Petersen Automotive Museum
VETTING THE COMPETION
It began (as I did) in 1953. The American economy was booming, but then, so was Wisconsin’s senator, Joe McCarthy. And while the election of Dwight Eisenhower put World War II fully behind us, the Cold War was heating up. With that, a handful of execs at General Motors believed the company should be building a sports car, and while the all-new Corvette was not yet America’s Sports Car, the basics were there, and at least one engineer, Zora Arkus-Duntov, recognized its potential.
On the Corvette’s 70th anniversary the Los Angeles-based Petersen Automotive Museum celebrates the Corvette’s competition success with an exhibit devoted to many of its competition models, beginning with a modified 1953 C1 and concluding with a 2014 C7.R. In between those are a ½ dozen examples of aggressively modified Corvettes which competed in a variety of classes, as well as brief bios of those involved, including Zora Arkus-Duntov, builders John Greenwood and Reeves Callaway, and drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Of course, the Corvette of 1953 was a ‘sports car’ in form only. With just 150 horsepower from its 3.9 liter Blue Flame six, the first Corvette was built for cruising Main Street and not – notably – the Mulsanne Straight. This first-gen Corvette wouldn’t receive a V8 until 1955, and wouldn’t enter any form of organized competition until 1956.
While the Corvette’s chief engineer, Zora Arkus-Duntov, is widely recognized for his automotive genius, operating within GM’s corporate framework reduced his visibility, as did Chevy’s abandonment of official racing involvement in 1957. And unlike Ford, with Carroll Shelby front and center, or the passionate embodiment of Enzo Ferrari in both Formula One and endurance competition, the Corvette’s competition history is largely left to the machinery – and that machinery is beautifully showcased in what is admittedly a relatively small display.
Front and center is John Greenwood’s ‘The Spirit of Le Mans’, which was built prior to the 1976 season for entry into the IMSA series and 24 Hours of Le Mans. With its thundering V8, widened fenders (think bell bottoms…in fiberglass) and 220+ mile per hour speed at Le Mans, the ‘Spirit’ created quite an impression in its abbreviated (just 29 laps) appearance on the French circuit.
Absent from the display – at least on the day of my visit – was the 1960 Corvette campaigned at Le Mans by Briggs Cunningham. Finishing first in its class and eighth overall, it brought the Corvette to the attention of an international audience, something Dinah Shore never did; Dinah only wanted to see the USA. Also missing was the ’63 Corvette Grand Sport, a (very) limited production example designed to put Corvettes back on the podium, a space more frequently occupied in the early ‘60s by Carroll Shelby’s Cobra. With a race-spec chassis beneath what appeared to be stock bodywork, the Grand Sport’s potential was obvious, while its success was limited with the program’s cancellation by GM execs.
If there’s an overriding takeaway in the Petersen’s Corvette exhibit, it’s the brand’s on-again/off-again relationship with international competition. What might have been a legitimate competitor to Ferrari’s dominance in the late ’50, the Corvette SS, entered but one race. And after Greenwood lit up Le Mans in 1976, it would take until 1994 for Reeves Callaway to return to the French circuit with his Callaway LM. That car took the GT2 pole and finished third in its class and 11th overall. In the last twenty years, with the formal launch of the Corvette Racing Team in 2001, there’s been much more consistency, but then, neither Christian Bale nor Matt Damon have been behind the wheel.
Adjacent to the CORVETTES IN COMPETITION exhibit is the much more expansive WE ARE PORSCHE, celebrating 75 years of Porsche production and racing history. And downstairs in the museum’s Vault sits MARANELLO MASTERPIECES, an exciting (and eclectic) look at Ferrari’s evolution. In short, if the Corvette exhibit leaves you wishing for more, and your automotive interests extend beyond the Chevy showroom, the Petersen has it…in spades.