Corvette Racing History: From Show Car to Le Mans Champions
Explore the long history of Corvette Racing from its flashy beginnings as a show car to its championship domination around the globe.
In the fall of 1951, Harley Earl, a head designer for GM began to develop an affordable two-seat sports car. At that time, GM was the world’s largest car maker. Donning a fiberglass body and the ability to reach 150 in horsepower, the first American sports car was born. This would lead to Corvette’s long and successful racing history in American motorsports.
Almost Phased Out
The Corvette show car, named after a speedy naval airship, premiered at the GM Motorama in 1953. Sales were slow in the beginning due to attempts at creating exclusivity. 1953 brought the production of 300 handmade Corvettes. Buyers wanted a V8 engine and the Corvette only offered a V6. Production had increased but sales didn’t meet expectations. 1/3 of the cars weren’t sold. In 1955, the creation of the Thunderbird convertible saved the Corvette from discontinuation. GM execs knew they had to keep the Corvette so they wouldn’t look like a failure. They aimed to create a vehicle that would be better and more exciting than the Thunderbird. Corvette racing may not have begun without Zora Arkus-Duntov. Duntov became the head engineer for Corvette in 1955. He sold the idea of the Corvette becoming a high-performance sports car with more power and speed.
1956: The First Competition
The Corvette gained appeal in 1956. Touting a V8 engine, 3-speed manual transmission, 210 horsepower, sleek new design with an optional hardtop and power windows it was the car buyers had dreamed of. Corvette made its first appearance in motorsports in 1956 at the Sebring 12 Hours. Placing 9th and 1 car winning Class B – Sports 8000 that’s where the story began. Corvette participated in the Sebring race from then on.
1960: Corvette Intro To Le Mans
Corvette entries in the 24 Hours at Le Mans was a major historical mark for the Corvette brand. American sportsman Briggs Cunningham entered 3 Corvettes scoring at 5th place in the GT class and 8th in the race. Lloyd Casner’s Camoradi team also entered a Corvette that came in 10th. More teams attempted to gain success racing Corvettes. Dick Guldstrand and Scuderia Fillipinetti, and John Greenwood attempted wins. All were fast but weren’t able to withstand the lengthy races. After years of attempts, Reeves Callaway made a breakthrough in 1995. Callaway managed to come in 9th place and second in the GT class.
In 1996, the team at General Motors Motorsports Technology Group made a decision. That decision was to begin Corvette racing using the C5 as a model. Herb Fishel came up with a two-year plan to create and test the C5-R which would be a remix of the C5 road car. Fishel put Doug Fehan in charge of the proposal. Fehan contracted Pratt & Miller to design and build the C5-R. The goal was to make better road cars by transferring technology. Testing and racing the C5-R was going to benefit the consumer. The development of technology to make C5 road cars superior vehicles had begun. Questions began to arise as development continued. Where would the cars race and did they stand a chance? There were issues with the flip-up headlights and the grille design of C5 but the team pressed on.
1999: Year 1 for Corvette Racing
In 1998, the Corvette made a return as the Indy 500 Pace Car. The car’s aesthetic was not loved by the public. The bad response may have led to a desire for something greater for the Corvette though. 1999 marked the year that Corvette Racing would make its first appearance. Drivers Fellows, Kneifel, and Paul Jones, Jr were at the C5-R steering wheels. At the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, the Corvette finished third in class going up against the Dodge Viper. Not a bad start at all as many vehicles struggle to finish. The Vipers had outperformed the C5-Rs but this was only a challenge to the developers. In 2000 in the Daytona 24 hour race the C5-R took second place, finishing only seconds behind the Viper. Less than 6 months later in the Le Mans Race in France, the C5-Rs took 10th and 11th place and third and fourth in GTS class. The Oreca Vipers had once again given the C5-Rs a good run for their money and won. The C5-Rs had some mechanical issues yet still held on.
The End For Viper
Two months after at the Texas Motor Speedway on a boiling hot day, everything came in to focus. This time the Vipers were three laps behind when the C5-rs crossed the finish line. This was the beginning of the end for the Vipers. The Oreca Viper lost again to the C5-R 4 weeks later in the Petit Le Mans 1,000 mile race. This win was the first long-distance victory. This loss made the builders of the Viper realize they should move on.
Major Victories For Corvette Racing
Success, although anticipated, was coming sooner than expected. 2001 brought 1st and 2nd place wins for Corvette at the 24 Hours at Daytona. 2 dozen faster prototype entries couldn’t compete with the C5-R. This was Corvette Racing’s first 24-hour victory and a sign of things to come. 2001 also brought the first American Le Mans Series (ALMS) win for Corvette. They would go on to win 8 consecutive ALMS championships! At the 24 Hours of Le Mans, this same year both C5-Rs crossed the lines coming in 1st and 2nd in GTS class. Poor weather conditions and mechanical failures caused the team issues. This win wasn’t as celebrated due to 2 GT class cars finishing ahead of Corvette.
Corvette Gets New Drivers
In 2002, Corvette picked up a new driver, Oliver Gavin. Gavin had shown great talent the year before competing against them in the Saleen.Gavin helped the team win its first victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Gavin would go on to drive for Corvette for 14 years. Long-standing Corvette Racing driver Andrew Pilgrim bid the team farewell and joined the Pratt & Miller Cadillac program in 2004. 2004 brought in another new face, Olivier Beretta, who had driven previously for the Viper team. Gavin and Beretta would remain a team until 2011. Jan Magnussen was then added. These three went on to win the Le Mans from 2004 to 2006 and earned the ALMS class championships from 2005 to 2007. Fellows retired in 2007 after completing the 12 Hours of Sebring and one-off race with Pilgrim in Mosport.
C6 Design Takes Cues From The C5-R
The redesigned C6 Corvette was released in 2006. It had many innovations that were developed from racing the C5.R. The C6-R was released that same year. The C6 Corvette lost the flip-up headlights which slowed the car down. The grille was modified to allow better cooling as well. An angled windshield replaced the old style and reduced drag. In 1996 the team at General Motors Motorsports Technology Group made a decision. That decision was to begin Corvette racing using the C5 as a model. A two-year plan was set to create and test the C5-R which would be a remix of the C5 road car.
GT Regulations Change
2009 brought change to the regulations for GTs and stronger competition. At the ALMS, Porsche 911s took the GT class wins that year and in 2010. Corvette managed to beat the Porsches at Le Mans in 2009 and 2011 though. After a 2009 LeMans class victory a new campaign began to go one class down. Chevrolet no longer had anything to prove or real competition in the GT1 class. The regulation changes also put GT1 and GT2 into the single category of GT.
Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter made an announcement. “The new Corvette Z06 is the most track-capable production Corvette ever while the new C7.R is poised to be even more competitive on the race circuit.” With a much lighter chassis, a frame made of aluminum and much-improved aerodynamics the C7.R was ready to go.
2014 also meant a new series for Corvette, the Tudor United Sportscar Championship. The Dodge Viper SRT took the win but it was a tight race. There was also a bit of struggle in Daytona. At the 24 Hours of Daytona in January 2015, there were class wins. Corvette also took home a class win at the 12 Hour of Sebring in March.
2019: 65 Years of Racing
Who would have known the Corvette would come so far and have so much success? With beginnings as a show car and almost being discontinued it has come a long way. 2019 Marks the third decade for the Corvette Racing team. Since 1999 Corvette Racing has won 107 victories worldwide. Corvette has more wins than any entrant in International Motor Sports Association history. The team looks to defend its GT Le Mans Driver and Team titles and return to Le Mans for the 24 Hours race.
A Few Corvette Racing Highlights
- 73 ALMS class wins
- 50 1-2 team wins and 23 round sweep in 2007 and 2008 seasons
- Victorious in the eight-team and manufacturer GT1 championships
- Most wins in the history of the American Le Mans Series
- 2009 transition into the more competitive GT2 class
- Won Petit Le Mans in 2000 with the “Pilgrim Pass” for the lead
- In 2011 second place in team and driver championships
- Pratt & Miller Engineering in conjunction with GM Racing engineers handled construction, testing, development and trackside support for Corvette Racing
Continuing an American Legacy
To all the ‘Vette owners out there, we know this Corvette racing lesson hit home. There’s no better sound than the revving of a Corvette engine. It immediately puts you on the race track, as a child and an adult. Be sure to keep her purring with regular maintenance and sourcing high-quality parts/accessories. Check out our main page if you are in need of parts or accessories for your Corvette. As a supplier specializing in Corvette and Camaro parts, we always have great prices and lots of information from industry experts.