Mid America Motorworks and its annual Funfest event need little or no introduction to most Corvette aficionados. Founded 37 years ago by Mike Yager, who started the business out of the trunk of his car with the benefit of a $500 loan, MAM is now the aftermarket's largest supplier of Corvette parts and accessories. Recognizing that achieving this level of success--and maintaining it--wouldn't have been possible without loyal customers, in 1993 Yager began the tradition of a customer-appreciation party. Held on the company's massive corporate campus in Effingham, Illinois, the three-day event near the end of September usually draws some 15,000 Corvettes to a town boasting the same number of residents just off Interstate 57 in southern Illinois.
Not merely a car show, Funfest offers a full panoply of events, including judging, new-parts installation, tours of Yager's extensive Corvette collection (housed in the on-site MY Garage museum), and a broad range of seminars. One of the truly great things about the event, though, is that it draws not only enthusiasts, but also many of the celebrities in the hobby, who are usually available to sign books or personal items, and to give seminars in their field of expertise. So while you may randomly find yourself standing next to Dave McClellan or Will Cooksey at the burnout contest, you'll also have the opportunity to have McClellan sign your copy of Corvette From the Inside Out and hear him talk about the development of the C4 ZR-1.
Two such recent attendees were Randy Leffingwell and photographer Dave Wendt, who collaborated on the book Legendary Corvettes: Vettes Made Famous on Track and Screen. Leffingwell, the author of, among other things, Corvette: the First Fifty Years, tracked down 18 of the most famous rides ever to wear the crossed flags, while Wendt used his distinctive technique of painting with light to create truly stunning images of the cars. Among these cars--including the Serial Number 003 '53, the lowest known number in existence--is the No. 3 hardtop that ran at Le Mans in 1960. Part of the Briggs Cunningham team, it took First in its class in spite of a major downpour that wiped out the No.1 car (one of its two teammates) and significant overheating problems that overtook it after the rain stopped.
The Corvette's appearance at the legendary French endurance event, during a time when the AMA's ban on manufacturer race teams had officially barred Chevrolet from competition, begins with racer Briggs Cunningham. Having campaigned a number of different marques at Le Mans since 1950, he acquired slots for four cars in the GT class in 1960, and was able to obtain three 283-equipped Corvette roadsters. Working in concert with the irrepressible Zora Arkus-Duntov, he prepped the cars in Alfred Momo's shop on Long Island, where he stripped off extra chrome and added rollbars, auxiliary driving lights, and the other things needed to make the cars track-ready. Focusing on reliability, as opposed to squeezing out every last horsepower, the race team refrained from adding the largely unproven lightweight aluminum cylinder heads Duntov had designed, sacrificed a little more power to accommodate the questionable fuel they expected to find at the track, and added an oil cooler to try to ensure the cars would be able to go the distance.
The art of endurance racing often consists not merely of going fast for a long time, but of limping through the rest of the race trying to compensate for whatever breaks early on. In that respect, Le Mans was no different then than it is now, and 1960 was no exception: A couple hours after the start of the race, the heavens opened. No. 1 succumbed quickly to the deluge, spinning off the track, where it rolled and caught fire. No. 2 blew an engine due to a lack of oil, leaving only the No. 3 car. Driven by John Fitch and Bob Grossman, it was able to persevere through a severe overheating problem while the nighttime rain kept things cool--something that changed when the sun rose.
As the heat of the day came on, it became clear that Duntov's oil cooler simply wasn't up to the task, and the car began to run hot. As it overheated, it became more cantankerous, at times refusing to start in the pits. While ordinarily this problem would be easily solved by the addition of coolant, Le Mans rules mandated that the car go at least 25 laps--more than 200 miles--before oil or coolant could be added.
An enterprising member of the pit crew reasoned that while the rules prohibited putting coolant in the engine, they said nothing about putting it on the blistering-hot 283. Grabbing a bucketful of ice cubes, he poured them over the engine in a desperate attempt to cool it down.
If it's stupid but it works, it isn't stupid, and the ice worked. Needless to say, No. 3 couldn't be run as hard as before, but in those last couple of hours before the clock ran out, what mattered was that the car finished. Required to make four laps in the last hour to be considered as "finishing," No. 3 circumnavigated the track at a leisurely speed of 15 minutes per lap--more than three times as long as its qualifying time--rounding the course in a cloud of steam as the ice evaporated and was duly replenished. Having been alerted of the wounded Corvette's plight by the public address system, the crowd, estimated at a quarter-million fans, began to cheer it on, until the tenacious No. 3 crossed the line, finishing Eighth overall and First in its class.
There are reasons why the Corvette is more than just a car, and No. 3's dramatic finish at Le Mans is one of them. It would be 1972 before another Corvette would place that well at Le Mans--and if you want to see that car, you'd have to leave Leffingwell and Wendt in the autograph tent and walk across the grounds to the museum, where the red- liveried '68 christened "Old Scrappy" sits in Yager's collection, restored to its former glory by Kevin Mackay of Corvette Repair.
The No. 3 tale is ably told by Leffingwell in Legendary Corvettes, and Wendt's photography really is breathtaking. But he only tells part of the story--what we're left to guess at is how No. 3 went from being sold and turned into a street car to being found 30-plus years later, authenticated, and then restored to its as-raced condition. For that, walk with me to seminar tent Number One, where Mackay and Lance Miller are talking about the circuitous route that took the car from obscurity back to Le Mans.
Fascinated by the story of No. 3, the late Chip Miller had a dream of finding the car and reuniting it with its driver at Le Mans, on the 50th anniversary of its historic finish. Much easier said than done--after the race, Cunningham had sold the car, and the subsequent owner had campaigned it in club events for a couple seasons before returning it to street trim and selling it.
Reenter Mackay, a friend of Miller's, who took on the search in earnest. A serious historian of the significant Corvette racers, Mackay was able to obtain a list of the VIN numbers of every Corvette that had ever raced at Le Mans--the only such list known to exist outside of L'Automobile Club de l'Ouest, which administers the race. Using sources who are probably glad their names aren't appearing in this article, Mackay found the owner, who was using the car as a driver and was quite happy with it. Happy, and in no hurry to sell: As Mackay put it, "He just loved the car."
Without telling him who he was--or what the car's history was--Mackay gently pressed the owner, sending him holiday cards and staying in touch until he finally decided to sell. After seven years, the decision was made, and Mackay had the sublime joy of calling Miller late one night. The announcement was simple, and Miller knew exactly what it meant.
No doubt, the VIN was right, but a VIN is a number stamped on a bit of metal. To answer the greater question of whether or not this was the actual No. 3, Miller and Mackay assembled a group of 14 men who had known the car in its prime. Over the course of a seven-hour day, the car was carefully stripped, one layer at a time, with each of the men identifying telltale marks on the car--such as mounting holes--as being consistent with the race trim of No. 3. With the car denuded of each layer of its accumulated paint, the verdict was unanimous: The once-forgotten racer had been found.
Discovered, yes, but what next? Using the same sources that had convinced him of the car's authenticity, Mackay began the grueling task of recreating the car as it had been. With characteristic attention to detail, everything--including the prominent marking on the car's Rochester fuel-injection unit--was returned to the way it had been when it sat at Le Mans waiting for the French tricolor flag to drop, waiting for its driver to sprint to it across the tarmac, waiting to be driven into racing history.
Sadly, during the course of the project, Miller passed away, so his son Lance picked up the torch in his father's stead. The completed car was carefully stowed in a shipping container for the transatlantic voyage and, along with Fitch, now in his early 90s, reappeared at Le Mans' Circuit de la Sarthe racetrack in 2010, on the 50th anniversary of its victory there. Documented by filmmaker Michael Brown, it was a fitting tribute to both a legendary car and the epic quest to see it relive its finest moment.
For more information on the No. 3 racer, take a look at Brown's film The Quest, or Legendary Corvettes, available from Motorbooks International. Or just take the ride up I-57 to Effingham for the next Funfest--you never know what might show up.