On Friday, March 16, Chevrolet Corvette will be honored as the first American manufacturer in the Sebring Hall of Fame. The timing of Corvette's induction is fitting, as Chevrolet celebrates 60 years of Corvette production in 2012 and Sebring stages the milestone 60th Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on Saturday, March 17.
The Sebring road course is the crucible where Corvette’s racing reputation was forged. Once a training field for B-17 bomber pilots, the Hendricks Field airstrip circuit became a proving ground for legendary road racers. It was on Sebring's punishing concrete runways that Chevrolet’s fiberglass sports car first seriously challenged the European marques. On March 24, 1956, John Fitch and Walt Hansgen raced to a Class B victory at Sebring in a Corvette wearing America's traditional blue and white racing colors – the first step onto the world stage that established Chevrolet as a contender in top-level competition.
A total of 231 Corvettes have competed in the Sebring 12-hour race, and 24 of them have scored class or category victories in this legendary test of endurance. Just as Sebring evolved from a makeshift 5.2-mile airfield circuit into a 3.7-mile permanent road course, Corvette made the transition from boulevard cruiser to world-class sports car.
Victories in Sebring played a crucial role in recasting Chevrolet’s image from a producer of conservative automobiles to a company that appealed to youthful, performance-minded customers. Introduced in 1953 with a six-cylinder engine and a two-speed automatic transmission, Corvette made a great leap forward with the debut of the Chevrolet small-block V-8 in 1955. Legendary racer/engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov continually expanded Corvette's performance envelope with the development of dual four-barrel carburetors, fuel injection, Duntov-designed solid lifter camshafts, four-speed transmissions, and heavy-duty suspension packages.
Duntov was frequently at odds with the ban on corporate racing enacted by the Automobile Manufacturers Association in 1957, launching a number of unofficial programs to ensure that independent Corvette racers had the equipment they needed to compete successfully. In an era of drum brakes and three-speed gearboxes, Corvette drivers enjoyed the advantages of factory-designed performance packages.
Fresh from a record-setting session on the sands of Daytona Beach (where Duntov set the flying mile speed record at 150.583 mph), the Corvette crew hastily prepared a trio of Corvettes for the 1956 12-hour Sebring endurance race. The untested Corvettes predictably encountered teething problems, but Fitch and Hansgen persevered to finish first in Class B and ninth overall.
That first Sebring victory became the cornerstone of the Corvette legend. Chevrolet's advertising agency trumpeted the triumph with ads that declared Corvette was "The Real McCoy" and lauded Corvette as "a tough, road-gripping torpedo-on-wheels with the stamina to last through the brutal 12 hours of Sebring." Further iterations of the first-generation Corvette scored class wins at Sebring in 1957, 1958, 1960, 1961, and 1962. Notable Corvette drivers of this era included Dr. Dick Thompson, Briggs Cunningham, Jim Jeffords, 1960 Indianapolis 500 winner Jim Rathmann., Jerry Grant, Jim Hurtubise, and Don Yenko.
The Sebring Corvettes eventually sired a trio of SR Corvettes – the acronym standing for “Sebring Racer” or alternatively “Sports Racing.” Based on a Sebring Corvette chassis, the SR-2 sprouted a tail fin, racing windscreens, air scoops on the side coves, and an extended front end with driving lights that gave the machine a purposeful appearance. Corvette repeated as the GT class champion at the 1957 Sebring enduro – although it was a production model driven by Dick Thompson, "The Flying Dentist," and Gaston Andrey that took the honors.
The 1957 Corvette SS that made its competition debut in Sebring was Duntov’s technical tour de force. Conceived to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Corvette SS was a stunning machine, both visually and mechanically. A featherweight magnesium body cloaked a tubular steel space frame that featured coil-over-shock front suspension, a de Dion rear axle and inboard-mounted aluminum drum brakes. A fuel-injected small-block V-8 resided under the long, sloping hood.
A Corvette SS mule car was tested at Sebring by five-time Formula 1 world champion Juan Manuel Fangio and British ace Stirling Moss, running quick lap times in practice for the 12-hour race. Fitch and Piero Taruffi were to drive the Corvette SS in its maiden race, but suspension problems forced its retirement after only 23 laps. There was worse news in store: the Automobile Manufacturers Association announced its opposition to factory involvement in motorsports. The Corvette SS project was shelved – although the SS was resurrected long enough for Duntov to lap Daytona International Speedway at 155 mph during opening-day ceremonies in 1959.
Five lightweight Grand Sport Corvettes constructed in 1962-63 bore the unmistakable mark of Zora. Built behind closed doors when racing was officially discouraged at GM, the handful of featherweight Grand Sports kept the flame of performance alive for the Corvette faithful. Plans for a limited production run of Grand Sports were dashed when the program was canceled to comply with the AMA’s racing ban. Duntov subsequently distributed the Grand Sports to independent racers. Roger Penske and Jim Hall teamed up to win the GT Prototype class at Sebring in 1964 in a Grand Sport, with A.J. Foyt and John Cannon finishing second in Mecom Racing's Grand Sport. Two of the Grand Sports were eventually converted to roadsters, and today the five examples are among the most prized Corvettes on the planet.
Independent racers also recognized the potential of the Corvette’s small-block powertrain. Chevrolet V-8s became the preferred power source for Lister-Corvettes, Scarabs, Cheetahs and other road racing specials. Jim Hall and Hap Sharp scored an overall victory in the 1965 Sebring 12-hour in a Chaparral equipped with a Chevy small-block V-8 and automatic transmission that traced their roots to Chevrolet R&D. It was the last Sebring overall win by an all-American entry – an American car driven by American drivers.
The arrival of the third-generation Corvette in 1968 sparked a racing revival in Sebring. Now armed with big-block Chevrolet V-8 engines, drivers like John Greenwood (teamed with entertainer Dick Smothers), Tony DeLorenzo, Jerry Thompson, David Heinz, and Bob Johnson put Corvette in the Sebring winner's circle. Corvettes won the GT class at Sebring in 1968, 1970, 1971, and 1972.
Corvette participation peaked in 1973 when18 Corvettes started the Sebring 12-hour race. In the 1973 enduro, Ron Grable, John Greenwood, and Mike Brockman finished third overall, Corvette's highest finishing position until Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta, and Jan Magnussen duplicated the feat by finishing third overall in 2006 in a Corvette C6.R.
The 1980s saw the advent of the IMSA GTP era and a battle royal among manufacturers. Chevrolet's entry in the Camel GT wars was the Corvette GTP, based on a Lola chassis and powered by a turbocharged Chevy V-6 that pumped out more than 1,000 horsepower at full boost. The Corvette GTP proved to be fast but fragile at Sebring, recording a best finish of ninth in 1988 with drivers Sarel Van der Merwe and Elliott Forbes-Robinson in Hendrick Motorsports' entry.
Wally Dallenbach, Jr. and John Jones scored the only class win by a fourth-generation Corvette in the Sebring 12-hour in 1988, taking the GTO trophy in a Corvette built by Protofab. One of the principals of Protofab was Gary Pratt, who would later become the co-owner of Pratt & Miller Engineering, Chevrolet's technical partner in the Corvette Racing program.
Corvette Racing notched the first of its seven Sebring class victories in 2002 with a Corvette C5-R driven by Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell and Oliver Gavin. With wins the previous year in the Daytona and Le Mans 24-hour races, the Chevrolet team added the third jewel in endurance racing's Triple Crown at Sebring. O'Connell became the most prolific racer in Sebring history when he tallied his eighth career class win (and fifth with Corvette Racing) at Sebring in 2009. O'Connell also will be inducted into the Sebring Hall of Fame on Friday.
Corvette Racing will write another page in Corvette's racing history at Sebring on Saturday with the latest evolution of the Corvette C6.R and an all-star team of drivers. The 60th Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida will begin at 10:30 a.m. EDT.