When the C4 Corvette was banned for being too good, it had to create its own series
Auto racing might be the only sport that penalizes a team for winning. When that happened to the C4 Corvette in the late 1980s, the incident started an intriguing new chapter in the marque’s racing history.
The C4 Corvette thrust Chevy’s sports car into supercar handling territory, if not ultimate speed, when it debuted for 1984. With 0.9-g cornering, reliable Chevy small-block V-8 performance, and excellent brakes, the C4 quickly proved its mettle in SCCA Showroom Stock GT racing. The Vette utterly dominated the podium in the Playboy and then Escort Endurance Championship from 1985–87, relegating the Porsche 944 Turbo to a cameo role in the series.
“The Corvette beat Porsche 29–0 from 1985 to 1987,” says John Powell, who ran a racing school at Canada’s Mosport track in Ontario, Canada, and campaigned Vettes in that series.
Corvette fans were happy, but the Vette’s dominance threatened race participation by other brands, as well as fan attendance. And so, after the 1987 series, the SCCA booted the Corvettes. Powell says that when Corvette chief engineer Dave McLellan asked him for ideas, he proposed creating a new spec series along the lines of the Player’s Challenge that he’d produced in Canada for the Camaro and Firebird. Chevy leadership and marketing got onboard with his proposal for a Corvette Challenge, anticipating high visibility.
The SCCA entered the fold as a sanctioning body and administered scoring and prize disbursements. Powell lined up major sponsors, including Exxon, Goodyear, and Corvette parts and accessories supplier Mid America. Sponsorship money created a $1 million season purse, which was huge for the time. Races awarded $10,000 for a win, $7500 for second place and $5000 for third, and the series champion earned another $100,000 ($250,000 in 1989).
Powell had no trouble lining up tracks for a 10-race series. The Corvette Challenge ran as a support race for major professional series, including Trans-Am and CART events. A deal with ESPN for TV coverage included footage from Sony Handycams installed in the cars.
Building the Corvette Challenge cars
Since the Corvette Challenge was a spec series, all cars were identically equipped from the factory and identically prepared for racing before being sold to racers. Thus, competition came down to driver skill; races ran under an hour.
Before it would build cars for the series, Chevy needed an order for 50. Malcolm Konner Chevrolet in Paramus, New Jersey, then the largest Corvette dealer in the country, stepped up.
“I ordered the first 50 cars,” remembers Gary Konner, who at that time ran the dealership with his brother, R.J. Konner. Cars would be shipped to other dealers as racers ordered them and paid for the race conversion. The Konner dealership was also the Preferred Supplier of GM Goodwrench parts for the series.
As a basis for the Corvette Challenge cars, Chevy created the B9P option code, which grouped the 4+3 manual transmission, Z51 Performance Handling package, six-way power driver’s seat, Delco-Bose stereo, blue-tint glass removable roof panel, and side window and mirror defoggers.
“I had suggested a more stripped-down kind of car, something like a COPO, but this is what they wanted,” Gary Konner says.
These were showroom-stock cars, but optimized for racing. Powell explains that a large number of the Corvette’s L98 Tuned Port Injection 5.7-liter engines were dyno-tested, and only those found to be within a 2.5-percent variance from the L98’s 245-rated horsepower were installed in B9P cars. Engines and transmissions were then “sealed,” meaning that certain fasteners were marked with a special paint that could reveal tampering.
The B9P cars cost $33,043 (more than $70,000 today). The buyer also paid $15,000 for installation of a roll cage, racing seat and harness, onboard fire system, Bilstein shocks, Dymag magnesium wheels, racing brake pads, and other details. Protofab in Wixom, Michigan, converted 48 of the 56 B9P cars built: 46 raced, two were backup cars. The rest were sold unconverted.
One that didn’t race was car No. 1, which Konner bought and still owns. It has just 100 miles.
“The number was not according to a serial number, but rather how the cars were lettered,” he says.
The Corvette Challenge was not vanity racing for hobbyists. Powell’s group recruited proven racers and directed them to order the B9P cars in the pipeline. Drivers came from various road racing series and included noted Porsche racer Doc Bundy, along with Tommy Kendall, Tommy and Bobby Archer, Andy Pilgrim, Boris Said, Robin Dallenbach, Scott Lagasse, three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, and Olympic decathlon gold medalist Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner, whose best finish was 11th. The Konner dealership sponsored cars driven by Mark Wolocatiuk and Desiré Wilson.
Stu Hayner won the 1988 series (also winning that season’s Escort Endurance Championship in a Camaro), and Juan Manuel Fangio II, nephew of the legendary Grand Prix driver, took second.
“At the time, there were so many top drivers coming in from various series,” Andy Pilgrim tells Hagerty. “It was really close racing—the series did a great job of keeping everything the same for each team, so winning wasn’t easy.”
Two and done
The 1989 Challenge season expanded to 12 races, but the grid shrank considerably. Chevy built 60 cars with an option package tagged R7F, which featured the new-for-1989 ZF six-speed manual transmission and FX3 Selective Ride and Handling system. Racers had to buy the new car to compete.
For that season, Powell Development America handled race conversion, prepping 29 cars in a shop in Wixom. Of those, 27 raced and two were backup cars. The 1989 conversion differed in detail, including a new exhaust system with outlets installed through the lower rear quarters. Bill Cooper won the championship. Corvette Challenge racing wasn’t without its mishaps; at least one car was rolled and another burned.
Chevy, which was focused on launching the ZR-1 for 1990, decided against supporting a third Corvette Challenge season. The SCCA, meanwhile, accepted the Corvette into its new World Challenge series. Chevy briefly offered a new R9G option package for potential race prep, but just 23 were made and only a few are believed to have been converted.
Old Corvette Challenge cars, sought by some collectors, are still eligible to race in SCCA GT, with greater modifications, according to Eric Prill, SCCA Vice President and Chief Operations Officer. They may also run in Improved Touring or Super Production, which are regional-only classes. Some compete in vintage events.
“The cars weren’t exceptionally fast or anything, and they were running more or less stock brakes,” Pilgrim remembers. “But they sure did like to move and drift around a lot on us.” When an essentially stock car is good enough to birth its own race series, it might be worth a second look to fill that spare spot in your garage with a C4 Corvette.
I have a 91 L98 Corvette and I love it. I have just about 300k on it and runs like a champ. The Lt5 and L98 ran the Texas mile for records in 1990. What a great Corvette thee c4 is.
I live in Western Australia.I now own a 96 Collector Edition,imported from Minneapolis last year. What a beautiful motor car.It draws attention and positive comments everywhere and is still immaculate after two previous fastidious owners.This is my 4th C4,2 x stroker 86s one an ex show car and an 87,all had someone’s interpretation of improvements.The 96 is stock apart from Grand Sport wheels.It has become my dream machine the longer I own it.Thank you Dave McClennan and Tom Falconer for your books and helping this old racer truly appreciate this under appreciated car.