Starting in the mid '50s, a group of West Coast Corvette racers dominated the SCCA's C Production sports-car races in places like Palm Springs, Santa Maria, Pebble Beach, and Pomona, trouncing Ferraris, Mercedes SLs, Jaguars, and other exotic European machinery. "While Mercedes and Jaguar were still winning races in the great slice of the United States that remains outside Los Angeles County, no Merc or Jag took a production go away from a Corvette in Southern California from July 28, 1957 to July 18, 1959, nor have they been able to crack the winner's circle since," wrote OCee Ritch in the July 1960 issue of Motor Trend. The story, called "Secrets of the Winningest Corvettes," profiled a loose group of Corvette racers that centered on Bill Thomas, then working for C.S. Mead Chevrolet in Pasadena. At the Palm Springs Races in January of that year, where Bob Bondurant led the Corvette pack, "the thrilling, fender-banging brouhaha confirmed, once again, popular opinion. At the finish: Corvette, Corvette, Corvette--farther back: Mercedes, Ferrari, and the rest of the pack." The title of our story comes from advice "other Corvette drivers have carried back to the hinterlands," wrote Ritch. "If you plan to race your Chevy with this group, be prepared to go like hell or get run over."
So, what were the "secrets" these Vette pilots were using to full advantage? Lessons learned on the track, at first with subpar machinery, frankly. "Thomas and the bunch listed a flock of undesirable attributes," Ritch wrote. "The three-speed transmission was weak, synchro drums broke easily, it was necessary to change the ring-and-pinion after every race." Brakes were an issue, too, the narrow drums and poor heat dissipation causing the binders to fade too quickly.
Corvette engineers worked with Thomas, and used data gathered at Sebring by John Fitch, to improve the Vettes. "As fast as the factory moved, however, the Coasters were just a shade ahead of them," wrote Ritch, pointing out that Thomas' fuel-injection manifold added as much as 20 hp to the 283. That manifold, Ritch said, was being studied by Chevrolet.
Thomas and company also incorporated traditional hot-rodding tricks, "having been weaned on gasoline and brought up with roadsters, dry lakes speed runs, midnight drag races and the like." Duntov cams were put into use, intake and exhaust ports were matched to the heads, carbs were tuned, and exhaust systems were opened to improve flow.
Even when Chevrolet brought out Super Sport Corvettes in 1957, with fuel injection, Duntov cams, Positraction, and other speed equipment, Thomas and the others drove the cars only a couple of times in stock condition before getting down to serious modifications. They overbored the blocks, modified the fuel injectors, played with the distributor advance, port-matched the manifolds and heads, and made other improvements allowed within the SCCA's rule book.
"What has emerged is the present Southern California Corvette," said Ritch. "Pumping out something like 240 hp at the rear wheels, officially timed at 144.82 mph through the traps at Riverside International Raceway (during a race) and unofficially at 151 (during practice), these cars are capable of lapping the 3.275-mile Riverside course within 11.5 seconds of the track record set by Chuck Daigh in a Reventlow Scarab--a difference in speed of only 8 mph!"
Bondurant felt the Corvette's new brakes were a big contributor to the car's success, as he was able to out-brake a Porsche RSK on the twisty Laguna Seca race course. He also felt the Corvettes out-handled the Europeans. "We drive under these guys because the Corvettes stick better," he said. "But I will admit that the power you have on tap coming out of the turns helps handling immensely."
The Corvette is "sensational," Bondurant said, "if properly prepared." He, Thomas, and the rest of "The Group" were doing just that, showing the factory--not to mention a few Euro car drivers--a thing or two on those SoCal tracks.