For only the second time in the model’s history, a Corvette was driven across the finish line at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1972. The ’68 convertible, powered by an L88 engine, was fielded by a small American team from Tampa, Florida. Armed with a meager budget, the scrappy Race Engineering & Development (R.E.D.) outfit had made it to France on the wings of a tire war and was only allowed entry to the race through the auspices of a pair of Ferrari teams. I performed PR work for R.E.D., allowing me to witness its Le Mans journey from beginning to end, and I can say without a doubt it was a case of all the stars lining up correctly.
While our team had racked up an impressive competition record in the States, we were unsponsored and everyone saw racing more as a hobby than a vocation. In our minds, Le Mans was reserved for big-budget professional racing teams, not a privateer outfit with a four-year-old Corvette. In 2000, when I returned to Le Mans with factory-sponsored Corvette Racing, Team Manager Gary Pratt asked me what our team’s budget was in 1972. When I answered $60,000, he pointed to a C5.R race car and said, “That’s the price of one of our brakes!” But even back in the day, our finances were miniscule compared to that of the well-funded GT-class teams, much less the top prototype operations.
The truth of the matter is that Race Engineering & Development would have never made it to Le Mans if it weren’t for Goodyear wanting to rain on BF Goodrich’s parade. At the outset of the ’72 sports-car season, John Greenwood announced that his team would be sponsored by BF Goodrich. Greenwood had met with success using the company’s radial tires the year before, and now BF Goodrich would support its efforts at all the major sports-car endurance races, including Le Mans. In the early 1970s, bias-ply race tires were the norm, so this news got everybody’s attention, including Goodyear’s.
The first race of the ’72 season was at Daytona. Instead of the usual 24 hours, the event was shortened to six hours due to a Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) rule change. Race Engineering & Development entered a ’69 L88 Corvette with a Confederate flag paint scheme. This car had performed well at the Daytona 24 and Sebring 12-hour races the previous year. In addition, it had won the 1971 International Motor Sports Association championship for over 2.5-liter GT cars.
Admittedly, some of R.E.D.’s success was due to a little help from Chevrolet. In early 1971, Corvette Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov selected our team to get “back door” assistance. We received a steady supply of special parts from Chevrolet Engineering, including brakes, transmissions, springs, bearings, suspension parts and differentials. Duntov also assigned Gib Hufstader to provide the team with engineering support. This assistance carried over into the ’72 season
When we arrived at Daytona, Goodyear’s General Manager of Racing Larry Truesdale scheduled a closed-door meeting with several top Corvette teams, including ours. He offered us the use of a new Goodyear radial tire for the event. If we accepted the offer, we could not talk about the tire’s construction and not hold Goodyear liable for any failures. On the other hand, it held out a mighty big carrot: If any team beat the BF Goodrich-shod Corvettes, Goodyear would provide it support for the 1972 season. Our unsponsored team jumped at Goodyear’s offer.
Fifty cars started the six-hour Daytona race and 19 finished, with our #57 Corvette, driven by Dave Heinz and Bob Johnson, taking the GT-class victory. It was a glorious win for our team and Goodyear, especially since the Greenwood Corvettes failed to finish. Both drivers commented that the new tires took a little time to get used to, as they were not as stiff as the old bias-ply tires, but they had better grip and provided a lot of confidence.