Before Bob Bondurant piloted racing Cobras to record-setting wins, he cut his competition teeth on solid-axle Corvettes. That he did so well on the track, with such comparatively primitive equipment (at least by todays standards), is a testament to his driving skills and competitive spirit.
His first Corvette was a 57 model he raced in 1959. They made a potent combination, and he soon became known as one of the fastest and hardest-charging drivers running SCCA and CSCC events. He went on to win an astounding 18 of 20 events he entered in 1959, taking home the trophy for the West Coast SCCA B Production National Championship. Bondurants racing career gained a great deal of momentum after he won this championship and Corvette Driver of the Year award in 1959.
Just two years later, Shelly Washburn of Washburn Chevrolet in Santa Barbara hired him to man the wheel of the 59 No. 614 shown here, which now holds a place of honor at the Petersen Automotive Museum. During the Saturday race on Labor Day weekend in 1961, held at the Santa Barbara airport circuit, Bondurant captured First Place, beating both the Corvette driven by Paul Reinhart and the newly debuted Jaguar XKE driven by Bill Krause.
After CSCC officials protested the Corvettes aluminum flywheel, Bondurant was moved into the modified class for the Sunday race, in which he finished Fourth overall.
Bondurant went on to drive other Corvettes, and other drivers took their turns in No. 614 as well. Back then, the Washburn 59 Corvette was state of the art and featured all the trick parts, such as a fuel-injected engine and a chassis with big brakes and ducting. Also note the wider, 5.5-inch steel wheels.
By the 1950s, rollbars were being mandated by racing officials, and No. 614 had a very nice three-pointer mounted behind the driver. Some cars had bars that were downright scary (including ones made from plumbing pipe), but this one looks strong enough to actually save you if it went over. Full interiors were required, so all the trim is in place.
Other details reveal the competition grade of this car, such as how the body was filled in where the bumpers were removed in front. Although the ducts under the headlights on street versions were not functional, here they were opened up for brake cooling. Another difference from street models was the leather strap to hold down the hood, as body flex in hard cornering could otherwise pop the stock hood latch loose on 59-and-older models). While No. 614s windshield has been cut down, other Corvette racers removed the stock piece completely and replaced it with a small windscreen.
A look underneath the well-groomed bodywork (not all race Corvettes were as nicely manicured as this one) reveals the best go-fast parts of the day: stiffer shocks, springs, Positraction rearend, and T-10 four-speed transmission.
In hindsight, these upgrades seem minimal, as modern Corvettes are race winners right out of the box. After all, C6s are capable of taking home trophies at autocrosses, NASA, and SCCA events in stock or near-stock form.
But in the 50s the Corvette didnt take to competition without serious modification, such as those mentioned on No. 614. Leading up to development of this old warhorse, there were some significant Corvette milestones that set the stage for comp-quality C1s.
The early years of the C1 held little of interest for serious races. In 1956, though, Chevrolet launched a development program aimed at endurance races like Sebring. Rather than focus on that effort, well highlight how amateur racers transformed street Corvettes from sedate cruisers into killing machines. The first really tricked-out Vettes appeared that same year, when Chevy debuted a piping-hot optional engine with twin Carter WCFB carbs and 240 hp. This was enough power to be competitive, but the floats needed to be set precisely, or the carbs would run dry in hard corners.
The lumpy Duntov cam included in the 56 package improved performance, as did a close-ratio three-speed transmission. The Positraction limited-slip differential helped in carving through the corners, too.
The brakes were the weakest link in the program, and race rules prohibited changing the hard parts. But linings were free, and one successful car switched to sintered bronze blocks welded to the brake shoes. They were more fade resistant, but the drums had to be changed after virtually every race.
The suspension could be improved simply by checking the order-form box beside Regular Production Option (RPO) 581, a handling package that included stiffer springs (360-pound coils in front, 138-pound rear leafs), a ¾-inch front sway bar, and Delco racing shocks. Although the simple A-arm/live-axle suspension sounds crude now, competing Jags and Ferraris ran on similar hardware. The Mercedes 300SL had a swing axle in back, but it didnt handle much better.
The best way to get the Corvette to handle was to limit suspension travel and make it into a big go-kart. This was done by shortening the limiting straps in back and installing taller bump stops. This meant the fast way around the track was usually sideways, with all four tires slipping and drifting. Thats partly how Corvette-driving Dr. Dick Thompson won the 1956 SCCA C-Production Championship.
Throttle steering or power sliding, as they called it back then, was a necessity because the chassis designs were too flexible for hard cornering. But those old V-8 war chariots were loaded with weapons-grade torque, so it was easy to hang out the rear on a sharp turn by abruptly lifting the throttle and trail-braking, then gunning it to line up the car for the proper exit. Power is your friend was the drivers motto. It also made for some hairy action at the apexes.
That technique was one that Bondurant would later become well known fornot just in Corvettes, but also driving for Carroll Shelby. When I used to race Cobras, drifting was the only way you could drive the car, he later recalled. Every Cobra driver drifted.
Years later, when Bondurant added a drifting class to his driving school, he often referred back to the slip-and-slide era of racing, pointing out that hed been drifting decades before it became a tuner-car phenom.
Getting back to the performance benchmarks of the C1 era, if the 56 Corvette had potential, the 57 model fulfilled it. The 265 grew into a 283, and the hottest versions were upgraded from carbs to fuel injection. Injection had been a Mercedes bragging point, used on the companys Grand Prix cars, the 55 300SLR racers and the 300SL street models. It gave the Corvette racers what they needed to go after overall wins in production-car races.
01 Bob Bondurant puts Chevysponsored 59 Corvette through its paces at Riverside in 1961.02 Long before he became the doyen of U.S. driving schools, Bondurant enjoyed considerable success behind the wheel of the Washburn racer. 03 Once a Mercedes exclusive, FI became available on the Corvettes 283 engine in 1957.04 Period race rules mandated a full factory interior, so the Washburn cars cabin is minimally decontented.