Dr. Dick Thompson, the championship-winning Corvette driver known as "The Flying Dentist," carried Corvette's performance message around the world. Chevrolet will salute Thompson as one of the Corvette Legends of Le Mans at the American Le Mans Series Monterey at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on May 21-22.
Thompson co-drove one of Briggs Cunningham's trio of Corvettes in the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans in Corvette's first appearance in the world's biggest sports car race. He later became the first driver to win a race in the iconic Corvette Grand Sport, and served as a Chevrolet development driver and promotional spokesman for production Corvettes in the '60s.
Thompson will be reunited with the restored No. 2 Cunningham Corvette that he shared with Fred Windridge in Le Mans 50 years ago. The Thompson/Windridge Corvette retired at 20 hours, but the sister No. 3 Cunningham Corvette driven by John Fitch and Bob Grossman won the large displacement GT class and finished eighth overall. Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov accompanied the Corvettes to Le Mans as an advisor and was listed as a reserve driver by the Cunningham team.
“I enjoyed racing in Europe very much, and competing at Le Mans in 1960 was an unforgettable experience for me, and for the entire team," Thompson said. "Briggs Cunningham had the experience, and quite frankly the money, to put forth an effort that was second to none. We had support from Chevrolet, from Zora, and others. The cars were race prepared by Alfred Momo at his shop on Long Island. We knew going to Le Mans that the cars would be ready and we’d have a very real opportunity to win our class there."
The Corvettes were in near-stock trim, with larger gas tanks, quick-fill gas caps, magnesium wheels, oil coolers, driving lights, racing seats and heavy-duty suspension components among their limited modifications – an expression of Duntov’s philosophy of using racing to develop high-performance components for future production vehicles.
"Our car was quite fast but the brakes were a problem, as they almost always were in those early years of Corvette racing," Thompson recalled. "And of course, we had those skinny little bias-ply tires. Our Corvettes were really not big cars, but to the average Frenchman, compared with what they were used to, they looked like great big cars. More than a few of them were rather shocked to see us running around at those fantastic speeds on the skinny tires we had."
When the 55 entries were lined up for the traditional Le Mans start according to engine displacement, the three Cunningham Corvettes occupied the first three spots with their 283-cubic-inch fuel-injected small-block V8s. A fourth Corvette entered by airline pilot Lucky Casner under the Camoradi USA banner rounded out the Corvette quartet.
"At Le Mans in those years they still did a running start," Thompson said. "All the drivers would line up opposite the cars on the front straight and when the signal was given we’d each run to our car. I managed to get away ahead of everyone, and going under the Dunlop Bridge I had nothing but open road in front of me, and the entire field behind me! That was quite an exciting feeling. Of course that didn’t last, and the faster modifieds, the sports racers, managed to pass me."
Rain soon inundated the Le Mans circuit, and the drivers had to endure a cold and wet night on the pitch-black course through the French countryside.
"The Le Mans race was really a remarkable experience for me," Thompson remembered. "By 1960 I had done quite a bit of driving, at a lot of different tracks, but Le Mans was unique in many ways. It was particularly interesting at night. Sebring of course was quite dark at night, but at Le Mans it was a different feeling, a feeling of really being alone out there. The fog and the rain added to that sensation, the feeling that you’re driving through the countryside as fast as you can possibly go, with nothing but the rain, the darkness, your car, and your courage!"
The No. 2 Corvette lost time when it was mired in one of the numerous sandpits that lined the circuit, and then the overtaxed engine expired in the 20th hour.
"It was the brakes, indirectly, that took our car out of the race," he said. "The engine failed in fairly dramatic fashion, but that was not because of a problem in the engine. The brakes gradually got worse and worse and we relied more and more on the downshifts to help slow the car. The engine had been over-revved by about 1,000 rpm on some of the downshifts, and this was recorded on the tell-tale tach, and it ultimately caused the engine to give up.”
Cunningham drivers Fitch and Grossman continued to circle the immense circuit in the No. 3 Corvette, running as high as seventh overall. In the waning hours of the race, the engine overheated and lost coolant but regulations prohibited the team from refilling the radiator. Team manager Momo instructed the crew to pack the engine with ice from the team’s catering tent. Driving at reduced speed, the ice-cooled Corvette finished first in the 4000-5000cc GT class and eighth overall – the best finish by a Corvette until the arrival of Corvette Racing four decades later.
Thompson's racing career is a chronicle of the early days of Corvettes in competition. A Corvette propelled him to the 1956 SCCA C-Production national championship, putting the world on notice that Corvette was a genuine contender against European sports cars. Thompson and his Corvette left their mark in the record book in 1957, earning a class victory at Sebring and another SCCA national title. The dentist from Washington, D.C. went on to win three more national championships driving Corvettes, including the C-Modified title with Bill Mitchell’s Stingray Racer in 1960, B-Production in a Gulf Oil-sponsored Corvette in 1961, and the A-Production crown in another Gulf Oil Corvette in 1962.
Thompson was one of a handful of racers who transformed Corvette’s performance image at a crucial period in the car’s history. He played a pivotal role in laying the foundation for success that Corvette has enjoyed on the street and on tracks around the world. Chevrolet is proud to salute the Flying Dentist as one of the Corvette Legends of Le Mans.