Say "'54 Corvette," and what mental image comes to mind? Perhaps it's a Top Flight NCRS show car, or a new-to-the-public National Corvette Museum exhibit, or maybe even a six-figure auction dream find.
Regardless of the specific imagery the '54 Corvette elicits in your frontal lobe, it's highly unlikely your neural path called out for pizza!
Thus begins the story of one of the most unusual race cars in Corvette's 60-year history, the '54 "Pizza Man" racer. Also known as the "World's Fastest Six-Cylinder Corvette," the car won three NHRA World Points Championships, eight NHRA Modified Production world records, and is believed to have won more NHRA World Championship points in three consecutive years (1967-1969) than any other car in Street Eliminator history.
The Pizza Man Corvette was the brainchild of Earl Britt, the proprietor of Earl's Pizza Palace in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It seems Britt decided that rolling in the dough just wasn't good enough, so, as the story goes, he transformed his wife's '54 Corvette (1 of 3,640 produced) into a quarter-mile killer.
Britt passed away decades ago, but the car's current owner, Dan Hampton, was able to piece together much its history.
"In July 1999, Mecum Auctions offered the Pizza Man Corvette for sale," Hampton says. "The car was one of 100-plus cars being auctioned that night in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and it caught my attention because of its '60s racing history. Street racing was a big-time hobby for many of us growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and because of our lack of proximity to any other type of racing venue, drag racing became the natural outlet for many of my teenage brethren and me. The Pizza Man Corvette simply struck a chord…and I decided to bid on it."
The über-rare race car didn't meet its reserve, so it wasn't until post-auction negotiations with Mecum Auction's president and founder Dana Mecum that Hampton closed the deal and took ownership of the car.
"I immediately set out to learn the [car's] history," Hampton says. "The only link I had to the Britt name was the Corvette's original title, which was still registered to the Pizza Palace. Earl Britt's signature was on the back of the title, but he was nowhere to be found. My only hope was to try and see if there was anybody with the surname Britt still residing in the Sioux Falls area.
"After a few dead ends, I was able to get in touch with Sam Britt, who I learned is Earl's youngest son. Over the course of many phone calls, Sam provided me with a fairly detailed account of the car's racing history, including the various mechanical permutations that had taken place through the years that it raced. He retained the eight original NHRA class records, and vintage photography of the car."
According to Hampton, the Pizza Man Corvette's amazing NHRA successes are due in part to Britt's decision not to follow the common practice of running a small-block Chevy and competing in a popular class such as C/MP or B/MP. "These were brutal classes, with national records in the low 11s and high 11s, respectively. The GMC inline-six was a rarity, but more importantly, it gave Britt a 1.5-second advantage when indexed against the aforementioned two classes. Unless he hired a world-class engine builder like Roger Sinistri of ‘Buckshot' fame, my guess is that with a small-block he would…have never been a contender."
Hampton also speculates that Britt simply couldn't get enough displacement or horsepower out of the Corvette's 235ci Blue Flame 6, and that obstacle led him to the GMC mill, which was legal for NHRA classes. "The [GMC] was heavily modified by Wayne Engine Rebuilders [in Riverside, California], fed by triple sidedraft Weber two-barrel carburetors, and drove a Posi third member stuffed with 4.56 gears through a custom-built B&M Turbo Hydramatic three-speed transmission."
According to Hampton, that combination eventually propelled the car to an official best quarter-mile e.t. of 12.17 seconds at 118 mph, and an unofficial e.t. of 11.97 seconds in 1970.
"Sam wasn't a casual bystander when his father campaigned the Corvette, but was actively involved in the car's summertime race campaigns," Hampton says. "He indicated to me that the engine revved to over 9,000 rpm, and that his dad went through a number of engines in the course of a year. Early on, he sourced an ongoing supply of short-block cores from old milk-delivery trucks."
With its history confirmed, Hampton set out to "restify" the Pizza Man Corvette. "It was clear that much of the lettering on the car had been changed since the vintage photos were taken," he says. "The front fenders were plastered with decals, and the large, gold ‘Pizza Man' script, which adorned the middle section of the car, was completely contained within the door's outline, which was incorrect. A large hoodscoop was added to accommodate a Weber intake manifold, the three 48 IDA downdraft carburetors were long gone, and the hardtop was missing. The great news was that the GMC 292 race engine, B&M automatic trans, and Posi rear were still installed in the car.