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.
The top engine pumped out a then-amazing 283 hp, a breakthrough of one horse per cubic inch. The fuel injection didnt give appreciably more power than twin carbs, but it did pull stronger in the mid-range and was preferred by most racers for its conspicuous absence of fuel-sloshing in the corners. The Duntov cam was revised and continued to be the hottest factory-offered bumpstick.
Backing the new powerhouse was an all-new T-10 four-speed transmission, designed by Chevy engineers but built by Borg-Warner. Early ones had iron cases and were a dream come true for racers. Finally they were on even footing with foreign sports cars sporting four-speed gearboxes.
But Chevy didnt stop there. The brakes finally got some attention in the form of RPO 684, a race-spec brake-and-suspension package. Special wider-finned, cast-iron drums resisted warping, and vented backing plates allowed hot air to escape. Chevy added ducting that ran behind the rocker panels, carrying cool air from the front of the car to the back brakes. Inside, special linings were formed from Cerametalix, a ceramic/metallic material developed for aircraft brakes. These brakes, while of variable efficiency, were a huge improvement (although they were not recommended for street use).
RPO 684 also included the suspension upgrades from RPO 581 and an adapter that lengthened the idler arm to speed up the steering. Another racer-oriented option was a set of steel wheels that, at 5.5 inches wide, were a half-inch wider than stock. These allowed fitting the large, heavy racing tires of the time.
Equipped with these options and the injected 283, the 57 Corvette was ready to take on the best. And it did, dominating the B-Production SCCA Championship in the hands of Dr. Thompson. Corvettes would continue to win B-Production until the mid-1960s. At last the Corvette could take on the Mercedes 300SL for overall production-car honors.
Power outputs for the hottest injected engines climbed to 315 hp by the time 283 production ended in 1961. That same year saw the introduction of the 461 double hump cylinder heads that would be standard issue on hot Chevy engines for years to come. A baffled oil pan was developed to keep oil pressure up in sweeping turns.
Power is your friend was the drivers motto. It also made for some hairy action at the apexes.
In 1960 the standard Corvette was fitted with a rear sway bar, and this became standard fitment on all racing models. In 1961 the housing of the T-10 transmission was changed from cast iron to aluminum.
In late 1958 the racing brake package lost its ducting to the rear brakes, and other changes were made as well. The brake lining material was changed to sintered iron and the backing-plate cooling holes were covered with screen to keep out rocks. A sheetmetal fan was added to the wheel to direct air into the drum, and scoops channeled air from the ducts under the headlights to the front brakes.
Following that seminal time period, in 1960 production-car racing got a big shakeup when the SCCA took a leaf from the CSCC rulebook and stopped classifying by engine size; instead, overall performance became the primary criterion. Cars that turned similar lap times ran together, regardless of displacement. It was a stroke of genius and resulted in some of the best production sports-car racing in the world. New classes were formed, and the Corvettes were placed in B-Production.
Corvettes ended up running against the potent Ferrari 250GT short-wheelbase Berlinettas and California Spyders. The Italian cars gave them a run for their money in 1960, with Corvette-mounted Bob Johnson ultimately taking the title. In 1961 CSCC joined the SCCA as a region, finally burying the hatchet after years of bitter and pointless rivalry. The Corvettes were joined in B-Production by the Porsche 356 Carreras that dominated CP the previous year. The Porsches were very quick on tighter tracks, but while 356 hotshot Bruce Jennings would win two championship races in 1962, Corvette driver Don Yenko took one of his many SCCA titles.
Meanwhile the 62 Corvette was packing a 327-inch mill and itching for a fight with the Ferrari 250SWBs and California Spyders, as well as the Aston-Martin DB4GTs, in A-Production. It was a close race, with the Ferraris down on power but way up in braking, while few Astons showed up. Still, Thompson pulled yet another championship out of his hat for Chevy.
That would prove to be a one-year party, though, as the 260 and 289 Cobras arrived in 1963 to spoil the fun for the Bow Tie brigade. Bondurant saw the handwriting on the firewall, and signed up with Shelby at Carrolls invitation. This venture would launch him into a whole new realm of racing, leading to winning the World Manufacturers Championship in 1965, among many, many other victories.
SCCA amateur road racing changed as well in 1964. The SCCA title was again based on points totals from national races. Even though the Corvette domination of BP came to an end at the ARRC, with the 283 Corvettes meeting their match in Merle Brennans Jaguar XKE, the points championship fell to Frank Dominiannis 283 Vette. Never again would a live-axle Corvette win an SCCA championship.
Today the live-axle C1 Corvette is once again a contender on the tracks, this time in vintage racing. The old warriors have returned with a vengeance, battling with Ferraris, Jags, and Porsches to demonstrate throttle-steering skills from the slip-and-slide era.
Special thanks to the Petersen Automotive Museum, the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, and car owner Steve Earle.
05 These days, the Washburn racer is part of the Petersen Automotive Museums extensive collection. Here, the old warhorse is wheeled outside for our photo shoot.06 Dealer sponsorship of race cars was commonplace in the 50s and 60s.07 A small roll hoop provided theoretical protection in the event of a rollover.08 Leather straps were used to secure the hood, which tended to pop open during cornering as a result of body flex.