Most of us who have owned them understand that, at some point, a vintage Corvette is going to be a project car. What Vince Gabrunas could not have expected when he bought his '74 Stingray was how fast that would happen. A mere three weeks after purchasing the small-block coupe, he was sitting in a Burger King drive-through when an agitated customer ahead of him gunned his Nova in Reverse, driving its trailer hitch completely through the front end of the Corvette. As the line from Tolkien goes, "And so it begins."
This shark, however, wasn't headed for a code-correct restoration. As a member of the Boone Trail Corvette Club (www.boonetrailcc.com), Gabrunas counted among his friends and mentors a gentleman named Bill Rush, who inspired him to start autocrossing the car. Unlike many Corvettes that see weekend track use, though, this one actually looks the part.
Having been inspired by the outrageous Greenwood racers, the styling cues Gabrunas added are obvious from the outside of the car: Daytona-style fender louvers and a low air dam both hint at high speeds, as do the inset Hella headlights that replaced the standard flip-up lights. An architectural designer, Gabrunas modified the headlamp boxes to hold the much-improved lights, and even custom- fabricated their Lexan covers. In fact, he made virtually every modification to the car himself, with the exception of shooting the purple paint in which the Corvette is clad.
Until recently, the general practice of warfare was of pillage, in which the victors appropriated things they found useful from those they had conquered. Perhaps taking this view of things will make it easier to accept the fact that this Corvette's Violet Blue paint came from Porsche. Available for only one year--1991--the striking color is broken above the front wheels, where broad metallic-black hash marks, reminiscent of Grand Sport stripes, cover the louvers and spill over onto the outboard side of the high fenders. Fore and aft C5 crossed flags replace the older chrome emblems on both the car's nose and gas cap, and the "RAC3R" vanity plate makes Gabrunas' intentions clear for those who may have missed the subtleties of Stingray design.
Even looking at the car from the rear, from the '82-style fascia that was installed when Gabrunas bought it, you can see there's little that hasn't been changed. Bright LED taillights sourced from a semitruck added a little extra safety margin, as did the high-mount third brake light he wired in above the rear window. The rear window itself, originally the turbulence-enhancing fixed unit that came standard on the '74 Corvette, was replaced with the more T-top--friendly removable one found in '72 and earlier cars. This change, Gabrunas says, was simpler than expected: It took longer to scrape the sealant off the old back glass than it did to install the new one.
Inside, the complete dash was replaced by one Gabrunas custom-fabricated and overlaid with actual carbon fiber in purple. White-faced Auto Meter Phantom gauges, meanwhile, displaced the dim stock ones. Similarly, the factory seats went away, supplanted by a pair that offered more support and came from a '94 Saturn sedan. (The coupe buckets apparently weren't as comfortable.)
But so far, most of this is cosmetic. The five-point RJS racing harness, however, not so much. A critical racing modification--you can't feel what the car is doing if you can't stay in one place in it--the harness is mounted to a transverse bar Gabrunas designed and had a friend weld up. It's one of two: The other bar is concealed beneath the dash and, like the dual purposes served by the rear bar, helps stiffen up the chassis. A front shock-tower brace similarly limits deflection in the front suspension, which has been fully rebuilt with heavy-duty upper control arms from Vette Brakes & Products (VB&P). VB&P also contributed a lightweight transverse leaf spring, which takes the place of the customary steel coil springs. QA1 shocks all around help keep the 255 g-Force Sports from BFGoodrich planted firmly on the pavement, and a Steeroids rack-and-pinion steering upgrade keeps the 17-inch Ion wheels pointed in the direction the car needs to go.
Nor has the rear suspension been neglected. Gabrunas used Heim-jointed Smart Struts from VB&P as an upgrade for the factory camber rods, which rely on a somewhat crude eccentric mount in order to maintain alignment. Heavier sway bars (1-1/8-inch front, 3/4-inch rear) were also installed in both positions. A dual-mount composite monospring superseded the multi-leaf rear steel spring--at least it did until recently giving way in a shower of sparks during an 1,800-mile road trip from Troy, Missouri, down to Pensacola, Florida, where members of the Boone Trail club went to meet the Blue Angels. (For a photo of that meeting, showing Gabrunas' car on the tarmac with the Angels, see the Nov. '10 issue of VETTE). Fortunately, there was no major damage. Gabrunas sourced a new composite unit, but when I saw the Corvette at Mid America's Corvette Funfest last September, it was getting from Point A to Point B on a steel spring.
Motivation for this comprehensively modified package comes from a GM Performance Parts 350 rated at 290 horses and backed up to a Turbo-400 into which a previous owner may or may not have installed a shift kit. An Edelbrock Performer intake manifold and a K&N air filter/lid combo let the 350 breathe a little easier, as does a set of shorty Patriot headers. The trans benefits from a cooler as well as a fluid-temp gauge located in the center console.
While we've all been spoiled into expecting more power from a Corvette, now's a good time to mention that near the end of its life, the C3's mighty LS5 454 only produced about 270 gross horsepower, putting it about 20 behind this crate engine. Besides, raw power isn't the deciding factor in autocross; the ability to control the car is. Ask a fellow Boone Trail member who drives a C6 Z06--and who's been beaten by a certain purple small-block '74.
Things are meant to be used, and this Stingray gets used as it should--both dodging cones and on the street, as evidenced by the long road trip to the Sunshine State. But it also serves another purpose for which Corvettes are often used: paying tribute to those who have passed.
On the rear fascia is affixed a decal memorializing Bill Rush, the longtime Boone Trail club member who originally inspired Gabrunas to begin racing. Rush had planned on joining Gabrunas and the others for the long trip to Pensacola, but succumbed to cancer shortly before the trip. The purple '74, with the memorial decal attached, followed behind the family in the procession and led 20 Corvettes the 40 miles from the funeral home to Rush's military funeral outside of St. Louis.
No doubt this Stingray is eye catching and fun to drive, but it's also a reminder of greater things--of the value of putting your own hard work into something, of enjoying what you have, and of celebrating those who take the journey with us.