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The Crucible of Showroom Stock Racing

DOES RACING IMPROVE THE BREED? You bet it does, because racing forces you to optimize everything in the car. Improvements can then be passed on to the production car. However, in racing series other than showroom stock, I would give a much more abstract answer. Does the mechanics of Formula 1, CART, or NASCAR cars translate into production cars? At best, the link is tenuous. As we were developing the 1984 Corvette, we thought it could be a competitive production-based race car. However, while we were busy designing, developing and testing it for the consumer, we didnt have time to deal with it as a race car. By the time we introduced it to the automotive press at Riverside Raceway, in the autumn of 1982, we knew we had a car that at least felt good and performed well during racetrack demonstrations, especially the Z51 configuration. We, somewhat naively, assumed that all the testing we had done on the Proving Ground, to build reliability and robustness into the car, would translate to the racetrack. We were further encouraged, later that year, when Kim Baker took his 1984 manual transmission Corvette and won the SCCA SSGT national championship. Even though he was down on power, the fact that he had superior braking, car preparation, and driving skill, allowed Kim to beat out the favored 300 ZX turbo. We had also heard that John Greenwood was racing a 1984 Corvette, but was having wheel bearing problems.
CORVETTE GOES ENDURANCE RACING

In the summer of 1984 we learned that the SCCA was planning to expand its Playboy-sponsored Showroom Stock Endurance Series for 1985 to include the Corvette, Porsche 944, and Nissan 300 ZX turbo. We also learned that several racers were planning to prepare Corvettes for this series. We reviewed what we knew with Don Runkle, Herb Fishel, who was responsible for managing Chevrolets racing programs, and Ralph Kramer, head of Chevrolet Public Relations. They agreed that Corvette 1

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Doug Robinson, Corvettes development manager, supporting the Morrison-Cook number 88 IMSA GT class Corvette. With additional modifications, the production Corvette was capable of competing far above the level of showroom stock.

Engineering would provide technical support for the racers. Quite simply, we knew a lot more about the production car than anyone else, and stood to gain the most from GMs involvement. Our Corvette Development Manager, Doug Robinson, added racing support to his assignments. And, with the help of the entire Corvette product team:powertrain, chassis, body, and electricalwe were off to the races. Since the 1985 series consisted of 3, 6, 12, and 24 hour races, we immediately recognized that we needed to know more about the car in an endurance racing environment. With a road car you may wear out three or four sets of tires during the vehicles lifetime, but a day in the life of a race car on a 24-hour track is significantly more stressful for the tires. Half a dozen sets may be worn out entirely. Quite simply, endurance racing puts extreme and unusual stresses on the whole car. Dougs strategy for 1985 was to work directly with the team that showed the best potential. He chose the Tommy Morrison, Jim Cook, and Dick Gulstrand team. Doug started by supplying the team with a 1985 manual transmission Corvette, and a plan to thoroughly test the car in a simulated 24-hour race. We wouldnt let them take it out for competition until we were satisfied that we had sorted through and solved all the problems that occurred in our simulation. The involvement of Morrison, Cook, and Guldstrand in the testing gave them an edge over the other Corvette competitors, but since these were our tests, we would also share the results with all the other Corvette teams. Our group also managed the relationship with SCCA, and provided special parts as soon as the SCCA approved them. The objective was to beat the non-Corvette competition, and having several capable Corvette teams competing with one another made it even more difficult for the non-Corvette competition. Our racetrack test program used experienced team managers, drivers, and mechanics, who were all focused on preparing the car for the racetrack. From the start, the 1985 Corvette already differed from the 1984 the new car had a 230 nhp port fuel-injection engine and stronger wheel bearings. The rules in showroom stock racing required that the car run on street tires, although not necessarily the OEM tire, so Goodyear pro-

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duced a sport compound S version of the Gatorback, which most of the cars ran on in 1985. Girlock, our brake supplier, developed improved racing pad compounds and a quick change strategy for replacing hot brake pads. The test vehicle, from which we developed the 1985 race car, ran at about 275 hp with an open exhaust system. Test sessions were used to develop camber and toe settings that were tailored to racing conditions. These adjustments were allowed by the SCCA as long as we stayed within production tolerances. Probably the most significant thing we learned in testing was the importance of synthetic lubricants, as a way of extending the life of all lubricated components under racing conditions. Before we were finished, we were using synthetic oils in the engine, the power steering system, the manual transmission, and the axle. The power steering system was a good example of what happened with conventional lubricants in racing conditions. The continuous hard driving and dithering of the steering wheel would continue to heat the power steering fluid until it reached temperatures where it tended to break down, causing premature wear of the steering components. With synthetic power steering fluids, the same system ran cooler and exhibited a much longer lifetime, before wearing out. Everything we learned in these test sessions was shared with all of the Corvette racers. Armed with this information, they built up the 1985 race cars. These cars were developed to the best of our ability, in the time available and within the showroom stock rules. The Corvette racers were racing against Porsche and Nissan drivers, as well as against each other. So, starting from our basic specifications, each team continued to develop its car, independently, to be the fastest and most reliable car they knew how to put on the track. The 1985 season opened with a 24-hour race at Riverside Raceway, east of Los Angeles. The Morrison-Cook team was well prepared, from their test sessions. They had developed a fueling rig, and practiced tire and brake pad changes. The team prepared three Corvettes, and assembled a bevy of experienced race drivers and mechanics to support them.

John Powells number 50, under development on the track at Mosport for the original Playboy SCCA Showroom Stock series.

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Top: A routine pit stop for Powells car number 30 took less than a minute and included fuel, tires, and even brake pads Bottom: You can see the tension in their faces as Doug Rippy and his crew try to sort out a problem while the pit stop clock is ticking on them.

Success in endurance racing is all about preparation and pacing the car on the racetrack. The last thing you want to do in a 24-hour race is go flat-out. As we learned from all our testing, and our years of competitive racing, as the car is pushed harder and harder, its reliability decreases and the chances of mechanical failure increases, while the consequences of driver error become more severe. Our strategy for a 24-hour endurance race was to establish a lap time, or pace, that we were reasonably confident we could maintain for 24 hours. We would then adjust the pace during the race if other competitors demonstrated that we were too conservative. With three cars, the Morrison-Cook team could play the tortoise and hare game by assigning one of its cars to be the rabbit and the other two cars sticking to the planned pace for the race, adjusting as the race progressed to stay within striking distance of the lead. The rabbit car was there to push the competition into driving as hard as they could. Going as fast as possible is the natural response for race drivers, so the hardest thing for a race driver to do is to slow down to a managed pace and drive the car smoothly to minimize the wear and tear on the car. These 24-hour races were boring to watch. The cars just seemed to go on endlessly with little competitive racing. After many hours it was hard to keep track of who was really in the lead without consulting timing and scoring. It was imperative for the teams to have their own timing so they could manage their strategies. Working in the pits and trying to stay alert for some 30 hours means you have to put up with periods of tedium when the cars are simply lapping the circuit. However, that can quickly turn to sheer panic when you discover that one of your cars is missing. The Morrison-Cook Corvettes continued to lap the Riverside track through the night and into Sunday morning. As the finish of the race approached at noon on Sunday, we were all incredibly awake and excitedas we had stayed up all night worrying. In the end, the Morrison-Cook team finished first and second overall, and won its class. The

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third car in the team came in several places down, but was at least able to finish, despite problems it experienced during the night. Including the season finale at Atlanta, the Corvettes won every 3, 6, 12 and 24-hour race; an almost unheard of accomplishment for any car, and certainly for one in its very first year of competition. The competing Porsche and Nissan competition teams certainly didnt expect this outcome: They came back race after race, trying even harder. But so did we, and we were able to continue to keep just ahead of the competition. As a result, we helped develop capable Corvette teams that would put us in the best possible position to start the next season.
SECOND SEASON SAME AS THE FIRST

In 1986, Porsche upped the ante by bringing the 944 Turbo into the fray. SCCA continued the showroom stock series, and created a new GT Class for the Corvette, 944 Turbo, and Nissan 300 ZX. With this new class, the other cars running in class A had at least had a chance at a victory, although the Corvettes, Porsche 944, and Nissan 300ZX would surely dominate the overall wins. As in 1985, Corvette engineering continued to support the major teams, building test mules and sponsoring test sessions that would develop chassis, suspension, brake, and powertrain components to the highest possible state of reliability. When we introduced anti-lock brakes on the production Corvette, we also encouraged the use of ABS on the Corvette race cars. We were satisfied that ABS was suitable for the race car and would make a big difference during the races, particularly on a wet and slippery track or in emergency avoidance situations. Four-wheel ABS was new to the automotive scene, as well as in racing. The generation of race drivers who were driving Corvettes had never driven with ABS, so they approached it with a great deal of suspicion. Because the ABS is so driverinteractive, we finished its development at John Powells driving school on the Mosport race track near Toronto. John Powell and his race drivers developed anti-lock brake training that would be useful for all the drivers competing in showroom-stock Corvettes. During the early races of the 1986 season, John conducted

Although not part of the SCCA Showroom Stock series, several of the Corvette teams also participated in the 24-hour, Longest Day of Nelson Ledges. In this June, 1986 race, the winning Morrison-Cook Corvette, driven by John Heinricy, Don Knowles and Bob McConnell finished 13 laps ahead of its nearest competitor.

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ABS driving schools before each race, in order to give the drivers familiarity with the capabilities of the braking system. We still had a number of drivers who wanted the system turned off, but we encouraged them to drive with the ABS engaged. Toward the end of the season, drivers learned to use it to their advantage. We even had instances of drivers pulling into the pits during a race because their ABS light was on. The good news was the drivers were using the ABS effectively; the bad news was that we couldnt fix a malfunctioning ABS during a race. For the 1986 season, Porsche returned with a showroom-stock version of the 944 Turbo. In a typical race, the best Corvettes, and the quickest 944 Turbos, would qualify very close togethersometimes the 944s took the pole position, other times Corvettes qualified on top. Even in endurance racing, there are advantages in starting from the front. The first benefit is that any spins or crashes in the early minutes of the race occur behind you. The second advantage is psychological. Being on the pole tells your competitors that youre faster than any of them. However, this could also be a disadvantage if the governing body of the series tries to balance the competitors by adjusting the rules mid-season. As a result, hammering the competition in qualification could very well lead to a weight penalty being imposed for subsequent races. The tight competition between the Porsche team and the several Corvette teams continued all season long. The Corvettes had the advantage in numbers. Even though this was supposed to be endurance racing, the competition became so heated that there was often wheel-to-wheel racing, with Corvettes and Porsches taking each other out with spins and crashes. Corvettes won all of the races coming into the event at Portland, Oregon. But Porsche came to each race determined to win, and the team certainly had a good chance at Portland. The German cars started from the pole, and were able to maintain an unassailable lead on even the best Corvette. About a half hour before the finish of the race, it started to rain. Charging to stay ahead, the leading Porsche spun on the drenched track. The driver of the following Corvette saw the plight of the Porsche and was able to slow down in time, using the anti-lock brakes. Slipping past the spinning Porsche, the Corvette took the lead and stayed there to the finish. The Corvette team finished out the year by winning the subsequent races and established a two-year record of winning every race in the SCCA Showroom Stock Endurance Series. 6

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For 1987, Porsche was rumored to have bought a 1986 Corvette and to have thoroughly tested it on the companys Weissach test track in Germany. From this comparison, they developed a 944 Turbo racing package, featuring more power, bigger brakes, and ABS. Porsche had developed the 944 Turbo as a serious race car for European competition. For the SCCA Showroom Stock Series, the company was only mildly constrained by the rules. It brought whatever it needed to the track, whether it was in production, about to be produced, or experimental. SCCA bent over backward trying to help Porsche get into the winners circle. Even though we would complain about the concessions made for Porsche, it was the right thing to do for the racing series. For SCCA and the spectators, having Corvette and Porsche each winning half the time would have been just right. SCCA also had a received assurances that the Nissan 300 ZX turbo would return, and that Mazda was also considering entering the series. Given the concessions that SCCA had made for Porsche, and that the 944 Turbos were as fast or slightly faster than the Corvettes on a straightaway, Corvette felt it had the right to petition SCCA for more freedom in engine preparation. With the improvements that were agreed to, the Corvettes would run at 350-375 hp, which was still down in power from where we expected the turbocharged Porsches to be. But, with the Corvettes excellent torque curve and the better fuel economy of the naturally aspirated engine, we felt this was a reasonable balance, particularly for the longer endurance races. At full power, the production Corvettes engine management computer is programmed to run rich, to protect the engine from the extremes of the ambient environment.Very high temperatures, very low humidity, and low-octane fuel can cause detonation that a somewhat-richer full-throttle mixture will avoid. A production car spends very little of its time at full power. Youd have to be driving in excess of 140 mph continuously to get into the full-throttle enrichment system. So, this enrichment protection is invisible to the average customer, however, under racing conditions it dramatically increases fuel consumption, because the car is running at full power up to 40 percent of the time. One of the real secrets to successful endurance racing is to maximize fuel economy. At the track, we know what the ambient temperatures are going to be. We know what the humidity is. We have good control of the fuel thats being used. As a result, we can run a fuel calibration much closer to stoichiometric, without concern for detonation or over-heating. 7

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The ideal mixture, combined with a driver trained to maximize smoothness at a calculated pace, could literally double the racing fuel economy (and halve the pit stops). The Corvettes were regularly achieving as much as 7-1/2 mpg while winning.
THIRD YEAR S A CHARM

Top: Baker Racings number 4 car on the starting grid for the Escort 24-hour race at Mid Ohio. The 944 Porsche Turbo is lurking right behind, hoping to out-drag the Corvette. Middle: In this 1987 race, Baker Racings cars number 4 and 5 lead a bevy of Corvettes sandwiching a lone 944 Porsche Turbo. Bottom: Baker Racings number 4 takes the flag to win the 1987 24-hour race at Mosport in Ontario.

When it was time for the 1987 racing season, our 1988 chassis was almost in production, so the new chassis changes that would benefit racing Corvettes were introduced. These changes included a modified rear suspension and big brakes on all of the cars. Late in the season, we also introduced the sixspeed ZF manual transmission that was being developed for the 1989 Corvette and the ZR-1. The 1987 season developed much as SCCA had planned it. Porsche was very competitive, and took most of the pole positions. Nissan showed up at a couple of races with what looked like a very competitive car once it was developed, but it never went anywhere. Mazda never showed. Porsche typically fielded three cars with a team of internationally respected endurance drivers. They had every chance to make it into the winners circle but, with crashes, mechanical failures, and the extreme competitiveness among the Corvette racers, this was not to be. In the end, twelve great races from 3 hours to 24 hours in length were all won by Corvettes, and Kim Baker, with his number 3 and 4 Corvettes, won the series and clinched the manufacturing championship for Corvette. SCCA must have been bombarded with complaints from the racers in the other classes, about being overrun by the Porsches and Corvettes, and never having even a chance at the overall win. It was not unusual for competing Corvettes and Porsches to blow by on each side of a competitor from a different class. So for 1988, both cars were kicked out

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of the series. Corvette was out for winning all the time, and Porsche was barred because the 944 Turbo was still so much faster than any of the other cars that they would have dominated the series without the Corvettes. Needless to say, the series lost much of its interest that year. Meanwhile, with the momentum we had built up with the cars and racing teams, we went off to play on our own for the next two years, in what became known as the Corvette Challenge.
THE CORVETTE CHALLENGE

The Corvette Challenge was the dream of John Powell, who had run one of the Corvette teams in the SCCA Showroom Stock Series. These races, held in conjunction with a major SCCA Trans Am event, were one-hour, no-holds-barred, sprint races which typically fielded 15 to 20 Corvettes which were, essentially, identically prepared. These races produced some of the best wheel-to-wheel Corvette racing ever seen. Several of the automotive journalists who wrote for the major car magazines were also amateur race drivers and were part of the scene at the Showroom Stock endurance races, getting rides from competitors in various classes. We looked on this as an opportunity, and encouraged Corvette competitors who had a third car running to include the journalists among their drivers. This gave us the opportunity to train the journalists on anti-lock brakes in a racing environment, and also for the journalists to get a chance to experience driving Corvettes in the heat of battle. From this experience they got to know the carand usmuch better. The writers also gained first-hand knowledge of the cars robustness. The car could take pretty big hits before serious damage was done. Even
Twenty Corvette Challenge race cars line up for their one-hour race.

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damaged, the cars were often repairable and could be sent back out on the track to continue racing. By the mid 1980s, FM radio communication with the drivers was common, but data telemetry was still very unusual. We began by telemetering the digital instrument panel data from the car back to an instrument panel set up at trackside. From there, we went to telemetering more data as required. With a computer interface, we could watch the driver on the track to make sure the car stayed within rpm and temperature parameters. In this way, we could detect problems long before the driver could, and reccommend corrective action where possible. Relieved from having to watch the instruments, the driver could concentrate on racing. We also experimented with the G-Analyst electronic device to study the gravitational forces being generated. This helped the different drivers compare their performances. Drivers could profit from observing each others detailed performance, and learn how to go faster everywhere on the track. These five years of racing were incredibly important to Corvette. With the help of the teams and the drivers, including Tommy Morrison, Dick Gulstrand, Kim Baker, John Powell, and Doug Rippy, we took the Corvette from a 1984 car, that had potential but no pedigree, to a 1989 car that was world class as a production sports car and was capable of no-holdsbarred competition. We would next drop in the 400 hp LT5 engine and turn loose the pressand Corvette enthusiastsin the fastest production sports car on earth.

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