First French Foray

Also from Issue 59

  • LMR-tuned ZR1 and C6
  • C6 show car
  • State of the collector-car market
  • Interview: Jim Campbell
  • 1972 LT1 coupe
  • Pratt & Miller LS7/LS9 engine
  • Racing: Laguna Seca ALMS
  • How To: C2/3 frame repair
  • 1965 small-block coupe
  • 1972 LT1 coupe
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On Saturday, June 25th, 1960, a quarter of a million spectators gathered under rainy skies for the start of the 28th Grand Prix d’Endurance les 24 Heures du Mans. By noon, four hours from race start, it was still early morning in the United States. Chicago’s Comiskey Park would see the White Sox defeat Boston’s Red Sox. In Cleveland, Mickey Mantle would score the only homer for the Yankees in a game they’d lose to the Indians. If you weren’t up for a ball game that particular Saturday, there were movies to see—The Apartment, Psycho, Ben Hur.

The drama at Le Mans began with the drivers dashing for their cars. First away was Clark in the Aston, but it was a short-lived advantage; he could not maintain the point. Lap One’s leading white and blue car might have looked like a Corvette in the distance, yet it was Gregory’s Camoradi-entered Birdcage that streaked past the start/finish line first, followed by Gendebien’s works Testa Rossa and more Ferraris. The Corvettes were already falling behind, but it was far too early to foretell an outcome.

At the two-hour mark, Cunningham brought the #1 Corvette into the pits, handing the seat over to Kimberly. With rain threatening, the team wondered if it should go to wet tires. Both Cunningham’s team manager John Baus and prep-maestro Momo wanted wets, but the Firestone rep argued to save their modest supply of rain tires until they were “really needed.” Kimberly later said the argument seemed to go on for five minutes, though it likely only lasted 30 seconds. When he got the go sign, he charged away from the pits with #1 still wearing drys. On his out lap, Kimberly recalled hitting “a wall of rain” while cresting the hill between Arnage and White House. He promptly lost control, and the Corvette flipped end-over-end twice, landing on its wheels. Somehow, Kimberly survived uninjured; the car didn’t. Despite the downpour, the #1 Vette burned to the ground.

Disaster struck the Cunningham team again when hard-charging Thompson stuffed the #2 Corvette into a sand berm at the Mulsanne Corner—as far from the pits as you can possibly be at Le Mans. It took him more than an hour to dislodge the car, its bodywork abysmally damaged, and limp back to pit lane.

As night settled over the track, the leading Maserati’s starter failed during a pit stop and Frère’s Ferrari Testa Rossa took command of the race. The unbelievably fast Camoradi Birdcages also succumbed to mechanical failures (a blown engine and a broken gearbox). However, the Camoradi Corvette was still soldiering on, as were the #2 and #3 Cunningham Corvettes. With a new moon that night, the track was dreadfully dark—only the race cars’ headlights and the fleeting dazzle of lighted pits and Le Mans’ fairgrounds lit the night sky. The rain continued, making for treacherous conditions.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the neon of Broadway was illuminating the New York skyline. Though most people were more concerned with “Bye Bye Birdie” or “The Sound of Music,” a small coterie of race fans were huddled together at Le Chanteclair, former Monaco Grand Prix winner Rene Dreyfus’ restaurant on 49th off Madison, discussing the big race in France. Who’s leading? Who’s out? Are the Corvettes still running? News was hard to come by, however. There was no live television, only spotty short-wave radio. If you wanted to telephone Europe to find out what was happening, your call was $12 for the first three minutes—$100 in today’s cash. Back in 1960, European motor racing was as remote from the U.S. as Mars.