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The first Corvette SR-2 is a crash-free, trophy-winning piece of history
For a factory race car, the first of three 1956 Corvette SR-2s built could not have had a better life. After a six-year road racing career with various drivers—without a single crash—it briefly became a drag racer. The SR-2 then passed through the hands of several collectors, one of whom campaigned it in vintage road racing events for nearly 30 years, also without a crash.
In 2015, collector Irwin Kroiz acquired the SR-2 and had it restored as a museum-quality showpiece. Debuting at the 2018 Amelia Island Concours d’ Elegance, it won Best in Class – Race Cars (1946–57). More awards would follow.
Had the stars aligned a bit differently in 1962, however, fate could have taken the SR-2 down a very different road. It was then that one of the most significant early Corvette racers built ended up on a Chevy dealer’s used car lot. Imagine, for a moment, a father out to help his son buy a hot car, finding this unusual Corvette on the lot, and then letting the young man loose with it.
Funny thing is, that’s pretty close to how the first SR-2 came into the world.
After floundering its first three years, Corvette had a do-over year in 1956. A smart restyle ditched the flamboyant Motorama show car look of the 1953–55 model. Underneath, mechanical upgrades directed by Chevy engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov made the Corvette into a “real sports car,” according to auto media.
In January and February 1956, Duntov set speed records in a specially prepared ’56 Vette on the Daytona Beach sand. Next, in March, came the Corvette’s trial-by-fire endurance-racing debut in the Sebring 12 Hours. Ninth overall, along with a class win (Class B – Sports 8000), was a remarkable result for the upstart. All the cars ahead of it were purpose-built Ferrari, Jaguar, Maserati, and Porsche factory sports racers.
To mark the achievement, Chevy’s ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, rushed out its classic “The Real McCoy” ad. Meanwhile, in SCCA racing, Dr. Dick Thompson, “the flying dentist,” would go on to win the C-Production national championship in a ’56 Corvette.
But Dad, it’s my Ferrari!
The Corvette’s budding racing career had some GM executives feeling miffed that design boss Harley Earl’s son, Jerome (Jerry), was racing a Ferrari. Prodded by the suits, Earl essentially bribed his son out of the Italian sports car with the promise of a special racing Corvette. Such were the perks available to high-powered GM execs back then.
A 1956 Corvette (VIN E56S002522) was pulled off the assembly line in St. Louis and shipped to Warren, Michigan, accompanied by Shop Order 90090 for “race modifications and cosmetic additions.” Kroiz received comprehensive documentation indicating that more than a dozen engineers and designers were pulled into the project.
The crew took the car completely apart, leaving little untouched in the reconstruction. When completed, it was given an altered VIN, with the “S” (for the St. Louis plant) changed to “F.”
“Nobody is really clear on what the F was for,” Kroiz says. “It may have been for Flint, where the styling center was located.”
They equipped the chassis to the same specs as the Corvette Sebring racers and customized the body to a design by Robert Cumberford. The car also got a name, “SR-2.” (SR stood for “Sports Racing,” according to Duntov.)
The racing hardware included heavy-duty suspension and drum brakes, the latter with Bendix Cerametalix linings. At the rear, Houdaille rotary dampers supplemented the larger-diameter tubular shocks. The SR-2’s engine was the stock dual four-barrel version of the 265-cubic-inch V-8 with the “Duntov” cam, teamed with a three-speed manual transmission.
Cumberford’s design lowered the nose and stretched it 14 inches, also installing a vented hood and aerodynamic cones over the headlights. Large, chrome-trimmed parking lights beneath the headlights would later be changed to air intakes that fed into ducts to cool the brakes. The side coves gained polished aluminum inserts with scoops to help cool the rear brakes.
Completing the 1950s sports-racer look, two short windscreens replaced the stock windshield, and a low-profile central stabilizer fin on the rear deck hinted at bigger things to come. Even the taillights were changed, previewing the design used on the 1958 production model. With its metallic blue paint and Halibrand knock-off-style wheels, the SR-2 looked ready to rumble.
Racing debut, then big changes
Wearing #144, the SR-2 entered the SCCA’s inaugural June Sprints six-hour race at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. The SR-2 caused a sensation in the paddock but not on the track. During practice, Jerry Earl spun the car but caused no damage.
“Jerome was not a great driver, but he never crashed the car,” Kroiz says.
Thompson instead drove and finished the race. An unofficial development driver for Corvette, he told Duntov the SR-2 needed more power and, at 2900 pounds, was too heavy. Both concerns would be addressed in a winter rebuild.
Meanwhile, a second SR-2 race car was built for Bill Mitchell, director of design under Harley Earl.
In its rebuild, the Earl car would adopt some of the Mitchell SR-2’s features, including a much taller fin on the driver’s side with a built-in headrest and the 1957 four-speed transmission. Weight was reduced by about 300 pounds, thanks mainly to a stripped-down cockpit. Porsche bucket seats replaced the Corvette’s heavy chairs, and fiberglass panels replaced the door panels. A hatch in the fin accessed the fuel filler for a 36-gallon gas tank.
While the Mitchell car got a fuel-injected 283-cu-in V-8, the Earl SR-2 went even further with a specially made 331-cu-in engine fed by prototype dual-meter fuel injection. Neither SR-2 had a stellar racing career, but both served as test beds for new hardware, and both were high-visibility ambassadors for the Corvette’s racing exploits.
At Nassau Speed Week in December 1956, NASCAR racer Curtis Turner drove the Earl SR-2 to victory in the Memorial GT race. Thompson and racing legend John Fitch, who had set a record in a stock-class Corvette at Daytona Beach in 1956, also raced the SR-2.
Just as Chevy was revving up its competition program for the 1957 Corvette, American carmakers, under the umbrella of the Automobile Manufacturers Association, agreed to halt factory-backed racing. The idea, hatched by GM president Harlow “Red” Curtice, arose from fear of potential regulations against such. Curtice, not incidentally, had a low-fin SR-2 built for him, but only with the styling features, not the racing equipment.
For Sale: Corvette race cars
Chevy sold off its Sebring racers, along with the SR-2s. The Earl car went to racer Jim Jeffords, who garnered sponsorship from Nickey Chevrolet in Chicago. Jeffords raced it at Sebring in 1957, painted Nickey’s racing color, purple, but did not finish. He won SCCA B-Production championships in 1958 and ’59 in the “Purple People Eater” Corvette, named for the Sheb Wooley hit song, selling the SR-2 to Indianapolis Chevy dealer and SCCA racer Bud Gates.
Gates raced the SR-2 for a couple of years and then put it on his used car lot in 1962. Vernon Kispert, a drag racer from Terre Haute, bought the car and renamed it “The Terror of Terre Haute.”
The SR-2 went through a few more owners, including one who had the car restored and painted red. Rich Mason then bought the car in 1986, restored it, painted it blue, and raced it in vintage events for nearly three decades. He sold it to a collector in Seattle, and Kroiz bought it in 2015.
The Mitchell SR-2 and ex-Curtice SR-2 Styling Car remain in the hands of other collectors.
Back to 1956
Wanting to return the SR-2 to its 1956 state, Kroiz sent it to Kevin Mackay’s Corvette Repair in Valley Stream, New York. Mackay’s shop is world renowned for restorations of historic Corvette race cars, including one of the original 1956 Sebring racers, the #3 1960 Le Mans racer, the 1966 Penske Racing L88 development car, and many others.
“It was an amazing piece,” Mackay says. “Mason did a great job preserving the history.”
The SR-2 originally had a prototype radiator and starter, which Mason found and sent to Mackay’s shop. The radiator was re-cored. The starter, like the entire underbody, including the splash pans and wheel wells, was red, something Harley Earl had done to other special design cars, as well. The SR-2’s chassis, though, was black.
Mackay’s shop also installed period-correct hoses, belts, and clamps, along with a correct-type battery.
Stripping off the blue paint that Mason had applied, Mackay found the previous red, the Nickey purple and, beneath that, the original blue, which he was able to match.
The SR-2 still had its original Halibrand wheels, minus a spare. Mackay located another wheel and also a full set of NOS Firestone race tires. All upholstery was redone, including the leather covering the center hump and special shifter boot.
“It was a real treat to work on this car,” Mackay says.
Expanding trophy case
Following the Amelia Island Concours, the SR-2 won Best of Class – All Racing at the Cincinnati Concours d’ Elegance and Most Significant General Motors Car at the Concours d’Elegance of America at the Inn at St. John’s in Plymouth, Michigan. Last fall, the SR-2 added Best in Show – Sport, First place for Historic Race Car, and a Historical Vehicle Association Heritage Award at the Radnor Hunt Concours in Pennsylvania.
The SR-2 is up for an American Heritage Award at the National Corvette Restorers Society in May, and Kroiz will also exhibit it at The Elegance at Hershey in June. He may need to build a bigger trophy case for this unique piece of Corvette history.