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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Barber-Senn team members were known to display the Vette in the paddock area on race day. They even entered the car in local shows.

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.

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This image shows the Vette's interior circa 1972. It remained largely unchanged until the car was purchased at auction in 2002.

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.

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This L88-spec engine was built by TRACO, using a new 454 block. It generated an impressive 565 hp using only factory components.

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.

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