Of the eight National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series classes today-Top Alcohol Dragster, Top Alcohol Funny Car, Competition (Comp) Eliminator, Super Stock, Stock Eliminator, Super Comp, Super Gas, and Super Street, only one of them can boast of having the most Corvettes. Which one would you guess? Super Stock? Stock Eliminator? Super Street?
The answer may surprise you. According to Eric Lotz, the director of NHRA field marketing, "Super Gas has the most Corvettes by far of any of our classes. Of course, Vettes are ineligible for Top Alcohol Dragster, but even eligible and popular classes such as Top Alcohol Funny Car and Super Comp hardly ever feature Corvettes. Super Stock, Stock Eliminator, and Super Street fare somewhat better, but you could definitely not call them huge Vette draws. Super Gas is a completely different story. At any given S/G race during the NHRA season, 22-29 percent of all race cars participating in the class are Corvettes."
How did Corvettes come to dominate S/G? To learn that answer, VETTE looked at the history of the extremely popular, primarily California- based Pro Gas index racing of the 1970s.
"NHRA picked up on this," Bobby Bennett, publisher/editor of CompetitionPlus.com, a leading drag-racing Internet magazine, explains. "If the NHRA was going to bring in one class, it had to kill one class-and the one to go was Modified Eliminator, a class largely dominated by midyear Sting Rays. The Pro Gas style of 9.80-second indexed bracket racing opened up NHRA's back gates to participants who had previously been shunned by the elite group of class racers who dominated the Sportsman program. All of a sudden, there was an outlet for bracket racers who didn't fit into a Comp, Modified, Super Stock, or Stock classification to race the national events. And best of all for the NHRA, there was less time involved in teching the cars.
"Basically, with the advent of S/G 9.90-second indexed racing, it didn't matter if the racer had a corporate serial number on the cylinder heads. What mattered is that he or she had the proper safety equipment and could run the 9.90 index. That's why the NHRA was all too happy to kick Modified Eliminator to the curb in favor of Super Gas. It could get more cars involved, and with less tech headaches."
The first NHRA Super Gas race got its green light at Pomona, California, in 1980. Four years later, in 1984, Tommy Costales, then a 32-year-old race-car engine builder, earned his place in history by becoming the first Corvette racer to win the NHRA Super Gas World Championship, beating out a field of 160-plus race cars, including 25 to 30 other Vettes. His weapon-an original-body '67 Tuxedo Black Sting Ray with a 505ci big-block.
"Vegas and Anglias were really popular in the class back then," Costales recalls. "There were a number of midyear Corvettes and a few C3s in the class, but Corvettes didn't dominate the S/G races."
"In these early days of the Super Gas class-1980 through 1984 primarily-it wasn't rare to see real factory-bodied Corvettes, like Tommy Costales' '67, competing in the class," Bennett notes. "When the NHRA killed Modified Eliminator, the Corvette racers had three choices-dump a lot of money into their cars and go Comp racing, go breakout racing within Super Stock, or essentially do nothing and make their cars run 9.90 and move over to Super Gas."
According to Bennett, most of these old, factory-bodied S/G Corvettes died out in the '90s. The cost of classic Corvettes had skyrocketed, and converting them into S/G race cars was expensive and impractical. That allowed aftermarket companies-Suncoast, Worthy, and Tim McAmis Performance Parts, among others-to begin building and marketing fiberglass '63 Corvette roadster bodies, which quickly became the default for racers wanting to campaign midyear Corvettes in the S/G class.
Today, there are more Corvettes racing in S/G than at any other time in the sport's 30-year history-and it's not just '63-'67 Vettes that have gotten in on the action. C5 Vettes have made their way into the class as well, making the past several years the new Golden Age of S/G Corvette racing.
To honor Corvette's dominant role in Super Gas and the men and women who put it there, we picked 14 of the best Corvette S/G drivers in the NHRA today and asked them about their cars and their careers. This month we'll introduce you to half of them. We'll then be back next month with the second half of this special feature, in which we'll explain how the C5's introduction in 1997 brought the Corvette's role in Super Gas to a whole new level. We'll also discuss the future of the sport with Jim Hughes, an industry expert and S/G Corvette racer. It should be a real gas.
Note: The majority of S/G Corvettes in the NHRA use aftermarket bodies and custom chassis. Nonetheless, every racer featured in our story chose the Corvette body style for its aerodynamics and great looks.
What is Super Gas Racing?
Super Gas is NHRA-sanctioned, index-based drag racing in which competitors use electronic timers and throttle stops to run as close as possible to the class standard (9.90 seconds) without going under, using a 0.4-second pro-start tree. According to the NHRA, "Super Gas entries are primarily full-bodied cars and street roadsters. No dragsters or altereds are permitted. Rules regarding engine and chassis modifications are extremely liberal, though the use of exotic fuels is prohibited. The minimum weight is 2,100 pounds, except for four-cylinder-powered cars, which may have a minimum weight of 1,200 pounds."