Power Broker

Nonpareil Corvette tuner Reeves Callaway built his reputation on C4-based race and street machines

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February 8, 2024

It was mid-February 1994 when Reeves Callaway decided to go racing at Le Mans. “On a Saturday at the shop, I walked by Reeves’s office,” recalls Mike Zoner, who started at Callaway in 1988 as a junior project engineer and is now managing director of the Callaway Companies. “He said, ‘I have an idea: To be an established manufacturer, to really prove our mettle, we need to compete against the best in the world on the same level as the competition, and that’s at Le Mans.’ I thought, ‘Okay that’s good.’ That race is in June, so we would have about a year and four months to get ready, which should be enough time to go from concept to racing.”

But Callaway wasn’t thinking 1995. He meant that year. “So it wasn’t 16 months but just four months to go from nothing to concept to racing on the world stage,” Zoner says. “It was all-hands-on-deck to create a car to compete at Le Mans, and what an adventure that was. As a young engineer crewing and spending that time in Germany, helping to construct and develop and be part of the team that made this happen, was incredibly rewarding.”

The German Connection

Enter Leingarten, Germany’s Ernst Woehr, who with business partner Giovanni Ciccone had a body shop and a passion for America’s Sports Car. “Corvettes were always our hobby,” he says. “We raced a ’65 and had experience with C1, C2, and C3 Corvettes, but it was an ’85 that brought us to the C4 in 1985. We had problems with that car, and a guy [flew] me over to California to work at Dick Guldstrand’s shop for a couple weeks to learn about the C4. Until then we had never had a fuel-injected Corvette.”

Woehr met Callaway at the 1987 Frankfurt Auto Show. “I was there with Guldstrand, who had a car there. Reeves walked by with his wife and his engineer, and at that time there was a great cover story in Auto Motor und Sport about the Callaway Twin-Turbo Corvette with a picture of him in it, so I recognized him. He came up and asked, ‘Is this Dick’s car?’ I said, ‘Yes. And you are Mr. Callaway. I recognize you from the article.’ He started to walk away, but then turned and said, ‘If you ever make it to the U.S., please come and see us in Connecticut.’”

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Reeves Callaway in the 1990s. Few men outside of GM have had as much of an impact on America’s Sport Car, both on the street and at the racetrack.

Woehr happened to be planning a trip to Boston, so while there, he took a side trip to Callaway’s shop. “He gave me and my friend a Twin-Turbo to drive, and we both interviewed with him. He asked if I wanted to take care of some Twin Turbos that he was importing into Europe. I said, ‘Sure.’ We started doing that and became the Callaway Cars agent in Europe.”

Woehr and Ciccone had started racing the ’65 Corvette in 1991 and had won two European championships with it. Callaway saw some of those races and was duly impressed, so when the ADAC (Germany’s Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club) started a GT Cup series, he partnered with them to build a ’92 LT1 C4 to compete against BMW, Honda, Porsche, and other brands. The car finished a creditable Fifth in the 1993 championship.

“Callaway prepared the engine, and we built the car,” Woehr relates. “And when our driver hurt his fingers, we had to get another driver, and we got Boris Said III. And he was so quick, we had great stories in the biggest newspapers about Boris and our Lemon Soda–sponsored ‘SuperNatural’ Corvette. Reeves asked what it would take to make that car an endurance car for Le Mans. I said, ‘That’s not a good idea. That’s a sprint car—you need a different car for endurance racing.’ And that’s when he decided to do [one of those].”

Frieda Unleashed

Woehr got the daunting assignment to build a competitive Le Mans racer out of a ’91 Corvette roadster (which had caught fire and burned to the ground) with just three months and a few days to ready it for the May 8, 1994 Le Mans test day. Young engineer Zoner was sent over to help build this first Callaway Le Mans Corvette, and at just 27 years old he was named team manager. “With Reeves, it was always big,” he says. “That was life-changing for me.”

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A young Callaway, looking modish alongside the vintage Ferrari he restored as his senior project in college.

The car they affectionately named “Frieda” was externally branded the “SuperNatural Corvette Le Mans,” after the ’92 racecar and Callaway’s SuperNatural street Corvettes. Over its production-based chassis and special Brembo brakes, it wore a second-generation Callaway AeroBody,

a further development of the low-drag, low-lift outerwear designed for the 1988 “Sledgehammer” top-speed car. In this iteration, the package employed carbon-fiber panels, a restyled nose, and a rear diffuser and wing arrangement first used in the previous year’s ADAC GT car. Its 6.2-liter (380-ci) naturally aspirated engine spun out 500-plus horsepower.

And they somehow got it done. “It was…very hard work, but we made it,” Woehr relates. “Boris put the car on the class pole, and we could have won the race. But in the middle of the night, our French driver—everybody said we had to have a French driver for politics—missed our signal to pit three times. We had no radio connection with him, and he didn’t understand English anyway. He got out of the car, left the track, his girlfriend was suddenly gone, and we never saw him again. Our lead mechanic threw a bottle of fuel over the fence, climbed over, put it in the car and drove back to the pits. But we were disqualified.”

Following the 1994 Le Mans effort, Frieda competed in the BPR World Endurance championship series, scoring numerous class poles, wins, and overall podiums. She then qualified and ran well early in the 1995 Daytona 24-Hour, but recurring transmission troubles cost her a decent finish. Then she took on Le Mans again. Co-driven by Johnny Unser, Frank Jelinski, and Enrico Bertaggia, Frieda finished Second in class and Ninth overall just behind the Eighth Place Honda factory car, the best Corvette result there since the 1960 Cunningham effort.

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He went on to became a successful racing fabricator and Formula Vee driver.

Over the winter of 1994-1995 Callaway Competition built three more 6.2-liter Corvette LM racers and five for street use. All wore low-drag LM bodies designed by Montreal-based Paul Deutschman, creator of several Callaway cars including the beautiful C16 Speedster. Powered by 450-plus-hp Callaway SuperNatural engines, those next three racecars were 250 pounds lighter and boasted a number of improvements, including X-Trac six-speed sequential transmissions, center-lock wheels, and even slicker aerodynamics.

Rocky Agusta, heir to the Agusta motorcycle and helicopter fortune, bought chassis 002/95 and 003/95, while 004/95 was sold to the Callaway Schweiz Team of Hans Hauser and Kurt Huber. Car 003/95 captured the GT2 pole for the 1995 Le Mans 24-Hour—at one point during the night, three Callaway LMs were running in first, second, and third in GT2—and finished Third in class and 11th overall. Then, after running a limited schedule of 1995 BPR events with mid-pack results, the team’s primary focus for 1996 was the SCCA Pro Racing World Challenge at 10 North American venues. With Almo Coppelli driving, it won the first three events and five podiums in 10 races for the Sports Division S2 class championship.

Unlikely Origins

With a name like Reeves Callaway, one might assume that he started with big family money, like Briggs Cunningham or Lance Reventlow. “People assumed that,” says son and Callaway Cars president Pete Callaway, “because his dad was a successful businessman. But Reeves’ father [Ely Callaway, Jr., founder of Callaway Golf] was a no-nepotism guy. He raised his kids to do their own things and earn their own livings, but he was there to support them.”

Pete tells us that Reeves, who died in an accident at his home last July at age 75, originally had no plan to be in the auto business. “He was not an engineer by schooling, but had a very good engineering brain,” he says. “His Amherst College degree was in fine arts, yet he convinced the school to let him do his senior thesis on restoring a 1954 Ferrari, which he later learned was a Le Mans–winning car that ended up in a barn in Massachusetts. [I]ts owner hired him to undertake the restoration at Amherst Carriage Works.”

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Callaway’s first Corvette racecar, the ’92 “Lemon Soda” C4, finished Fifth in the European ADAC GT Cup series.

Once out of school, Reeves became a fabricator for racecar builder Autodynamics in Massachusetts, “because he wanted to learn how to do everything from brazing and welding to casting things,” Pete says. He had raced go-karts as a kid, and before long was Autodynamics’ Formula Vee factory driver. (He was almost 1973 SCCA Formula Vee National Champion when he won the “Runoffs” championship race, but was disqualified over an engine issue.) But Roger Penske wasn’t calling, he liked to say, so after also working for Bob Sharp Racing for a while, he took a job instructing BMW dealership employees in 320is.

“Imagine…a 25-year-old kid whose BA was in Fine Art, devoted to racecar driving, design, and construction, who had reached the finish line of a short but accomplished journey down the road to becoming a world champion,” said Reeves in a 2020 Vintage Car Research Newsletter interview. “As an out-of-work racer, I really needed a job…. The other instructors were David Hobbs, Sam Posey, Nick Craw, and Jim Busby. [It was] a very cool experience traveling the continent to racetrack after racetrack demonstrating the potential of the BMW 320i.”

But after about a year of riding around racetracks in the right seat, the younger Callaway says, Reeves decided that was not what he wanted to do. He told John Phillips in a 2014 Car and Driver interview that many of the dealer people he trained and rode with “nearly killed me.” “At the conclusion of the assignment,” Reeves continued in the Vintage Car Research article, “I asked John Mitchell at BMW if I could borrow one of the school cars for an experiment in turbocharging. He bravely agreed.”

Those BMW 3s had a great, well-balanced chassis, he said, but were underpowered. “He was a craftsman at heart,” Pete relates, “always enthralled by cars and engines, and he loved to build engines. He had an idea that building a turbocharger system for the 320i would be the solution, and he turned that into something that worked.” Living in a borrowed house in Old Lyme, Connecticut, without a workshop, a garage, or even a drill press, Pete says his dad designed and built that first turbo system pretty much on his own.

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The 1987-91 B2K Twin-Turbo marked the first time GM issued an RPO to an outside firm. Cars were modified in Old Lyme and sold via select Chevy dealers.

“I think the stock 320i made about 100 hp,” Reeves asserted to Vintage Car Research. “In turbocharged form, it was making a pretty easy 175. So the car was actually a ball to drive. In those days, Car and Driver magazine was in New York City, about 70 miles away. I had recently applied for a job there and had been turned down. So I called Don Sherman there and offered him the car for as long as he cared to drive it.”

The Birth of B2K

That timely loan earned a two-page story in C/D’s October 1977 issue. “Reeves Callaway designed and manufactured this system,” Sherman wrote, “after a distinguished apprenticeship with Autodynamics Corporation and Bob Sharp Racing.” The article portrayed the system (which aftermarket supplier Miller and Norburn made available by mail order for $1,195) as a simple weekend installation that could drop the 320i’s 0-60-mph time by 26 percent, chop two seconds off its quarter-mile run, and boost its top speed from 104 to 121 mph.

“The phone started ringing with people looking for turbo systems,” Pete Callaway says, “and that was the birth of Callaway Turbo Systems. He hired some friends to help, they built a workshop onto the side of that borrowed house—where my Mom still lives today—and trained locals to weld, fabricate, and help assemble the kits, which they shipped out on Friday afternoons via UPS COD. He built the 10,000-square-foot facility that remains our headquarters today when, he said, ‘the house refrigerator could no longer hold everyone’s lunches.’”

Reeves soon expanded into other brands, including Volkswagens, six-cylinder BMWs, and Porsches, which got the attention of Alfa Romeo in North America. “They needed something to compete with the Maserati Biturbo of that era,” Pete continues. “So, the first OE automaker contract for Callaway Turbo Systems was to do a twin-turbo GTV6 2.5 liter.”

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An impressive lineup of Callaway street and racing Corvettes holds court at the M1 Concourse event held outside Detroit last August.

They built 37 of those before Alfa quit North American operations, and one ended up at the GM Proving Grounds. “GM bought one of those cars,” Reeves told Vintage Car Research, “and in their evaluation, it was a dead ringer, performance-wise, for a 1986 Corvette. I got a surprise phone call from Dave McLellan, chief engineer for the Corvette…He asked if we would be interested in producing a few twin-turbo versions of the Corvette. That is the call you wait for in this business.”

That project evolved into what Pete notes was the first time GM issued an RPO (Regular Production Option) contract to an outside company, for what became the 345-hp (later raised to 382 and finally 403 horses) Callaway Twin-Turbo Corvette, available through selected Chevy dealers beginning in 1987. It also marked the beginning of Callaway Corvettes. “We decided…that the only way to sell our cars was through Chevy dealers,” Reeves told Car and Driver’s Phillips. “So, we cherry-picked 30 stores. GM usually won’t support something it didn’t engineer, so we’re proud of that.”

Sledgehammer and Beyond

“The first Callaway factory racing effort was the 1994 24 hours of Le Mans,” Zoner relates. “[There’s] nothing like starting at the pinnacle. The company was built on constructing high-performance road cars…so the way to really establish and put a stamp on things from the competition side was to compete at Le Mans. And that Callaway Sledgehammer was a high-water mark that no one could touch for 25 years. Reeves was the genuine article. That was what he was all about.”

Callaway’s company has through the years worked with almost every automaker, “from Aston Martin to Volkswagen,” not always with its name attached to the product. But its most prolific and best-known efforts have been with GM, and primarily Corvettes, in both street and racing forms.

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The firm’s latest offering, the supercharged Callaway C8, promises performance exceeding that of the production Z06.

The firm’s 1988 Project Sledgehammer was perhaps the most emphatic demonstration of its capabilities. Callaway boosted a highly modified, twin-turbocharged 349.8-ci Corvette engine to 880 hp and 772 lb-ft of torque, Pete Callaway asserts, and built an aero-slick body that both eliminated lift and reduced drag.

Fully streetable, it was driven from Old Lyme to Ohio’s Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, then to nearly 255 mph on TRC’s 7.5-mile track, then back home to Callaway headquarters. “Reeves had been doing the test driving himself, but was called away to Aston Martin on the Group C race-engine supply program that week,” Pete Callaway relates. “So he called his friend John Lingenfelter and asked him to take over driving duties. Once some final technical challenges with the car were resolved, John achieved the 254.76-mph result.”

Callaway Cars today works primarily with GM and Corvettes. “Today’s focus,” Pete explains, “is on the C8 Corvette, supercharged, like this orange one behind us [at the 2023 M1 Concourse American Speed Festival in Pontiac, Michigan].” And it has expanded to other models in the Chevrolet, Cadillac, and GMC lineups, including pickup trucks and SUVs.

“There has also been a long line of other competition cars after the ’94 Le Mans effort, and GM has authorized us to homologate, build, race, and sell GT3 versions of the Corvette since 2006, when GT3 was started,” he says. Among other efforts, Callaway Competition, still in Leingarten, Germany, has built highly successful GT3 racecars, winning many poles, victories, and championships in international GT racing.

While other companies do high-performance road-going Corvette work, Pete adds, “Callaway enjoys a unique position as the only company blessed by GM from a warranty-relationship standpoint. The GM warranty covers Callaway-modified cars and is supplemented by our own warranty, and we still use an RPO for special projects with GM. We have a very open book and share everything with them.”

Through its three-decade history, Callaway Competition has built more than 65 racecars in seven different generations, according to Pete, while Callaway Cars has produced literally thousands of road-going Corvettes. “Reeves always did things big,” Zoner says, “always looking for the next challenge, always raising the bar.”

Also from Issue 168

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