Building an over-the-top road-race Corvette can take more than hard work and dedication. Sometimes, you have to have patience and be prepared to wait more than 25 years for the right car to come around again.
"My '68 Corvette convertible has been special to me since the early '70s," says Gary Harlan, a 64-year-old retired mechanic from Klamath Falls, Oregon. "My sister's husband, Bill Hedekin, bought it from a San Diego wrecking yard in 1972. From all indications, it was a big-block, four-speed that had been stolen and was recovered without its drivetrain."
With the intent of converting the C3 into a Solo 1 and slalom racer, Hedekin lightened it by removing its convertible-top mechanism as well as its window glass and actuators. Then, he turned to the biggest name in Corvette Racing-"Mr. Corvette" himself, Dick Guldstrand. Guldstrand welded the frame solid and reinforced it at all of its weak points, installed the best suspension pieces of the day, and, later, added an eight-point rollcage.
Afterwards, Hedekin yanked the 327ci "fuelie" and Muncie four-speed trans from his '63 split-window coupe and installed it in the Stingray. The car was almost ready to go racing, but first, he wanted to install the fender flares he had seen on the Owens-Corning '68. Remarkably, they were available from his Chevy dealer's parts counter.
Hedekin campaigned the car at events in Southern California until the late '70s. He then retired it from competition, stripped it of its drivetrain and suspension, and put it into storage.
Although Hedekin eventually lost interest, Harlan never forgot about the race-prepped Corvette roadster. "I started thinking about the Silver State Classic Challenge and how his Corvette needed to be brought back to life," he recalls. "I started asking him about it when I would visit my sister for holiday trips. I kept bugging him about it, and finally, in 1997, he told me he wanted it out of his driveway and to come and get it."
Harlan was excited to start the long-overdue project, but he promised his wife that it would wait until she had their house remodeled. Finally, on Valentine's Day 2002, she gave him the good news: "Get started on the Corvette."
Harlan looked at the project as an opportunity to retain the classic Corvette Stingray's vintage personality, yet have it compete successfully against much younger and stronger Vettes in open-road racing. Along the way, he decided that driving the Corvette was so much fun that he should restore it to street-legal status, a configuration it hadn't seen in more than 30 years.
First, Harlan stripped every nut and bolt off of the car, sanded and painted the frame, and modernized the suspension. The latter task involved adding Vette Brakes & Products upper and lower control arms, front and rear monoleaf heavy-duty springs, 11/8- and 3/4-in (front/rear) sway bars, offset rear trailing arms, and a set of shortened Bilstein shocks. He also installed a VB&P braking system consisting of 10.8-in rotors at all corners, factory four-piston calipers modified with dual pins, insulated pistons, stainless-steel lines, braided hoses, and Hawk pads. "I would have liked to have removed the body from the frame, but it was impossible with the rollcage already installed," he says.
For the engine, Harlan chose vintage over modern. The car's 383ci small-block-built by Karl's Machine Shop in Klamath Falls-features a 3.75-inch Eagle forged crank, 6-inch Eagle H-beam forged connecting rods, and 0.030-over JE forged pistons. Topping the assembly are a pair of Brodix RR-200 heads (installed by Harlan), which provide old-school combustion power with their 72cc chambers, 2.05/1.60 Manley stainless-steel valves, and Comp 1.52-ratio rocker arms.
Other engine essentials include a Barry Grant Mighty Demon Road Race carb mounted atop a Brodix single-plane intake, an MSD distributor and ignition system, March underdrive pulleys, and a Be Cool aluminum radiator. Exhaust exits via 17/8-inch Hooker Super Comp headers mated to 4-inch pipes and glasspack mufflers.
The 575 (estimated) crank horsepower is transferred rearward to a Weber aluminum flywheel, a Centerforce Dual-Friction clutch, a Tremec T-5 five-speed, a stock driveshaft, and a 3.36-geared Dana diff loaded with internals from Tom's Differentials of Sand Point, Idaho. American Racing Torq-Thrust wheels wrapped in massive Michelin Pilot Sport rubber provide plenty of adhesion for road or track.
With the mechanical portion of the restoration completed, Harlan took a good, hard look at the Corvette's badly bruised body and interior. "It was in rough shape. The car had been sitting outside for many years and a consumer-grade car cover had done little to protect it from weather damage," he says.
Accordingly, he involved Dave Groves of DG Custom Finishes in Klamath Falls, who offered to restore the body and reinvigorate the classic Corvette with fresh paint. "We stripped the Corvette completely down to the fiberglass," Groves says. "Many areas on the car were repaired with fiberglass matting and resin, [and there were] multiple stress cracks in and around the car's panel-bonded seams. It was then completely re-gelcoated and re-sanded."
Groves utilized PPG urethane and black epoxy primers to prepare the Stingray for paint. Masking after each color, he sprayed a black base coat, followed by gold, and, finally, a 1/4-inch red pinstripe to separate the two. Three coats of clear, wetsanding, more clear, and final polishing followed, accomplishing the dream Harlan had envisioned: a Corvette as beautiful as it was brutal.
If the color combination of black and gold looks historically familiar, you're correct: it was not a coincidental choice. "From the very beginning of the project, I wanted to paint the Corvette in memory of Smokey Yunick," Harlan says. "I've been a fan of his from a young age, and I often read his column in Popular Mechanics. I finally got the chance to meet him while in Daytona Beach in 1998. I went to the 'Best Damn Garage in Town,' and he was kind enough to come out and talk to me for well over an hour. He shared lots of stories about his war years flying B-17s and lots of race stories too. It was a real honor and a privilege for me to get to spend that time with him, and I wanted to convey that message in my Corvette's paint."
For the final chapter of the restoration, Harlan installed the custom interior himself, including its most noticeable features: 17 different Auto Meter gauges monitoring everything from engine speed to differential temperature and everything in between. Other interior accoutrements include Cobra racing seats, Deist five-point racing harnesses, a custom switch panel, OE-style front carpeting, the original dash pad and door panels, and a Grant quick-release steering wheel.
Harlan also installed a Percy's Speedglass (Lexan) racing windshield to help drop the Stingray's race weight (without driver) to a wraithlike 2,850 pounds.
Since the car's completion in late 2002, Harlan has entered his street-legal road racer in the Black Hills Corvette Classic and enjoyed it at Cruise Oregon, an event closer to home. Most importantly, he's raced it yearly in the Silver State Classic Challenge (2003-2009), where it finished as high as Second Place in the 125-mph class (2005). He also enrolled it in a Hooked on Driving track event at Willow Springs, California, in 2008.
Harlan's future plans for his tribute racer include participating in the Silver State Classic Challenge for as long as he can and joining Hooked on Driving for advanced courses at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California.
"This Corvette has been a part of my life since 1971. I was there when my brother-in-law pulled the body off the frame, and I really enjoyed when he and I raced it during the '70s. It was so much fun to bring it back to life as a street-legal open-road racer. I only wish that Smokey was here to see it."
Hedekin is just as proud to see his old Vette back in action. He has taken turns enjoying the Vette on the street and on the course. To Harlan, however, this vintage race car's completion is much more personal. His three-decade wait, from his first sight of this Corvette in 1972 through its completed restoration in 2002, has been worth the Herculean effort. After all, he's successfully honored his favorite hero and brought a once-forgotten Corvette back to race once again. After all, isn't that what Smokey would have wanted?