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.
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.
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.
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 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A cousin had two of this generation Corvette and seemed to like them. For me the ultimate Corvette was 58 two tone convert in black and white. Loved the look (as with most other 58 GMs). But being a big car fan, when riding in any Corvette, always felt cramped and harsh riding. This OLD dog 🐕 always felt built for comfort, not speed! But still think 58 was best looking Corvette of all time! 🏆 😎
Wow, Dutch, what a great post! It really filled in a lot of blanks for me, thank you. And what an exciting time to be racing. A fellow on my floor in the dorms of my first year in college (’87) owned a ’66 Shelby Mustang and what a treat it was to go out with him in that car. I drove it once and it was quite a brutal car, but everything just worked with a very mechanical precision, especially the gear change. Just brutally fast though, I remember coming off the freeway and turning onto Grand Avenue towards the SLO campus and punching it up the hill, in those days there wasn’t much if anything really available that gave you that sensation of speed, noise, and power. He had it down on campus several times that year, switching off with an older Accord when he went back to the Bay Area on some weekends…I guess you drive that Shelby the four hours home and then when it comes time to head back after the weekend figure, eh, maybe now I’ll drive the regular car for the next few weeks…
Another dorm buddy had a ’68 Firebird 400 optimized for light drag racing and and that was a whole other experience, but seemed just as brutally fast and loud. Good times when most of us were driving older Japanese iron and a few VWs…
The GT-350 was not fundamentally different than what one could build in one’s own garage, if he knew what he was doing. The brutality and precision of the drive negated many of the comfort and pleasant qualities of a car, and other manufacturers just wouldn’t go there. For example, the Z-28 and SS Chevrolets of the late ‘60s, along with the Hemi Mopars of the same period, were tuned (similar to the “heavy duty” optioned C1 Corvettes) stock platforms mounting somewhat radical engines. The rest of any conversion to racing (or posing as a racer) was up to the owner.
The GT-350 was the only one that was an actual race car of sorts, that was built in greater quantities than a handful (there were Yenko Stingers, Royal Pontiacs, and so on). Write a check or buy it out of the classifieds, and you got a race car.
Even though, the actual championship GT-350s were well worked-over from there, and the humble Falcon bones of the thing were still a compromise in the end. Listen to what well-versed vintage racers have to say, and they will tell you that there are many old vintage sedans, converted into race cars, that handle better than do the early GT-350s (as defined by “turn-in” at speed, and by high speed transient maneuvers).
The GT-350 was a humble car that got restyled (Falcon to Mustang), received a very powerful engine and heavy-duty driveline (the Mustang “K” option), and was then worked over again, to create the Shelby version. A real mechanical mutt, that checked all the boxes for hard core driving, with all the sights, sounds, and sensations of a canyon-carving race car. Which is actually what it was. It wasn’t a sports car in the Corvette idiom, and it wasn’t a stock car. It was what a guy building a car to race out at midnight on Mulholland Drive might build in his garage.
Thanks for this; it filled in some details that I didn’t fully know, especially the part about the split between B and A Production for the 283 and 327 Corvettes.
My one minor quibble is that from what I’ve read, in order to even remotely have a chance on the track in a C1 Corvette, one absolutely had to order it with the numerous “heavy duty” parts available, or retrofit them. Most importantly, these were the special finned brakes with cerro-metallic linings and little air scoops on the backing plates; the wider steel wheels, the HD suspension with stiffer springs, bigger shocks and roll bar, a faster steering ratio, Positraction rear end.
A regular Corvette with stock brakes (most critically) and suspension would have been badly handicapped.
Shelby was a wily character; the Cobra was a brilliant solution with which to cream the Corvettes on the track. One can only imagine what Chevrolet would have done if they were still “in racing” properly.
The SCCA classifications originally strictly went by engine size. Then some “competition adjustments” began to be made. Typically, a “ringer” (such as an Abarth Fiat versus a garden variety Fiat) meant an arbitrary move up one class, occasionally two classes. The “horsepower-to-weight” formula, in my opinion, was a way to move the 260/289 Cobra up a class (from the “up to 5000 cc”—302 c.i., which was “B Production”) to the “over 5000 cc” (A Production), without specifically calling them out as a “ringer”. When the big-block Cobras and Corvettes (over 7 liters) showed up, everything was reshuffled again.
Corvette racers had to have the “heavy duty” parts. The “Z-06” option, bandied about even today, became the catch-all option in 1963, to get all the necessary factory optional racing goodies. I think it really was Porsche that pioneered overbuilding the braking and handling capabilities into their iterations of the 911 over time (they sort of had to, what with the basic propensity to lead with the tail of the car into the corners), without the buyer necessarily having to ask for them. Basically all of the racing showroom stock sedans in the ‘70s had braking and handling compromises “baked in”. As 240-Zs, 510s, and BMW 2002s worked their way into club racing, the stock suspensions, and especially the brakes, showed themselves to not quite be up to the task of racing. Weird rear camber settings on the Z-cars, 510s, and 2002s compensated for the handling deficiencies. Only in the ‘80s, including with the Corvette, did basic factory brake and suspension offerings give one competition capabilities, right out of the box. The ‘84 Corvette is notoriously roughly riding, due to its upgraded handling limits (what is attractive as part of the driving experience in a GT-350, is undesirable in an ‘84 Corvette, go figure).
I was referring to this in your post:
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.
Having done a bit of reading over the years of the early racing days of the C1 (1956-1960 or so), my understanding was that those special parts I referred to were essential to be even remotely competitive on the track. Your text suggests otherwise.
My mistake in not clearly telling the story. The competitors would order the right “heavy duty” parts on a new car, and then add the safety equipment themselves, and pull a few things off of the cars, in order to go racing (one of the reasons the Corvette was popular for racing was because one could actually order a race-capable car through the options list; you couldn’t do that with a T-Bird or any other Detroit-built car). In those days, second-hand cars were not generally bought for racing, because the available engine and driveline choices on the latest cars moved so fast, and used cars almost certainly would not have the necessary-for-racing “heavy duty” features. It was not easy to even locate or source the “heavy duty” parts, outside of the options sheet, in any case. One would race a new car to get all the latest basic features, and then option the car out with the “heavy duty” choices, in order to get a race-capable car. FROM THERE (my error in telling the story), not much was done to it, in order to go racing. A two or three year old car , even equipped with “heavy duty” parts, was typically obsolete, in part because of the fast-moving upgrades in engines and drivelines. It was so much easier to go racing by buying a new and properly optioned car, rather than to do it any other way.
To slice the pie in a different way, the “heavy duty” equipped Corvette may have been a necessity in order to go racing, but it didn’t much change the way the car drove on the street, or in the basic manners of the car. Looked at in another way, an owner of a “heavy duty” optioned Corvette, driving it daily, may not have even been aware of the presence of the optional factory upgrades. At least, until he took it to his mechanic, and some of the standard wear parts might not be the same as what came out of the car for replacement. The non-optioned Corvettes went without, typically, as a function of manufacturing cost and cross-car parts standardization.
The Shelby owner knew darn well he was driving a race car. It told him that from just looking at it, and in the way every element of the car functioned. The “race prepared” Shelbys were not very street-drivable at all, though the 427 S/C (“street/competition”) owner might argue otherwise. Don’t burn your legs on those hot side pipes, getting in and out of your S/C.
I suspect that many C1 Corvettes (and 356 Porsches, TR-3/4, Healey Sprites and 100s, MG TC/D/F/A, etc.) were raced with minimal “heavy duty” parts upgrades in local events, but of course they would have been mostly back markers driven by true amateur enthusiasts just out for some thrills and to “see what she can do”. It truly was an era when you would drive your street car to the track, put some tape over the headlights, use some white shoe polish to “paint” on a number, race, and then drive home afterwards.
Until this post, everything I knew about this topic came from The Rip Chords (a sort of Beach Boys clone) and their song “Hey Little Cobra”. Interestingly, it was written and recorded in October 1963, which wasn’t long after the introduction of the Sting Ray.
The final verse (which I’m sure contains artistic license) sums up the Cobra vs. Corvette rivalry…
“Around the far turn in the straight-away
I was blowing off everything that got in my way
The Stingrays and Jags were so far behind
I took my Cobra out of gear and let it coast to the line”
Aside from GM not allowing race support “wink-wink” the Corvette was to heavy, more of a personal luxury car. The suspension with leaf springs stuck around too long. The C5 was when GM finally started getting serious about the car for sports car racing.
Shelby was roped into turning the Mustang into a race car. While they did change things on the Mustang it wasn’t radical stuff, most things could be down by your average race car mechanic.
I think another reason for the over look of this is sports car racing wasn’t really of much interest to most people. You had those that were really into it but they were a small percentage of the population.
There is a story out there to be written on the C3 Corvette “Stingray”—one word (1968 through 1982), which was mostly a restyle of the earlier Sting Ray. That means one’s ‘82 Corvette was actually largely 1963 technology. The Malaise Era sort of froze the Corvette platform, mechanically, in amber. Which means the later C3 is not a “bad” car. It just is nowhere near, mechanically, what it could or should have been by then, especially given the ongoing series of engine compromises made on it over time.
I don’t know whether Ford pushed the GT-350 on Shelby, or whether it was the other way around. Most of the stories related to Shelby had an agenda in there somewhere. What can be reasonably stated is that while nothing on the GT-350 was “radical stuff”, the comprehensive workover produced a car that was unlike anything else sold off of a showroom floor, in the thousands, out of the box, as to the driver experience.
You are right about sports car racing (arguably even up to today). In the 1960s, it was all about Indy and Formula 1. Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Mario Andretti, and the Unsers were household words. But racing in general, in the 1960s, was still front of mind. “Championships” were bandied about, even if no one could really identify or explain any of it, outside the hard-core. The C2 Corvette missed its prime-time moment.
Thanks for an interesting and informative post. In general, by the 1970’s when I got involved in SCCA, the Production (sports car) classes were an odd evolution from the 1950’s. Other classes for sports-racers (full fendered race cars) and even sedans were usually displacement based, same as in Europe. But the Production classes developed a performance-based classification, based on the lb/hp that Dutch described. In the mid-70’s, A Production was mostly big-block Corvettes, and the smallest class, H Production was almost 100% Bugeye (aka Frogeye) Sprites. E Production was the bailiwick of bathtub Porsche 356’es. Some of these cars had been raced for many years; a few 356’es from the late fifties were still winning at the National level in the nineties. As recently as 2010, fifty year old Bugeyes were still common in HP. This year’s HP National championship podium was a bit more modern (and a lot faster) with a Golf and a Honda CRX in the top two positions; but a Spitfire was 3rd. Sometime in the early 2000’s the number of Production classes was reduced to just three (E, F and H) and the cars have mostly become more modern, though at least one Triumph TR6 competed at the nationals in 2022.
I don’t follow this SCCA stuff so closely any more, but I believe there are (or were) two alternative sets of older car Production class car preparation rules. One is/was “old school”, basically modifying an existing factory tub or chassis here and there, but keeping the original factory structure mostly intact. This is analogous to the SCCA Production car rule book through the early ‘70s. Then there is/was the “no holds barred” workover of the car, where the bodywork is recognizable, but there is a whole lot of modification and race-only reconstruction of the mechanical elements underneath it all. This is following the late’70s-forward evolution of the Production classes. Either-or. Somehow, the club handicaps it all into a rough competition parity (others may be able to say more or correct me on this). I understand that a careful reading of the rule book and a comprehensive understanding of how certain cars work in competition situations allows one to find exploitable “gaps” in the rules structure. For example, for a couple of years there, not too many years ago, rubber-bumpered late-model MG Midgets were a hot SCCA Production car racing item.
One element of SCCA racing is that any racing class and preparation specification, once established, is almost impossible to eliminate, if someone is still competing under that set of rules. The ethos of the club is to provide a place for its members to race, and they really try to abide by that. So the racing classes and car prep specifications multiply, combine, evolve, and meander. Even the national championships, over the decades, have been either calculated by a spreadsheet of race results, or alternatively by a “runoff” championship race, under different formats and arrangements over time. That’s why I had to handwrite out the yearly national champions. I had to draw the results from various sources, as an overall year-by-year list does not seem to exist anywhere. SCCA is an odd duck, but it seems to work well over time, evolving as it goes.
Dutch: thank you! I really enjoyed this; the story takes place at a time when I was just becoming intensely car aware. I couldn’t drive but I did have a Cobra t-shirt and a Cobra slot car.
Clearly what we have here is the CC story of the year and writer of the year.
My limited experience as a racing fan in the period was late ’60s/early ’70s TransAm events at Road America as a fascinated spectator.
Great history lesson Dutch. It is interesting that two of the most iconic sports cars of the 1960s did not have much success on the track – the other of course being the E-type Jag. It is also interesting to note that Austin sold about 70,000 100s and 3000s over 15 years, Porsche sold about 70,000 356s over 15 years, and Jaguar sold about 70,000 E-Types over 15 years, of which about 90% ended up in the US. This equates to slightly less than 5,000 units per year, which I believe is more than the total multi-year production run of the Shelby Cobra and GT350, while the C2 Corvette typically sold 20K+ annually – so GM may not have won on the track, but they sure won on the showroom floor.