“Nuclear Carrot” Corvette is a racing family tradition
An orange and purple 1964 Corvette roadster with “Nuclear Carrot” painted on its tail would have been hard to miss as it blasted around the track at The Thermal Club Speed Festival near Palm Desert, California, in late November. It has made a similar head-turning scene at other Historic Motor Sports Association events, including the HMSA Spring Club event at Laguna Seca in March 2019.
Jeni Yeakel-Swanson, a San Diego real estate attorney, is the lady at the wheel. She deftly navigates among a grid that includes other ’64–67 Corvettes, small-block Cobras, Shelby GT350 Mustangs, Jaguar E-Types, and even an occasional Porsche 904 GTS.
She also gets under the hood and the car in the pits. Her father, Fred Yeakel, is close by to offer mechanical help and support. Crew chief and best friend Leslie Verfaillie steps right in, getting her hands greasy to keep the ‘Vette in racing form. (Hagerty readers might know Fred for owning and racing one of the few Bill Thomas Cheetahs made.)
The ‘Vette, a ’64 wearing a ’66 front clip, is an SCCA B-Production veteran, now in its second career as a vintage racer. The Corvette originally wore this livery, minus the cute name, when Dave Rex raced it in SCCA Chicago Region competition in the 1960s. In those years, Fred was racing his ’57 fuelie Corvette on the West Coast.
The colorful roadster is now the focal point of a family’s multi-generational racing hobby.
At the Thermal Club event, the Nuclear Carrot unfortunately suffered a blown engine. The team struggled with axle ratios that weekend.
“I had convinced Jeni that we should put in the 4.56 rear end for the race,” Fred tells us. “When we got there, she found that she was running out of rpms a quarter of the way down the front straight. On Friday afternoon, Jeni decided she needed the 4.11 unit that we’d brought just in case. She and Leslie did it all. I was allowed to take off the rear wheels.”
Fred began vintage racing in the 1970s with his ’57 Corvette when Steve Earle established the Monterey Historic Automobile Races, a.k.a. Monterey Historics. Today, it’s The Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. He later raced his Cheetah, acquired in 1989.
“Jeni was about four when she went to her first race with us,” Fred recalls. “We went up to Portland in a little camper van. When I was racing, some of the people with us watched her.”
When she was 18, Jeni told her father she wanted to race the ’57 Vette. That was around 1999.
“I told her, fine, but she’d have to learn to work on the cars,” Fred remembers. “With her friend Leslie, there doesn’t seem to be anything they can’t do on a car. For years, when I was busy with the Cheetah, if something like a water pump needed replacing, the two got in and fixed it.”
Jeni races when she can.
“I raced at least once a year, even when I was in law school,” she says. “We try to do races we can drive to easily. I have to be able to get to the race and be back at work Monday morning.”
She remembers hearing some snide remarks early on.
“It had never occurred to me that I didn’t belong at a track or driving,” she says. “I would hear comments like, ‘It’s so sweet they have a girl out there,’ or, ‘A ‘57 fuelie, that’s a man’s car.’ I’d say, ‘Are you kidding? I just beat you!’”
Eventually, Jeni told her father she wanted to go faster. In 2007, Fred saw a ’64 Corvette racer with history advertised for sale in Vintage Motorsport magazine. The car was in Milwaukee.
“I bought it because it had a lot of documentation,” Fred says. “It was red and had been modified with fat fenders and had a roll cage and a big-block hood. The cars running high-rise intake manifolds had to use that hood for clearance.”
Extreme makeover, vintage Corvette edition
After getting the ’64 Vette back to his Orange County, California, home in March 2007, Fred entered it in the Monterey Historics. He sent Earle photos and explained his plan to rebuild the car in time for the August race.
“Steve knew how I did my cars, so he let it in,” Fred says. “We had four and a half months to tear the car down, put it back right, and get to the race.”
He used the extensive documentation file and photos to guide a restoration to the way the car raced in the ’60s. Rex, who lives in Pennsylvania, provided invaluable help by filling in the car’s backstory and original build details. He’d bought the Corvette at an insurance sale, a recovered stolen car that had been stripped.
Rex was working with Tero Corvette, a respected Corvette race shop in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, that campaigned a couple of Corvettes of their own and sponsored others. They supplied him with a ’66 front clip, which still triggers questions more than 50 years later.
“The engine, transmission, and running gear were gone when he got it,” relays Fred. “There were no doors and the front end had been cut off. It’s not a bad way to start a race car, because you can do everything the way you want.”
Rex campaigned the orange Vette in ’67 and ’68, winning the B Production Class at the Road America June Sprints and holding the track’s lap record in the class both years. After the ’68 season, he sold the car to a friend who owned it until he passed away. It was sold several more times and repainted.
“That’s how I bought it,” Fred says. “We took the body off and put on a new hood and fenders and painted it back to original colors as raced in the ’60s.”
More help stitching together history came when Fred took his ’57 Vette to the Bloomington Gold Corvette event that year. He met one of the owners of Tero Corvette, who had brought his own stash of photos and records.
The orange-with-purple-scallops paint scheme was the opposite of the purple-with-orange Tero used on its own cars. The engine is a date-coded 327 with the “double hump” heads. The intake manifold and carburetor are also correct for the car, and it is not using roller rockers. A family friend, who has since died, suggested the “Nuclear Carrot” name.
The car was completed in time to get up to Monterey on Thursday morning. When Jeni took it out on the track for a trial run, the brake pedal assembly came off. She was able to bring the car to a safe stop and then fix it.
Rex got to see and drive his old car in its restored form when he and his wife vacationed in California some years ago. That wasn’t the car’s only reconnection with its past.
“Several years ago, we were down at Coronado [Speed Festival], and a man in his 20s came over to see it,” says Fred. “He said, ‘My grandfather painted that car!’ That Sunday, he brought his grandfather over to see it.”
The car never fails to attract attention. At the 2016 Rolex Motorsports Reunion, it won the John Fitch Corvette Excellence Award.
Jeni plans to keep racing the Nuclear Carrot and in the meantime also serves as an advisor to Athena Racing, an all-female team for high school students in extracurricular S.T.E.M. education training. Her daughter Nicole, now in college, had participated as a contributor to the team. The two are restoring Nicole’s 1964 Ford Ranchero bought from a neighbor. The family tradition, as is often the case, continues.