Buying a Vintage Corvette Race Car
by Mike "Doc" Cobine
What is Vintage Racing
Most simply put, vintage racing is racing old cars, usually those that were the highlight of the racing scene in the '50s and '60s. Some groups define vintage racing as pre-war cars, meaning before World War II. Others define them as prior to 1959. These same groups then define newer cars as historic, instead of vintage. In those cases, they either cut the historic cars off at a newest year somewhere between 1959 and 1963 or somewhere between 1972 and 1975.
Confused? Don't feel alone, as each group has its own rules and own desires of its members. So if you are going vintage racing, it is imperative that you know who the local sanctioning body is and what their rules are. Do not buy a car first, as you may find they do not allow you to race it with them.
Rules of Most Organizations
This is like the jokes about having a dozen people from around the world discuss what is the true religion. Each one has their own ideas and as such their own rules. But there are some general rules that all share and I'll touch on them here. Again, I cannot stress enough that you get the rules from the group or groups you plan to race with first.
One place to check is with the Team.Net Vintage Pages maintained by Roger Garnett at http://www.team.net/www/vintage-race/.
The roughest guide possible is this:
- Gentlemanly and gentlewomanly driving: Vintage racing is not about racing, but driving the cars fast and safe. If you have to beat someone, then you do not belong in vintage racing.
- Driving with the 7/10ths rule: You should drive at only 7/10ths of your and the cars capability. You are not truly racing, but having a good time driving very fast.
- 13/13 rule: If you have an incident, you are on probation for 13 months. If you have another during the probation, you are suspended for 13 months. And forget just jumping to another vintage group. While they are all very independent, they do recognize the danger of having bad drivers jump from one to another, and most clubs have joined with the VMC licensing.
- Engines should be retained in their original configuration with respect to displacement, carburetion, and moving parts.
- Superchargers: Only if originally equipped.
- Fuels: Nitrous oxide injectors and fuels with nitro-methane are prohibited.
- Brakes: Not altered and usually from the original manufacturer but often permitted updating for safety, for example, Corvette disc brakes on a '63 Corvette.
- Wheels: Usually not more than 1 inch wider than stock and only stock diameter.
- Tires: Many groups have an approved tire list to prevent the super sticky street tires. Slicks are only allowed on cars actually running slicks back then.
- Body: Stock appearing and neat, with little or no commercial advertising and then usually only period advertising.
- Safety Equipment: Most encourage improved safety equipment such as fuel cells and roll cages, but not all require them. None let you out with less than what was required at the time of the car's racing period.
- Fire Extinguishers: mandatory and either 2 lb., 5lb., or fire system, depending on the group.
- Seat belts: Most require a 5 point harness with 3 inch lap and 2 inch should belts as the minimum.
- Helmets: Either an Snell SA-85 or SA 90 minimum depending on the group.
- Licensing: Most require a license, although many issue their own after successful completion of any competition school. Many recognize the Vintage Motorsport Council (VMC) license as their own, if you do not have a current SCCA or FIA license.
- Medical: Most require a medical examination every two years.
Corvettes from 1953 to 1962
These cars can practically race in everyone's races. Since they became very uncompetitive early in the '60s, very few ever raced into the '70s when the rules began to loosen considerably. As such, if you find one of these as a real race car, it is probably legal in the condition you find it, barring any damage, broken pieces, and safety items.
So we will not discuss them that much. For one of these straight axle cars, you can be sure of one thing: either it is a real race car from the period or it is one that someone made in the '80s or '90s to compete in vintage racing. You then need to verify that it is legal per the rules of the group you plan to race with.
Corvette Sting Ray and Corvette Stingray Race Cars
The 1963 to 1967 Sting Ray and the 1968 to 1973 Stingray were raced quite successfully in SCCA production class road racing. The coupe was the initial racer in the '60s as its smooth aerodynamic shape screamed of performance, but several racers showed the convertible with only a shortened windscreen had less drag. As such, most from that point on ran the convertible. There would be a few of the t-top coupes racing, but they are far in the minority. When the '78 body came out, the fastback coupe was the only body and to use the factory spoilers on front and rear, you were left with the necessity of using that body. So many '68 and '69 race cars were converted to the newer bodies.
With the chassis being made of thinner steel for lightness and better fuel economy, most racers chose to keep the older chassis because they were stronger and install the newer body panels. As such, the number of true '78 to '82 race cars is small. Most with this body will turn out to be older chassis serial numbers. The frame is a dead give-away, as the '63 to mid '68 frame is the same, the mid '68 to '72 is the same, and the rubber bumper cars had frames that changed to accommodate the shock absorber bumpers.
Serial Numbers, Titles, and Frame Numbers
While you can use frame numbers to verify the true year of the car, often this will not help, as frames were often a replacement item either from wrecks or junk yards or as a new service item over the counter from your Chevrolet dealer. The new frame was actually the plan in the Chevrolet Power Manual, which meant you could build a Corvette race car from scratch, without ever having a real Corvette.
This means that titles, the certificate issued by most states in the US, could be meaningless. Race cars in the '60s and '70s were often built from the remains of wrecks, insurance totals, and from over the counter parts from Chevrolet. Each of these cases meant that a Certificate of Title did not exist. Insurance companies often kept the title or turned them into the state. Totalled cars were often bought back, without title, as they were never intended to return to street use.
If a seller has the title and has a title history of the car, you might suspect that the car was really a street car, and not a race car. There are exceptions, and often titles were retained since some cars were legitimate street legal cars in the '60s, but it is a point to question to be sure.
Areas to Examine
There are several main areas to check, both to verify that the car is an actual old race car and to verify that you can safely race it. You should check the brake parts, the chassis, the suspension, the roll bar or cage, the driveline, and the engine. The body can be changed around so easily, that it may or may not tell you anything significant.
On the Sting Ray and Stingray chassis, disc brakes are a must. On the '63 and '64 cars, you may find drum brakes. If you do, one of three things are true about this car.
Granted, the above conditions are not absolutes, but are very probable as to the truth. If the owner tells a different story, he needs to have more than just a story to be convincing.
- The car is a very rare model and is restored to the '63-'64 time period. It is expensive. Of course, it must have the heavy duty drum brakes such as the Z06 brakes that are oversized and obviously different from regular street drum brakes. They had vent holes in the drum, screened vents in the backing plate, and usually a scoop to channel fresh air in for cooling. They also used a metallic material for the segmented pads and were a handful when cold. The automatic adjustment levers worked only when going forward, as opposed to backwards as in street brakes (you rarely back up on a race track).
- The car raced only in the early '60s before disc brakes were everywhere to be found and then was put away before converting to disc brakes.
- The car was never a real race car in the '60s or '70s.
If it has disc brakes on, you need to check just what brakes are on it. Any Wilwood, JFZ, or other racing only brake is not a standard vintage item. They may be acceptable by some clubs, but they are not a true vintage item.
Dual pin brakes were the heavy duty item. No one raced seriously without these. They are readily identified by the two cotter pins that hold the pads instead of the single thick pin in the center that holds the street pads. The dual pin pads are also bent over on the top, so that they do not fit into regular Corvette disc brake calipers. If you find regular calipers on a race car, you want to find out what happened to the dual pin calipers, or begin to doubt it authenticity.
In a real race car, the frame has been welded and welded and welded. That is because the factory only spot welded it in most places. Race cars are then typically rewelded with as continuous welds as possible. Several locations have gussets to reinforce the areas that are under the most strain. The front suspension mounts, the engine mounts, the rear suspension mounts, and most corners will have gussets to prevent the frame from breaking. If the one you are looking at doesn't, it was probably a street car that saw limited track time or possibly a restored street car that was converted to vintage racing in the '80s or '90s.
If you take a street car out racing, you will find there is a lot of chassis flex. You will need to develop a method of checking it form stress cracks frequently as if it begins to break, it could fail with catastrophic results. You should find an old version of the Chevrolet Power Manual and study the Chassis Preparation section thoroughly before you ever begin to build the car.
Solid suspensions came in early. The solid aluminum bushings and the needle bearing suspensions occurred soon as the rubber bushings were far too compliant to give good control. If you find polyurethane bushings, you have to doubt the authenticity. These items are an '80s innovation and were never found on true '60s and '70s race cars.
If you are planning on racing, think twice about going out on the rubber bushings. They permit far too much suspension geometry change when placed under the stresses involved in racing and can actually cause you to lose control. If you are building a car, do not simply bolt in a roll bar and slap on some numbers. If you do, please change your will to include me first.
Cage or Roll Bar
Depending on how the car was raced, there should be a roll bar or a roll cage. Bolt in roll bars should be looked at with suspicion. First, most welded in the bar or cage, simply because they were not there as a decoration, but to save the driver's life should the car flip. Bolt on roll bars were mainly an item used in autocrosses and later NCCC events when the rules required one. Serious SCCA racers welded them in for strength.
The roll bar or cage tells more than this. All SCCA race cars after 1972 had a roll bar number and logbook assigned to it. If the car is supposed to be real and claim to have some long history, then there should be a number. After you find the number, check the local SCCA region to verify the number as to its validity.
You can also send the information to the Corvette Race Car Registry at http://www.angelfire.com/fl/monica77/racesur.html to get verification here on the World Wide Web.
Along with the car should be a logbook. Each car was assigned a logbook number and the logbook had a signature for the tech inspection at each race. It will give a record of each race attended, not necessarily any finishing or other information. It should have any technical issues, like crashes, damage, illegal parts, and safety issues recorded, though.
If someone shows you a logbook that has a record of all the wins and placing, then you should question that logbook. That was not the purpose of the logbook.
In the '60s, the SCCA Production rules were very strict, keeping the cars very much like their street counterparts. As time went on, the rules loosened and changes were made, but as long as the Production rules ran, the main parts had to be factory Corvette. As such, small blocks ran LT-1 manifolds and Holley carbs, not Victor Jr. manifolds.
Many vintage groups today seem to be very interested in keeping the car right, unless they do not like the driver. So it is possible to find a car vintage racing with dry sump oil pumps, Aeroquip lines, Griffin radiators, Victor Jr. manifolds, Holley pro injection systems and so on.
These are fine since vintage racing is typically about having fun while driving an old car fast, but they would be signs to question the originality of the car and the authenticity of its racing roots.
In some groups, plan to spend a lot of money to go back to the correct Corvette or LT1 intake manifold and Holley carb. Plan on disposing of the aluminum small block heads (unless you have some very rare 1960 Chevy castings). The emphasis is on VINTAGE and PERIOD parts, not the latest NASCAR technology. If you want to build a 500 hp 400 inch small blcok, then you need to consider racing in current SCCA classes, and forget vintage.
Most real race cars went through the time of big flares and wide tires. Once they were race cars, they stayed race cars. You need to realize that in the early '70s, Corvettes were worth little. Sting Rays could be had for as little as $1300 and still drive them home. An old race car was worth even less. So to compete, they had to be modified to use the latest tires or run at the back.
Today, most groups do not allow flared fenders, however, there should be some clarification here. SCCA kept the stock fender line as viewed from the outside for several years in their Production classes, but in other racing such as FIA events, there were flares. For a easily found reference, you can check out Penske's '66 Corvette driven at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1966. The fenders have been radiused and a sheet metal flare installed.
In the professional racing, small flares began early and allowed larger tires. Even the larger L88 and ZL1 flares were available for the '68 and '69 Corvettes so flaring was legal in the professional long distance races, or they flares would not have been available.
As such, some vintage groups have conceded that flares could be permitted for A-Production (big block) cars. And contrary to most, cars were not always raced when new. Many real race cars became such after a few years of street use until their market value was low or they had been involved in wrecks. As such, a '63 could feasible never have been raced until '72 and yet still be very much a legitimate race car. And restoring it and racing it at a 1972 level of preparation is not only correct, it is the only true way for that particular car.
Typically, though, the body, other than fenders, were stock. If you find one with Grand Sport-type vent holes cut in the rear panels and sides, they are most likely not a real road racing Corvette. If you find wings and spoilers grafted and molded in, they are also not correct for the time period. Front spoilers were often molded in later in the mid '70s but that is outside the time frame used by most vintage groups.
Your vintage original seat may be really nice looking like the "race on Sunday, drive on Monday" philosophy of the times but a stock seat is an invitation to meet the Grim Reaper. I personally know, or rather used to know, guys who had stock seats and died as a result. Graig Hinton, the former president of Classic Auto Racing Enthusiasts and Leaping Cats vintage Jaguar racing team, died in 1992 at Moroso from the seat breaking loose, the belts thereby no longer holding him, and then he died.
Carpet was required to be removed because of the fire safety hazard it created. Door panels were often removed because cage bars had to go through them. Any car with these in them now is questionable as a true racer.
Why Buy an Old Race Car
Once you decide to race an old Corvette, you then have to get one. Now you can build it yourself or you can buy one that someone else has built. It is far faster to buy one that is already built. There is no logic in buying a $20,000 street car, throwing half of it away, adding $10,000 of modifications to it, and ending up with a car that you can only sell for $20,000 at most.
One thing most will never discuss with you is crashing. But it is a fact of life in racing, even vintage racing. Actually, in vintage racing, there are getting to be more deaths than actual racing because the race cars of today are designed to protect the driver and absorb the impact, something the old cars weren't. When you crash, you have several things to worry about. The value of the car is never the same, since your pristine restored car is now crumbled into a pile of broken fiberglass and twisted metal. No matter how good the restoration, the twisted metal will always tell unless replaced. And a frame that is replaced is a big question in the mind of a future buyer.
You also now have to worry about how good that safety equipment really is. That vintage looking roll bar may look nice, but will it save your life as you slide down a guardrail upside down? Maybe a cage would be better, and unfortunately, you don't have time to do that while crashing.
SVRA has had a few events where drivers have died. One was driving an Allard, I believe, at Moroso, where he crashed into some utility poles far off course.
Street cars are meant for the street, so buy a real race car if you plan to push it. People die in street cars every day. And be sure that current safety equipment is installed by someone who know how to install it properly.
Should I Build My Own?
It depends. If you want a genuine vintage race car, you can't build one today. It is like making a new antique. However, if you have no cares about authenticity, and just want to race an old Corvette, then build your own. However here are a few points to ponder.
- You will probably find that it is cheaper to by a ready-to-race race car than to build one. This has always been true, not to mention the time that is involved. You can easily get $10,000 involved into converting a perfect street car into a race car. Odds are you will spend far more than that. So if you have a perfect $20,000 street car, do you wish to hack it up and have $30,000 tied up in it? Or would you rather find a $20,000 or so race car than you can climb in and go race today?
- It is far faster to buy a car and go race, than to take the time to build one.
- Many of the parts you really want in a race car are not available today. This isn't 1969 and there are no 1969 speed shops around with those parts waiting for you.
- Even after you build it, you have to sort it out. Often just buying parts is the easy part.
- Do you really know how to do chassis set up?
- Do you know how to build an engine?
- Do you know how to control air flow for aerodynamics?
- Do you understand how to set up the brakes?
- Taking a pristine old Corvette and turning it into a race car is like burning your money. That car can never be restored to perfect condition, not once the frame has been welded, the body chopped up, and especially after the first time you wreck it. At least build one from a piece of junk you find in a farmer's field.
- Once you build a race car, a true race car, it will most likely never go back on the street again. The reason is the effort is too intense because a true race car has far too many serious modifications to correct.
- Chopping up a street car to race devalues it. You will lose money if you wish to retain any value to your car.
- A street car modified to race will never be worth as much as a genuine '60s or '70s race car, because it simply has no history.
- A street car modified to race will never be worth as much as a street car that is still a street car.
The Serious Stuff
Copyright © 1998-2001 The Corvette Doctor, Procrastination Racing, and all authors as listed. Use of this material is protected by the copyright laws of the United States of America.
Last Updated 08/23/01
Most references are reasonably accurate, but mainly due to memory, which can be off. If you notice something wrong, or you have more to add, email me with the information. Thanks.
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