First French Foray

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Halfway through the race, as the earliest traces of dawn began to show, 40 of 55 starters were still in the game. Ferraris held the three top spots, with a Jaguar and an Aston Martin following behind. In sixth place overall and first in GT was a Ferrari 250 SWB. The #3 Cunningham Corvette was ninth overall, with Fitch at the wheel. Having flown combat missions over Europe for the U.S. Air Corps during World War II, he was accustomed to piloting fast machinery in the dark. Camoradi’s Corvette was running 16th overall.

In the pastel wash of Sunday morning, Windridge was at the wheel of the #2 Corvette, which despite repairs, continued to slough off pieces of fiberglass from the earlier off-course excursion. However, the car’s end came not with a whimper, but with a bang: Its engine grenaded while passing the pits. Windridge missed the escape road and climbed from his dead Corvette as track officials shouted edicts in French on where he should park it.

So now there was only one Cunningham Corvette left. Consistently gaining ground, Fitch and Grossman moved up to seventh overall by sunrise, while the Ferrari Testa Rossa of Frère and Gendebien continued to lead the field. This order remained the same into the afternoon, as the race ground inexorably toward its conclusion.

Then, after 23 nearly trouble-free hours, the #3 Corvette began experiencing problems. Like a horse ridden too far, it was overheating, forcing Grossman to dive repeatedly into the pits. Because the rule book only allowed fluids to be added to cars after 24 laps on track, the Cunningham team couldn’t simply top off the radiator; instead, ice was taken from food and drink bins and hand-packed on top of the tortured V8. The cooling-down effect was working, but just barely.

Momo instructed Grossman to drive at quarter speed, and to pit after each time around the 8.3-mile circuit for more doses of ice. Duntov stood watching in abhorrence each time more ice was applied to the sizzling small block, but with the other two cars out, the team wanted to make sure at least one of its Corvettes finished. Le Mans rules mandated that each entry must complete four laps in the final hour to be classified at the finish, so they had no choice but to continue. Nearby spectators yelled their encouragements, relishing the spectacle of adversity being overcome.

In the end, the ice trick worked. The Corvette crossed the finish line eighth overall and fifth among the GT entries. It was the first and only finisher in the 5.0-liter GT class. (The #4 Camoradi Corvette did not cover a sufficient distance and was not officially classified in the results.) Despite its lethargic final hour, the Cunningham car posted an impressive average speed of 97.9 mph. The winning Ferrari Testa Rossa wasn’t all that much faster at 110 mph.

In distant America, it was barely mid-morning. Very few people were yet aware of the gallant showing the Chevrolet Corvette had made in far off France that 26th day of June five decades ago. It would be another 41 years before a Corvette finished so high up the leaderboard, when a factory C5-R also finished eighth overall to win its LM GTS class.

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
Buy Corvette magazine 59 cover
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