Saved from the crusher, barn-find Corvette roars back to racing life

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Cameron Neveu

While scrolling through a Corvette forum one day, Doug Manista discovered a 1981 Corvette race car that was about to meet its final destination: the cold steel of a car crusher in French Lake, Minnesota. In an instant, the California native was on the phone with a junkyard halfway across the country. A sale was negotiated, and the Corvette’s life was spared.

In a past life, this C3 was a venerable road racer at the hands of Jim Sanborn. The Waterloo, Iowa driver and his widebody Corvette shared the track with the likes of Willie T. Ribbs, David Hobbs, Elliott Forbes-Robinson, and Paul Newman during ’80s Trans-Am competition. Unlike many of the tubeframe beasts that they dueled, the Corvette sat on a stock 1976 chassis. A handicap, no doubt. Still, Sanborn was able to eke out impressive finishes at places like Mid-Ohio and Road America, squarely in the top half of the run sheet.

All good runs come to an end, and eventually the Vette was retired after its last race, an SCCA gathering at Land O’Lakes Raceway in August 1991. Not long after, the decommissioned C3 was tucked away in a Minnesota barn, where it sat for 28 years.

“It was full of dead rats when I found it,” says Manista, gesturing at his reborn racer, parked in the paddock of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca during 2022’s Monterey Motorsports Reunion. The avid racer, who frequently competes in the vintage scene with his two sons, already had a triumvirate of high-polish C2s with pedigrees—a 1963 split-window, a 1965 Fuelie roadster, and a 1965 coupe—so he opted to go a different route with the barn find. After cleaning out the vermin, he sorted the mechanicals, which included original Hurst Airharts (sourced from a DC 3 airplane). Ultimately, however, he left the car untouched.

“I just used some toilet bowl cleaner to put the shine back in the wheels,” says Manista. “It still has the old SCCA sticker on the door.”

The orange-and-white Corvette is a total time capsule, from the deep-dish chrome wheels to the stone-chipped fiberglass nose. (If body panels could talk!) Don’t let the blemishes fool you, though. This thoroughbred gets up and goes, thanks in part to the 355-cubic-inch small-block hunkered underneath the massive air scoop. “Only the block, heads, carburetor, and fuel cell are new parts on this car,” says Manista, who laid down a 1:38 at Laguna Seca on a pair of two-year-old tires during practice for the 2022 Reunion. Then, disaster.

Cameron Neveu

Coming out of Andretti Corner, the big Vette sheared one of its original rear axles. Manista expedited the shipment of a new stick to the track so that he and his crew could install it the next day and have the car ready for the race weekend. But when the new axle arrived, much to his dismay, it had a different flange. Eventually his crew developed a quick fix and the new one was installed.

By Saturday, Manista’s barn find Corvette was back on track—this time with Chris Hines in the drivers seat—dicing it up with the Mustangs and Camaros it once faced in the Trans-Am series more than three decades ago. Hines finished an astounding second in class. From dead rats to fast laps, this Corvette has seen it all and, under Manista’s care, it’s poised to live at least another three decades.

Cameron Neveu
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