The story of John Greenwood taking Rick Mancuso's No. 76 "Spirit of Le Mans" Corvette to the famous French race is virtually a legend. The short version starts with the fact that, in 1976, attendance at Le Mans was slipping. Several years of fuel shortages and other economic problems in Europe hit road-racing hard. Something had to be done to lure in the crowds. The sights and sounds of the Heinz and Greenwood big-block Vettes in 1972 and 1973 had fascinated the Europeans, so it was logical for the organizers to extend an invitation to Greenwood to bring back at least one of these cars.
When he received the invitation to return to Le Mans, Greenwood didn't have a "legal" car. His two team cars—Spirit of Le Mans Nos. 75 and 76—were too highly modified to meet FIA/ACO regulations. The full coilover suspension, for example, was definitely not stock configuration. But the No. 76 Mancuso car (chassis No. 007) would meet the requirements for the GT class. Mancuso and Greenwood were business associates and friends, so it wasn't surprising when Mancuso agreed to let his car be prepped for the world's most grueling endurance race. (He couldn't go himself, as he was working at his car dealership, and simply couldn't get the time off. It was probably one of the major disappointments of his career.)
The car qualified ninth and hit 216 mph on the Mulsanne Straight—much to the astonishment of the crowd. While it did not finish the race, it did achieve its overall objective of stirring the interest of European race fans and improving attendance. Le Mans organizers were well satisfied with their investment.
After the car returned to the U.S., Mancuso continued to race it as both No. 76 and No. 77. As with most race cars, though, it eventually passed through a series of owners. Mancuso sold it to Kerry Hitt, in Pennsylvania. Hitt ran Trans-Am with the car and then sold it to Paul Canary. From there it went to Atlanta Ferrari dealer George Nuse, who, in turn, sold it to Jack Boxstrom. Current owner Steve Goldin bought the Spirit of Le Mans car from Boxstrom in 1992 or 1993, at which point it underwent its first real restoration. By 1994 it had been restored and had a new engine prepped by Gary Smith of Carolina Racing Engines (located, oddly, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida). While the new motor put out a little more power than did the original from 1976, the car otherwise came out of the process pretty much as-built.
Goldin has driven the car in various vintage races for the last 18 years, and has put it on display at such prestigious events as the Greenwood Reunion at Corvettes at Carlisle in 2004. While there are plenty of exciting anecdotes associated with this part of the car's history, it's all just background to our current story.
Back to Europe
In June 2011, Goldin was invited to attend both the Goodwood Festival of Speed (FoS) in the UK and the bi-annual Le Mans Classic vintage-race event.
Interestingly, after Goldin was first contacted by the folks at Goodwood, he didn't hear from them for quite a while. He wasn't sure if the invitation had officially been issued, or if the organizers had just been scouting him. He finally realized the offer was for real when he saw an advertisement in the European magazine Sportscar Classic, in which his car had been dubbed the "Monster Corvette." (Goldin says the best photo caption he saw during his trip was one that read, "It's not done until it's overdone," in reference to the car's new 1,000hp engine.)
As for the Le Mans Classic, two of the world's major car-model manufacturers (Spark and True Scale) had suggested to the event's organizers that Goldin's car would make a superb entry. (Goldin is especially grateful to Hughes "Hugo" Ripert at Spark and Glen K. Chou at True Scale.)
Both the FoS and the Le Mans Classic featured American race cars under various themes. Goodwood always provides for a special "Americana" class, but, this year, it was also honoring Dan Gurney. The Le Mans Classic was specifically trying to attract American cars that had run at the actual 24 Hours of Le Mans. For the Spirit of Le Mans to be truly presentable, it would need some attention. It had been 18 years since the car was originally restored, and it was showing some age.
Goldin decided to send the car to the Renngruppe facility in North Carolina. Renngruppe, run by Cameron Conober, is mostly a Porsche-Volkswagen shop, but its expertise was not in question. Still, Goldin was a little surprised when he checked up on the car. While he had only sent it in to be cleaned up, the Renngruppe techs had completely disassembled it and were doing a ground-up restoration. The job was finished just three days before the car was due to be shipped to Europe. How's that for fresh?
The Goodwood Festival of Speed
The FoS was a real eye-opener for Goldin, who described it as the most spectacular automotive racing event he had ever seen. Indeed, it's difficult to draw a parallel between the FoS and any event in North America, simply because of the number of people who attend and the level of manufacturer support. It makes one realize how much more interest and momentum the racing industry has in Europe than on this side of the Atlantic. Fan support is much more robust, too.
Since its inception in 1993, the event has grown to its present daunting dimensions, drawing more than 200,000 people to Goodwood House in West Sussex over the course of the weekend. The central event is a hill climb featuring historic racing vehicles and a huge range of related activities.
Attending vehicles comprise an incredible display of vintage production-based race cars, Formula 1 vehicles (and drivers), past and present racing motorcycles, and even modern supercars. Additionally, most major auto manufacturers set up their own three-story mobile auto dealerships that are fully self contained, air conditioned, and lighted. In typical British fashion, inclement weather is simply ignored, or at least endured.
Thanks to the event's location, its classification as a hill climb, and its organizers' promotional efforts, the FoS is on the bucket list of virtually every serious enthusiast. Spectators have nearly full access to the cars and drivers, and are separated from the track by only several feet of reinforced straw bales. Also, considering the power of the cars involved, the 1½-mile road running uphill around the estate is quite narrow. There are the occasional "offs," frequently resulting in spectacular damage to some spectacularly expensive race machinery.
While some owners offer up their vehicles to the race drivers who piloted them in their heyday, Goldin chose to drive his own. All entrants normally get one run in the morning and one in the afternoon on each of the three days. There was a lot of rain in the mornings, so Goldin elected to skip the early sessions, reasoning that the 1,000hp Vette might prove overly challenging on a slippery track.
During the Friday-afternoon practice runs, the car's throttle stuck open, requiring Goldin to pit and make adjustments to the fuel-injection system. One of the interesting things about the Goodwood event is the wide variety of people you meet there. In this case, Goldin hooked up with fabricator/TV personality Jesse James, who was at the FoS filming an episode of a new reality show. As it turns out, James was experienced with the Kinsler FI system on the Spirit of Le Mans. He, Goldin, and team-mechanic Matt McSwain set about dialing in the linkages while the cameras rolled.
The next day, Goldin was among the 25 entrants who were invited to participate in a live shootout on Sky Sports Television, the British equivalent of the Speed Channel. He performed well, but never found out what his final time was—it was just a bit too crowded to figure out exactly what was going on. Then, on Sunday, the car was one of the fastest entries in the Americana class. All in all, Goldin was pleased with his performance at FoS.
There's a lot of action off the track at the FoS as well. On Saturday night the drivers were invited to the Lord's Ball, a black-tie function held in Goodwood House. The year's event included plenty of drinks and a lavish dinner, plus a concert starring Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd. The names of past Formula 1 driving champions were even beamed onto a rain-like curtain of water that surrounded the stage. The night concluded with a major fireworks show.
Goldin summed up the first leg of his European adventure thus: "I've been racing for 20-plus years, and thought I knew about Goodwood. What I found out is that I knew nothing about Goodwood. It is truly an experience that everyone has to see for themselves."
The Le Mans Classic
Two weeks later, the cars arrived in France for the Le Mans Classic. Goldin wasn't planning to race there, but instead intended to participate in the concours and in an exhibition run. (The latter was ultimately rained out.)
The Le Mans Classic vintage sports-car race is the world's largest event of its type, and it always draws an impressive group of cars. In order to approximate the full round-the-clock racing experience, entrants do four 45-minute sessions at six-hour intervals.
This year's Classic was an especially big event, and organizers had arranged for the races to be run on the full course. (Most vintage events at Le Mans run a shorter 5-mile course.) The weather, unfortunately, was poor. Huge downpours of fast-moving rain crossed the track frequently, but they didn't seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the competitors. In fact, during Friday night's practice, one overly enthusiastic driver had a huge accident, colliding with a guardrail. His car, a $15 million Gulf 917 Porsche, was seriously damaged.
Another part of the Le Mans Classic event is the Virage mobile studio, which provides the opportunity for entrants to have their cars photographed by a professional photographer in a studio environment. This was especially well-timed for Goldin, since the Spirit of Le Mans was still fresh from its restoration.
As for the concours, only one trophy is awarded per show category. Goldin's car didn't win the class, despite his recent work. Instead, the honor went to local race hero and longtime Peugeot privateer Henri Pescarolo, who also received a lifetime achievement award. While this outcome might have been disappointing to some, it did little to dim Goldin's enthusiasm.
When I asked Goldin about the highlights of his European trip, he didn't hesitate to respond. While he found both events impressive, the Goodwood Festival of Speed—with some 200,000 people attending—was absolutely amazing. He was also blown away by the number of people who personally thanked him for bringing the car. Taking the Spirit of Le Mans Corvette back to Le Mans was a dream come true, for both its owner and its fans.