While the spotlight shines most brightly on the titular cars of Ford vs. Ferrari, Corvettes have strong supporting roles in the plot. That’s because the 2019 movie does a credible job of capturing the automotive context of the era that led up to the GT40s conquering Le Mans in 1966.
These replica racing machines weren’t nonfunctional props, either, or kit cars perched atop custom tube frames and stuffed with generic running gear. For the most part they were actual running vehicles pushed hard on the track by skilled drivers.
As noted at the outset, most of the entertainment media’s focus has been on everything but America’s Sports Car. Given our obvious preference, however, we decided to dig into the Corvettes used for filming, and speak with some of the unsung heroes of the action sequences—the stunt drivers.
Director James Mangold hired veteran stunt coordinator Robert Nagle, who tracked down a number of pro drivers “that understand Le Mans,” and also contracted for all the cars that appeared in the film. Commenting on their collaboration, Nagle notes that, “James…is a storyteller—he is not a car person, and I absolutely loved that challenge. I wrote a story for each of the races for the film, so it would have creative content and fit a narrative.”
Much of the credit for the historical accuracy of the movie’s cars goes to Vehicle Art Director Rob Johnson. He led the team that obtained the hundreds of vehicles used and abused during months of shooting at multiple locations across the country, from Southern California to Georgia. It took him more than six months just to prep for the film.
Unlike so many films today, instead of relying heavily on computer-generated imagery, director Mangold wanted to shoot actual driving footage to create a gritty realism. (Some CGI was used, of course, such as adding the French countryside surrounding Le Mans to driving scenes shot in the desert and on a long country road.) This meant using real Corvettes, Cobras, Ferraris, and other classic cars to hit triple-digit speeds on track.
Billy Stabile, president of Hollywood Car Company, Inc., supplied more than 100 cars to the film-production company for a leasing fee. (His firm has also provided vehicles to other movies such as Fast Five, The Hunter, The Dark Knight, and Inception.) In addition to acquiring running replicas from several different companies (mainly Race Car Replicas, Superformance, and JPS Motorsports), he had to source real production cars such as Ford Falcons and early Corvettes.
The latter were then modified by Rob Johnson with competition livery, such as the blue ’63 No. 614 Washburn Corvette originally raced by Bob Bondurant. But not every detail was historically accurate, as seasoned Corvette enthusiasts might notice.
For instance, an original Split-Window Coupe was out of the question for budgetary reasons, so a ’64 Sting Ray filled in (note the discrepancy in the rear window). Also, in the scenes at Willow Springs the car has a 427 hood and factory side pipes, both incorrect for the original Bondurant racecar.
That same car was repainted red with the Roger Penske 1966 L88 Corvette livery from the 1966 Daytona 24 Hours race (filmed at the Auto Club Speedway, formerly California Speedway, in Fontana). Even so, blue paint from its previous Bondurant guise is still evident on the edges of the flip-up headlights. Hair dye was applied as well, to create the look of grime and oil stains from running on the track for 24 hours. In addition, since original-spec race tires were too expensive to obtain by custom order, the Goodyear logo was stenciled onto the sidewalls of the Avon tires for a period-style treatment.
After filming was completed at Willow, the 427 hood was replaced with a stock unit and placed on another of the racecars. The Penske car wears a set of 15-inch, five-spoke American Racing wheels, and it still has the factory side pipes from the movie.
Longtime car collector Randy Richardson assisted in selling the 19 Falcons purchased for the movie, along with several others cars used during filming. “They went like hot cakes,” he recalls. In the process, he caught what he describes as “Movie Fever” and bought the Penske Corvette.
Interestingly, Richardson was one of the founding members of the Los Angeles Shelby American Automobile Club, about 30 years ago. In that time he has been the president of the club for close to 20 years, a position he holds today. So why did he pick the Corvette over one of the Cobras used in the movie?
Actually, Richardson’s taste in vehicles is fairly eclectic, as he’s owned a half-dozen Corvettes over the years. “Any car is good as long as it’s cool,” he laughs. Plus, the Penske Vette was way more affordable than a Shelby, albeit for reasons that would soon become apparent. Only after he test-drove the car did he discover a few of what might euphemistically be called its “quirks.” First, he learned that it had also served as the Bondurant Corvette. No problem there, but more worrisome was the rundown condition of the mechanicals (which the stunt drivers also noted, as we’ll see).
“After I got the car home, I started to evaluate what I had,” Richardson relates. “The shocks were completely worn out, as well as the rear strut rods. The brake lights, tach, and reverse lights didn’t work.”
It turned out that when preparing the Corvette for the rigors of the track, the studio installed disc brakes on the front, four-point racing belts, and a 12-gallon fuel cell. But that was about it. Pro racer and stunt driver Kelly Collins (a former GM factory shoe for the GT1 Corvettes) confirms Richardson’s description, and notes the following about several of the stunt cars he drove for the movie: “They were the biggest piles of shit,” he snorts. “They just took old, beat-up used cars and painted them.”
As for the Penske Corvette in particular, he recalls running at 120 mph on the track in Fontana, during which time the engine kept overheating before finally throwing a rod, denting the footwell. He noticed that hot engine parts punching out of a block would normally catch fire on the track, but in this case there was no oil on them!
Overall, he feels that compared with competition cars, “Driving for the movies is way more dangerous. Racecars are safe [and] prepped immaculately with safety gear.” But in the movies, “The script gets changed, the equipment is mediocre—gnarly stuff. That would never happen on a racetrack; they have your back.”
Among several hazards, he cites hot weather, slick pavement due to white lines being painted over, along with wetting down the track with a rain machine at night. Plus, there was a camera boom the size of a telephone pole dangling mere inches over the drivers’ heads as they roared under it at triple-digit speeds.
Pro racer Darren Law, who drove the No. 614 Washburn Corvette at Willow for the movie, concurs about the contrast of driving a racecar and an aging production vehicle. “It’s very hard to compare the two. Technology is so advanced now over the older Corvettes. They’re a handful, don’t stop well, and move around. They’re a lot of fun—but a lot of work.”
They can also prove to be a temptation for seasoned race drivers. Sometimes their competitive instincts kicked in, such as when Dan Gurney’s son, Alex, and Tony Hunt were duking it out in a Corvette and Cobra. Gurney actually had to be reined in, as he kept pushing ahead on the track.
Getting back to Richardson’s ersatz Penske, to keep the car running for filming action sequences, the studio installed a 1992 GM four-bolt-main 350, along with a modern aluminum radiator and puller fan. After purchasing the car, Richardson replaced the shocks, then installed new rear strut rods, 650-pound front springs, a 1.25-inch front sway bar, and a front spreader bar. He also lowered the front and rear suspensions by 1.5 inches, and put in a new distributor with the correct cable tach drive. Other upgrades include a 650-cfm Holley “Double Pumper” carb and a set of Doug’s headers, the latter painted white to match the original Penske side pipes.
After all these changes, “The car drives really great,” Richardson says. He plans to hang on to it for now, and enjoy showing it off at events.
There was at least one other positive upshot from the Penske/Bondurant Corvette’s reemergence, as Darren Law relates. A former instructor at the Bondurant High Performance Driving School, he mentioned to Bob Bondurant that he drove the No. 614 Washburn Corvette portrayed in film. “He was so happy to hear that,” Law smiles. “He even offered to send me his helmet that he wore when he raced [it].”
So the Golden Years of Corvette racing are alive and well—at least on the silver screen.