Corvettes, Shelbys, and the SCCA – The Rules of the Club

The new 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, convertible and coupe, during a practice session at the October 1962 SCCA races at Riverside Raceway


For everything the second-generation Corvette had going for it, the Sting Ray’s image and desirability suffered from one major flaw. As the self-described “America’s sports car”, and having held that distinction for a number of years, the car did not win any high-profile U.S. sports car racing championships, for the production life of the second-generation car. Even the lowly Triumph Spitfire, years later, got to sport factory-installed dashboard plaques proclaiming a bevy of U.S. national sports car championships. But the prize consistently eluded the new Corvette in the mid-1960’s, after its cruder predecessor dominated sports car racing for a number of years.

The blame falls on Carroll Shelby and the SCCA’s rules rather than any intrinsic shortcomings with the new Sting Ray, which seemed destined to continue its domineering ways on the race tracks.

The 1963 Sting Ray is an almost certain candidate for one of the top Chevrolets of all time. Beautiful and exciting coupes and convertibles, equipped with arguably the best non-exotic “smaller” V-8 ever built, the Chevrolet small-block 327. Over 1 horsepower (gross) per cubic inch, in a compact, lightweight, simple, reliable, well-engineered, and very drivable engine. A supple and effective independent suspension on all four wheels, adequate brakes, and a solid four-speed transmission. Over 1 horsepower per ten pounds of car, which was a rough threshold for very high power-to-weight, in a two-seater that was not-too-big and not-too-small. The outcome of ten years of patient and comprehensive mechanical improvement on, and visual evolution of, the original iteration of the car.

On top of all of that, was the new and dramatic design element that owed very little to any other mass-produced car. The styling was completely a derivation of a couple of in-house show cars, which converted the impracticalities of the show cars into something very real-world drivable, and all of which was done without losing the essence or much of the “sizzle” of the show cars. The car was visually distinctive, with a unique and successful visual “signature”. All in a package that was safe, reliable, durable, comfortable, and a pleasure to drive on the road.


GM designer Bill Mitchell with the 1959 Stingray and 1962 Mako Shark show cars


The second-generation Corvette Sting Ray was an absolute home-run in so many ways. A state-of-the-Detroit-art creation that landed just as sports cars and racing were becoming ever more significant in popular culture. The Baby Boomers were beginning to come of age, and nobody else offered such a pure-bred, but relatively cheap and well-mannered road car, which offered spectacular performance, despite the rather pedestrian origins of the powertrain and benign on-road characteristics.

The car was dazzling, but the racing program ran into two unexpected roadblocks. One was Carroll Shelby and his Cobras and GT-350 Mustangs, and the other was the dominant U.S. sports car racing sanctioning body, the Sports Car Club of America, or “SCCA”. Shelby’s roadblock was deliberate, in that he wanted to win sports car races and championships, and he obviously had to defeat the Corvette to do it. The SCCA roadblock was not intentional, but the peculiarities of the club decision making structure, along with the rules and the reasoning behind the club rules and ways of doing things, served to hobble the Corvette at that particular historical moment.

One could argue that the lack of Corvette racing success was irrelevant. Perhaps it didn’t matter in terms of actual Corvette car sales. At the rate of tens of thousands of Corvettes sold per year, to a manufacturer who produced and moved millions of cars annually, the Corvette could not be (and still is not) anything other than a “halo” car; one which adds luster to the brand, showing off what they are capable of doing, and adding interest and attention to the more mundane parts of the model range. So, too, the 327 V-8 in the Sting Ray perhaps added a perception of value and performance to the 327 V-8 installed in the Chevrolet sedans and station wagons.

But the Sting Ray dwelled in the sports car part of the model range, and with sports cars go certain expectations. Though most owners and drivers would get no closer to the race track than to spectate from the sidelines, they would root for their cars, and they wanted to see the brand win races and championships. For sports cars, to earn their sports car “stripes”, a perception and track record of winning actually matters.

A fundamental issue for the Corvette was that GM had a corporate policy of no involvement in racing. People could buy the cars and race them, and that was their own business. But Chevrolet and GM were not going to pay people or sponsor people in order to encourage them to win races. The best the Corvette racing consumer could get was a car with “heavy duty” (not “racing” or “competition”) parts and options. Zora Arkus-Duntov and the Corvette engineers quietly made the “heavy duty” options available.

A related limitation was that the Corvette was sold as a comfortable and fun-to-drive street car. All the norms and expectations, as to driver and passenger comfort, road manners, and the driving experience, all needed to meet GM’s rather high standards. They had no interest in selling a noisy, rough-riding car with engine drivability quirks or obvious odd racing tweaks. The competition capabilities of the car needed to be clothed in comfortable and pleasant road manners, which the engineers managed to achieve. One of the elements of greatness of the Sting Ray was that it had such advanced racing capabilities well-hidden under such nice road manners. The owner could daily drive the car, reliably and comfortably, or he could essentially add a roll bar and paste numbers on the doors, and have a rip-roaring race car. Some owners did both, driving the car all week and racing it on weekends. The Sting Ray could do that.

So, on to the unexpected Corvette roadblocks.

There are all sorts of stories told and written about Carroll Shelby and the Shelby racers. Shelby may have the highest ratio of stories per car of all-time, or perhaps the award goes to Preston Tucker. But Carroll Shelby is certainly high on the list. He earned it, though, by working hard and through relentless self-promotion. Unfortunately for the Corvette, Shelby’s early successes came directly at the expense of the racing fortunes of the Sting Ray.

The story of the Sports Car Club of America (“SCCA”) started during the war years of the early 1940’s, and the era of the Corvette in U.S. sports car racing began in 1956 to 1957. To set the stage for our conversation, both of these elements require a bit of background.

Car competitions in the pre-World War 2 U.S. typically involved circle track jalopy racing, Indy 500-style purpose built race car events, and the occasional speed runs and record attempts. For the owner of a Bentley, Maserati, or an early MG or other British “sports car”, there was precious little that could be done with it, in an organized fashion.

SCCA event in the 1950s

The founders of the SCCA, mostly living in New England, sought out some sort of “gentlemen’s” competition program, somewhat similar to yacht racing or polo ponies. The idea was that relatively wealthy, often older car owners could compete in a program that was not designed to be a spectacle or an all-out speed run. The concept was to compete in a “civilized” fashion, where an integral part of the program was to compete employing the “proper” and “polite” behaviors. Trading fenders or driving in an openly aggressive fashion towards the other competitors was not really kosher. There was also no push to sell tickets to spectators, though it wasn’t really frowned upon either. The goal was for the club members to have competition fun with their cars, not to sell tickets to spectators in order to make somebody some money.

In the 1950’s, the SCCA was not the only sports car sanctioning game in town. Just as was done with modified race cars, jalopy racing, and speed runs, there were all sorts of regional sanctioning bodies and organizational bodies. Some sanctioning bodies exhibited a degree of professionalism, and others were incredibly amateurish in nature. On the West Coast, the California Sports Car Club was independent of the SCCA, ran a very professional operation, and took a slightly different approach to sports car racing.

New England and the roots of the SCCA were typically “old money”, and populated by older bankers, doctors, attorneys, and other white collar professionals. Cal Club reflected the West Coast, with a generally younger “new money” coterie of competitors, often aircraft engineers, Hollywood actors, younger men whose wealth derived from real estate and oil holdings, and others with a lot of spending money. The racing tended more towards all-out speed and technical innovation, and the “polite” SCCA-style racing was not a big part of the equation.

The 1957 C1 Corvette, the first year of the 283 cubic inch V-8, and the first often-raced Corvette in sports car racing

Enter the first V-8 Corvette with a manual transmission in 1956, followed by the upgrade in engine size from 265 cubic inches to 283 c.i. in 1957. While the Corvette was more slowly adopted as a racer in much of the SCCA, Cal Club almost immediately fielded huge numbers of the cars. The “C1” first-generation Corvettes, with their drum brakes, live rear axles, and leaf springs out back, were sometimes labeled “oxcarts”. But the technology was simple and durable, and the early V-8 Corvettes were very quick cars for the day. Relatively cheap, too, so good “bang for the buck”. The (somewhat) light weight helped minimize the limitations of the crude suspensions and the drum brakes. California hot rodders and racers knew their way around the simple chassis technology and straightforward engine specs, and were able to build and drive very capable Corvette racing efforts.

The 1962 Corvette, the first year of the 327 cubic inch V-8, and the last of the C1 Corvettes. A transitional car in Corvette sports car racing.

The West Coast Corvette racers really went at it, hammer and tongs, in closely matched machines. Unlike the more genteel SCCA races, the cars would often collide with track fencing and barricades, and also with each other. The 283 cubic inch Corvette, introduced in 1957, became the standard issue for big-engine West Coast sports car racing. Briggs Cunningham’s highly professional Le Mans Corvette program was an East Coast effort with distant SCCA connections, but the huge fields of weekend warriors going at it in Corvettes was more of a West Coast thing.

In those days, little was done to prepare the sports cars for competition. Beyond the addition of the roll bar and competition seat belts, a half-inch wider set of steel wheels might be substituted, along with slightly taller and wider tires. “Serious” preparation would include taking off the bumpers, along with removal of the windshields on the convertibles and roadsters. That was about it. As the cars were often racing against mostly identical and similarly prepped cars, there was little motivation to go for innovative car prep strategies. Even in the more “aggressive” groups of sports car racers, such as Cal Club, there was still the lingering honor system of winning in similarly capable equipment, not through aggressive innovation or “cheats”.

A 1960 SCCA race at the Pomona Fairgrounds. The Corvettes raced with the windshields, bumpers, and hubcaps removed. Modifications to the race cars were very minimal.

In the 1960’s, SCCA Production sports car racing began to evolve more quickly, from simply racing the car one had, as it had been built by the manufacturer, to instead tinkering and changing the car, thereby making it more capable as a race car. Stock car racing began the same process at about the same time. Shelby certainly took advantage of “factory” construction of more all-out racing machines, even as Chevrolet offered race-capable street cars instead. Did Shelby accelerate the process of tinkering with the specifications and racing capabilities of the sports car? Or did Shelby arrive on the scene just as such a process would have been going on in any case? Alternative scenarios and histories are completely unanswerable, in the absence of very compelling evidence. Suffice to say that Shelby certainly more quickly and more comprehensively took advantage of the more extreme race car preparation potential than did Chevrolet, at the time.

Another West Coast phenomenon was the crossover of “professional” and “amateur” drivers. In the SCCA, being an “amateur” was a requirement and a badge of honor. In Cal Club, there was no such prohibition on being paid to race, and the amateurs and the pros would mix it up on the track. In Cal Club, the weekend warriors might find themselves on the grid with Stirling Moss or Phil Hill. Jim Hall (of later Chaparral fame), Roger Penske and Bob Bondurant sometimes showed up as drivers, along with a couple of guys named Ken Miles and George Follmer. They didn’t all drive Corvettes, but they were part of the Cal Club racing landscape. As auto racing got “bigger time” and more professional in the early ’60s, the Cal Club approach was very popular with both the competitors and the fans. Riverside Raceway actually erected grandstands for the fans to sit in. SCCA had always understood that true sports car racing fans did not sit in grandstands. They camped on the freshly mowed grass at their favorite vantage point along the track perimeter, and watched the racing from there (there was precious little grass at Riverside Raceway, just dirt and rocks).

Speaking of race tracks, two of the premier Cal Club race tracks were Willow Springs and Riverside Raceway, which were wide-open places with very fast, long straights, and combinations of multiple straights and some twisty sections. The third major venue, a temporary course set up at the Pomona Fairgrounds, was also not a typical SCCA sort of racetrack of the day.

What couldn’t be argued away was that while Cal Club was ascendant on the West Coast, the SCCA held sway nationwide. Furthermore, the SCCA had a close relationship with the international racing body, the FIA. The SCCA was also capable of sanctioning nationwide professional racing programs, while Cal Club was strictly regional. In 1962, rather than competing with each other and splitting the West Coast racing between them, the two clubs merged, folding the Cal Club “professionals” into the SCCA, and altering the complexion of SCCA club racing a bit in the direction of the more freewheeling and wide-open racing. There was one other thing that happened in 1962, and the timing was serendipitous. Carroll Shelby arranged with Ford, and with AC Cars in Great Britain, to put Ford V-8s into AC Aces and call them Cobras.

But first, let’s double back to the Corvette. In big-horsepower U.S. sports car racing, the fields were a bit of a catch-all. A Maserati, a Ferrari, the Corvettes, a Jaguar XK-E, and some specials (such as an “Old Yeller”) might all be gridded together in the premier race of the weekend. The cars may not be racing each other on paper and were scored in separate racing classes, as the car specs were too diverse, but they mixed it up together on the track, vying for “first overall” in the premier race of the weekend. Everything below that was well-structured and well-segregated, typically the Porsches in one class and the MGs in another. The Abarths and Alfa Romeos would be squeezed in, here and there. The Sprites and the Fiats would populate the “lowest” classes. The 283 cubic inch Corvette was the popular and successful “go to” car at the high end. It was well-sorted and well established. Then the much more powerful 327 cubic inch C1 Corvette was introduced for model year 1962. The larger racing fields at the higher horsepower end of the roster, along with increasingly obvious mismatches of specials and limited production cars pitted against true production cars (basically the Corvette), meant that further structuring of the matching up of the faster cars needed to be done. On top of that, in the real world, the new 327 Corvette of 1962 could immediately obsolete all the 283 Corvettes that were racing, which was not good SCCA policy for fielding large numbers of racing entries.

To justify the segregation of the 327 from the 283, the “horsepower per pound” of car weight was employed by the SCCA. There was an “A Production” class and a “B Production” class split. Cars sporting, on paper, a bit fewer than ten pounds of car weight per horsepower slotted into the “A” class, and those with slightly greater than ten pounds of car weight per horsepower were slotted into the “B” class. Conveniently, the 327 Corvette (340 hp and 3,000 lb.) went to “A” and the 283 Corvette (270 hp and 3,000 lb.) went to “B”. Problem solved (for the moment). But keep in mind that the equation did not provide any capacity for looking at the overall weight of the competing cars, and for making competition adjustments based on the differential in car weights. It would come to matter, later in 1962.

A note on Shelby’s early and mid-1960’s racing programs. Ford had not quite given Carroll Shelby a blank check, but FoMoCo (as they styled themselves at the time) had made enough of a public commitment that both Ford and Shelby needed to make a good showing of things. Shelby started with the 260 and 289 Cobra roadster in SCCA racing, but would quickly involve itself in big-time international FIA racing (the scene in “Ford v. Ferrari”, where Ken Miles angrily pounds on the trunklid of his Cobra with a mallet during scrutineering, was at an FIA race, the FIA having had some odd and arbitrary rules, distinct from the different odd and arbitrary rules of the SCCA). International FIA racing was where both the Cobra roadsters and the Daytona Coupes were employed. Shelby also participated in Ford’s Le Mans development, when Ford basically called in all of its drivers, engineers, and racing teams into the Le Mans program, and everyone lent a hand, including Shelby and his people. Later came Trans-Am for Shelby. For our purposes, we are going to confine ourselves to the domestic SCCA amateur U.S. sports car racing program, which is where Shelby saw his earliest, most consistent, and longest lasting domination in racing, and where the competition was mainly and mostly the Corvette. By the mid-1960’s, the Shelby-Corvette competition became a one-on-one grudge match, but with an extremely lopsided outcome.

Early 1963, Corvette versus Cobra. The V-8 sports car war begins in earnest.

Returning to 1962, Cal Club and SCCA were merging up. “A Production” and “B Production” had been split. The 283 Corvette dominated B Production, and the new-for-1962 327 C1 Corvette entered A Production. But in October 1962, at Riverside, the new Shelby Cobra showed up at the track. The Cobra initially ran as an “experimental”, and not as a production car, as the car was not yet fully in series production. Shelby had hired driver Bill Krause away from his Corvette, a harbinger of things to come. It has been said that Carroll Shelby especially enjoyed “stealing” Chevy drivers for his racing program, as Chevrolet had turned him down, when he had originally asked GM to sell him Chevy engines to put into his Cobra, before going over to Ford. From GM’s perspective, it already had a strong and well-established “halo” sports car. It did not need another one, especially one cobbled together out of British and American parts, overseen by someone who was bound to chafe at GM’s highly structured corporate ways. It is easy to understand why GM sent Shelby away empty-handed.

The Cobra had the makings of being what was called a racetrack “ringer” in SCCA racing. The term meaning something that, while the car adhered to the letter of the preparation rules, it basically upended the existing order of things, due to its novel qualities. GM was still in the “no (support of) racing” mode. Zora Arkus-Duntov made sure that the basic Corvette was well-fitted for competition, with the “heavy-duty” options available, including the first famous “Z-06” option package for the new 1963 Sting Ray. Corvettes were truly “out of the box” race cars, available at any Chevy dealer, and each one like the next and freely available, if one selected identical options, including upgraded springs, brakes, and steering. The Cobra, not so much, as it could be ordered any way you might want it.

Pre-race drivers’ meeting under the Champion Spark Plug bridge, on the long Riverside straightaway. This was the first SCCA race between the new Cobra (in red, upper left), and the new Sting Ray. They all ran as “experimentals”. The larger number of Sting Rays in the race gave the first head-to-head victory to the Chevrolet, as mechanical attrition took its toll on both sides during the race.

The circumstance of Chevrolet’s rolling out of the 327 Corvette in 1962 was propitious for Shelby, as it put the new flagship Corvette in the Cobra crosshairs, rather than the new model year Corvette being classed away from the Cobra if it still had the 283. But Chevrolet was rolling out the fine and powerful 327 engine out in 1962, and GM really didn’t care about how things might match up in the SCCA racing classifications. And since GM was “not going racing” in any case, per corporate edict, how it all panned out was a happy confluence of events for Shelby. Arkus-Duntov and others at Chevrolet had to quietly deal with the situation, without being able to make a peep to GM corporate.

A “stock” small-block Cobra, $6k as delivered from Shelby’s “factory” in California.

At the time, only 100 copies of the Cobra roadster needed to be built, in order to satisfy the SCCA “production” requirements. Though the Cobra was expensive (about $6,000 base price for the street car, no options, and soon to be about $10,000 for a fully race-fitted car, compared to just over $4,000 for the 327 Corvettes), the 100 cars were quickly built and sold, into 1963. Each one was slightly different from the next, as the buyer could choose from a long list of mechanical and cosmetic options. Racing parts and assemblies, if asked for, could often quickly be “homologated”, by sending letters to Ford and to the SCCA, describing the parts and the newly-assigned Ford/Cobra parts numbers. In this way, Shelby could basically configure the Cobra roadster in any way he wanted to, and it allowed for quick adoption of effective racing settings and parts, from the small things to the really big stuff. Given GM’s philosophy on racing and its bureaucratic management style, there was no way Chevy would respond to all of the Cobra racing adaptations. Arkus-Duntov and the Chevy engineers, along with the Corvette racing drivers, had to simply go with what they had, think long term, and hope for the best. In the meantime, they watched purpose-built Cobra “production” race cars get developed and highly modified, race by race, right before their eyes.

A “race-prepared” Cobra, built to the mid 1960’s international FIA rules. This photo is from a recent vintage race (note the style of the helmet). Note the significant differences from “stock” in the wheels and tires, the auxiliary opening under the grill, and big side-exiting exhaust pipes. There was much extra modification done to the Cobra race cars.

Why was Shelby allowed to get away with this? There are a couple of widely agreed-upon answers. One is that the SCCA was (and still is) largely a volunteer organization. The dispersed structure and operation of the organization, where on-the-spot decisions were made at the individual tracks by typically part-time volunteer officials, meant that either buttering-up or small-time earnest negotiation might just carry the day. In the largely volunteer SCCA, everyone is in charge of something, but no one is in charge of everything. Cobra racers “backed” by Ford could make some convincing arguments at the track. Barring intimidation, T-shirts or jackets sporting the “Cobra” logo could be freely passed around. Inertia fell in the direction of “letting them race”, rather than the SCCA standing up to, and potentially alienating, a supportive and generous Ford Motor Company. Chevrolet wouldn’t complain about the Shelbys, because they weren’t even racing at all.

The second answer doubles back to Chevrolet and the Corvette, and was another happy accident played to the favor of Shelby and his Cobras. In 1962, the new “C2” Corvette Sting Ray was on the way. Again with the new 327 engine, wrapped in the new bodywork and containing the sophisticated “not oxcart” independent rear suspension, Arkus-Duntov and the Corvette racers wanted to get this new car on the track. Perhaps it would be the Cobra killer. Arkus-Duntov and the Corvette racers pushed to get the C2 to the racetrack as quickly as they could, and got very early production examples into the hands of willing Corvette racers as soon as possible. Basically, they pushed to get a 1963 car out onto the racetrack in 1962, which was pushing the rules (typically, the SCCA would review the new model year cars in the fall, after introduction, and classify them for the next calendar year, 1962 model year cars for the 1962 racing calendar, 1963 MY cars for 1963, and so on). The Corvette guys successfully bent the rules to get the 1963 C2 to the racetrack during late 1962 (though as an “experimental”, not a “production” car, which is what Shelby had also negotiated for the Cobra’s first race appearances). So the creative rule-bending on all sides had been well established. One could argue that since the rule-makers had looked the other way a bit for Chevrolet, how could they not rule in favor of Shelby and the Cobra in the grey areas in which Shelby’s people continued to operate? Another happy accident for Shelby.

A 1963 Sting Ray prepared for SCCA racing. Still visibly the removal of bumpers and hubcaps. There is a type of racing exhaust installed, but nothing like what appeared on the early Cobras. This car was much heavier than its Cobra competition.

The 1963 C2 Corvette was supposed to be a “Cobra killer”, but the sophisticated new car still weighed a lot more than the Cobra (about 3,300 lb. for the second-generation small-block Sting Ray, versus 2,000 to 2,300 lb. for the first generation small-block Shelby roadster). The extra weight taxed tires, brakes, suspensions, and handling, and soaked up any extra horsepower available to the ‘Vette. Keep in mind, too, that Shelby still had the ability to get all sorts of performance enhancements approved “on the fly”, which Chevrolet was structurally incapable of doing. Beyond that, the Corvette racers had worked over their old-school “oxcarts” to a very high level of performance, given what they had to work with. The new generation of Corvette, and in particular, the new, more sophisticated rear suspension, set the learning curve back to square one, both for the chassis men and for the drivers. It would take some seat time to figure everything out and get close to maximizing the performance of the new cars. In the meantime, Shelby and the Cobra were off and running. Everything was going their way.

As it turned out, that first October 1962 SCCA race at Riverside Raceway for the Cobra, was also the first race for the new C2 Sting Rays, which had just been picked up and driven to the West Coast by their drivers. Locally, the event was a well-hyped showdown between two new race cars. There was only one Cobra, which was vying for the lead with the fastest Sting Ray, driven by a talented young driver named Dave MacDonald, when the Cobra’s rear axle broke. MacDonald in the Corvette also broke a rear wheel later in the race, but with multiple Sting Rays entered, the first showdown went to the Corvette.

Future Cobra driver Dave MacDonald (in the Corvette) leading past and future Corvette driver Bill Krause (in the Cobra). Racing for the lead in the October 1962 Riverside SCCA race, the first head-to-head race between the Sting Ray and the Cobra. Neither would finish the race. Drivers would switch seats often, as Shelby and Ford would hire away Corvette drivers. Chevy and GM only sold cars to the drivers, but did not otherwise involve themselves in racing.

For 1963, Shelby sought out a new set of drivers for the SCCA program. One of them was the aforementioned Dave MacDonald, who was “stolen” by Shelby from the Corvettes. MacDonald went to race at Indy for Mickey Thompson in 1964, and he did not return alive, after trying to pilot an evil-handling and novel racer, and crashing out to his death very early in the race. But at Shelby, for a bit over a year, he helped get the Cobra program up and racing for real. MacDonald drove to the first Cobra roadster win (at Riverside Raceway in early February 1963), as well as to the first win for the Cobra Daytona Coupe. MacDonald’s Corvette program, prior to the arrival of the new Sting Rays, had involved his building a “7/8 sized” C1 Corvette, which was a tube-framed, significantly lighter car. The wheelbase was much shorter than stock, and it was also lower than the factory dimensions. The bodywork was very thin fiberglass, to save weight. It ran as a modified “one-off”, as it was too far from a production example. He endured a multitude of teething problems with the car, and ultimately sold it without seeing success. Building a race car from scratch on your garage floor is usually not as easy as it might seem. But, in the scheme of things, he had answered the upcoming Cobra challenge with a rule-twisting concoction of his own. In the end, his brief successful tenure at Shelby was the highlight of his short but spectacular racing career.

Corvette racer Dave MacDonald, before the Cobra ever was contemplated, took a direct suggestion from Carroll Shelby, in 1961, to build a lightweight Corvette race car. The highly prepared car, weighing less than 2,000 pounds, was a precursor of both the lightweight feature of the Cobra, and also the moving away from racing cars as they were delivered from the factory, and building something much more capable and “race car only”.

The Corvette racer was much shorter than “factory”, as the side cove reached almost to the rear wheels. Built with significant work by Max Balchowsky, a veteran race car builder, the car never got the “bugs” worked out to realize its racing potential.

The early appearances of the Cobra versus the Corvette were very lopsided affairs. Barring mechanical issues, the Cobras were typically many seconds per lap faster than the Corvettes. Much of this could be attributed to the significantly lighter overall weight of the Cobras. It made a big difference in racing capabilities, other things roughly equal. In the February 1963 Riverside race, Ken Miles pulled into the pits for a lap in the middle of the event, and from a lap down managed to repass all the Corvettes in just a few laps, to finish second behind MacDonald and his Cobra. The Corvette drivers, at that point, may have felt a bit like the Washington Generals basketball team playing the Harlem Globetrotters.

The summer 1963 SCCA Pomona Fairgrounds race. Still many Corvettes in the feature race, but they are being led by a highly prepared Cobra. The level of car preparation, for the Corvettes, has not changed all that much from 1960, in the other black-and-white photo posted above.

The Shelby “National Champions” moniker, often referenced over the decades, referred to the SCCA championships. From 1963 through 1968, Shelby and his Cobras, first the 260 roadster, then the similar 289 roadster, and finally, the redesigned 427 roadster of 1965, took on all comers and won all the A Production national championships from 1963 through 1968, despite the best efforts of the Corvettes, which remained their most numerous and persistent competitors.

From 1963 through 1968, the Shelby Cobras took all of the SCCA championships from the 327 and big-block Corvettes.

Even as the 327 C2 Corvette was rolling out for model year 1963, Arkus-Duntov and the other Corvette engineers recognized the basic problem for the Sting Ray. As a street car adapted for racing, rather than a race car made streetable, as was the Cobra, the Sting Ray weighed way too much. Enter the Grand Sport Corvette project. Build a race car that looks like a Sting Ray, but go through every piece of it to make it more of a race car, and to shed weight. Five were built in 1963 before GM management got wind of it, identified the GS as clearly a competition car (which it was), and shut it down. They were lighter, more powerful, and incorporated all sorts of racing modifications. The result was a car similar in specification to the Sting Ray, but with a weight of 2,400 pounds or so, not too much more than the weight of the Cobras. However, the Grand Sport did not have the streetability and driving comfort of the Sting Ray, which was a hallmark of the early Corvette racers. With only five examples having been produced, they could never qualify as a “production” car in any case, which was somewhat analogous to Dave MacDonald’s prior effort. Later, in 1965, came the big-block Corvettes, but by then, the big-block Cobra was already right around the corner as well. Again, the big-block Cobra was roughly a thousand pounds lighter than the big-block Corvette, but with similar power. The big-block ‘Vette suffered from the same racing afflictions as the small block 327, most importantly too much weight relative to the Cobra.

The 1963 Grand Sport, a factory Corvette effort to emulate the light weight and high level of preparation of the Cobra. GM shut the program down after five cars were built, as they were “not going racing”. Note the differences between the blue Grand Sport and the “stock” based Sting Ray in the upper left. This is an early 1960’s period photo, given the cars parked alongside the racetrack.

In the meantime, recall those 283 C1 Corvettes from the late ’50s through 1961. They continued to race in B Production, winning the SCCA national championship each and every year. Shelby didn’t leave them alone. In 1965, he introduced the Shelby Mustang GT-350. The lack of a rear seat made it a two-seat “production” car, which just happened to slot into B Production, which pitted them against the 283 Corvettes. The B Production Corvette party was over. Shelby played the same game with the Mustangs as he had done with the Cobra roadsters, building highly modified racers while homologating them under the milder detuned “street” versions. Interestingly, SCCA ignored the B Production standard “over ten pounds of car weight per horsepower” for the GT-350, as the car weighted 2,800 pounds and had 306 horsepower. Shelby hired very accomplished drivers and sent the Mustangs out to race against the Corvettes. Again, he was wildly successful, taking the B Production championship for the GT-350 for 1965 and 1966. The newly reclassified early Cobra 289 roadster took the B Production championship in 1967 and 1968. From 1963 through 1968, the Cobras and GT-350s took every SCCA national championship they were eligible for, and the Corvettes won nothing. Through 1962, the Corvettes had dominated, and reasserted dominance once again beginning in 1969. But the years in between, the C2 Sting Ray years, were thin gruel, indeed, for the Chevy guys. They stole a race win here and there, but never a major championship. The numerous championship Shelby drivers were not household names either, outside of Jerry Titus in the 1965 B Production races in his GT-350. The cars were the stars, not the drivers. The same was true for most of the Corvette guys, before, during, and after the Shelby run. This was somewhat amateur racing, filled at the front of the pack with skilled and talented, but mostly still amateur drivers.

The GT-350 and reclassified Cobra 289 took all the SCCA honors from 1965 through 1968. The small block Corvette reestablished itself as the race car of choice, once the Shelby’s had done their thing. Post-1968, the Corvettes became ever more modified for racing.

Like the Cobra roadsters, the “race car” GT-350s were very highly modified and developed variants of the “street” or “customer” car. They had much greater race track capabilities. One feature of going racing with a Shelby was that the customer could order a highly modified “race” version, all built out and optimized for the track, merely by placing an order and writing a big check. One couldn’t do that with a Corvette, at least after the Grand Sport program was cancelled.

A “stock” 1965 Shelby Mustang GT-350. Significant differences from the Mustang roots, but many parts of the car are obviously unaltered factory Mustang assemblies.

Now take a look at the “race prepared” version of the GT-350. Window glass replaced with lightweight plastic, the front of the car worked over, the racing wheels and tires, and flared fenders. This version was much more race-capable than the “stock” version of the car.

1969 was the year that the Corvettes finally took down the Shelbys as national champions in A Production and B Production. Both Ford and Shelby had lost interest, as the Cobra roadsters were not being manufactured any more after 1967, and the new Shelby Mustangs were not really race cars post-1966, and were not engineered or built by Shelby’s people any more. Ford dropped its prize money for Shelby GT-350 winners and stopped supporting the cars with special parts and other sponsorship perks. Shelby himself had moved on to Trans-Am and a few other projects.

The C1 and C2 Corvettes had endured the Shelby onslaught. The 283 Corvettes saw much early success before Shelby and the Cobra showed up, and then hid out competing for the B Production crown, until the Shelby Mustang GT-350 took over the joint in 1965. The 327 Corvettes, including all the C2 generation Sting Rays, never got any real competition credibility, thanks to Shelby, even after they got reassigned to B Production in 1966 (followed by reassignment of the small-block Cobra roadsters to B Production in 1967). While owners have enjoyed using the C2 Corvettes in various forms of competition for decades now, they never got the early (relatively) big-time success that would have made them competition immortals.

While the C2 Sting Rays were denied big-time competition success in their day, the C1 generation was the best (and the only real) American sports car of 1956-7 through 1962, which dominated and won many events and championships, but all of that is largely forgotten now. When the Shelby Mustang showed up to dominate, it initially did so against years-old C1 cars, not the then-current C2 product. Overshadowed by Shelby in competition, and overshadowed by the dramatic and unique styling of the C2 Sting Ray, the C1 racers live on as some sort of secret automotive society. You are either aware of how special and great they were in their time, or you are not. Most people, including many car people, really have no idea.

As to the SCCA, it continued to evolve and function over the decades. One of the club leaders, John Bishop, abruptly left the club in the late 1960’s to start his own racing sanctioning body, IMSA, under the theory that one person actually in charge of everything was a better way to go. But in the meantime, SCCA offered the professional Trans-Am, Can-am, and Formula 5000 programs in the late ’60s and into the ’70s, with a fair amount of success in the long run, and mostly great success in the short run. While the SCCA has gotten more “professional” in its operations over the decades, it has never quite abandoned the “amateur” aspect of its racing programs, and it has continued to work towards a less aggressive style of race car driving (mostly free of spectacular car-destroying wrecks and on-track vehicular carnage), as have other, unaffiliated vintage car sanctioning bodies that have sprung up over time.

The SCCA “production” car prep rules allowed more modifications over time, following the lead of U.S. sports car racing generally, and rival IMSA specifically. To this day, the general cut-off for vintage sports car preparation rules is the 1972 SCCA Production car specs, as a starting point for vintage racing. After 1972, the prep rules continued to get more permissive on race-only preps. For the post-1968 racing Corvettes, and especially in the years beginning in the mid-1970’s, the cars trended towards large fender flares, wide wheels and low-profile wide racing tires, and much more suspension, engine, and drivetrain modification. By the late 1970’s, an SCCA A Production or B Production Corvette was not realistically street drivable, and bore little resemblance to a street Corvette in many large and small details. Through all that, the Corvette regained its presence as perennial SCCA championship sports cars at the high-end of the scale. The Shelby had come and gone.

There is one other peculiarity to Shelby’s early racing that no one, especially the Corvette racers, has been able to duplicate or emulate. The Shelby program was a combination of capable but largely self-trained hot rodders and race car engineers, working in a focused and relatively small operation. But their work was stacked on top of Ford’s huge and expensive 1960’s racing effort. All of this was executed just as sports car racing itself was hitting the “sweet spot”, growing up and professionalizing itself, but while smaller and idiosyncratic racing efforts could still succeed and dominate. Shelby and his people filled that role admirably, while the Corvette efforts came off as too-little, less focused, and without the “esprit de corps” that the Shelby efforts could give off. And Shelby marketed the thing to the hilt, positioning himself as David to Chevrolet’s Goliath, even as the Cobras tended to run rings around the Corvettes at the racetrack.

The Shelby “factory”, actually a rented airplane hangar at LAX (Los Angeles Airport), was a place where cars were worked over, in ones and twos and tens, on a bare cement floor. This appears to be an effort to build out some of the race-prepared copies in 1965.

The Sting Ray production line, here photographed in 1963, is not unlike any other contemporary automotive production line. Purpose-configured to assemble cars on a moving conveyor assembly.

One never knows when the “peak” of something might be, when one is in the middle of it. So it was with Ford’s 1960’s racing programs, and Shelby’s little operation. The virtue of being able to look back, in time, to identify the peaks is a necessary part of appreciating what had been. Shelby’s Cobra and Mustang operations, alongside his FIA racing and Ford GT40 Le Mans efforts, stand as some sort of high point in sports car racing. That the average nobody “little guy” could buy a Cobra or Mustang, “rub shoulders” with the big-time racers a bit, and go out and do his own racing, gave the Shelbys a sense of time, place, and mission that make the cars something very special. The Corvettes, while nice sports cars (“owned by the astronauts”), never came close to having the same sort of big-time competition appeal. The lack of national championships drained the C2 Corvette of some of its racing chops. The car deserved better than that. And the earlier C1 deserves a special place, as the first and only American production sports car of the day. The Cobras were cobbled-up British-American cars, and the Mustangs almost don’t count, given their mechanically plebeian and four-seat Falcon roots.

As a coda, the Cobras and GT-350s have attained special status, as artifacts of a specific moment in time and a unique and incredibly successful little enterprise, even though the cars were “ringers” of sorts. But championships talk, and the chips broke in the direction of the Shelbys. The first two generations of Corvettes deserved better, but they just happened to catch the short end of the deal, consistently and without reprieve. The Corvettes outlasted the little Fords and came into their own again as race cars in the 1970’s and since, usually with the C3 and later versions, but the die was cast in the ’60s, and here we are. I argue that the Corvette never really recovered from the Shelby, that it was squelched in competition right when it should have built on its early successes, and that the C2 Sting Ray deserved better. Being second in a two car race, every time, has a big downside. The old Corvettes are loved and enjoyed, but they do not have the same special racing status that the Shelbys do. Carroll Shelby, with his Ford backing, his self-promotion and marketing skills, and his storytelling, made sure of it, even if squelching the Corvette was not his primary intention. The Corvettes were the foil, and the reality of the situation (and adverse race results for the Chevys) got in the way.

The Cobras and GT-350s may have won the racing championships, but the Sting Ray has a style and panache all its own, and of its time. While Shelby was building race cars on one side of LAX, the Corvettes could be arranged for glamour shots in front of the main terminal.

There is also the matter of there having been only a few hundred early Cobras manufactured “in period” (not counting later replicas), and a few thousand early Mustang GT-350s. Thousands of C1 Corvettes were sold in many of the early production years, and tens of thousands of C2 Sting Rays were made and sold each year. The early Corvette is much cheaper to buy and own these days (if roughly $50k to $80k can be called “cheap”), and one gets a nice-to-drive street car experience (in the older-car version of a street car experience) as part of the package. The early Corvette can still be a daily driver, should one want to do so, especially the C2 Sting Ray. Good luck on doing that with a genuine Cobra or GT-350. Not counting the “special status”, rarity, and high value, the race car roots of the Shelbys would make daily driving relatively difficult to endure.

It all goes back to the street car nature of the Corvette, but which easily adapted to sports car racing. The Shelbys were race car “ringers”, of much lighter weight and highly tuned, that served to blow away the Corvettes in racing. But the Shelbys, as raced, were not really street cars at all. The SCCA inadvertently aided and abetted Shelby’s stealth race cars, and the Corvette was denied the last piece of the sports car puzzle, the one that would have and should have given it race car immortality. The Sting Ray, as a state-of-the-art street car/race car package, deserved more recognition as such. No other sports car of the day came close to well serving both sides of the street car/race car equation, at the high levels of each that the Corvette was able to offer, and at a reasonable price. To this day, the early Corvettes live under the long shadow of the Shelbys. Well-earned on the part of the Shelbys, but it was unfortunate for the Corvette, given the extraordinary (for the time) sports car capabilities of the two-seat Chevrolet.

Anyone can build a successful race car, if they work on it long and hard enough, and have good luck come their way. Building a car that is both a fine race car, right off the new car lot, and that is also a fine road car, with high capabilities and which is both fun and easy to drive daily on city streets and highways, is rare indeed. The early V-8 Corvettes and Sting Rays pulled it off, like no other American car before or since. They are in a special class all by themselves, just as they came from the factory.

This is a little love letter of sorts, to the early Corvettes. They have been around all my life, and I have never been a “Corvette guy”, but they have grown on me. The early Corvettes, the Porsche 356 and early Speedsters, the old MG-TD, and the original Austin-Healey Sprite, were the first widely raced sports cars in the U.S. An important reason why each of them was so popular is that they were built properly for the task, right out of the box. They did not need to be modified to go sports car racing back then. Show up and race. And they did. Even as a kid, I fell for the allure of the Shelbys. But now I see them as mostly pure race cars, while the Corvette, the Porsche, the MG, and the Sprite are not race cars, fundamentally. They are race-capable street cars, the very definition of a sports car (IMHO). Anyone can build a race car. To build a racer-worthy street car, unmodified, right out of the box, requires skilled design and engineering work. Getting it exactly right is difficult. The later C1 Corvettes and the C2 Sting Rays got it close to exactly right. I still occasionally see a scruffy old Sting Ray being street driven (it’s getting more rare lately, unfortunately). I find a special joy in seeing that happen. They are meant to be driven, every day, and also on race day. Well done, Chevrolet. One of Detroit’s finest efforts, done just a few years before other design and engineering priorities took precedence. Perhaps, in hindsight, the Sting Ray is the purest and most focused of the “everyman” sports car form.