best performances ever:
"After a tough five-lap battle for the lead with Walt Maas' infamous 'Giant Killer' Datsun 240Z, Barber and Maas made body contact, which knocked them both back into the pack. With the Corvette's nose now hanging in the breeze, Barber still managed to dice his way back through the field to take the $1,000 First Prize money and the Bondurant Cup . . . ."
Despite Barber's many successes, money was becoming an issue, and the team couldn't afford to run the car for a full season in 1974. Barber competed in only one race that year, the FAR Performance race at Laguna Seca. He finished Second, four seconds behind the Corvette of Frank Fahey. At the end of the season, the car was parked in Phyllis Stiles' garage, where it would remain for several years.
This inactivity did not sit well with Stiles. Just before the '78 season, she decided to reactivate the car and take one final shot at the SCCA National Championship. She first approached Jim Barber to drive, but he was busy working on a real-estate-development deal and declined.
Stiles next went to her friend Elliott Forbes-Robinson, a veteran pro driver with a strong track record of wins. EFR didn't show much interest initially, so Stiles drew upon her relationship with the racer's wife and children to exert the right amount of pressure. She also leveraged her friendship with actor-cum-racer Paul Newman to see that EFR was temporarily freed from his exclusive contract with the Budweiser/Newman-Haas Can-Am team.
The '78 season would prove challenging. The team began the year with a car that was still undergoing reconstruction. At Sears Point, EFR qualified well but grew progressively slower as the race progressed. It was only when a crash allowed him to pit under yellow that the team discovered the car had no brakes. Someone had installed a new style of clamp to hold the cap on the brake-fluid reservoir, and it had rubbed on the hood and vibrated loose. The car subsequently lost all of its brake fluid. EFR still managed to finish Second overall and First in class, but the team knew it would have to do better.
The team continued to develop the car throughout the season and managed to qualify for the finals in Atlanta. Although EFR qualified the car on the pole and led all the way to the finish, a closer examination of the facts reveals that this was no easy victory.
During the pace lap, another car experienced an engine failure and oiled down the track. Officials put out a drying compound, but the first few laps were run under caution. When the green flag was finally displayed, several competitors immediately went off-track and into the grass. No doubt it took some heroic driving to stay out of the oil for the entire race.
EFR would clinch the A-Production National Championship for the '78 season, capping a rousing comeback for what was by then one of the most winning West Coast A/P Corvettes in history. Still, the day was bittersweet. The next year would see the introduction of the GT-1 category, a class for which the car would be ineligible without significant reengineering. It had finally reached the end of the road.
In 1988, Stiles sold the Vette to New Jerseyan Larry Zane, reportedly for $125,000. Curiously, Zane never moved the car from the West Coast. Rather, it was stored in Reggie Jackson's garage until 2002, when it was purchased at auction by Mike Yager, for $130,680. As purchased, the car was a virtual time machine, requiring only a fresh set of valvesprings and a brake rebuild to be race-worthy again.
After piloting the Corvette in celebrity parade laps at last year's Mitty race, EFR remarked that he had always enjoyed driving the car, noting that it was powerful, stable, and incredibly solid. For fans of vintage-Corvette racing, it was thrilling to see this legendary competitor return to the track, if only for a few brief moments.
The L88 Lightweights
Between December 1968 and January 1969, GM released a small number of early Second-generation L88 Corvettes (equipped with open-chamber heads) to selected racers. Because these cars wouldn't be available to the public until June 1969, they could be accessed only through a special "buyer's key pass" purchase program. This program allowed GM to secretly test new components under competition conditions.
All of these cars came with an M-22 heavy-duty transmission, J-56 heavy duty brakes, an F-41 heavy-duty suspension, and a 4.56 Positraction axle. While the traditional heater/radio delete was no longer available as a factory option for production cars, it's believed that some of these off-road-only cars were so equipped.
Although commonly referred to as "lightweight" cars, these Corvettes should not be confused with the Grand Sport models, which carried very thin fibreglass. Rather, it was the aluminum-headed L88 engine, combined with the deletion of the convertible top, carpet, and spare tire, that lent these special '69 models their "lightweight" moniker. The cars also came with a race-oriented "trunk package," which comprised a pair of headlight bubbles (to replace the stock retractable units), a rearend cooler, an oil cooler, and OK Custom headers. Depending on whom you knew, a set of four fender flares might also be included. (These were also available over the counter, provided you could ferret out the part numbers.)
The first batch of four cars, including the one purchased by Herb Caplan, preceded the famous James Garner AIR Vettes ("Hollywood Blockbuster," Mar. '06) by about one month. Three of them debuted at Sebring in 1969: the No. 4 Or Costanzo car (later made famous as the No. 57 "Rebel"), the No. 1 Owens-Corning car, and the No. 69 Bob Esseks/Frank Dominianni car, later driven by John Paul Sr. The Caplan/Barber/Stiles car was less well-known at the time, due mostly to the fact that its racing appearances were limited to West Coast regional events.