Winning Streak

Twenty-two victories in a row—that’s what the Owens/Corning Fiberglas team accomplished with a pair of L88 Corvettes. Drivers Jerry Thompson and Tony DeLorenzo tell the story of their team’s success.

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December 15, 2009

The L88 is among the winningest models in Corvette history, and our featured car, a ’68 example, won more races than any other. With a 427-cubic-inch big-block V8 putting out upwards of 600 horsepower, sleek aerodynamics and solid mechanicals, this third-generation L88 was a GT-class terror in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Drivers Tony DeLorenzo and Jerry Thompson formed the backbone of the team that raced it. Starting first with a second-generation L88 in 1967, the pair moved up to the C3 L88 the following year, building it up from parts themselves. With the backing of Owens/Corning Fiberglas, the team fielded a second L88 in 1969. Thompson drove the ’68 to an SCCA A-production national championship that year. Over the next few seasons, if Thompson didn’t win, DeLorenzo did. The pair scored 22 straight victories, and their red-and-white Corvettes became legendary.

Recently, DeLorenzo and Thompson were inducted into the National Corvette Museum Hall of Fame. Before the ceremony, we sat down with them for a lunchtime interview. The pair recalled the L88 years and shared insights into driving one of the most powerful production-based race cars of all time.

What were your respective experiences in Corvettes prior to piloting the L88 cars?

Thompson: In 1960, after engineering school and going to work for Chevrolet, I bought a 1956 Corvette. I went through driver school with it and raced it for two years, mostly locally and in some races in Canada.

DeLorenzo: My father worked for GM, and I drove a couple of different Corvettes on the street when I was young. I went to driving school at Watkins Glen in 1964 with a ’64 fuel-injected Corvette coupe. It, uh, was my father’s company car, so we probably don’t want to get into that [laughs]. After that, I raced a ’65 Corvair for a couple of years, and that’s how I met Jerry. In 1966, I qualified for the SCCA Runoffs at Riverside, but with no money, I couldn’t make the trip.

How did you get started with the L88s?

DeLorenzo: Hanley Dawson of Hanley Dawson Chevrolet in Detroit accepted my proposal [for sponsorship], and he purchased a 1967 L88 roadster and a trailer, and gave us a budget to run SCCA national races. That’s how I got started racing Corvettes.

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What were the origins of the 1968 L88 you took to the 24 Hours of Daytona?

DeLorenzo: At the end of ’67, Hanley Dawson agreed to do a 1968 L88, but the decision wasn’t made until after the 1967 Runoffs, which was in November. By that time, the ’68 cars were spoken for and we couldn’t get one, so the decision was made to build one from parts. We built it in Jerry’s garage and wore a path between it and GM’s parts warehouse in Swartz Creek, Michigan.

Describe the preparation for Daytona.

DeLorenzo: Like I said, we built the car in Jerry’s garage. We had a shop that was attached to a big farmhouse, but it wasn’t well-heated, so that’s why we did it in your garage [points to Thompson]. I’m a little hazy on who all contributed, but we had a bottomless supply of engineering students, people who worked for GM Engineering and GM Design who helped us. Of course, it wasn’t called Design back then; it was Styling.

Thompson: They were all gearheads. They’d do whatever you needed.

How did that ’68 Daytona race go?

DeLorenzo: Jerry was a friend of Don Yenko’s. So, we were invited to be part of the Sunray DX Corvette team. That meant if we showed up with our car painted like theirs, they’d cover expenses. I don’t remember the specifics, but it wasn’t a lot.

Thompson: I think it covered fuel and maybe tires.

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DeLorenzo: Yes, maybe the tires. Anyhow, the team consisted of a ’67 L88 coupe and the two new ’68 L88s. We were running wheels that had I don’t know what for an offset, but it wasn’t good. There were other issues and we started having chassis problems immediately during practice. We bent the steering relay rod; when you stepped on the brakes, the two front wheels splayed outward. That was fixed with some angle iron welded by the blacksmith shop in the pits.

But you got everything working for the race.

DeLorenzo: When the race started, the ’67 ran like a clock, but both ’68s started eating chassis parts, including the front spindles.

Thompson: It was the outer wheel bearing on the inside tire of the cars, which was the one being drug up the banking of the track. When you were on the banking, in your peripheral vision, you’d see a great shower of orange sparks. You knew the wheel bearing had turned to vapor [laughs].

DeLorenzo: So, we were going through those [wheel bearings], going through driveshafts and I think some halfshafts. Basically, all the rotating parts in the chassis had issues.

And yet, you somehow soldiered on.

DeLorenzo: We had spare parts, and when we ran out, Dick Guldstrand—who had a three-car team sponsored by Jim Garner—lent us some parts. His cars were out by then with unrepairable problems. In the wee hours of the morning, like 4 a.m., Jim Garner came over to our pits and was looking things over. There was a rivalry between the teams, of course, so not all of our guys were happy about it, but Jim smiled and said he was only stopping by to see how his parts were doing. So, he was everybody’s new best friend after that. Of course we finished, and there’s a famous photos of the three cars from our team finishing side by side.

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Why didn’t the ’67 car suffer the same wheel-bearing issues and other problems as the ’68s?

DeLorenzo: We were using narrower tires on the ’67 car and it had a narrower track. But the ’68s simply needed more development work; they needed a heavy-duty spindle, fatter halfshafts. Gib Hufstader was our savior in the long run; he kept track of what we were breaking.

Thompson: I think Zora [Arkus-Duntov] was really the savior. When we got back to Detroit [after the race], he called us in for a debriefing and, after we told him all the problems, he put out the order right away to address them: put in a stronger spindle, make the relay rod heavier, make larger halfshafts, etc. People would tell him they tested the original parts at the proving ground and he’d say, “I didn’t ask for a discussion—go do it.” His attitude was that anybody should be able to take the Corvette and do what they wanted with it—within reason—and not worry about it.

When did you acquire your ’69 L88?

DeLorenzo: At the end of the 1968 season, we sold the ’67 car and bought a ’69 L88. We also put a new frame under the ’68 car and prepped both cars for the 1969 season, which started with the 24 Hours of Daytona.

You had secured the Owens/Corning sponsorship by then, correct?

DeLorenzo: Yes. In mid-1968, I got the call after Dolly Cole [wife of then-General Motors President Ed Cole] took my proposal to New York and plunked it on the desk of the chairman of Owens/Corning Fiberglas, Curtis LeMay. In her Texas drawl, she told him, “Curtis, I think you should help these boys.” That’s when it all started. I believe our first race with them was in August 1968 at Mid-Ohio. We had the ’68 car painted for the race, but the ’67 was still black with a Nassau Blue stripe—but with Owens/Corning Fiberglas lettering on it, of course.

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The 1969 season was tough on those cars, especially the ’68, right?

DeLorenzo: Let’s see…it got totaled at Daytona in ’69 and totaled at Watkins Glen. I lost track after that. And when I say totaled, I mean we replaced the frame.

Thompson: I don’t think it caught fire when it went into the woods [at Watkins Glen].

DeLorenzo: No, that was a Camaro.

Thompson: I recall we changed the body after that, but the frame survived, didn’t it?

DeLorenzo: Oh, no. You bent the frame at Watkins Glen.

Thompson: [Gesturing toward DeLorenzo] I was hoping he forgot that [laughs].

DeLorenzo: And then the crowd—the people in the bog—came out and stole all the bodywork from the car.

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How were the driving duties handled?

Thompson: Once we had the two C3s, what we’d do was, Tony and I would be the lead driver on each car. So, we were like the captains of the respective cars. We each had other co-drivers, but if one of the cars went out of the race, we could become a co-driver for the other. We trusted each other in the cars more than anyone else, so it was the best way to approach it.

Tell us about the first victory in an L88.

DeLorenzo: For me, it was the first race I had with it [the 1967 car]. It was at Wilmot

Hills, Wisconsin in early 1967. With the Owens/Corning sponsorship, our first team win was also the first race—that August race at Mid-Ohio.

What about the first victory in 1969?

DeLorenzo: Let’s see. It wasn’t Daytona or Sebring. It was Meadow Day.

Thompson: In the rain.

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DeLorenzo: Yes, in the rain. We finished 1-2.

What were the cars like to drive?

Thompson: For the time, they worked. That doesn’t mean they were easy to drive. The engines had so much torque and power that most guys were intimidated by them. There were a few—including us—who would slide them to get the most from them. You had to have some slip angle to really race them on the hard tires they had back then. All the time, somebody would come in the pits and tell us we had the worst-handling car on the track, because it was sliding so much. They’d say, “You were entering the turns almost backwards.” Then one of the crew would show them a time sheet that [we were] a second, or more, quicker than the competition. That shut them up.

Is there any truth to the legend that the paint schemes and appearance of the cars changed often to give the illusion of a larger stable of race cars?

DeLorenzo: No. That wasn’t the case. Between Sebring and Watkins Glen were several national SCCA races. We would put the A-production track back on the car—which was narrower than the FIA allowed—and they [SCCA] would let us retain the FIA fender flares and full windshield, but they made us remove the FIA headlights. It was hodge-podge, but it was better than having to tear the fenders off.

Thompson: At the time, there weren’t many teams with multiple cars. The paint jobs changed because the cars needed to be repainted often. The block stripes of the Owens/Corning paint scheme remained pretty much the same, but the rest of it changed with Randy’s whim. [Randy Wittine was the team’s paint and body man.]

DeLorenzo: The Owens/Corning people did not like the black paint on the 1970 car. We were called to a meeting in Ohio for that one and they read us the riot act.

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What was the difference in the headlight rules?

DeLorenzo: We had to use the production headlight doors and mechanisms for SCCA [races]. The FIA lamps were in a fixed, aluminum housing. We couldn’t use the FIA lights in SCCA because they accused us of [having] an unfair advantage.

Thompson: Aerodynamics. And weight.

Let’s be honest, your long streak of wins caused some grumbling in the pits.

Thompson: We got on a roll. It was helpful that Tony was a preventative maintenance freak, because while other guys were making radical changes, we were just keeping parts fresh and making small changes. It paid off in consistency. We’d hear the other guys get to the track and complain, saying, “We’re all racing for third place because you clowns have already spoken for first and second.” Our plan was always to alternate wins in races we pretty much knew we could dominate—which was a lot of them in 1969. We would pass to allow the win to go to whose turn it was and finish in formation. Of course, it made the competitors sick, but we loved it!

DeLorenzo: At one stretch, we won 22 straight races—both A-Production and FIA long distance—and in 14 of those we finished one-two.

Did you get protested much?

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DeLorenzo: Not really.

Thompson: There was one big flap at Mid-Ohio. We were racing in the rain and it was Tony’s turn to win. I tucked in behind him and he slipped on something on the straightaway and spun out. There was another car close behind, so I thought, Forget about Tony—he can win two in a row with the next races. I tried to win for the team, which was more important. I took off and put everything I had into it, but with 600 horsepower in the rain, it wasn’t easy. At Mid-Ohio, there was a long, squiggly stretch in the back, and at the second-to-last turn before the pits, you could look back. There was Tony. He was, like, possessed, coming on strong. I was surprised that he’d dug himself out of the mud, but since it was his turn to win, I slowed to let him catch me. The starter appeared with the flag, so I slammed on the brakes. Tony went past and I tucked in behind him. The press went crazy with that, thinking we were being wise guys.

Tell us more about that 1969 Daytona race that gave the championship to Jerry.

Thompson: The day of the championship was both a high point and a low point. In 1967, I won a national championship in a Yenko Stinger, beating factory teams. So, I’d already been a national champion, and we decided in ’69 to let Tony have it. But word came down that Yenko was putting a higher-numerical gear ratio in his car to win and Tony’s car was not running right. So, I told Tony not to worry, because I’d keep the pressure on Yenko, who would drive beyond his reach to win and probably wreck. And sure enough, Yenko went “farming” out in the weeds. I looked back for Tony at that point, waiting for him to drive by, and couldn’t see him. I went across the finish line with my hands in the air, as in, “Hey, where’s Tony?” Turns out, he ran through Yenko’s debris and cut two tires. So, after the race, everyone was cheering me, and I had mixed feelings.

When did the end come for your team and the L88 Corvettes?

DeLorenzo: Our last race with Owens/Corning was Daytona in 1971. At Sebring that year, our primary sponsor was Marathon Oil. I don’t remember much about that race. I think we had trouble with both cars. But it was our last race as teammates. After that, it was on to the Trans-Am series with a couple of ex-factory Mustangs.

Thompson: We loved the Corvettes and all the success we had with them, but we were young and looking to move forward. We had won everything we could with the Corvettes, so it was time to move on. Trans-Am was the next step at the time and we were ultimately thinking about Can-Am. We were racers. That’s what you did.

John Thompson of Atherton, California bought the ’68 Owens/Corning Corvette in 2005. It had already been restored by Doug Hickey, and painted in the livery it wore at the ’71 24 Hours of Daytona. Thompson—no relation to Jerry—has subsequently had more detail work done, including redoing the instrumentation and tracking down correct new-old-stock Firestone tires. The Corvette has been shown at a number of car events, including The Quail, but Thompson plans to vintage race it eventually.

Also from Issue 55

  • Hennessey ZR700
  • 1965 restomod
  • Market Report: C1/C2
  • 1982 Collector Edition
  • Tech: Cross-Fire Injection
  • Dutch collection
  • 1,000-bhp C5 convertible
  • Genes Vettes twin-turbo C6
  • 1964 Fuelie convertible
  • NCM 15th anniversary gathering
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