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Corvettes at Le Mans

The 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans

Norm DeWitt - December 15, 2011 10:00 AM

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Looks like it is ready to take the track again.

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This is what a lot of the racers would see if they could get close enough at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1967. The car has been restored for the world to enjoy.

 

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A look inside at the control center for the ’67 contestants.

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The rear area has been through a pristine restoration. It’s show car quality in a real racer.

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If there was any doubt, this car means business.

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Dick Guldstrand (foreground) signs autograph cards and told plenty of stories that day.

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Racer Ron Fellows likes the Corvettes on display at the event.

 

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The racing career of Bob Bondurant is full of highlights. He was one of the top Corvette drivers on the West Coast, winning as many as 20 races in 1959, along with the B Production Championship. In 1962, he was contacted about driving the new generation Corvette.

Bondurant remembered, “Shelly Washburn called me and told me Corvette was making a brand new race car. He said, ‘I can’t buy it unless you drive it, but you only have to drive it once, if you’d do that for me.’ It was the Sting Ray.”

Based on his success, Bondurant was also being courted by the competition. “Shelby was telling me that he wanted me to drive the Cobra. He said, ‘I’m gonna build a Cobra’ and I said, Aw, bull, you don’t have the money. Shelby then said, ‘Trust me, I’m gonna get it, and I want you to drive it.’”

Bondurant was told Shelby would have the car ready and then he didn’t have it ready for about three different races as they were still putting it all together. “It came out the first race that I drove the Sting Ray,” Bondurant said. “Cobras had really good brakes, but they didn’t handle well. You could drive the Corvette in a four-wheel drift, but the Cobra would only go straight.”

Dick Guldstrand was another who found his calling in racing the Sting Ray. “It had an aerodynamic quality about it … it was Bill Mitchell’s baby. The styling, I can drive one of those cars today and I get thumbs up and waves. I was so very fortunate to be involved in this. I’d done extremely well racing a ’56 Corvette, so Baher Chevrolet in Huntington Beach (California) asked if I would drive for him, in a ’63 Corvette convertible. Duntov and I made it into a Z06, and I won just about everything in it.”

Guldstrand would win three consecutive Pacific Coast Championships from 1963 to 1965.

Bondurant soon had the opportunity to directly size up the competing Cobras. “Shelby called me one day and asked me what I was doing on such and such weekend. I replied ‘nothing.’ And he said, ‘OK, you’re staying at this hotel and you are driving Ken Miles’ Cobra.’

“I asked if this was a one-off deal and I thought if I drive it, I’ll find the weak points and then I’ll get back in the Corvette and beat it.” Bondurant primarily spent the next few years driving for Shelby. This was an era where FIA GT Endurance class racing was not for the meek. The race at the 1,000 km at Monza in 1965 was a good example.

“When I ran there in the Shelby Daytona coupe, we ran on the banking,” Bondurant said. “It was so rough that your vision would start to blur. They paved the last third of it, and your vision would come back. I would run flat out on there, knowing I would get my vision back by the end of the banking. It was wild.”

Guldstrand’s West Coast success had similarly led him to the opportunity to drive for a legendary team formed by Roger Penske. “Penske had just gotten a Chevy dealership and Duntov recommended me to be Roger’s driver because I was also an engineer,” said Guldstrand. “I was his first professional driver with a ’66 Corvette coupe that I picked up and then drove to the race. It was a brand new car, but then we took it all apart to use the parts I’d developed when winning the three West Coast championships. I’d won a lot of races and had some great ideas we had used with the car. This was completely separate from the Grand Sport program, as Duntov wanted to win with a production car. He wanted to win Le Mans with a production Corvette. This car ended up being the ’66 L88 that won the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.”

At Sebring, Guldstrand was also a reserve driver for the Corvette Grand Sport entry. How did that stack up to his Penske L88 GT class version? “Terrifying,” he said. “It would pull the front wheels right off the ground in second gear and you couldn’t steer it. It bounced around and had terrible brakes. Penske had entered that car as a last hurrah for Duntov. He didn’t want to run it with almost everybody running mid-engine cars. You have to remember that the Grand Sports were prototypes. It was so terribly outclassed that it was embarrassing.”

It all started to go wrong when Guldstrand crashed an Indy car late in the 1966 season. “On the high banks at Atlanta, the rear suspension came apart,” he recalled. “I really screwed myself up. I broke my back in two places and they figured I was never going to walk again.

“Payton Cramer called me up and asked if I wanted to be the manager of a Chevrolet dealership. He had been Carroll Shelby’s manager at Shelby Enterprises. When Shelby shut down, Cramer opened up Dana Chevrolet. He had also gotten a hot rod center on Long Beach Boulevard and those were the race shops. They were two separate entities … the dealership sold the pickup trucks and Impalas, but the race shops sold performance.”

There was no better way to sell Chevrolet performance in 1967 than to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Sting Ray.

“We welded up the frame, made all these structural improvements on the frame,” said Guldstrand. “We put metal bushings in the trailing arms. We did a lot of neat things that we didn’t do with the Penske car, like Heim-jointed ends for the sway bars, a lot of stuff that really stabilized the car. We did a lot of testing at Willow Springs. Bobby (Bondurant) was really helping me a lot. He had some really good ideas on how they drove Le Mans, how the brakes would wear out, and how you had to be really careful about the gear ratios.”

Dick’s previous experience from developing and racing the 1966 Penske L88 Sting Ray combined with Bondurant’s experience in everything from F1 to the Ford GT40 program. The Dana 427 Sting Ray was the final and most refined development of the C2.

Le Mans set the stage for Guldstrand’s return to the sport. “It was a wonderful car.”

The car arrived at Orly airport near Paris. Surprisingly, it had to be driven from there to Le Mans on the public roads. “Chevrolet was supposed to help us get the car to Le Mans,” said Guldstrand, “but they showed up with a four-door Opel and a Bedford diesel van. There were people calling ahead, saying ‘you won’t believe this red, white, and blue thing blowing straw 30 feet in the air that is coming down the road.’ The car wouldn’t idle under 70 miles per hour. There were a lot of crazy Frenchmen lining the road just waving.”

“We qualified somewhere in the middle of the pack,” said Bondurant. “The prototype cars were ahead. I had Le Mans starts down so well … when the arm goes up for the starter, I started running (laughs).”

At some point one wonders what might have been running through Bob’s mind, as he was already half way across the track with everyone else standing there hearing “On your marks” in French.

“I jumped in the car and started, and I was thinking ‘did they start the race?’ as I was passing the cars that were on the pole. We got a nice lead and led our class.”

To save the brakes they used an idea from Zora Duntov. “We didn’t use ’em,” Guldstrand admitted. “Bondurant showed us how to work it so that we didn’t have to use the brakes. When you lift your foot coming down the hill into Arnage, say ‘Shandaleia Schwartzkopf’ before you hit the brakes. It would provide the delay time needed to get the car to settle.”

The story behind the story — Shandaleia was once Duntov’s girlfriend and one assumes that a large number of drivers learned to drive Le Mans while chanting her name.

It was an era where it was accepted strategy to race without seat belts until you could fumble your way into the harness somewhere along the three-mile Mulsanne straight. Dan Gurney has mentioned steering at 200 mph down that straight with his knees trying to get buckled into the car. “Yeah, that’s what you do,” Bondurant confirmed. “You tape the over-the-shoulder harness to the roof, with the lap belts off to either side. It takes about five laps to get the belts on.” Driver safety was a new concept during the mid-’60s.

“We sat on the pole and set the track record for a GT car,” said Guldstrand. “It was the first time a GT car had ever gone 180 mph down the Mulsanne straight, and if you don’t think that was terrifying … what you’d wait for was the burning Ferraris out there under the trees, and then you could see where the road went.”

Very similar to scenes from Steve McQueen’s movie Le Mans, it was the reality of racing around Le Mans at night, the course illuminated by the smoldering wreckage of the competition.

In the race, the Dana Sting Ray led the GT class until its eventual demise to engine failure after 167 completed laps. “It went really well,” Guldtsrand noted. “That damn thing was so fast we kept gaining and gaining. It went out in something like the 17th hour. We would have won that thing so easy.” The cause of the early end was traced to a wrist pin failure.

Regardless of the outcome, it was a wonderful experience for the team. “The food, the parties, and the women … you have to remember that racing was dangerous, and sex was safe,” Guldtsrand said. “We had such a good time. I can go back there now and they still remember us. It’s incredible.”

Two weeks after the event, Bondurant was driving the Dana Chevrolet McLaren in the Sports Car Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, New York. A devastating accident ended his racing career.

“During the filming of the movie Grand Prix, we discussed what might help to minimize your physical damage if you went off at 150 mph. When it hit the embankment, it took the bottom right out of the car,” Bondurant recalled. “I broke both legs, both ankles, all the bones in my feet.”

While his racing may have been over, his place in the sport was far from concluded. He was soon to open the high performance driving school that has become his legacy. Bob Bondurant continues to train generations of street and track drivers. Estimates are running at 85,000 students and counting.

Dick Guldstrand, now known as “Mr. Corvette”, lives the passion to this day. His company, Guldstrand Motorsports, is a one-stop performance headquarters for everything Corvette and GM muscle.

Remember, if you have a Corvette that doesn’t stop as well as you’d like, you have choices. You can call Dick Guldstrand’s business or, if you’re feeling nostalgic, call Shandaleia Schwartzkopf.

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