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The Day Performance Almost Died

In the Interim

Brian Brennan May 26, 2017
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There was a time when Corvette and performance were not synonymous. There was a time when factory support for racing had just started and then was nearly squelched for all time.

In the interim, let us take a look when Corvette and performance became forever linked. It’s the early 1950s when Ford dominated hot rodding and the Flathead V-8 was the engine of choice. At this time a newly hired assistant staff engineer sent a three-page letter to Chevrolet Motor Division’s Director of Research and Development Maurice Olley. It was December 16, 1953, when Zora Arkus-Duntov wrote a memo entitled: Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders, and Chevrolet. (For those of you who are unaware of my other “day job,” hot rodding, the Flathead and the ARDUN all make up the Holy Grail of Ford hot rods.) Duntov knew for Chevrolet and the Corvette both would have to embrace performance to capture the imagination of America’s car loving youth.

While Duntov makes reference to car magazines (our sister publication Hot Rod being one) that hadn’t existed six years earlier are now featuring one Ford after another all talking about performance. Duntov pointed out that these magazines were filled with Fords and for Chevy to make inroads something had to be done.

Duntov is quoted as having penned the following ending his memo with the line, “These thoughts are offered for what they are worth: one man’s thinking aloud on the subject.”

“The association of Chevrolet with hot rods, speeds and such is probably inadmissible. But possibly the existence of the Corvette provides the loop hole. If the special parts are carried as RPO items for the Corvette, they undoubtedly will be recognized by the hot rodders as the very parts they were looking for to hop-up the Chevy.

“If it is desirable or not to associate the Corvette with the speed, I am not qualified to say, but I do know that in 1954, sports car enthusiasts will get hold of Corvettes and whether we like it or not, will race it. Most frequent statement from this group is ‘"we will put a Cadillac in it".’ They are going to, and I think this is not good! Most likely they will meet with Allard trouble…that is breaking sooner or later, mostly sooner, everything between the flywheel and road wheels.”

Duntov went on to say, “Since we cannot prevent the people from racing Corvettes maybe it is better to help them to do a good job at it.”

If Duntov’s letter was the zenith then what was to take place a year and a half later, June 11, 1955, assuredly would be considered the nadir.

It is Le Mans, France, and the rapidly growing sports car race was gathering popularity in Europe and worldwide. It was the prestigious race of that time … and still today. It was apparent speeds were climbing but safety equipment for drivers and spectators alike was lagging behind. The cars themselves were beginning to solve the mystery of speed but braking and tire technology was behind. Driver protection was minimal at best. And what about the spectator who oftentimes was close enough to hear earsplitting sounds, observe the drivers steely-eyed concentration, and wipe from their own faces hot spewing oil! It was hypnotic as much as it was a disaster waiting around the next turn.

And happen it did at 6:26 pm after the 35th lap on June 11, 1955. The Springfield Republican reported that 71 spectators were killed while 100 more were injured. In fact, 83 spectators and French driver Pierre Bouillin, who raced under the name Pierre Levegh, died and nearly 180 more were injured. It was such a catastrophic accident that it led Mercedes-Benz to retire from motor racing until 1989.

But it didn’t stop there. Two years almost to the day, June 6, 1957, of this tragedy The Automobile Manufacturers Association, “unanimously recommended to member companies that they take no part in automobile racing.” There were five major points to the ban but basically the manufacturers were out of racing and this ban was signed by the “who’s who” of Detroit, including Harlow H. Curtice, then president, General Motors Corporation. The resolution went on to say that not only would the manufacturers not participate but they would not support employees, dealers, or others or furnish financial, engineering, manufacturing, advertising, public relations assistance, or supply pace cars or official cars, in any connection with any such contest, event, or test, directly or indirectly. There was more but you get the drift. Performance in the “eyes” of Detroit did not exist.

Over the course of time things happened and “back doors” swung wide and all sorts of “support” flowed from the skyscrapers in Detroit to the garages across our country. Do you remember the 1963 427 Mystery Motor … how about if I throw in Smokey Yunick? Do you remember what happened immediately after these motors found their way into the hands of Mickey Thompson and the likes of NASCAR? Unprecedented success followed by not so unprecedented Chevy factory withdrawal killing both the NASCAR program but also the likes of the Corvette Grand Sport.

But here we are some 65 years after the “birth” of the Corvette and we enjoy both street and track performance. We’ve survived tragedy to race another day. As they say, “That’s racing!”

June 11 1955 Memorium Sign 2/2

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