Every classic has a tale to tell, be it a rare oil painting, a dust-covered bottle of wine, or a C1 Corvette. The oil painting shows up at a yard sale, turns out to be from a grand master, and is subsequently worth a small fortune. The antique wine bottle has President Jefferson's initials scrawled on it, and even though the contents have long since turned to vinegar, it goes for six figures at auction.
Then there's Noel Park's '58 racing Vette, equal parts fine art and sour wine, a mixture of what was both great and faulty about the competition C1s. The story of its origins takes a number of twists and turns, with some colorful and significant players involved. But getting it to run at speed on the road course again was a source of exasperation for Park, requiring ingenuity, persistence, and the hands of some very talented Corvette restorers. So what follows is something akin to pulling the sheet off the frame of an old portrait--and also popping the cork to sniff a funky bouquet.
Park's story begins back in the mid 1980s, when he and his wife, Diana, attended their first Monterey Historic Automobile Races. "We were greeted with the spectacle of Juan Manuel Fangio, Phil Hill, many other famous drivers too numerous to mention, and the most stunning display of old race cars I could have hoped to see," he recalls. "It was like being teleported back to Riverside in the glory days of the '50s and '60s."
Then Noel spotted something that would inspire what he later jokingly refers to as his wife's "Great Mistake." They were standing at the famous Corkscrew, watching Ron Cressy's '59 Corvette battle it out with Chuck Reid's short-wheelbase Ferrari Berlinetta for the lead.
"I turned to Diana and said, `Boy, that looks like fun.'And she responded, `Well if it's that important to you, you should do it.'" While Diana acknowledged that her suggestion might end up leading to a costly endeavor, Noel felt the gesture was a moving expression of his wife's loyalty and support.
Immediately upon returning home from Laguna Seca, Noel started searching for a solid-axle Corvette with some racing history, which he could prepare for the vintage races. After months of scouring the country, famed Corvette hunter Mike Pillsbury found VIN 3892 peacefully resting in a backyard in Pahrump, Nevada, with no engine or transmission. It was in its old competition configuration, but most of the paint and upholstery had weathered away from years of sitting in the desert sun.
One of the big selling points was the brakes. While No. 3892 was not an original "heavy brake" car, with the factory brake cooling ducts through the body, it did have a complete set of the heavy-duty finned drums and backing plates, which the original owner had purchased over the Chevrolet parts counter and installed.
With the professional help of "Corvette Detective" David Reisner, further details about the history of No. 3892 emerged: The first owner was John Kilgore of Santa Monica.He purchased the car new from Rhoades & Erskine Chevrolet in Beverly Hills. After driving the Corvette on the street for about a year, Kilgore decided to go racing. He built it into essentially its present configuration and entered it in driving schools at Willow Springs and Riverside. But after obtaining his competition license, Kilgore's finances interceded, and he never raced the car again.
In 1961, Normand Jessel of Malibu purchased the car. He raced at Riverside and Willow Springs for about two years. During this time he installed a fiberglass replica '55 T-Bird hoodscoop in place of the factory louvers. The switch was needed to clear a Holley carburetor on a high-rise intake manifold. The scoop was still in place when Park bought the car in 1986.
Oddly enough, in 1967 Jessel gave the Corvette to his 10-year-old stepson Doyle Phillips, who lived in Pahrump. Later, Phillips sold the car to a well-known sprint-car racer, Bobbie Woods, also of Pahrump. The Corvette sat out in the Nevada desert, amid the brothels and tumbleweeds, for almost 20 years. Woods had intended to restore the Corvette for street driving but never found the time to do so. He eventually sold the car to Mike Pillsbury, who sold it to Noel Park in the Spring of 1986.
(Author's note: Pillsbury was very well known in Corvette circles for his uncanny ability to find old Corvettes, particularly race cars. One of his great finds was one of the '60 Cunningham Le Mans cars, which he literally discovered in a junkyard).
Aside from the ravages of the weather, No. 3892 looked almost exactly as it does today. "We restored the car with the help of the late Dennis Bruce, a brilliant ex-Trans Am mechanic, and old Corvette expert," Park says. "His brother Don did the bodywork and painted the car its original Panama Yellow color in our garage in San Pedro."
The final assembly was done at R&S Garage in Redondo Beach with the help of co-owner Mike Eddy, who is now in charge of Vic Edelbrock's car restoration and vintage-racing shop. Later on, additional race prep and maintenance took place at Park's shop, J&D Corvette in Bellflower.
The first change involved putting back some of the chrome trim that had been removed. The rollbar was also raised slightly to clear Park's helmet (he stands over six feet tall), and a small racing windscreen of the type supplied by Chevrolet in the '50s was added.
Park also added the mildly warmed-over engine and transmission out of his street '59 Corvette, as he had no money to build another powerplant. The motor was fitted with a 1958 fuel-injection system, and it's that FI unit that remains on No. 3892 to this day.
The race preparation was very straightforward, much like what was done in the '50s. "There is only so much you can do with a solid-axle Corvette chassis," Park says. "The engine requirements of the sanctioning groups are quite restrictive. Engines must be of the original displacement--283 cubic inches in this case.
"No roller rocker arms are allowed--not even roller tips--effectively limiting rpm. Anything over about 6,800 rpm, and the rocker-arm breakage becomes unacceptable in our experience. At best, you finish the race on seven cylinders, and everybody passes you. At worst, you drop a valve and lose the engine."
A period-correct induction system is required, so Park had Chris Wickersham in Pasadena race-prep his old mechanical FI unit. The engine also has the 1961-style "461" heads, along with an aftermarket cam chosen for the best possible midrange power, not ultimate rpm. A race-quality stock crankshaft is used, along with Carrillo rods as a safety measure.
Chassis preparation is similarly basic. "In our experience, the biggest handling problem with these early cars is a terrible loose, or oversteer, condition exiting corners. They just will not put the power down," Park says.
His solution? "Lower the car as much as possible and increase roll stiffness at the front while lessening it at the rear. The first step is to not run a rear sway bar, and to increase the diameter of the front sway bar." The rear suspension can be softened by removing one or more spring leaves. Stiffer coils in the front also help.
"Some drivers prefer additional caster in the front," he adds. "This can be achieved by simply adding another factory caster wedge between the frame and crossmember. It's also helpful to run as much negative camber as possible in the front suspension." According to Park, with the stock suspension settings, the cars wear the outside front corner off the front tires.
Sanctioning groups restrict tires to 26.5x7.00-15 Hoosier TDs. These are the closest viable tires available to what was used back in the day. "Others are allowed, but this seems to be the most popular choice," Park says. "We run 6.0x15-inch Halibrand aluminum wheels. These are the closest that we can find to the Halibrand alloy wheels that were actually available as a limited factory option for racing '58 Corvettes."
As any C1 owner already knows, the brakes are the weakest point of the solid-axle Corvettes. "We run basically the same `heavy-duty racing' drum brakes that were available from 1957 to 1962," Park notes. "Our sanctioning bodies require that the brakes be `as available during the year of manufacture.' These brakes have slightly wider drums and factory cooling air scoops."
As was done in the '50s, the fiberglass inside the blocked side "grilles" is cut away, and air is ducted to the front brakes from there. During track time, Park's crew removes the drums and checks the brakes every day. It often changes some or all of the brake linings on Saturday night, before Sunday's race session. Even so, it's possible to run the car completely out of brakes in a 10-lap race if some discretion is not used.
Fittingly, No. 3892 is no trailer queen, having run at more than 100 vintage-racing events with surprising success (see sidebar).It has always been a very strong, front-running, car."I have often joked--well, half-joked--that the car is better than the driver," Park laughs. But all told, it's a classic story of a classic car, driven by one classy owner. And that's no mistake.
Staying On Track (As Told By Noel Park)Our first race was at Palm Springs in the fall of 1986. We fought teething problems with the fuel-injection unit and the engine all weekend, and didn't get too many laps in, but we learned a lot. The next outing was at the Historic Motor Sports Association (HMSA) driving school and testing weekend at Laguna Seca in March of 1987. This time the car ran strong all weekend. We were thrilled and felt well on our way to having a competitive car.
The car has made 13 appearances at the famous MHAR. There, it has recorded four wins, eight other top-five finishes, and one DNF due to being caught up in someone else's accident. It has made an equal number of appearances at the famed Wine Country Classic (WCC) at Sears Point/Infineon Raceway, with similar results. It also has three race wins to its credit at the Coronado Festival of Speed, and one at the Portland Historic Races.
Some highlight memories include our first race win at Sears Point in 1988. Other highlights include finishing Second overall out of 39 cars at the Riverside Vintage Enduro in 1987. This field included a Ford GT, a 427 Cobra, several Shelby GT350s, Corvette Stingrays, Sunbeam Tigers, and other cars, all of which should be much faster on paper. This achievement was the result of disciplined driving to a predetermined lap time, under the eagle eye of the famous LeMans driver Christopher Lawrence. We just kept our equipment together and waited for the competition to falter. A two-hour race is a long time for these old cars, and a lot of them went by the wayside.
Another thrill was the '89 la carrera classic, run on the public roads from ensenada to san felipe, baja california. The car averaged 101 mph for the 114 miles, which included some fairly twisty mountain driving, and we saw 165 mph on the flat-out straight sections. We finished 11th overall out of 51 entries, and fifth in the vintage class. As the other four entrants were a '69 camaro with an aluminum 427 engine, a ferrari daytona, a ginetta g-12, and a porsche 911s, we were pretty happy with the result. Finishing behind us were six 911s, an aston martin db6, a maserati bora, three ferraris, a '63 corvette, and a mercedes 450 slc amg, just to name a few.