A Legend Reborn

This race-winning L88 ’67 has touched many lives over the past half century, and engendered many lasting friendships along the way

Photo: A Legend Reborn 1
May 11, 2017

As ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu taught us, every great journey begins with one small step. Our feature car’s great journey began in the fall of 1966 when Clyde Wheeler, Vice President of Public Affairs and Public Relations for the Sunray DX Oil Company, allocated money to expand Sunray’s motorsports-marketing initiative. Sunray would go from sponsoring tracks and events in the Midwest to forming its own racing team. To that end, the company contacted Yenko Chevrolet to order a race-ready ’67 Corvette. They chose a Corvette because of its all-American image and because they wanted to win. They went to Yenko because it was the foremost high-performance Chevy dealership in the country and, perhaps more importantly, because Don Yenko could get them something that was officially unavailable at the time: an L88 Corvette.

RPO L88 was a road-race option package that Chevy offered for Corvettes from 1967-69, but it was not available in September 1966 when 1967 production began. Furthermore, it was not even eligible to race, at least not in FIA-sanctioned events, because the L88 engine was not yet FIA homologated at the time. Sunray wanted to open its ’67 season with the 12 Hours of Sebring, which then as now was the most important sports-car race in America, and perhaps second in importance throughout the world only to Le Mans. To get an L88 built in time for Sebring, some favors would have to be called in, and nobody was in a better position to get the job done than Don Yenko.

The Yenko family had been close with Ed Cole since shortly after Frank Yenko opened his Bentleyville, Pennsylvania Chevy dealership in 1927. Cole was an engineer with GM who shared some key things in common with the Yenkos, including an insatiable interest in aircraft and flying, and a love for high-performance cars. Despite having only a limited education and no engineering degree, Cole progressed steadily through the ranks, serving as head of engineering for Cadillac and then Chevrolet, general manager of Chevrolet and, ultimately, president of General Motors. In 1967 Don Yenko may have been the only Chevy dealer in the world who could telephone the president of GM to ask for a personal favor. He did, and through Cole’s initiative a Central Office Production Order (COPO) was written to build an L88 Corvette for Sunray DX Oil.

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As with each of the 216 L88 Corvettes built from 1967-69, the heart of Sunray’s car was a potent 427-cubic-inch engine. Four-bolt main bearing caps anchored a forged, cross-drilled and nitrided crank. Forged steel connecting rods rode on special bearings, and 12.5:1-compression forged aluminum pistons were anchored with full-floating pins. To keep weight down, the engine’s rectangular-port, closed-chamber cylinder heads were cast from aluminum. From heat-treated rocker arms and strengthened springs to oversized valves and a high-lift, long-duration camshaft, the entire valvetrain was optimized for sustained high-speed operation and maximum power.

A small-diameter flywheel and clutch saved valuable reciprocating weight and helped the engine rev up relatively quickly for a 7-liter V-8. Induction came via a single Holley 850-cfm carburetor, perched atop an open-plenum aluminum intake manifold whose design was skewed toward generating peak output in the upper reaches of the rpm band. The carburetor was fed cool outside air courtesy of underhood ductwork that reached back to the high-pressure area at the base of the windshield. Spark came from GM’s reliable transistor ignition system, uniquely tailored for the L88 with heat-resistant Delco plug wires and a distributor without vacuum advance. An oversized aluminum cross-flow radiator delivered extra cooling capacity, and a special heavy-duty Delco starter motor cranked over the big, high-compression mill.

While a thundering 427 engine was the focal point of the L88 package, it was only one part of what turned an ordinary Corvette into a potential race winner. All ’67 L88 Corvettes were built with the M22 heavy-duty four-speed transmission, G81 Positraction differential, J50/J56 heavy-duty power brakes, F41 heavy-duty suspension and K66 transistor ignition. In addition to all of the components that L88 Corvettes had to have, there was also a list of things they could not have, including the otherwise standard heater/defroster system and “luxury” options such as a radio and air conditioning.

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Besides the monster motor and the various heavy-duty parts that necessarily accompanied it, Sunray’s ’67 coupe was equipped with a variety of special components provided by Chevrolet Engineering. Among these were a unique header and side-exhaust setup, twin-pin rear brake calipers, light alloy wheels and a 44-gallon fiberglass fuel tank.

On March 9, 1967, Sunray DX’s L88 reached the end of the St. Louis Assembly line, and Tulsa, Oklahoma insurance executive and accomplished racer David Morgan was there to greet it. When Morgan stepped off a Boeing 707 at Lambert Field in St. Louis earlier that day, he had no way to know he was beginning his own great journey with the Sunray DX L88 that would still be going strong more than half a century later. All he was thinking about then was the immediate journey he faced: driving this brand-new, fire-breathing Corvette some 585 miles to Yenko’s facility in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.

After Morgan got to the dealership, he and Don Yenko posed with the car for some publicity photos. Then it went into Yenko’s race shop, where mechanics Bill Hartley and Warren Dernoshek went through the entire car to make sure it would be as reliable as possible. They also lightened it by removing unnecessary things such as the carpet and most of the other interior trim. The car next went into the paint shop, where Sunray Oil’s signature dark blue was sprayed on the lower half of the body. The upper surfaces retained their factory-applied Ermine white paint, and the original red hood stinger stripe was continued on the roof and down the rear deck.

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Three weeks after it was born, Sunray’s all-American red, white and blue L88 carried Yenko and Morgan to an impressive First in class and 10th overall at Sebring. Morgan went on to win the 1967 SCCA Midwest Division Championship with the car.

When 1968 rolled around, Sunray expanded its motorsports program with the addition of two ’68 Corvettes. For the first race of the year, Daytona’s famed 24-hour contest, they entered both of these new cars and the “old” ’67. As lead driver for the team, Morgan chose to drive the ’67, even though it was predicted to be slower than the more aerodynamic C3s. That expectation however, proved false. In terms of aerodynamics, the C2’s biggest problem was front-end lift—Zora Duntov famously observed that above 150 mph, C2s became bad airplanes—but on Daytona’s 33-degree banking lift was not an issue because centrifugal force negated it. Pinned down by this assist from the laws of physics, and aided by numerous special parts provided by Chevrolet Engineering, including a 2.60:1 ratio rear differential, the ’67 DX Corvette reached speeds in excess of 194 mph at Daytona.

Equally important, the car was rock-solid reliable, running perfectly for all 24 hours and spending a total of under 60 minutes in the pits for fuel, tires, brake pads and driver changes. In stark contrast, the new-and-improved ’68 Corvettes experienced a plethora of problems, including severely overheated differentials, that took them out of contention.

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Though all three Sunray DX Corvettes took the checkered flag at Daytona, it was “old reliable” that earned the win, carrying Morgan and co-driver Jerry Grant to First in GT and 10th overall. Morgan and others drove the ’67 only sporadically after Daytona because the 1968 Corvettes were in fact faster at most of the tracks where the team raced. In 1969 the entire Sunray DX motorsports program came to an end with the merger of Sunray and Sunoco. Sunoco already had a very successful racing operation, headlined by a fellow named Roger Penske, and they had no need to keep two teams going.

In the fall of 1969 the ’67 Corvette was advertised for sale in Competition Press, and an engineer from central New York named Bob Luebbe bought it. Luebbe, who raced it in SCCA events over the following two years, owned a lot of different race cars both before and after his purchase from Sunray, including Ferraris, Jaguars and a competition Mercedes 300 SL, but he remembers the L88-powered Corvette as the fastest car that he ever drove.

In November of 1970 Luebbe sold the car to fellow engineer and friend Dave Laughlin. It was still painted in Sunray’s red, white and blue color scheme, and it still had the company’s sponsorship stickers on it. Laughlin went to driver’s school in the car, and after he got his competition license he raced it on tracks all over the Northeast.

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By the time Laughlin sold the car to Tom Rynone, another racer residing in central New York, its identity had been dramatically transformed. Laughlin had it repainted, and though it was still red, white and blue, it no longer looked like the Sunray DX Corvette.

Rynone raced the car until selling it in 1974 via word of mouth to Long Islander Dave Dempsey. Dempsey was an avid Corvette enthusiast with a growing interest in road racing. He bought the DX coupe and swapped an L71 427 from his ’67 Corvette convertible into it. He continued racing the car for some 16 years, until selling it to your author in 1990.

After 23 uninterrupted years of competition, the car was worn out but complete, with its essentials still intact. Over time it had been hit in every corner, but remarkably it still retained its factory chassis and body tub. The original roll bar was there, complete with its unique SCCA-assigned serial number. Also still intact were a number of its special parts, including offset rear trailing arms, heavy-duty brakes with twin-pin rear calipers, dry-sump system provisions and the original Harrison engine-oil cooler. And sitting in the glove box was another special part: the original SCCA logbook, documenting the car’s history.

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With invaluable help from friends, my wife and I performed a body-off-the-frame restoration that returned the Sunray DX L88 to its 1967 Sebring configuration. We also spent thousands of hours tracking down everyone and everything that had any connection to the Sunray DX motorsports program. Following restoration, we displayed the car in the Bloomington Gold Special Collection and in various motorsport retrospectives put together by Chevrolet; took it back to Canonsburg for a reunion of Yenko family members, employees and friends; and displayed it at the Chevrolet Engineering Center in Michigan.

We also occasionally put this remarkable Corvette back on track. One highlight was a race on the high banks of Daytona by none other than Dave Morgan, the very same Dave Morgan who picked it up at the factory when it was new and went on to drive it to glory at Sebring, Daytona and elsewhere. Never shy in exercising his sense of humor, Morgan had this to say just prior to his drive: “You don’t have to worry about me hitting anything out there if the brakes fail. I’ll just do what we always did at Daytona when we ran out of brakes—scrape it along the wall to slow it down.”

Another high point came in the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix when “The Flying Dentist,” Dr. Dick Thompson, piloted the car. That experience had its humorous moments as well, especially after I went through a methodical description of all of the car’s features and characteristics. Dr. Thompson was extremely attentive and listened very patiently as I droned on. When I finally finished, one the greatest racers in Corvette history looked me straight in the eye and said, “You don’t have to worry about a thing, son. I’ve done this once or twice before.”

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Several years ago we passed this special Corvette along to its next caretaker, longtime friend and avid Corvette collector Glen Spielberg. Over a period of about two years, Spielberg performed the car’s second comprehensive restoration, bringing it to a new level of perfection. Following completion, it was unveiled at the prestigious Amelia Island Concours in Florida, where it received a special award presented by GM design chief Ed Welburn. Following Amelia, it was displayed in the Sebring Hall of Fame. The highlights of Amelia and Sebring, for both Spielberg and your author, was seeing David Morgan and the car brought together yet again. Not surprisingly, the reunion was also a highlight for Morgan and his wife, Marlene.

“I love this Corvette,” he reflected, “but not just because it carried me to some great wins. I love it because of the great friendships it has engendered. For more than 50 years it has brought some truly wonderful people into my life and led to many lasting friendships. That’s not something I could have imagined when I picked this car up at the factory, and that, above all else, is what I cherish most about it.”

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Sidebar: Deceptive Advertising: Marketing the L88

A 1967 L88 tuned to the razor’s edge and running through open exhaust produces about 560 horsepower at 6,400 rpm. Nonetheless, Chevrolet quoted the optional engine’s output at 430 hp at 5,400 rpm, well before the power curve peaked. Most buyers in search of the ultimate performance Corvette thus skipped straight to the 435-horse Tri-Power L71 on the order sheet, which is exactly what Chevy wanted. Why? Because the race-spec L88 engine was, in just about every respect, completely unsuitable for street driving.
Intentionally under-quoting power output was just one way that Chevy tried to keep L88s off public roads. Another cagey maneuver entailed pricing the option out of reach of the average Corvette customer. The engine alone cost an eye-popping $947.90, more than double the price of the allegedly more powerful L71. Selecting RPO L88 also required the addition of several mandatory options, including the M22 heavy-duty four-speed ($237.00), G81 Positraction differential ($42.15), J50/J56 heavy-duty power brakes ($384.45), F41 heavy-duty suspension ($36.90) and K66 transistor ignition ($73.75).
If the pessimistic output rating and swollen price weren’t enough to put off L88 intenders, the list of items that could not be had with an L88 usually was. The ordinarily standard heater/defroster system and options such as a radio and air conditioning were verboten. The carburetor did not have a choke, and the radiator did not have a fan shroud. (Why? Race engines typically don’t need to start on cold winter mornings, and airflow over the radiator tends to be more than adequate at triple-digit speeds.)
The final deterrent to buying an L88 was its fuel requirement. The high-compression beast had to be fed gasoline with a research octane number of at least 103, or serious engine damage could result. Even in the allegedly “good old days,” this fuel was both uncommon and expensive. For all of these reasons, street-driven L88 Corvettes were vanishingly rare in the late ’60s, just as Chevy intended.

Also from Issue 114

  • 11-Second Cross-Fire '84
  • Buyer's Guide: C4
  • Restored "Airbox" '57
  • Supercharged C5 Z06
  • History: The V-8 Revolution
  • Greenwood/ACI '78 Turbo
  • C7 Z06 Euro Tour
  • Racing: Victory at Sebring
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