Corvette Evolution, Part 11: A Return to Le Mans to Drive a Winning Corvette

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Briggs Cunningham took three Corvettes C1s to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and returned victorious.

Almost two years ago a Corvette C1 was taken to Le Mans. It was driven around the famous track by John Fitch, a former fighter pilot and racing driver, now in the 10th decade of his long life. Exactly 50 years before, Fitch, the first American to race successfully in post-World War II Europe, managed the Cunningham Racing Team that fielded three Corvette C1's at the most famous race in the world. During the 1950s the 24 hours of Le Mans gave the Indy 500 a fair run for its money, at least among wealthy Americans.

Briggs Cunningham was one of those Americans. He was born into a well-to-do family and even his adventurous life style and his passion for yachts and fast cars couldn't exhaust his resources. He also had a dream: to win with an American car the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He shared this dream with Zora Arkus-Duntov, who apart from being the Corvette project leader was also a race driver. In 1954 he drove a Porsche at La Sarthe as well as his Corvettes. However, fate intervened. American automakers decided to eliminate their motorsport activity and Arkus-Duntov had to resort to other means to get what he wanted.

Cunningham then came to his rescue. In the early '50s Cunningham took part in Le Mans driving cars he built known as C1, C2, C3 and C4 (no relation to the Corvette). In 1960 the Le Mans rules changed by creating the GT 5000 class which allowed for big engined cars to race there as well. Americans were delighted and Cunningham, with the covert support and assistance from Arkus-Duntov, acquired three road cars and turned them into racers. The cars were prepared by Alfred Momo and equipped with a 290hp 283 CID V8 with fuel injection and a top speed of 150 mph.

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Racing drum brakes were added as well as magnesium knock-off wheels and racing tires. Among the other racing accessories included were Stewart Warner gauges in a special dash plate, a Halibrand quick release fuel cap, rear axles with Firestone racing tires, running lights, Lucas brake lights, Koni competition shock absorbers, two Bendix fuel pumps, front additional sway bar (as in 1959), aircraft 'jump' seats, and a 37 gallon fuel tank. Cunningham ordered the cars to be painted white, the American racing color, and a blue strip all along the cars' center line. At Le Mans the cars were allocated numbers 1, 2 and 3.

Fitch raced car #3, rotating the driving shifts with Bob Grossman. Car #1 lasted only three hours before it crashed and burned. Car #2's race lasted for 17 hours before its engine ceased functioning. Only car #3 completed the 24 hours, lagging behind give Ferraris and winning its category, an achievement Chevrolet would not emulate for the next four decades. For the Corvette camp at Le Mans, including Arkus-Duntov who took an unexplained holiday from his daily job, the last two hours of the race were especially nerve racking as the radiator broke which lead to a blown head gasket.

During the last two hours Grossman dived into the pits at every lap in order to get ice into the engine compartment to cool it down. After the race the cars were returned to the U.S., converted back into road going cars, were sold off and became lost in American garages. Car #2 is now in private hands and car #3 was located back in 2000 and underwent an extensive restoration. Two years ago, 50 years after it won, it returned to Le Mans and was driven by Fitch himself. The whereabouts of car #1 are still shrouded in mystery.

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