Dick Guldstrand, a legend in the annals of the Chevrolet Corvette, died Sept. 2 at his motorsports shop in Burbank, Calif. He was 87.
Known as “Mr. Corvette” for his landmark efforts to improve Chevrolet’s first sports car, Guldstrand was equal parts clever engineer, ingenious designer, innovative builder, tenacious driver, wry jokester and dapper gentleman. His career would ultimately span more than six decades.
The son of an engineer and a former vaudeville entertainer, Guldstrand came by his flair for both technical expertise and good-natured showmanship honestly. Growing up in southern California, he became fascinated with speeding cars during the post-war rise of the hot rod culture.
“You’re either a hot rodder or a candy ass,” he often said, with his characteristic blend of humor and profanity.
Guldstrand’s long love affair with the Corvette began with a 1956 model, into which he immediately began to apply his ideas for increasing performance. His interest became an obsession, an avocation then a vocation. After retiring his ’56, he won three SCCA Pacific Coast sports car titles in a 1963 Sting Ray, which earned him the lifelong approbation of Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette’s founding father.
Dick Guldstrand was Penske Racing’s first driver, hired after Roger Penske himself retired. Guldstrand successfully help to launch Penske Racing with a victory in its first big race, the 1966 24 Hours of Daytona. After he helped prep the car, he managed — despite his co-driver crashing it badly — to nurse the battered Corvette home to a class victory and ninth overall.
“I will always remember the great job Dick did for us,” Penske said. “This was our first race and a significant achievement in the history of Penske Racing.”
Guldstrand’s winning Corvette, notably, finished with two flashlights taped to the areas where the crushed headlights had been; despite the limited illumination, Guldstrand set a track record on a 3 a.m. lap. But that was only one incident that contributed to the legend of Guldstrand’s on-track exploits.
Another involved a rollover accident, from which he was lucky to walk away unscathed. Thereafter, his crew affixed an upside-down rollerskate to his cars’ roll cages. It became a signature feature of all his race cars.
From Penske, Guldstrand was hired to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a 1967 L88 with Bob Bondurant and Don Yenko. When the trailer they’d planned to transport the L88 from Paris to Le Mans failed to show up, Guldstrand and Bondurant drove the full-blown race car 125 miles on public roads to the track. He recalled that it raised quite a ruckus, with crowds growing along the route as the noisy Americans’ progress was telegraphed ahead.
He said a gendarme directing traffic at an intersection, as they blazed past, “just gave us a salute and waved us through. We about blew him off his little box.”
The team led the race through the nighttime hours, hitting speeds in excess of 170 mph, before a small engine part failed and sidelined them.
In the late 1960s, Guldstrand set up shop in Culver City, Calif., to continue working his magic on customers’ Corvettes, along with and other GM cars. He was especially noted for developing the GS80 modification to the 1986 C4 Corvette, which turned it from a relatively anemic performer to a world beater.
In recent years, he had moved his business to Burbank. In 1999, Guldstrand was inducted into the National Corvette Museum Hall of Fame.
“I will always remember the great job Dick did for us in applying his chassis expertise to set up our Grand Sport Corvette,” Penske said. “Throughout his career, Dick was a true innovator in suspension engineering; and he deserved to be called ‘Mr. Corvette.’”