Thursday, January 29, 2009

The 1960 Cunningham LeMans Corvettes

I'll admit, I have a soft spot in my heart for this story, and for many reasons. The first being the simple fact that this is a classic American tale of great passion, and triumph against all odds. The other stuff is a little more personal as I grew up with, and would later restore, a 1960 Corvette that belonged to my father for many years. Having had a good bit of seat time, and even more passenger seat time, in our family Corvette, the news of what Briggs Cunningham and his heroic and talented drivers were able to do with what was already dated equipment in 1960, has always been an awe-inspiring thing for me. 

Briggs Cunningham was one of the lucky few who was able to dream big and then go on to use his nearly infinite resources to help see his dreams come to fruition. One of the greatest sportsman our country will ever know, Cunningham would accomplish many of the ambitious goals he set for himself in his lifetime. A highlight would have to be winning the America's Cup in 1958 aboard the Columbia; a sailboat that he helped design, build, and would skipper to victory. 

During this same time, Briggs would become increasingly driven by his ultimate goal... to guide a sports car racing team of his design, made up of American drivers, driving American cars, to an overall win in the coveted 24 hours of LeMans international endurance race. Having had many wins behind the wheel of various race cars since before WW2, Cunningham was uniquely qualified to carry out this task. He obviously had the funds, but he also had hands on experience with not only winning races, but with car set-up, race strategy, and also with identifying talented drivers. 

Soon after the war Cunningham began his quest to not only conquer LeMans with this "All American" team, but he was going to do it in the most difficult way possible...  with a car of his own design and manufacture. This idea came to him after having fielded two Cadillacs in the 1950 running of the French classic. Amazingly, the two cars finished 10th and 11th overall with nearly factory stock drivetrains, although the 11th place car was the fabled "Le Monstre" which sported a crude but effective early version of a low drag body. 

Inspired by the success of this first attempt, Cunningham was sure that, given a proper race car, the goal of winning LeMans was within reach. A series of cars were built and fielded over the next several years starting with the Cunningham C-2R and ending with the sleek C-6R. Throughout this time the best finish by a Cunningham team car at LeMans would occur in 1952 with Briggs at the wheel of one of his stunning C-4R roadsters. Amazingly, Cunningham drove the first 20 hours of the race single handedly and without a break before finally handing over to his co-driver. 

Briggs Cunningham would stop racing cars of his own manufacture after 1955, deciding instead to compete in a wide variety and style of car including the British Jaguar. As the end of the 1950s approached, Cunningham was contacted by Chevrolet Corvette designer Zora Duntov. Duntov and Cunningham had become good friends from seeing each other at LeMans and Sebring each year. Duntov knew of Cunningham's original goal of fielding an American team at LeMans and felt he had the answer with the Corvette. 

After some discussion it was agreed that Cunningham would compete at LeMans in 1960 with a team of three identical 1960 Corvettes that Duntov would supply, and the Cunningham team would be supported by Chevrolet thanks to Zora Duntov's "back-door" assistance program. By 1960 all of the major American manufacturers had been banned from involving themselves in any kind of factory supported racing programs, so Duntov had to deliver all of his assistance to the Cunningham team in total secrecy. 

The three cars supplied to the Cunningham team were remarkably stock examples and would be placed in the GT category at LeMans. The cars were 315hp fuel injected 283s with standard 4spd Borg Warner transmissions and 3.55 posi-trac rear ends. They were equipped with oversized heavy duty vented brakes, heavy duty springs and suspension components, quick steering adapters, and oversized fuel tanks with top mounted racing gas caps. Halibrand knock off wheels were used to facilitate quick tire and wheel changes in the pits and each car had a different color treatment over its headlights so as to be easily identified from the pit area. Small aerodynamic aids were also put in place such as a hood mounted air dam. The standard instrumentation was also replaced with large, easy to read, Stewart Warner racing gauges. I'm lucky to be able to say that I've had the pleasure to sit in friend Bruce Meyer's #2 1960 Cunningham Corvette. Knowing these cars the way I do, I was absolutely astonished at how stock the interiors were in these cars when raced. The seat, shifter, pedals, and door controls were all factory original with the only real noticeable racing modifications being a slightly undersized steering wheel and of course the SW gauges. Other than that, it was like any other 1960 Corvette inside. It is also interesting to note that most of the other equipment, like the steering mods, suspension mods, oversized brakes and fuel tank, were all available from your local dealer at the time if you knew which boxes to check when ordering. 

Briggs Cunningham would go on to compete in the 1960 LeMans 24 hours with his three Corvettes ( as well as with one of the new Jaguar E2As- the very first E-Type to compete at LeMans ) and with 5 of the best racing drivers our country had to offer at the time. Namely, John Fitch, Bill Kimberly, Fred Windridge, Dick Thompson- the flying dentist, and Bob Grossman. 

Early on in the race the Corvettes would astonish the international crowd by setting a blistering pace and showing themselves to be among the fastest cars in the race by blazing down the famed Mulsanne straight at speeds in excess of 150mph. Of course weather, slower traffic, and various failures would begin to take their toll on the team of Corvettes. Before long 2 of the 3 were out of the race and the lone #3 Fitch/Grossman car was all that was left for the Cunningham team to hang their hopes on. Unfortunately, after having set such a high standard throughout the entire race of laying down consistently fast laps without any incidents, the #3 car began to overheat as the result of a blown head gasket. Because of the LeMans rules that existed at the time, cars were only allowed a stop into the pits for fuel or coolant every 24 laps. This was certainly not going to help the cause of the Cunningham team's overheating Corvette. So, with a little on the spot emergency ingenuity, it was decided that the #3 car would come into the pits on every lap and the team would pack the Corvette's engine compartment with ice and then send it back out and on its way. This continued on for the last few hours of the race as Briggs and the rest of the team scrounged the area for ice wherever they could find it. 

Incredibly, and as a great testament to the speed and driving skill of Bob Grossman, the team Cunningham #3 Corvette finished the 1960 24 hours of LeMans as the winner of the GT class and a very respectable 8th position overall. A Corvette would not finish this well again at LeMans until exactly 40 years later! 

Oh, and the average speed of the #3 Fitch/Grossman 1960 Corvette for the 24 hours???...  97 mph!... and that's including all of the pit stops for ice. 

(  The photos above are of course the Cunningham Corvettes, followed by two photos of Bruce Meyer's beautifully restored Cunningham #2 LeMans Corvette. One shows it on display in the Petersen Museum, the other of him taking it up the hill at a recent Goodwood Festival of Speed. ) 

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