Harley Earl—the father of the Corvette—got his inspiration for the first of the breed when he lapped the Buick LeSabre concept around Watkins Glen racetrack on September 15, 1951. It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that when a Corvette owner in the know wanted to take the checkered flag at the Glen 17 years later, he called upon another famous name at Chevrolet to help him order one of only 80 L88 Corvettes produced for the 1968 model year. Amazingly, without the chance friendship, the owner would have given up racing Corvettes entirely.
“I prepared my new ’66 427 coupe for SCCA racing,” retired Corvette race-car owner/builder Doug Bergen of Marietta, Ohio, tells VETTE. “We qualified for the run-offs at Daytona in November 1967, and finished Seventh overall. I was surprised to see what parts a couple of our competitors had on their faster Corvettes and decided to quit racing.”
Fate, however, had other plans. “I met Corvette Engineer Gib Hufstader at Daytona that week, and he seemed to be impressed with my car. He said that if I changed my mind about quitting, to call him and he would make sure that I could buy a competitive Corvette, and that he could help me with parts,” he says.
In February 1968, Bergen called Chevrolet Engineering and spoke again to Hufstader. “I told him I was ready to get back into it, and I wanted to enter the FIA event at Watkins Glen,” he says.
Hufstader’s reply was, “Here, I’ll tell you how to order it.”
Bergen went to his local Chevy dealer—Williamson Chevrolet in Marietta—to special-order the off-road-use-only Corvette. “Gib told me exactly how to option it,” Bergen remembers. “That meant the L88 427/430hp four-barrel engine, an M22 four-speed close-ratio manual trans, J56 heavy-duty brakes with J50 power-assist, a 3.70-geared rearend, F41 special front and rear suspension, transistorized ignition, and radio delete. I wanted the L88 painted Tuxedo Black like my ’66, but the dealer told me he could get a British Green L88 to me quicker, and I agreed.”
Hufstader also provided a checklist of the components that Bergen would need to take the checkered flag, and sent many of them surreptitiously out Chevrolet’s back door to the race-car owner’s home. “He sent me crates of engineering-use heavy-duty parts for free, like differentials and brakes,” Bergen says. “I bought Koni double adjustable shocks, header side pipes, gauges, tachometer, oil cooler, aluminum bushings, Goodyear race tires, and safety equipment, and welded the frame.”
He then put his team together: Roger Penske’s mechanic, Bill “Murph” Mayberry, and two drivers with the identical name—“Marietta” Bob Johnson, who had raced Bergen’s ’66 and “Columbus” Bob Johnson, who was the 1963 SCCA National Champion in A/Production and had raced for Penske, Carol Shelby, and Jim Hall. The Corvette quickly earned the nickname “The Band-Aid Racer,” since its two drivers were named Johnson and Johnson. (Author’s note: The car has no affiliation with Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer of the Band-Aid brand.)
At the International Manufacturers Championship at Watkins Glen on July 14, 1968, Bergen’s L88 qualified 17th in a field of 29 racers, then won First in the GT+2000 class, 11th overall, and broke the track record in class. It also won First overall in the United States Road Racing Championship at Mid-Ohio on August 18. “It was a successful race car from day one,” Bergen says.
In late 1968, Bergen sold the car to Jim Greendyke, who converted its outward appearance from green to red and white. The fast-out-of-the-box L88 continued its winning ways—taking the 1971 AP Central Division GT class championship, thanks to five wins and one Second place in the season.
Fast forward to the early ’90s. Corvette restorer and L88 historian Kevin Mackay had become friends with “Marietta” Bob, and learned of Bergen and his L88. He was interested in Bergen’s story, and wanted to know if he had any original documents pertaining to the car or its races. And, of course, he was curious about the Corvette’s whereabouts.
“At first, he wouldn’t take any of my calls,” Mackay says. “He thought I was just some crazy guy that wanted to pick his brain. Finally, he invited ‘Marietta’ Bob and me to his house. He told me I could look around. It was like a shrine; he had all of the L88’s factory documentation and photos of the car’s racing career.
“I asked him if I could take a photograph of the L88’s window sticker, which he had framed and hanging on a wall,” Mackay continues. “He told me, ‘If you find the car and restore it as No. 12, you can have the window sticker.’”
Mackay found the racer by tracking down all the past owners, starting with Bergen, calling his technique the “forward search.” “I have been lucky enough to find quite a few Corvettes this way,” he says. “Most racers were never titled. They were picked up from the dealership, went back to the shop for a few modifications, and then right to the track.
“Bergen was ecstatic that his old L88 had survived all the years,” he says.
Mackay’s business, Corvette Repair of Valley Stream, New York, began the rare ragtop racer’s restoration in January 2008 and apprised Bergen of the progress. “I invited ‘Marietta’ Bob and him to come see the restored rolling chassis at the Bloomington Gold Special Collection L88 Invasion in June 2008,” Mackay says. Shortly before the event, Bergen sent Mackay a surprise package, which, as promised, contained the L88’s factory window sticker.
One year later, Corvette Repair finished restoring the convertible back to its ’68 Watkins Glen trim. Mackay told Bergen he’d try to bring it to Corvettes at Carlisle in August 2009 for the Racers Reunion.
“When Bergen and ‘Marietta’ Bob arrived at the show, they saw an empty spot where the Watkins Glen–winning L88 should have been,” Mackay says. “Bergen was heartbroken.”
“I knew it took a lot of work to put it back, so I said, ‘I understand. We’ll see it some other time,’” Bergen replied.
What Mackay didn’t tell Bergen is that he had the winning L88 waiting as a surprise for him at the Racers Reunion. That evening, inside the Carlisle Convention Center, he drove it through the Center’s gargantuan garage doors and parked it in the midst of the private-invitation crowd.
“The second I heard the Doug’s Headers, I nudged ‘Marietta’ Bob and said, ‘That’s my car out there,’” says Bergen, who cried a tear of joy when Mackay drove his victorious now-vintage racer into the room. “Isn’t it something to see the car brand new, knowing how old both of us are at this point?”
On August 21, Mackay displayed the L88 at the Corvette World Tribute at Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. He plans to keep the car in his private collection.
“I’ve only accounted for 62 of the 80 L88s built for ’68,” he says. “I enjoy finding these cars, restoring them, and bringing the old-time racers back together to tell their stories. I like the hunt, the chase, and bringing history back to life.”