You’d think that with an open cockpit, racing a 1957 Chevrolet Corvette in 90-degree heat would be far more tolerable than in a closed cockpit car with no air conditioning. I did, too.
But it wasn’t.
It appeared that once upon a time there was some form of heat shield situated between the engine compartment and the driver’s legs, but over the 58-some years since its birth — and thousands of miles on racetracks across America — it had long vanished. All that was left were vague remnants of those former welds. Which meant it was like sitting in a 140-degree V8-powered furnace.
The engine today is a bit bigger than it once was. In 1957, a C1 Corvette pushed around 283 horsepower from its small block V-8. This one boasts nearly 650 horsepower, and came from an old Trans-Am racer.
In a car as light as a stripped 1957 racing Corvette — originally built out of the backdoor by a pair of General Motors’ engineers — 650 horsepower is a lot. And it feels like a lot. Specifically when you arrive at the braking zones.
Beyond the burly motor, most everything else on the car is stock (or at least period correct for a ’57 Corvette). Power steering is absent, the solid rear axle is not absent, and — most importantly — neither are the tiny drum brakes.
I was racing the car in the Indy Legends Pro/Am, a race that headlines that weekend’s Brickyard Invitational at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In its second year, the Brickyard Invitational draws over 600 vintage race cars for competition — making it one of the most talked-about vintage races in America, organized by the SVRA. Last year I raced with my partner-in-crime Dave Roberts — the CEO of Carlisle Corporations. Our car was a ’69 Camaro Z/28, and we’d planned to use the same one for this year’s event — only it spun a bearing in practice. So we couldn’t.
A brief rain shower before the race meant I had to borrow a child’s umbrella
Instead Dave’s ’57 Corvette, with its drum brakes and 650 horsepower, was granted the Camaro’s place. Its competition would mostly be some 12 years older, and a few of the “period correct” muscle cars were rumored to be sporting carbon ceramic brakes. But, in the words of that bloke that was once on TV, we had POWWWERRRR.
So what’s it like to race a 1957 car designed to handle half the horsepower it now boasts? Ignoring the heat, absolutely exhilarating.
I’ve had the pleasure of racing a number of vintage race cars, and the same thing always stands out: These guys back in the day were crazy. And yet they’re not that crazy, because here I am hitting some 140+ mph on the straights at Indianapolis, with tiny drum brakes that ensure slowing down feels like falling out of an airplane without a parachute. But unlike many vintage machines — through either the aging process or poor caretakers — this Corvette feels predictable, familiar and above all solid. It doesn’t require you to recalibrate your brain. The four-speed manual transmission is precise and easy to operate, although you better be competent at heel-and-toe shifting. The clutch is so heavy, though, you need thighs reminiscent of Popeye; depressing it feels as if you’re leg-pressing the weight of the Earth.
Given our period correct tires are narrower than the competition, we struggle for grip (plus we switched to new boots for the race which inexplicably made the car horrendously loose). But on the straights, we’re as quick as the fastest early-’70s ‘Vettes and gently-modded Mustang Boss 302s (by gentle I mean they sounded like high-revving F1 cars).
By contrast, our wee ‘Vette sounds like a Californian earthquake — booming down the straight unlike anything the car’s original creators could have possibly envisaged. Naturally you have to be cautious when applying the power, as the frog-eyed monster will spin its wheels instantly. Hence the back tires slide often, as if you’re circulating a late model around Eldora — it’s brilliant.
Unfortunately the GoPro fell forward, but it’s worth watching this video purely for the noise.
But then you arrive at the braking zone again and you’re faced with a predicament: Do I brake safely and early and despite it costing me a second or two per lap? Or do I screw it, throw caution to the wind, and see what happens?
I venture towards the latter, because how often do you get the chance to race against 32 of the living 258 Indy 500 drivers in car such as this? Naturally there is no power assist with these brakes, so a tremendous amount of force is required to achieve any stopping power whatsoever. And even then slowing down remains a relative term. (I have a number of moments heading into turn one that requires a sturdy clench.)
During the race, which is a 50 minute timed event where our amateur racers run the first few laps then hand it over to us pros to finish — all of which must have competed in at least one Indy 500 (a few, like Al Unser Jr., have even won the damn thing). So I race that little ‘Vette — flat out — for 35 minutes. My friends and family watch on from the stands, along with a few additional thousand hardy race fans. I bake in the heat deriving from that monster V-8, and the windscreen is so tall it directs all the air above my visor — as if I’m cocooned within a glass bubble. My arms ache as I wrestle with the squirming machine; the steering feeling like a pair of 40 lb. dumbbells. Hence my heart races like Mo Farah. And yet we finish 15th out 33 competitors, in a car over a decade older than most.
Best of all we thrashed that little ‘Vette the way those GM engineers did back in the day. We didn’t hold back, and she delivered a ride so engaging it remains hard to jump back into a modern race car and feel complete. There’s something magical about old machines that deliver a near religious experience.
And that little ‘Vette…
It was as close as I’ve come, short of driving John Morton’s Trans-Am-winning BRE 510, or Donohue’s ’72 Indy winner. They were once in a lifetime opportunities, but this wasn’t that far off. I experienced some truly amazing things that weekend (including driving a 1978 Budweiser-sponsored Indy car), just as I did the year previous. I also discovered how much I enjoy the occasional cold shower. Because bloody hell was it hot.