The legacy of racing competition runs deep in Chevrolet’s 100-year history, dating back to co-founder Louis Chevrolet’s passion for racing automobiles.
A singularly iconic brand in American motorsports, Chevrolet has won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Manufacturers’ Championship 35 times, and is the most successful name in that series’ history. Chevrolet Corvette Racing has taken seven class trophies at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A Chevrolet-branded V-8 racing engine won the Indy 500 seven times between 1988 and 2002.
As Chevrolet continues to define itself as a 21st Century global automotive leader, motorsports remain integral to the plan. The racing version of the Chevrolet Cruze, which since its 2009 debut has become the bowtie brand’s best-selling car globally, claimed the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) Cup in 2010 and 2011, and is the first ever General Motors-branded vehicle to win such honors in a FIA-organized series.
During the past 100 years, innumerable defining moments have shaped Chevrolet’s racing history. The following stories highlight major milestones that have marked the brand’s journey to motorsports greatness.
Novice racer Louis Chevrolet overtakes the great Barney Oldfield
Until May 20, 1905, Swiss-born and recent U.S. immigrant Louis Chevrolet was just another New York chauffeur. Given a chance that day to drive an underpowered Fiat in a timed event at the old hippodrome in Morris Park, he broke the great Barney Oldfield’s closed-course one-mile world record.
On May 27, Chevrolet was back in the Fiat, this time in a head-to-head race against Oldfield and other daredevil drivers in a sport that had begun to captivate the country. He beat them all. It was front-page news in the New York Times. Next up was the Vanderbilt Cup, a road race on Long Island, where his dauntless driving brought him more notoriety.
By 1909, General Motors founder William C. “Billy” Durant had engaged Chevrolet, who in addition to being a renown racing driver had become an accomplished, if self-taught, mechanical engineer, to drive and help develop his Buick racing team’s cars.
After Durant lost control of General Motors in 1910, Durant and Chevrolet began talking about a new car-making adventure, which became the Chevrolet Motor Car Company on Nov. 3, 1911.
One hundred years later, it’s still not clear whether Durant wanted a car that his new partner was designing, or just his name. Regardless, even though he soon left the company, Louis Chevrolet’s never-give-up competitive spirit permeates the Chevrolet brand to this day.
Fangio’s first big win changes Chevrolet’s image in Argentina
From the early 1920s, General Motors had a rule against its divisions participating in motorsports. No one knows whether a GM unit in far-off Argentina even knew of the ban, but it’s a fact that native son Juan Manuel Fangio was a member of an official Chevrolet racing team when he won the 1940 Grande Premio Internacional del Norte. The grueling two-week, 6,000-mile race routed contestants from Buenos Aires over the Andes mountains to Lima, Peru, and back.
Friends chipped in to buy the Chevrolet coupe Fangio raced in 1939. His unexpected fifth-place finish despite a severe crash helped him land a spot on the Chevrolet team in ’40.
Fangio was Argentina’s national motor racing champion in 1940 and ’41, all the time driving a Chevrolet. His duels with good friend Oscar Galves, who always drove a Ford, fueled an early ’40s Chevrolet-Ford rivalry in Argentina that was perhaps even more passionate than that of the long-lived Chevrolet and Ford camps in the United States.
Chevrolet and the Indy 500: Two institutions forever linked
No car company has been more closely associated with the Indianapolis 500 race over the last 100 years than Chevrolet. Both institutions got their start in 1911.
In the early days, the three Chevrolet brothers, Louis, Arthur and Gaston, drove in the Indy 500, and the state-of-the-art machines they designed and built won back-to-back victories in 1920 and ’21. More recently, the V-8 racing engine that Chevrolet collaborated with England’s Ilmor Engineering to build in the 1980s won six consecutive 500s, and a brand-new 2.2L twin-turbo V-6 Indy engine is being prepared for 2012.
However, Chevrolet and the Indy 500 may be most firmly linked in the public mind today by the 22 pace cars that have sported the bowtie badge since 1948, when a gray Fleetmaster convertible became the first Chevrolet to pace the Indianapolis classic.
Over the years, Chevrolet has found Indy to be an ideal venue for revealing new models and introducing significant product developments. Just as it did in 1967 to acquaint America with the new Camaro, Chevrolet used the 2009 race to showcase its all-new 2010 Camaro, which brought the nameplate back after a seven-year hiatus. In 2008, the car Brazilian racing hero and two-time Indy winner Emerson Fittipaldi used to bring the field to the green flag was an E-85 ethanol-fueled Corvette, one of two pace cars for that year’s race.
Underdog Chevrolet shocks NASCAR at Darlington in 1955
Chevrolet’s performance reputation was virtually non-existent in the early 1950s, but when the first of the brand’s legendary small-block V-8 engines appeared in the all-new 1955 models, perceptions quickly changed. Soon, word spread through the racing world that the new V-8 developed by Chevrolet’s Ed Cole and his engineers fairly bristled with performance potential.
The Chevrolet V-8 soon demonstrated its stock car racing potential, with several early 1955 season wins at short-track events. But the real break-out on the stock car front occurred at the important NASCAR Southern 500 race held at the Darlington, S.C. “super speedway” on Labor Day, 1955. There, driver Herb Thomas led a surprise Chevrolet rout that saw seven of the new V-8s finish in the Top 10.
With the Darlington win, the Chevrolet V-8 came into its own, and NASCAR racing would never be the same. While the big and powerful larger cars that had previously dominated the circuit were shredding tires and losing engines that day, the nimble-but-rugged Chevrolets just kept on going. Although running with a smaller engine and less horsepower than the bigger cars, the Chevrolets were considerably lighter, which gave them better gas mileage – resulting in fewer pit stops. And the new cars shocked everybody by going the distance without tire changes.
Corvette’s first Sebring race helps make Chevrolet America’s performance leader
In a gamble that even Zora Arkus-Duntov thought too risky, Ed Cole sent four Corvettes to the Sebring 12-hour endurance race in 1956. Overall, they fared poorly. But the efforts that went into putting them into the race had a monumental effect on the Corvette as a racecar, and on Chevrolet as a racing institution.
Team manager John Fitch’s pre-race testing produced numerous parts failures. Ad hoc attempts to deal with them on the fly rapidly evolved into a new quick-response system within Chevrolet’s engineering department. And, since Sebring rules forbade the use of non-production parts, the more robust components had to be immediately available through Chevrolet dealers, a situation that led to the creation of a new factory heavy-duty parts distribution system. Soon, Chevrolet was America’s premier source for race-inspired knowledge and hardware.
In March, 1957, Chevrolet was back at Sebring with a full-fledged factory effort introducing Ramjet fuel injection. Later that year, American auto manufacturers jointly agreed to shut the door on overt factory motorsports involvement. However, Chevrolet continued to quietly work with a select band of professional motorsport independents. The list included the legendary racecar builder Smokey Yunick, Jim Hall of Chaparral fame, and a young racer named Roger Penske.
With a few exceptions during the next quarter-century, Chevrolet officially wasn’t racing. But since its customers certainly were, it seemed fitting that the factory would help them remain competitive.
‘Never give up’ spirit generates admiration and respect for Corvette at 1960 Le Mans
To Zora Arkus-Duntov, the European expatriate Corvette racing engineer, the 24 Hours of Le Mans was the Mount Everest of motorsports. He had personally achieved a class win there, driving a Porsche.
From the beginning, the goal of Duntov’s 1957 Corvette SS program was an overall Le Mans victory, but that ambition became a casualty of the American auto industry’s 1957 racing ban. However, Duntov and Ed Cole found wealthy sportsman Briggs Cunningham a willing ally in a plan to capture a Le Mans class win for the Corvette in 1960. American road racing cars were still a curiosity in Europe then, so the four Corvettes appearing on the grid for the race were given considerable attention, but not much respect.
When John Fitch turned quicker lap times during the rainy night with Corvette No. 3 than cars bearing such noble marques as Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin, a few in the crowd took notice. At dawn, others, some of whom initially voiced surprise that any Corvettes were still running, also began to focus on the American cars.
As the race wound down, Corvette No. 3 was assured of a class win if it could make it to the end. Then, with team driver Bob Grossman at the wheel and less than four hours to go, the engine overheated. Rules prohibited adding fluids so late in the race. As spectators shouted encouragement and waved American flags, Grossman continued on, pitting often so his engine bay could be packed with ice.
Years later, Grossman would say the memory of the ovation he got on his last lap still gave him goose bumps. Five decades after its 1960 class victory, to the great delight of Le Mans spectators, the Fitch/Grossman No. 3 Corvette was back at Circuit d la Sarthe in 2010, with 93-year-old John Fitch at the wheel.
Road racers flock to Chevrolet power
Chevrolet might have been officially out of motorsports in the late 1950s, but racers everywhere were eager to utilize Chevrolet power. While Corvettes in overwhelming numbers graced SCCA A and B production grids, exotic, often hand-built, sports racers were also becoming popular – and more and more often, under their hoods were Chevrolet V-8 engines.
The Chevrolet small-block V-8 was a racer’s dream. Light in weight and compact in size, it readily fit into diminutive engine bays. It was also powerful, inexpensive, durable, easy to maintain and openly available. Chevrolet dealers stocked heavy-duty parts, and aftermarket manufacturers offered additional performance equipment.
The die was cast when a tiny British speedster, salvaged from the movie “The Racers” and repowered with a race-tuned Chevrolet small-block, turned up at the Pebble Beach sports car races on April 22, 1956. Driver Bill Pollack led the main event until chassis problems intervened.
The first of several purpose-built sports racers designed especially around the small-block Chevrolet engine was the Scarab, commissioned in 1957 by Lance Reventlow, the 21-year-old son of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. Nearly 100,000 spectators watched a small-block-powered Scarab win the 1958 Riverside Grand Prix, the first USAC/FIA sanctioned race on the U.S. west coast.
Other car builders, from small operators who produced racers with names like Bocar, Cheetah, Lister, Devin and Echidna, to Jim Hall and his exotic Chaparrals, elevated the status of the Chevrolet small-block V-8 with their many successes.
Rising popularity of drag racing gives Chevrolet traction with youthful enthusiasts
Chevrolet’s storied history in stock car and road racing tends to obscure an undeniable truth. In the late 1950s, it was largely drag racing that solidified the bond between the factory and its increasingly youthful owners.
Unlike most other forms of auto racing, grassroots drag racing after WWII was a participation sport. About all it required was a car, a patch of open road and opportunity.
With its hot new V-8 made hotter by performance parts as near as the local dealership, Chevrolet became the car to beat after 1955. That would became even more true as drag racing quickly graduated from the street to the strip. In 1961, Chevrolet engines powered the record holders in 27 of the National Hot Rod Association’s 53 recognized competition classes. Ford had four.
Chevrolet drag racers such as Dick Harrell, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins and Hayden Proffitt are legendary figures of the sport today. Jenkins was instrumental in establishing the NHRA class for production-based, all-out drag cars that eventually became Pro Stock – a class that would showcase Chevrolet’s most potent drag racing products for many years.
In more recent times, NHRA champions such as Don Prudhomme and Warren Johnson have carried the Chevrolet banner.
Bob Stempel ushers Chevrolet into modern NASCAR era
Two big things happened as a result of then-Chevrolet General Manager Bob Stempel’s visit in late 1982 to NASCAR legend Junior Johnson’s stock car race shop at Ingle Hollow, N.C.
At Stempel’s urging, Johnson agreed to remold the GM-powered stocker he fielded for Darrell Waltrip in NASCAR’s premier Winston Cup series into a Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS racecar. And, GM relaxed its 25-year-old rule against advertising performance attributes of so-called family cars, of which the Monte Carlo was one.
With Johnson and fellow car owner Richard Childress leading the way, and with Chevrolet now free to trumpet its feats, the Monte Carlo was soon on its way to becoming NASCAR’S most successful car. There were none on the grid for the 1982 Daytona 500, 14 for the ’83 race.
Superior teams, drivers key to Chevrolet’s NASCAR domination
The efforts of thousands of individuals have contributed to Chevrolet’s standing as the most successful name in NASCAR history. Some of the most recognized names in the sport are found among the teams and drivers who have taken the brand to its unsurpassed 34 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Manufacturers’ Championships.
Junior Johnson fielded and drove Chevrolets in NASCAR’s earliest years, and was a legend among fans long before he was instrumental, as a car builder and team owner, in the brand’s comeback in the 1980s. Richard Childress and Rick Hendrick rank with the elite of today’s NASCAR team owners.
Seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, “Mr. Chevrolet” to NASCAR fans, booked back-to-back crowns in 1986 and ’87 that cemented Chevrolet’s winning tradition, and consistently furthered the brand’s cause both on and off the track.
More recently, drivers such as Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson – winners of nine NASCAR championships between them, have carried the Chevrolet torch.
Shades of the ’50s: Corvettes rule in 1980s U.S. road racing
Rather than stand by in 1984 while privateers went road racing with their new C4 design, Corvette engineers took a page out of Ed Cole’s 30-year-old playbook and linked with top-flight independents, in a quasi factory competition effort that turned out to be almost too successful.
Teams led by Tommy Morrison, Kim Baker, Doug Rippie and John Powell participated in testing the cars for the Corvette racing group.
The result was a 19-for-19 win record in SCCA’s Escort Endurance Championship series, a clean-sweep performance that resulted in an invitation after the 1987 season for the Corvettes to race elsewhere. That led to the multi-million-dollar Corvette Challenge series of 1988 and ’89, which produced an extreme rarity at Chevrolet, a collectible batch of VIN-specific production C4 racers.
Chevrolet powers six consecutive Indianapolis 500 winners
Stock-block Chevrolet engines had powered the occasional open-wheel racer on the Indy car circuit for years. But when Roger Penske brought Chevrolet together with England’s Ilmor Engineering in 1984, a new chapter opened in the brand’s long history at Indianapolis.
With technical assistance from GM, Ilmor’s Paul Morgan and Mario Illien fashioned a turbo V-8 that was soon the preferred powerplant in CART racing. From its debut in 1986 until 1992, it won 64 of 78 Champ Car series races, including six consecutive Indy 500s. The roster of drivers racing Chevrolet-powered entries included such Indy car superstars as Rick Mears, the Unser family, Danny Sullivan, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti and Arie Luyendyk.
Chevrolet and Ilmor recently agreed to team up again, to bring a twin-turbo V-6 engine to the Indy car scene beginning in 2012.
Corvette factory race team opens a new chapter in Chevrolet performance history
A turning point in Chevrolet’s approach to motorsports occurred in the late 1990s, when an unabashed Corvette factory racing team was established. Working with partners Pratt & Miller Engineering, Chevrolet stepped out from behind the curtain it had kept between itself and the racing arena since 1957.
Since 1999, Corvette Racing has garnered seven class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and eight American Le Mans Series team championships. The group also booked an overall win at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2001, the year that an Earnhardt duo, Dale and Dale Jr., were co-drivers in one of the Corvette team cars.
Chevrolet V-8 race engine receives global recognition.
In a rare nod to the elegance of pushrod overhead valve engine design, the Corvette LS7.R engine that powered, with a perfect reliability record, the Compuware C6.R team to manufacturers, drivers and team championships in the 2006 American Le Mans Series, was named the Global Motorsport Engine of the Year.
Fifty key race engine engineers polled by England’s Race Car Engineering magazine made the selection. They praised the LS7.R engine for its compactness, simplicity, reliability and high specific output. Not coincidentally, those winning attributes have been inherent virtues of all Chevrolet small-block V-8s since 1955.
From Opala to Montana, Chevrolet runs strong in Brazil
In Brazil, Chevrolet direct involvement in stock car racing history goes back to 1979, when the venerable Chevrolet Opala was named the official racecar for the Stock Car Brazil series. The Opala’s six-cylinder Chevrolet engine remained a mainstay of the sport until it was replaced in 2003 by a 450-hp Chevrolet 5.7L V-8, which had originated with the NASCAR Nationwide series in the U.S.
The merger in 2009 of Brazil’s Stock Car Light and Pick-Up Racing divisions created the Copa Chevrolet Montana Cup, which features a field of entrants driving the high-performance version of the Montana pickup truck offered by Chevrolet in that country.
In late 2010, to the delight of Brazilian fans, Chevrolet introduced the limited edition “Omega Fittipaldi,” a specially appointed sedan offered in honor of that country’s native son Emerson Fittipaldi, the great F1 driver and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. The car is a variant of a Commodore model built by GM’s Australia-based Holden Group.
New Chevrolet Cruze takes WTCC Championship titles in 2010, 2011
Extremely popular with a growing number of fans around the globe, the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC), which is known for its motto, “Real Cars, Real Racing,” is one of only three world championships sanctioned by the Federation Internationale d’Automobile (FIA).
The WTCC is proving to be a splendid venue for showcasing the racing version of the Chevrolet Cruze, which made its WTCC debut in 2009. The turbocharged 1.6L Cruze has secured the 2011 WTCC manufacturer and driver’s championships for Chevrolet, repeating its 2010 feat.
When he drove his Cruze to victory in both races at Valencia in early September, reigning world champion Yvan Muller became the most successful driver in WTCC history.
The next WTCC outing is Oct. 23, in Suzuka, Japan. The series will make its first foray onto U.S. soil in 2012, with an event at the Infineon Raceway in California.
Magnificent Corvette effort produces 2011 Le Mans class win
Of all the great Corvette runs at Le Mans since 1960, none were more meaningful than the 2011 GTE Pro class victory, accomplished during Chevrolet’s Centennial year.
Team Corvette’s number 74 C6.R, driven by Jan Magnussen, Oliver Gavin and Richard Westbrook, was leading its class at dawn, when a collision put it out of the race. With seven hours to go, another of the Corvette Racing team’s C6.R entries, the No. 73 car driven by Olivier Beretta, Tommy Milner and Antonio Garcia, suddenly became the Corvette Racing team’s best hope for victory.
C6.R No. 73 was running a lap behind the AF Corse Ferrari that instantly became the frontrunner when their teammates’ car crashed. But, as the track became damp, the American car began gaining. Excellent pit stops helped put the Corvette within striking range, and with just two hours and 10 minutes to go, Milner slipped past the Ferrari, putting Corvette in the lead for the remainder of the race.
Counting Corvette Racing’s 2011 GTE Pro Class win, Corvette has won the coveted 24 Hours of Le Mans trophy seven times since 2001.
Before he co-founded the Chevrolet Motor Co. 100 years ago, Billy Durant owned and managed Buick. In 1906, Durant created a racing team for his fledgling brand that, through its victories in road races and hill climbs, helped make Buick one of the most widely known and successful early automobiles.
It was as true in Durant’s time as it is today: If you’re in the automobile business, motorsports is the ultimate crucible. You pit your brand and your products against your competition in full view of your customers, who will ultimately judge the merit of your efforts – and you capitalize on the knowledge gained in the fray of competition to continuously improve your production cars and trucks.
From the Chevrolet brothers’ early Indy 500 appearances, to the winning Cruze WTCC racers of today, Chevrolet has forged an unparalleled history — studded with legend and lore – upon the crucible that is motorsports.