Flogging the Beast

Mike Godfrey is wringing every last ounce of performance from his bone-stock 1990 ZR-1

Photo: Flogging the Beast 1
March 12, 2015

Chevrolet’s third-generation Corvette had an unusually long lifespan, stretching a full 15 model years from 1968 through 1982. This is even more remarkable when one considers that the car’s basic chassis design was essentially unchanged since 1963. Modest investment in upgrading each successive C3 model, coupled with record sales through 1979 and substantial price increases every year, meant tremendous profits for General Motors. But the good times would not last forever, and thankfully a small number of visionary leaders at GM knew this. Perhaps most notable among them was Lloyd Reuss, who, as director of engineering for Chevrolet and then vice president at Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada, understood that foreign auto manufacturers were tooling up to seriously threaten Corvette’s dominance of the American sports-car market.

The fourth-generation Corvette, introduced for the 1984 model year, was a giant leap forward, insofar as it had an all-new, thoroughly modern chassis. But to stay ahead of its coming competitors, such as Acura’s NSX, the new Corvette needed a substantial increase in power. Throughout the 1970s and into the early ‘80s, most of GM Powertrain’s engineering resources were devoted to finding solutions to the increasingly stringent emissions standards dictated by the federal government. Most of the few remaining man-hours were then spent addressing fuel-economy needs, leaving almost nothing for finding more horsepower. But by the mid-1980s Powertrain had turned the corner, largely by virtue of exponentially more sophisticated engine-control computers, and could focus more attention on performance.

Reuss, who was promoted to vice president of GM in 1986 and then president in 1990, firmly believed that steady, substantial gains in power would keep Corvette competitive in the marketplace. However, to make a statement that not only fended off the competition, but actually bludgeoned it into submission, something big—really big—was needed. After evaluating various options, including turbocharged V-6 and V-8 engines, the Corvette Group settled on the most outrageous solution on their list: the all-aluminum, dual-overhead-camshaft, 32-valve LT5 V-8 and the ZR-1 supercar that would carry it.

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Mike Godfrey bought his 1990 ZR-1 to drive

When introduced in 1990, the LT5 produced 375 horsepower, a stout increase of 53 percent compared with the standard Corvette’s 245 horsepower. But even beyond the increased output, the LT5 made a bold statement about Chevrolet’s willingness and ability to harness complex technology, and to do so at a price point that kept the car within reach of the not-so-super-rich.

While the C4 ZR-1 offered astounding levels of performance, for Chevrolet it was never about building a street-legal racing car. In fact, the same year the ZR-1 was introduced, Chevrolet quietly offered Corvettes specifically designed to go racing. Those in the know used Chevy Merchandising code R9G to buy a base Corvette coupe with modifications meant for the World Challenge series. More than anything else, the ZR-1 was an exercise to determine just how far the Corvette Group and Chevy Engineering could stretch their wings.

That’s not to suggest that ZR-1s didn’t find their way into competition. For example, Doug Rippie entered a ZR-1 entry at both Sebring and Le Mans in 1995, albeit with poor results in both races. Perhaps the best known effort, however, came not on a road course, but instead on the Firestone Tire Company test track in Fort Stockton, Texas. In March 1990 a team comprising several well-known Corvette racers, including John Heinricy, Jim Minneker, Scott Lagasse and Stu Hayner, accomplished something with a ZR-1 that Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and others had tried and failed to do with their respective cars for decades. Under the leadership of Tommy Morrison, the intrepid ZR-1 pilots laid waste to seven international speed and distance records that had stood for half a century, and established three new world records regardless of category or class.

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Turning the “Valet” key to the Normal setting closes off half of the LT-5’s intake runners, reducing output to roughly 250 hp.

C4 ZR-1 production came to a conclusion in 1995, and today a high percentage of the 6,939 built still survive in excellent condition. Few were actually driven hard, and unlike more ordinary C4s, they’ve always had enough value for owners to justify maintaining, fixing and caring for them as needed. Most rest comfortably in collectors’ garages, venturing out only in nice weather for cruise nights and car shows.

As with everything, however, there are exceptions, and Indiana resident Mike Godfrey is one noteworthy example. He bought his 1990 toward the end of 2001 and has been competing with it in autocross events, drag races and time trials ever since.

Godfrey traces his interest in cars and racing all the way back to the 1960s, when he read a book with a main character who had a race course in his backyard. He was also a big fan of the TV show Route 66, which featured two young men driving a Corvette in pursuit of adventure on America’s “Mother Road.”

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A fact evidenced by the “well loved” condition of the interior

“I still remember the first time I saw a C1 Corvette up close in a parking lot,” he tells us, “and I said I’d own one someday.”

Godfrey learned auto-repair basics working in a garage from his senior year of high school through getting drafted into military service. While stationed in Germany with the US Army, he bought a 1961 Austin Healey 3000, and when his stint with Uncle Sam was winding down, he shipped it home to Indiana. He planned to join a local sports-car club and do some autocrossing, but working full time and attending college left precious little time for play.

Not surprisingly, the Austin Healey suffered from a variety of mechanical maladies, and after a while Godfrey decided to take it apart for restoration. “I got the first part done,” he recalls with a laugh, “but couldn’t find the time to put it back together. In January 1977 I got married, and we decided to send the Austin Healey to a specialist to finish the restoration.” The company he sent it to, however, went out of business and he had to retrieve the car, which he ended up selling.

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We suspect Godfrey is more of a Full-mode guy.

In the summer of 1977, with the foul odor of the Austin Healey fiasco still lingering, Godfrey managed to pull off something few recently married men can accomplish even in the best of times. He convinced his new bride that what they really needed was a proper American sports car. “With my wife’s grudging approval, I bought a 1974 Corvette.”

For the first couple of years, the ‘74 served as Godfrey’s everyday transportation, facing every challenge that designation entails. In January 1979 he picked up his brother and was heading to work in a heavy snowstorm when the Corvette got stuck on a rural road. A sympathetic bloke in a green station wagon stopped and helped the Godfrey brothers out of their predicament. Before disappearing into the squall, the Good Samaritan suggested that Godfrey check out their local Corvette club, which would get the new season underway with an April car wash at the local Chevrolet dealership.

The ‘74 Corvette never made it to that function. In February, in yet another demonstration of husbandly gallantry, Godfrey traded the ‘74 and $1,000 for a red ‘65—at roughly the same time he and his wife learned she was pregnant with their first child.

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Engine compartment.

In April Godfrey drove his ‘65 to the car wash at the dealership and joined the Michiana Corvette Club. A couple of months later, the club put on a small autocross in the parking lot of a local mall. “That was my very first autocross,” Godfrey recalls, “but I wasn’t blown away by the experience because the course was too small.” The following year his club staged another autocross on the taxiway at a small airport, and the added room made all the difference. Godfrey was hooked.

In 1981 the Michiana club held an autocross at a larger airport, using access roads and the expansive swaths of asphalt in front of its hangars. The experience there motivated Godfrey to seek out competition with other groups. “Since our club was a founding member of the National Council of Corvette Clubs (NCCC), there were opportunities to compete with other NCCC member clubs. I found out about an event in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and that’s where I ran my first autocross put on by another club. I then started attending events in the Indiana Region of the NCCC.”

Autocrossing soon became a family affair for Godfrey. “The first Indiana event I went to, I took my oldest son David while he was still in diapers. I also have a daughter, Diana, and a second son, Brian, and all three have their own Corvettes and are involved in the club and its competition program.”

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In addition to competing at every opportunity, Godfrey also put in countless hours helping to run his club’s competition activities. “Since 1984 I have been very involved in the Indiana Region of the NCCC competition program. I have been the region executive three years, region competition director more years than I can count, and I was the VP of competition of the NCCC for four years.”

In a rare lapse of judgment, Godfrey’s addiction to competition was briefly interrupted when he sold his 1965 Corvette to help fund a down-payment on the family’s house. “I bought a somewhat rough 1973 Corvette the next year so I could compete again,” he explains. “As for the ‘65, six years after selling the car I did buy it back.”

Godfrey continued competing with, and street driving, the 1973 but by 2001 it was pretty well used up, so he began looking for a replacement. “I was looking for an all-around car that I could autocross, drive in rallies and use for parades and car shows. When I started looking I was surprised to discover that I could afford a ZR-1.”

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Though fundamentally stock, Godfrey’s car does wear a set of Kumho road-racing tires. Note, also, that the rear-wheel offset has been changed to further abet handling.

Godfrey had raced a ZR-1 when his ‘73 broke and a friend from the Ft. Wayne Corvette Club let him borrow his, so he knew how formidable a competitor the car was. He did have some serious worries about the LT5’s complexity and relatively high repair costs, but like any devoted Corvette lover, he found ways to overcome these concerns. “With the experience I had driving my friend’s ZR-1, [along with reassuring] discussions with other ZR-1 owners and my own mechanical abilities, I decided it was not an issue.”

After missing a good one that was sold before he could see it, and passing on a dud that he did see, Godfrey found the right ZR-1 in Holly, Michigan. It was a well-cared-for example that looked as good as it ran. True to his intention, Godfrey has occasionally driven the car in parades and shown it, but his main focus has been competing with it. And right from the start, he discovered the hard way that it would take some finesse to harness the LT5’s incredible power.

“The first time I drove the ZR-1 was at the Tire Rack test track, at an event put on by a Corvette club from Illinois. The very first run, I took off so fast I could not make the first turn and went out in the grass. Since then I’ve learned how to control that [acceleration], and have been racing it ever since.

“I race it every year at the time trials at Putnam Park Road Course. In addition I’ve run Autobahn, Pikes Peak Raceway, Moroso Motorsports Park, Nashville Superspeedway, Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, Hallett Motor Racing Circuit, Summit Point, Brainerd Raceway and Roebling Road…during NCCC annual conventions. I also ran the drag-race events at those conventions.”

Predictably, Godfrey has had more than his fair share of success competing with his Corvettes. “Since 1984 I have been in the top six in points every year except one, and I’ve earned two championships. The year that I missed was the year I sold my ‘65 to get the house down-payment.”

In the immediate future, Godfrey plans to continue competing with his ZR-1, hoping to win an NCCC points championship with it. After that, he’ll likely start campaigning a newer Corvette, at which time he’ll restore the ZR-1 to as-new condition. It’ll then look like 99 percent of all the other surviving C4 ZR-1s, while boasting tales of performance derring-do that the others can only dream about.

Also from Issue 97

  • C7 Z06 First Drive
  • Tech: Z06 vs. Stingray
  • LS7-Powered C1 Vetterod
  • Buyer's Guide: C5/C6 Performers
  • History: Early ME Prototypes
  • 1969 L71 Driver
  • Supercharged Callaway Stingray
  • C2 Big-Block Duo
  • Racing: Season Opener
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