Almost from the beginning of the Corvette’s existence, one could say that it has been the red-headed stepchild of Chevrolet, careening through the halls of high volume, mid-American sensibilities with little regard for place or respect for precedent. It’s no surprise that the competition cars that developed from that upbringing would be even more likely to defy expectations, and for the fourth generation Corvette, a little more than a score of R9G factory-built racecars would represent the ultimate expression of America’s Sports Car.
Beginning from the singular vision of Harley Earl, the Corvette grew and developed with each succeeding generation. The C2 Corvette made the transition to true sports car status, delivering performance and deportment on par with any marque on the road in America.
The C3 Corvettes fully reflected the influence of Bill Mitchell and his Stingray perspective from years prior to the first C3 hitting the road. The fifteen model year life span of this generation saw many firsts – significant milestones that also hide the continuous refinement that was progressing in lockstep with the car. For example, 1970 brought the first ZR-1 special engine package to the public, while that year’s newly-flared fenders reduced stone chip damage to the body.
The dark years of 1973 – 1979 weighed heavily on all performance cars and the Corvette was no exception. While the number of engine choices fell to three in 1973, innovation and improvement continued. Steel door beams were introduced for better personal safety and a stylish urethane-covered front bumper added 5 MPH crash resistance without resembling the front-mounted I-beam look that became common on other cars.
By 1975, the big block engine was gone and unleaded gas was in. The base 350 CI motor delivered a skinny 165 horsepower, while the optional L82 was only good for another 40 points on the horsepower scale. High energy ignition was introduced to increase service intervals. The year 1978 was also the 25th Anniversary of Corvette production and the car was invited to pace the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. The Pace Car replicas from that year remain highly collectible, while reducing the size of the spare tire that year allowed for a larger gas tank and greater driving range.
Even in its last years, the C3 was hamstrung in lacking an optional engine. In 1981, you got a 190 HP L-81 under the hood and in ’82, it was the L-83 fuel injected cross fire engine. Corvette production would skip a year (1983) while GM worked out production issues. The C4 Corvette era officially began with the 1984 model year.
That year started off with a bang, possibly because of pent-up demand for America’s sports car. More than 51,000 Corvettes were built, making it the second largest year on record. Horsepower was increasing and optional engines once again appeared on the order sheets. The good times were returning, or at least, being reinvented.
The Race Card
Ever since Zora Arkus-Duntov spirited away to Pike’s Peak to set a record, late in 1955, the Corvette was destined for a reputation as a seriously competition-driven vehicle. The late fifties and the sixties saw some great racing and American fans were drawn to showroom stock racing, as well as Trans-Am and other series.
In 1972, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) formed a new class for showroom stock vehicles. The summer of 1979 saw a 24-hour race held on the Nelson Ledges track in Ohio, for these street stock vehicles. The success of that 24-hour race, when run over the next several years prompted SCCA to form a professional series for the 1985 season, called the SCCA Playboy Cup. This gave birth to a new era of professional street stock endurance racing.
For the 1985 model, the Corvette’s standard engine became the L98, which added tuned-port fuel injection and bumped output to 230 HP and 330 foot-pounds of torque. It was enough to start a revolution. Already competitive because of its redesigned, aerodynamic exterior and well developed suspension, the added power vaulted the Corvette to the top of the league.
With little more than normal competition preparation, these C4 Corvettes dominated any race they showed up at. While that was great for the car and its race teams, it was a series promoter’s nightmare. Fans want to see competitive racing, but the Corvettes were dominant from the green flag to the checkered. Doubtless with some reluctance, but desperate to revive interest in showroom stock racing, the SCCA removed the Corvette from the list of qualified cars for the 1988 racing season.
A Canadian by the name of John Powell had been running two Corvettes in the SCCA Playboy series, with future notable pilots, such as Ron Fellows, Scott Goodyear, R.K. Smith, and Richard Spenard driving for him. Until the end of the 1987 season, Powell claimed multiple top three finishes and a win at Sears Point in 1985. Powell also ran Canada’s leading competition driving school and was the creator of the Player’s Cup, a Canadian road racing series for Camaros and Firebirds.
It didn’t take a lot of vision for Powell to gather support from existing Corvette teams and other influences, who soon got Goodyear and Exxon involved, with which he approached the SCCA to propose a Corvette-only endurance series for 1988 and beyond. Far from oblivious to the escalating popularity of the concept, GM soon rolled out its support for the Corvette Challenge and, to facilitate the series’ development, they created a very limited series of uniquely-configured Corvettes to participate in it.
For anyone with an appreciation of competition cars, those few Corvette Challenge racers are among the most rare and desirable Corvettes from that period in history.
Up for the Challenge?
Due to EPA restrictions, here is how things worked at the time. The Corvette Challenge configuration was a no-charge option that equipped a streetable Corvette with certain regular options like a handling package, 6-speed manual transmission, bottom level interior and a ZR1 brake booster. On completion of the order, the new owner was authorized to purchase a Corvette race motor and install it, or have it installed.
For 1988, a total of 56 Corvette Challenge cars were built. The option code was B9P and documentation from GM clearly indicates that the cars were produced for the express purpose of racing in the SCCA Corvette Challenge Series. Each was built with all standard equipment, the 245 HP Cross-Fire fuel injection engine, Doug Nash 4+3 manual transmissions, Z51 Performance Handling Suspension package, AC3 6-Way Power Driver Seat, UU8 Delco-Bose Stereo, Z6A Side Window and Side Mirror Defogging System and 24S Blue Tint Glass Removable Roof Panel.
Race entrants would pay Powell Motorsports a further $15,000 for the cost of race prep and the season’s entry fee. Protofab in Wixom, Michigan, was responsible for prep, which consisted of a full roll cage, onboard fire extinguisher system, race seats, Bilstein shock absorbers and special wheels along with other smaller changes to meet the demands of competitive racing.
In 1989, the ordering code for Corvette Challenge cars was R7F. Each of the twenty nine cars that were converted by Powell was designated strictly for racing. All converted cars were equipped with specially installed roll cage, fire system, Challenge car seats, seat restraints, brake ducts, exhaust system, oil cooler and much-coveted Dymag wheels.
As run, Powell’s Corvette Challenge was both a marketing and promotional success. An outstanding array of drivers gained visibility including Jeff Andretti, Jimmy Vasser, Paul Tracey, Boris Said, Tommy Kendall, Mark Dismore, Scott Lagasse, Bill Cooper, Stu Hayner and Randy Ruhlman. Hayner took the 1988 Championship and Cooper was at the pinnacle for 1989. Andy Pilgrim, who won three of his twenty-two Corvette Challenge races, subsequently became one of the lead drivers developing and racing the enormously successful Corvette C5-R.
By the end of the 1989 season, competing manufacturers believed they had gained enough to be competitive with the Corvette and so, when SCCA introduced its new World Challenge series for 1990, the Corvette was included. With the 1990 model, Challenge Corvettes – now option R9G – were only available for one week. A total of 23 were built, making the final year’s version the rarest of all. Most of the 1990 cars were never converted to race level, as there was no longer a Corvette Challenge series.
The Carlisle Connection
One of the cars that did get extra attention belongs to Lance Miller. Miller, the owner of Carlisle Productions, has a long standing history with Corvettes that began with his father, Chip Miller, a good fifty years ago. Chip became fascinated with Corvettes after seeing an ad for a new 1957 Corvette. He owned more than 80 Corvettes in his life and was very interested in racing vintage Corvettes. Chip Miller passed away at age 61.
With Protofab no longer involved in converting Corvette Challenge cars, Lance Miller turned to Tommy Morrison, who converted the Corvette to World Challenge specifications. From a technical viewpoint, Morrison was the Pratt and Miller of the C4 era, though he never gained the success that the New Hudson, Michigan, team is known for.
Of the 23 cars built in 1990, only eight are known to have been converted to race form. Morrison worked on two more, while Kim Baker Racing did another three cars. According to reports, both Roush Performance and Powell Racing each raced another car. Both Powell and Baker were later enlisted by GM for testing of the ZR-1 Corvette.
From time to time, Miller ships his C9R to Sebring to participate in Historic Sports Racing events, and did so earlier this year. While the snow was still falling in southeast Pennsylvania, he took some time out to exercise the Corvette. As reported by Richard Newton, early lapping in the car at that session was beneficial, though when time came for qualifying, it was another matter.
“Unfortunately when I drove back onto the track the car had a minor vibration. Next thing I know the vibration started to get much worse, I decided to really milk it and just get the car back to the pits. Unfortunately I only made it half a lap before the car really started to vibrate harshly and seized up. The car was pouring out oil and smoke filled the cockpit of the car. It was obvious at this point that the motor had seized up,” Miller explained.
Miller had wanted to participate in the upcoming Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) event, so a return flight to Ohio to find a new engine was in order. The mission was successful and the Corvette – with more than a modicum of effort – was once again ready for competition. Miller recounts how the event went:
“Thursday came along and we had our one-hour endurance race, of course I didn’t know if my car was going to vibrate or not so it was kind of nice to start off at the back of the pack. There were 72 cars that started the 1-hour race (with a mandatory 3 minute pit stop). Yours truly was at the back of the pack. The green came out and I powered past a few cars and played it cautious due to the lack of confidence that the car was completely fixed.”
“I got around to turn 17 and was going full tilt in 5th gear and got to turn 17 with no vibration. Needless to say I was thrilled! Long story short I ended up locking in 18th position overall and 1st in class. All in all it was a great race and the car felt exceptional.”
Miller’s love for Corvettes is self-obvious and his R9G is one of those cars that beg to be driven… or raced. While the Corvette Challenge cars are not the rarest of all Corvettes, their place in history is assured and their rarity is well known. Far from a stepping stone to greater things, they were great cars in their day and have crossed paths with a lot of notable people in the grand Corvette Story.
That story is one which writes a new chapter almost every day, or at least on a month by month basis. There are plenty more chapters to be discovered and we’ll have more of them for you each month, here at Corvette Online.