Back on track: Historic C1 Corvette looks to pad its racing resumé

Dave Roberts knew what he wanted: a Corvette with the credentials to qualify for the Monterey Historics and, possibly, Goodwood.

His adult racing career started in 2003 with a Club Sport Porsche 94, but it was all Chevy after that. Roberts raced a vintage Camaro, a World Challenge Corvette—once teaming with Juan Pablo Montoya—and a vintage Indy car that been to the Speedway four times and carried a Chevrolet power plant.

His search for the right Corvette ended with an ad in Vintage Motorsport. Bill Morrison bought the car in 1988, restored it, and raced it until 2009. Then another Corvette captured Morrison’s fancy, and the C1 languished in his garage for six years … until Roberts came along.

The 1956 Corvette carries an impressive race history, and it all started with Jim Swan. “I wanted to change my life,” said Swan, a GM employee on weekdays and an army reserve officer on the weekends. Racing was just the ticket. In 1961, Swan purchased “an average-condition, low-performance, turquoise 1956 Corvette street car from a parts manager at the local Pontiac dealership,” with plans to race it.

Swan had the good fortune to team with Jerry Bakker, an engineer at Sun electronics, who had extensive experience with competition engines. Bakker promoted Sun’s line of gauges and performance electronics at Indy and also performed complimentary magneto testing there. Important industry connections were made, and Bakker developed a relationship with GM racing that proved most beneficial.

Swan and Bakker chose to run the ’56 Corvette as a better-equipped 1957 model and enhanced the deception by giving it the number 57. The Corvette’s appearance changed little from ’56 to ’57, but engine size increased from 265 to 283 cubic inches from one year to the next, plus a four-speed transmission became an option in ’57. The transformation project took two years to complete.

First, the Corvette was stripped. The frame was bead blasted (an unusual preparation step for that era), and all frame welds were strengthened. A new engine was balanced and blueprinted, and the cylinders were honed to perfection. During the build, the Sting Ray appeared, and many of those Chevy secret factory go-fast mods were suddenly obsolete and available. Factory contact Vince Piggins provided parts, including factory big brakes with finned drums, an endurance tank, and a special Duntov cam.

Technical advice was offered, as well. The fuel-injection unit was sectioned and enlarged to increase volume and improve airflow. Upper-suspension A arms were shortened to improve negative camber, ensuring a flatter outer tire patch during cornering.

Swan attended Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) schools, and he and the Corvette spent a week at the Carroll Shelby school in Willow Springs, Calif. Before long, Swan, Bakker, and their new firm, Motor Sports Research, scored multiple wins, and the Corvette became known as the “fastest 283 in the country.” With Dr. David Ott at the wheel, they triumphed over 50 other SCCA racers to win the 1966 Badger 200 at Elkhart Lake, Wis. At other major events, however, they were outclassed by the Mustang GT350s, 289 Shelby Cobras, and 327 Corvettes racing in the B Production class. So when Chevrolet offered Swan and Bakker a prototype Z/28 302 engine, Swan said he felt “no guilt” competing with it. Their car was fast again.

But as Motor Sports Research gained success working on behalf of other racers—including John Surtees, Jo Bonnier, Carl Haas, Roger Penske, and Don Nichols—campaigning the Corvette was out of the question. So the car was sold. A succession of owners followed, with the car on the track most seasons.

Roberts said the car was “showing its age” when he bought it in 2015 and brought it home to North Carolina, so he enlisted the help of friend and racecar engineer Nick Short to bring it back. Extensive prep followed, and Short said no detail was overlooked. “Unless you have personal knowledge of the previous build and maintenance, you just can’t count on it. Aside from the safety issues, a huge amount of time, expense, and effort are involved in getting a car to the track. It’s a shame to have a failure end your weekend.”

Before Short began the actual restoration process (or considered performance enhancements), he:

  • Squared the car with a reference string
  • Zyglo tested alloy wheels (steel wheels are typically discarded and replaced)
  • Inspected tires to determine wear, hardness, and manufacture date (replaced)
  • Inspected brakes; changed fluid, replaced wheel cylinders/seals and normal-wear items
  • Disconnected and inspected tie rods, other rod ends, and ball joints (replaced as needed)
  • Removed and inspected wheel bearings
  • Removed rear axles, measured for bends, and inspected splines
  • Placed longitudinal marks on axles to facilitate subsequent inspection for twist
  • Tested shocks and springs
  • Inspected U-joints and driveshaft
  • Removed transmission and differential fluid, and inspected for shavings and evidence of overheating
  • Tightened all chassis bolts
  • Updated safety equipment
  • Changed oil, and inspected old oil for shavings
  • Removed oil filter and sectioned it to inspect for shavings
  • Checked compression and leak down
  • Removed distributor cap and inspected all parts
  • Inspected and replaced spark plugs
  • Removed valve covers, tested valve springs, and checked valve clearance
  • Replaced thermostat
  • Inspected and changed belts
  • Removed and cleaned radiator inside and out
  • Flushed cooling system

The now-completed Corvette once again sports the number 57, as well as its original race livery (Roberts retained its most-recent blue paint, but he covers it with a Polo White wrap). Roberts also chose dual Carter WCFB (Will Carter four-barrel) carburetors, rather than fuel injection.

Roberts and Short have campaigned the Corvette at many of the country’s most storied venues—Sebring, Road America, Savannah, Virginia International Raceway, and Road Atlanta—and have achieved their goal of being one of 550 cars on the track for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion—also known as the Monterey Historics—scheduled for Aug. 17-20. Perhaps Goodwood is in their future, too.