Le Mans Memories

With L88 power propelling it to 212 mph down the Mulsanne Straight, a Corvette fielded by a privateer team from Florida made a strong showing at the 24 Hour of Le Mans in 1972.

Photo: Le Mans Memories 1
July 28, 2014

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.

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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.

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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.

After the race, Goodyear made public our Corvette’s use of its new radial racing tires, taking out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal. The tire war was officially on. Truesdale told us that Goodyear had big plans for our team: It wanted us to go to Le Mans. Though shocked, Heinz wasted no time in filling out a Le Mans entry form while the offer was still hot. However, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), which sanctions the race, denied our request. Truesdale was contacted to help resolve the problem. He reached out to Luigi Chinetti, owner of the Goodyear-sponsored North American Racing Team (NART). Chinetti had four confirmed entries—three race and one reserve—for the race, and Truesdale convinced him to assign our team his reserve entry. While this did not guarantee our getting into the race, we decided to take a chance and go to France. Before, we left, though, we had a lot of preparation work to do.

After reviewing the ACO rulebook, the team discovered that GT entries were required to have a complete interior, something our Corvette did not have; all extraneous content had been removed to make it lighter. Team owner Toye English decided it would be easier to buy a street car and turn it into a race car than make the existing L88 conform to the rules, so he bought a wrecked ’68 small-block convertible for $600 from an insurance auction in Miami. The Corvette was dismantled and the damaged parts, including the frame, were discarded. The body was repaired and FIA-spec fender flares were installed. A new frame was purchased from Ferman Chevrolet in Tampa Florida for $159. It was seam-welded for added strength and painted, then fresh “back door” GM driveline components were installed, including a blueprinted L88 big-block V8. Interestingly, we detuned it with a milder cam, lower-compression pistons and a reduced 5,800-rpm redline because of the lower-octane gasoline available at Le Mans. The team believed durability, not power, was the best way to win the GT class at Le Mans. Still, this 427-cid engine produced 575 horsepower at the crank.

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In a matter of weeks, the body and frame were finished and the roll cage was installed. The Corvette was painted red, white and blue to match NART’s Ferraris, and even wore a yellow NART sticker, complete with the Ferrari Prancing Horse, on its doors. Since #57 was already taken, we were assigned #4.

Heinz secured sponsorship from TWA for roundtrip transport of the crew, car and spare parts. In addition, Moët wines, Champion spark plugs, Goodyear and Chevrolet contributed to the effort. The car and parts were loaded into a Boeing 747 in New York and flown to Paris. Upon arrival, the team towed the car and spares to the city of Le Mans, located 110 miles to the southwest. It joined the NART crew at a Volkswagen dealership in town and got to work.

Overseeing R.E.D.’s preparations was team manager Bob Johnson, a retired race driver from Columbus, Ohio. He was nicknamed Columbus Bob to distinguish him from Heinz’s co-driver who had the same name. The latter was called Marietta Bob, as he hailed from Marietta, Ohio. Columbus Bob was a former factory Cobra and GT40 driver for Carroll Shelby, and had racked up many impressive victories. He co-drove a Chaparral with Bruce Jennings at Le Mans in 1967.

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Soon after our arrival, we learned that Ferrari had withdrawn its three factory prototypes from the race. As a result, our Corvette was moved from the reserve to the confirmed list. Our gamble had paid off. During scrutineering, which is open to the public, the Corvette proved to be a crowd pleaser. The French officials, however, had some issues with the car. Three things kept it from passing the technical inspection: its lack of a spare tire, its lack of carpeting and rear tires that stuck out past the fender flares. Columbus Bob quickly swung the crew into action: The spare tire and carpet were removed from our rental Peugeot and a trimmed piece of painted aluminum sheet was added to the rear fenders to cover the tires. After that, the Corvette passed.

Since neither of the drivers had raced at Le Mans before, it was up to Columbus Bob to coach them around the then 8.36-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. The track uses public roads, so he was able to show them some of it in a rental car, including the infamous 3.7-mile-long Mulsanne straight, which had no chicanes at the time. I remember Columbus Bob describing the strategy for driving this section over dinner: “You enter the straight from Tertre Rouge and power through the gears to fourth until you are flat out. Hold that speed for two minutes and hang on!”

Several times during race week our Corvette was clocked at 212 mph on this part of the course. This impressive speed was attained with the help of a Duntov-supplied differential with an extra-tall 2:56:1 final-drive ratio. In addition, Goodyear provided the team with larger-diameter rear tires that helped increase the car’s terminal velocity.

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After the first practice session on Wednesday, Heinz was disappointed with his times; his teammate was faster. He went to NART driver Tony Adamowicz for some advice. The Ferrari Daytona pilot asked Heinz if he lifted the throttle in the slight curve on the Mulsanne called the Kink. “Of course,” Heinz replied. Adamowicz told him, “Try this: As you enter the Mulsanne there are three slight hills and then the Kink. The secret to going fast at Le Mans is you count one hill, two hills, three hills and then you pull the wheel to the right and keep the throttle on the floor, blink and straighten the wheel and you will be through the Kink!”

Heinz thought Adamowicz was crazy. When he resumed his practice, his first lap time was the same as before, but on his next lap he was much quicker. Adamowicz noticed and said, “He must have blinked!” Later, we found out that he Heinz had indeed gone flat-out through the Kink.

While Marietta Bob had quickly come up to speed around the circuit, he experienced some bad luck. Near the end of practice, he hit a plastic advertising banner that had become dislodged from a barrier. This caused him to slide into the Armco at 100 mph. He was unhurt, but the Corvette sustained heavy front-end damage; the nose was in bad shape. The crew cut away the fiberglass and pop-riveted aluminum sheeting in its place. Wood from a shipping crate was used to support the repair, while 20 rolls of duct tape were used to cover it up.

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When the Corvette was brought out for the final practice and qualifying session on Thursday evening, the French officials were skeptical that such a quick repair could withstand the rigors of a 24-hour race. One of them climbed onto the car’s nose and jumped up and down on it. The repair held and we were allowed to qualify. Unfortunately, a handling problem kept Heinz from challenging for pole in the GT field—which included eight Ferrari Daytonas, ten Porsche 911s, four Panteras and five Corvettes—but we were in the race, which we all considered a huge accomplishment.

The tired crew members continued to do extensive adjustments on our Corvette back at the Volkswagen dealership. They discovered a suspension misalignment had caused the handling problem, and were able to correct it. Around midday on Friday, Columbus Bob declared the car ready, so it was driven to the track for an overnight stay. I parked my rental car next to the Corvette so I could guard it until morning. On race day, the team asked me to drive the Corvette onto the grid. Talk about a wake-up call—the thundering L88 engine jolted my eyes wide open! Another wake-up call came when Goodyear told us to expect rain throughout the race.

When the starting flag fell at 4 p.m., the French Matra prototypes took the lead and the crowd roared. A Greenwood Corvette led GT, but Heinz moved up quickly through the field. Then, at the end of the first hour, the car suddenly sputtered and was out of gas. Heinz managed to coast into the pits, surprising the crew. During refueling, the car only took 83 liters instead of the expected 113 liters. Based on the latter figure, the team had calculated the car could run one hour and 20 minutes between stops, but this problem reduced that time to one hour.

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Heinz reported rain on the Mulsanne, so after conferring with our Goodyear engineer we decided to mount intermediate rain tires to provide more grip in the variable track conditions. The intermediates were slicks into which Goodyear had cut grooves by hand. Shortly after his stop, Heinz had a major drama on the Mulsanne straight. “I was accelerating in fourth gear when I hit a wall of water at 200 mph,” he recalled, after handing over the car to his teammate. “Surprised, I held the wheel tight, but the car spun completely around, and when the spin stopped I was heading in the right direction. The car hardly slowed down, so I gathered up my courage and kept racing!”

As night fell, both Greenwood Corvettes were out and the two other Corvettes were struggling. Except for the fuel problem, our Corvette was running strong. Both drivers were happy with the Goodyear intermediates. The crew, myself included, kept rolling these tires from the Goodyear truck to our pits for the entire race.

Around midnight, the crew finally figured out the fueling problem. It turned out that the tank-overflow line had been pinched in the practice-session accident and could not be filled. This line was cut and refueling returned to normal. To celebrate, Columbus Bob brought the crew a huge box of hot croissants filled with hot dogs. They were a warm treat during a miserably cold, rainy night.

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All the competitors were struggling with the terrible weather. Joachim Bonnier’s Ford Lola T-280 prototype struck a Ferrari Daytona on the Mulsanne straight from behind at high speed; Bonier, an ex-Formula 1 driver from Switzerland, died in the accident. The death of this very popular driver filled the crowd with sorrow. After the accident was cleared, the race resumed—and rain continued to fall. Fortunately, Le Mans nights are short, as it doesn’t get dark until about 10 p.m., and pre-dawn light shows itself by 4:30 a.m. On this occasion, however, fog greeted the drivers in the morning, greatly limiting visibility. Both of our pilots acknowledged that it was their scariest time in the race. But the treacherous conditions didn’t keep them from pushing the Corvette up the leaderboard. At 5 a.m., it was an astonishing 8th overall, having started a lowly 53rd on the grid.

Then the team’s luck changed. When Heinz was exiting the Mulsanne straight, the engine quit. Smoke was coming from under the hood, so he grabbed the fire extinguisher. Opening the hood revealed smoldering wires. Heinz somehow jerry-rigged a quick fix and limped back to the pits. The crew was able to repair the car and get it back on track, but our hopes of a strong finish had been dashed; now the goal was simply to finish the race.

Marietta Bob drove the last stint. “The car still felt good,” he later recalled. “The engine was strong and the handling was predictable. I knew we were going to make it. As I entered the last turn, tears began flowing as the emotions of what we accomplished hit me. I remember the crew waving as I went by and I flashed the headlights. The crowd was huge as I rolled into the pits.”

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A Matra won the race, with a Ferrari Daytona finished fifth overall and first in GT. The Race Engineering & Development Corvette was 15th overall and seventh in GT. We were the only Corvette to finish.

The crew found Marietta Bob standing by the car signing autographs. We joined the fun and sprayed everyone with cold Moët champagne. Team owner English said, “Duntov came running up to me yelling and screaming, ‘We finished, we finished, that was an amazing performance!’” The Corvette Chief Engineer then gave me a big hug. It was an amazing moment.

Impressed with our team’s performance, the ACO invited us to return in ’73. Sadly, we could not, as attempts to secure sponsorship failed. Marietta Bob did go back, with the Greenwood team, but his Corvette failed to finish due to an engine failure. Heinz, who also made it back to France the following year, fared better: He co-drove a NART Ferrari Daytona to fifth overall and second in GT.

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At the end of the 1972 season, Race Engineering & Development sold its #57 L88, making the Le Mans Corvette its main race car. It was given a wide-body conversion in 1974, then sold when the team disbanded at the end of that season. A few years ago, Mike Yager, owner of Mid-America Motorworks, purchased the car and had it restored to its Le Mans specification by Corvette Repair in Valley Stream, New York. It now resides in Mid-America’s extensive collection.

Could our Corvette have won GT at Le Mans in 1972? Perhaps, but it was not meant to be. Still, for those of us fortunate to be involved in the effort, we were left with a lifetime of fond memories.

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Also from Issue 92

  • Nowicki C7 Coupe
  • Buyer's Guide: C6
  • 1981 Coupe
  • Guldstrand GS90
  • History: Fifth Generation
  • McLellan Drives a C7
  • 1992 Coupe
  • Racing: 2014 Le Mans
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