Louis to Le Mans: History of Chevrolet Racing

Chevrolet Racing Exhibit

The Museum’s Exhibit Hall has once again been transformed to feature a special themed display. For a period of about seven months, that theme focuses on Chevrolet racing history. The story of Chevrolet racing is told from the early days of Louis Chevrolet as a racing driver for Buick, through the AMA ban on racing, to Chevrolet Racing’s involvement in NASCAR, and the Le Mans winning Corvettes. Significant stories are told through the display of various cars and artifacts, from engines including one from a C5-R, and a fuel injection cutaway, to race suits and more. The exhibit will run until January 4, 2019.

1909 Buick Model 16 “Indy Racer”
Buick Motor Company / General Motors | Flint, MI
On loan from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana

On August 19, 1909, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway held its first motor car race. Buick had several stripped-down passenger cars racing over the inaugural three-day event to show the public the worth of a Buick. William Crapo Durant, who created General Motors in 1907 out of the successful Buick Motor Company, had handpicked Louis Chevrolet to be one of the Buick team drivers. On the opening day of racing, Louis won a 10 mile, four lap race, and it is believed that this very Buick, car number 34, is the car that carried Chevrolet to that victory.

Durant would be forced out of General Motors in 1910, which led to a partnership with Louis Chevrolet and the founding of a new automobile company called the Chevrolet Motor Company. Due to some conflicting objectives, Durant would eventually buy out Chevrolet and use the success of his new company to regain control of General Motors. Louis Chevrolet would go on to found the Frontenac Motor Corporation.

1910 Buick Bug
1910 Buick Bug

1910 Buick Bug
Buick Motor Company / General Motors | Flint, MI
On loan from the Alfred P. Sloan Museum Buick Gallery

Although the two Buick Bugs are often the most remembered of early Buick racing cars, they were not as successful as most think they were. The team at Buick, consisting of Walter Marr, Louis Chevrolet, Bob Burman, and Enos DeWaters, hand built the two, single seat race cars over a period of three-weeks. These two “Bugs” (nicknamed for the cars small stature, like an insect) were built after the Buick racing team was denied entry to the 1910 races at the Indianapolis Motors Speedway, where they had been successful just one year before. When the Buick team returned to racing, with Louis Chevrolet and Bob Burman driving the new “Bugs”, they had hand painted Ram’s heads on the noses to show everyone that Buick was butting its way back in to racing.

The Buick Bugs were not as successful as other Buick race cars of the day due to a much shorter wheelbase, which made them unstable through the turns, but the 622 cubic-inch engine made up for that on the straight-away. Both Buick Bugs broke the 105-mph hour mark during races and held various Free-for-All race records around the country. Chevrolet’s Bug disappeared in 1911 and Bob Burman’s Bug only raced until 1912.
The Buick Bug on display here is the one driven by Bob Burman.

1915 Cornelian
1915 Cornelian

1915 Cornelian (Recreation)
Blood Brothers Machine Company | Kalamazoo, MI
On loan from the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed

Introduced at the New York Automobile Show in January 1914, the Cornelian was one of the greatest American cyclecars ever built. It had a standard automobile tread width of 56 inches and had unit-body construction, where the body acted as the chassis of the vehicle. Manufactured by Howard E. Blood of the Blood Brothers Machine Company, the Cornelian was met with great admiration and enthusiasm. In 1915 the brothers decided to enter one of their Cornelian cyclecars into the relatively new “Indianapolis 500” race. This was a major undertaking for the company and they needed one of the best to aid them, so they turned to Louis Chevrolet.

Louis had already driven for numerous car companies at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and was a mastermind when it came to internal combustion engines, making him the perfect person to bring a Cornelian to Indy. Louis assisted the company in modifying the Cornelian into a sleek racer with a custom nose, custom monocoque (the first of its kind in racing), and four-wheel independent suspension. When Louis took the Cornelian to Indy, he qualified for the race at a speed of 81.2 mph. Unfortunately, on the 77th lap an intake valve failed in the engine, forcing the Cornelian out of the race. The Cornelian, to this day, is the smallest car that has ever raced at the Indy 500.

1957 Black Widow NASCAR
1957 Chevrolet “Black Widow” NASCAR

1957 Chevrolet 150 “Black Widow” NASCAR
Chevrolet Division of General Motors | Detroit, MI
On loan from the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Following a tragic accident at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) agreed to a ban on manufacturer participation in American automobile racing starting in 1957. However, much like the rule book in racing, it is often more important what is not said than what is. General Motors knew that racing was still an important factor in proving a vehicle’s value, so they hired Vince Piggins, former lead race engineer for Hudson, to go to Atlanta, Georgia’s Nalley Chevrolet dealership and begin the Southern Engineering and Development Company, or SEDCO. Piggins and his team brought in 1957 Chevrolet One-Fifty Utility Sedans with a custom specifications sheet signed off by Ed Cole which included a deleted heater, radio, and rear seat, as well as a 283 cubic-inch, fuel-injected, V-8 engine developed by Smokey Yunick, and a 20-gallon fuel tank.

Built on March 1st, 1957, the Ram Jester was one of the earliest “Black Widows” produced by SEDCO and was used in both NASCAR racing and drag racing through the early 1960s. The “Black Widows” were so successful, with Buck Baker winning the 1957 National Championship in one, that they were a major factor in NASCAR’s decision to ban fuel-injected engines, a rule that was in place until 2011.

1983 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS “Pepsi Challenge” NASCAR
Chevrolet Division of General Motors | Detroit, MI
On loan from Darrell Waltrip Motorsports

In 1982, Chevrolet General Manager, Bob Stempel, visited Junior Johnson’s race shop and convinced Junior to remold the 1982 Buick NASCARs fielded by Darrell Waltrip into 1983 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS race cars. At the same time, GM relaxed the rules on advertising the performance abilities of “family” cars, leading to Chevrolet becoming one of the most successful brands in NASCAR history. This was an important step for Chevrolet, as they had no cars competing in the 1982 Daytona 500.

This all changed in 1983, as the Daytona 500 saw 14 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS NASCARs entered. One of them was this car, Darrell Waltrip’s “Pepsi Challenger.” A pre-race favorite to win, Waltrip spun out of control on lap 64, wrecking his car as he tried to avoid a slower car ahead of him.

Cale Yarborough would go on to win the race in his back up car, a 1983 Pontiac LeMans. Yarborough had wrecked his primary car, a Monte Carlo SS, just after setting a record speed of 205 miles per hour during qualifying.

1989 Chevrolet ZR1 “World Record Run Corvette”
Chevrolet Division of General Motors | Detroit, MI
On loan from General Motors.

On a trip from Detroit to Mosport in 1989, John Heinricy and Stu Hayner, both race car drivers, discussed the idea of breaking the 24-hour world speed endurance record set by Ab Jenkins in 1940. They brought the idea to Tommy Morrison of Morrison Motorsports, who enthusiastically set off to get sponsors and pull together the resources to make it happen. Although Heinricy, Hayner, and Morrison had convinced GM Engineer Jim Minniker that this could be done, many at General Motors feared failure, so the attempt was cloaked in secrecy.

At 9:56 am on March 1, 1990, this ZR-1 and an L98 powered Corvette took to the 7.712-mile track at the Firestone Test Center in Fort Stockton, Texas. Through daylight, darkness, rain, sleet, and even some lite snowfall, with the danger of wildlife wandering on the unfenced track always there, the drivers of this ZR-1 fearlessly raced to make history. At 9:56 am on March 2, Ab Jenkins’ 24-hour world record fell to the Corvette ZR-1. This very car ran the full 24 hours averaging a speed of 175.885 miles per hour. It also set new world records for 5,000 km and 5,000 mile average top speeds, proving itself to be the “King of the Hill.”

1997 Chevrolet C5.R Homologation Car
Chevrolet Division of General Motors | Detroit, MI
On loan from Pratt & Miller Engineering

In 1997, with the introduction of the fifth generation Corvette, Chevrolet was determined to get America’s sports car back on the biggest stage in the world, Le Mans. A 1997 chassis was sent to the shops of Pratt & Miller to convert into a modern endurance race car. Their engineers, fabricators, mechanics, and builders went to work giving it a race-prepared LS1 engine, a carbon fiber wide-body kit, racing suspension, and brakes, along with a roll cage and many other refinements in preparation for homologation and eventually racing.

Homologation is the process through which a car is approved by a racing sanctioning body indicating it has met the technical and safety standards required to compete. Approval for the C5-R was granted by the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States (ACCUS) allowing Corvette to return to the track for the 1999 season. Corvette Racing would gain a third-place finish at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1999. 2001 would be the comeback year for Corvette Racing when they won first place overall at Daytona, then took first in class and eighth overall at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Coincidentally, this happened 41 years after Corvette’s very first victory at Le Mans, where it also finished first in class and eighth overall.

1997 Monte Carlo NASCAR Chrome Car
Chevrolet Division of General Motors | Detroit, MI
On loan from Darrell Waltrip Motorsports.

In 1997 Darrell Waltrip decided he wanted to do something different with his Monte Carlo NASCAR and it became the first NASCAR to every be fully vinyl wrapped, but not just any vinyl wrap, chrome vinyl. NASCAR officials were not happy with Waltrip’s decision due to the fact that, as it drove alongside other cars on the track, it would reflect the color of the other car. This color changing made it difficult for the NASCAR officials to follow the car while it was on track.

It is no surprise that the first NASCAR to become fully vinyl wrapped was a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, as it had been one of the most popular bodies used in NASCAR during its production. 1997 was a tough year in NASCAR for Darrell Waltrip, it was the first year he failed to qualify for a race in over 20 years and it would be his last season as an owner/driver. However, it was a good year for Chevrolet Racing, as the Chevrolet Monte Carlo NASCAR took first, second, and third at the Daytona 500.

C6.R Corvette GT1 Test Car
Chevrolet Divison of General Motors | Detroit, MI
On loan from General Motors

Unlike the development of the C5.R Corvette race cars, which took place after the engineering of the road car was done, the C6.R Corvette race cars were engineered at the same time as the road cars. This meant that the road cars would benefit from the engineering of the race cars and have more exotic features added to them. This also made it easier to have a more advanced race car that met homologation standards. The C6.R Corvettes even included air conditioning so the drivers could better endure long races in high temperature situations.

During the C6 era of Corvette, there were two different versions of the C6.R–the GT1 and the GT2. This GT1 test car represents the version of the C6.R that took class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2005, 2006, and 2009. The GT1 Corvette was so successful that eventually every other competitor dropped out of that class. This led to Corvette entering the GT2 class in 2011 where the C6.R won its class at Le Mans as well. The GT1 version of the C6.R had 590 horsepower, carbon ceramic brakes, and aggressive aerodynamics; whereas the GT2 cars had more similarities with production Corvettes with stock aerodynamics, iron brakes, and a 470 horsepower engine. Although this C6.R never saw the race track, it clearly demonstrates the power and might of Chevrolet and Corvette Racing.

2010 Chevrolet Cruz WTCC
Chevrolet Division of General Motors | Detroit, MI
On loan from General Motors.

The World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) was a racing series for compact and mid-sized production automobiles with 2.0-liter engines. The series focused closely on nearly stock touring cars and carried the slogan, “Real Cars, Real Racing.” During the 2010 season of racing, Chevrolet dominated the WTCC and ended the season with both the Driver’s and Manufacturer’s Championships. The Cruze would repeat this result both in 2011 and 2012, and in 2013 winning the Driver’s Championship, but not the Manufacturer’s Championship due to Chevrolet leaving the series as a manufacturer team after 2012.

2011 saw changes to the WTCC, including engines changing from naturally aspirated 2.0-liter engines to 1.6-liter turbocharged engines. This led to engineering differences in the 2011 and later WTCC Cruzes, which included the engine cooling system, braking system, front suspension, and aerodynamics. The WTCC series changed to the WTCR series for the 2018 season and runs under new regulations.