Bench Racing with the Gods

A night of legends at the Petersen
By Don Klein

For one magical day last fall, the Petersen Automotive Museum felt like a frat house on Homecoming Weekend. A bunch of the old brothers came back to swap tales of the glory days at the museum’s “Tribute to Corvette Racing” celebration. Guys with names like Bondurant, Guldstrand, Jeffords, and Fitch—hard-core racers who took an ill-handling, underpowered two-seater and developed it into an American racing icon.

That transformation didn’t come easily. GM management in the mid-1950s and early 1960s was typified by strong-willed men with independent agendas. For every bigwig who championed racing, there was one eager to squelch it. To make matters worse, in 1957, GM joined the other major manufacturers in banning factory racing support. Although the ban was erratically enforced—and arguably facilitated racing development programs through secret “back door” efforts—the fact remains that the early days of Corvette racing were frustrating and difficult.

The tales of the elders

Testimony to those difficulties was given by John Fitch. At 91, Fitch is one of the few remaining elder statesmen of the entire sport, let alone Corvette racing. In early 1956, recently returned from his stint with the fabled Mercedes-Benz factory team, Fitch was tapped by Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole to prep a field of four Corvettes for the 12 Hours of Sebring. By the time Fitch signed on, race day was just five weeks away. Corvette “Godfather” Zora Arkus-Duntov had already turned down the assignment, claiming it couldn’t be done that quickly.

“To give you an idea of what we were up against,” said Fitch, “the cars had stock wheels which literally broke away from their hubs and flew off the cars at high speeds. And we had to compete with Ferraris, Jaguars, Aston Martins… cars with years of racing development. Looking back, it’s a miracle we finished at all.” Yet two of Fitch’s Corvettes not only finished, but took first in class. Plus, they were awarded the overall team prize. And with that, Corvette’s racing dynasty was officially under way.

Under the able orchestration of moderator Tim Considine, the drivers shared both memories and secrets. Bob Bondurant, who won 18 out of 20 races in 1959, recalled that aggressive driving and crowded fields caused so much fiberglass carnage that the only way he could afford to race a Corvette was by having a body shop sponsor him, noting with a wink that “every time a panel was replaced, it was somehow lighter than the one I started the race with.”

Who was Tondelea Schwartzkopf?

Corvette Hall of Famer Dick Guldstrand revealed Duntov’s tip about nursing brakes at LeMans. “At the end of the Mulsanne Straight, there’s a bump,” he said. “Zora told me that after I hit it, I should lift long enough to say ‘Tondelea Schwartzkopf’ before braking. I’m still not sure who Tondelea was, but that little pause was enough to make the brakes last longer.” Guldstrand also related what it was like to drive the red, white, and blue 7-liter beast from Orly airport to the track through the cheering crowds, exhaust belching from the open sidepipe headers. Tony DeLorenzo, Bill Krause, Andy Porterfield, and Doug Hooper contributed similar memories.

Some of the stories had little to do with racing per se, but lots to do with the colorful race scene of the time. Jim Jeffords told a tale involving vacationing nurses, Zora Arkus-Duntov and the back seat of a VW bug. There was also something about hookers in Cuba and statuesque trophy girls. And someone finally set the record straight about how Bondurant earned the nickname “Matinee Bob” (it had nothing to do with going to the movies).

The evening was capped by GM Racing Manager Doug Fehan, who spearheaded the return to open factory support for Corvette racing in the late ’90s and has guided the team to eight straight American Le Mans Series victories. After adding some first-hand recollections of his own, Fehan made a point that underscored the tremendous accomplishments of Corvette’s early racing pioneers. “Today, we have multi-million dollar budgets and multi-year development programs. These guys had virtually no corporate support and were expected to get production cars race-ready in a handful of weeks. They are truly the heroes of Corvette racing.”

Tribute Guests

Bob Bondurant
Tony DeLorenzo
Bob D’Olivo
John Fitch
Joe Freitas
Lou Gigliotti (current driver)
Dick Guldstrand
Doug Hooper
Gib Hufstader
Jim Jeffords
Davey Jordan
Bill Krause
Scooter Patrick
Bill Pollack
Andy Porterfield
Paul Reinhart
Sherry MacDonald (Dave’s widow)

The Cars

On display were a number of significant racing Corvettes, including Rich and Shar Mason’s ’56 SR-2; Loren Lundberg’s 1960 Camoradi Le Mans team car; Bruce Meyer’s ’60 Cunningham Le Mans team car; Larry Bowman’s ’63 Grand Sport; Jim Mangione’s ’63 Z06; Paul Andrews’s ’62 Gulf Oil team car; Vic Edelbrock, Jr.’s ’63 Z06, and Tom McIntyre’s ’63 427 Mk ll “Mystery Motor” engine.


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