When it comes to 1960s Corvette performance, most of us tend to picture Chevy’s sports car mixing it up with the likes of Cobras, Porsches and Jag E-Types on road courses around the globe. Considering the amount of research and development that went into taking the C1 from a cool looking runabout to a world-class sports car that certainly makes sense – after all, that engineering legwork was just as much about making the Corvette stop and turn as it was about making it haul the mail in a straight line.
Yet the Corvette looked to be a compelling option for drag racers as well, due its diminutive size and light weight, along with the fact that it was engineered from the factory to be motivated by V8 power plants. But the ‘Vette’s price tag versus the more affordable, sedan-based production coupes kept it off the short list for most competitors. Most… but not all.
Born May 18th, 1926 in East Los Angeles, John Mazmanian got his start in hot rodding at the ripe old age of 14, building a 1930 Model A coupe he’d procured for $25.00 in his junior high school auto shop class.
By the time he was in high school he’d moved up to a chopped ’39 Mercury, and after graduating and heading off to college for a mechanical engineering degree, John had already established a name for himself in the drag racing world, taking his ’32 highboy roadster up to 118 mph at El Mirage dry lake in early 1942.
After serving his country in World War II, Mazmanian returned home and took over the family business, a successful waste management and removal company, and got married. Though drag racing was starting to take a back seat to his other responsibilities, Mazmanian still found time to fuel his passion for performance, picking up a new ‘57 Ford Fairlane with the supercharged 312ci V8 off the lot as a family car and tuning it for competition use on the weekends.
By 1960, John was ready to step things up. Late in the year, Mazmanian would purchase a brand new ’61 Corvette with the express purpose of turning it into a formidable weapon at the drag strip. But converting a sports car into a record setter at the strip isn’t simply a matter of bolting on a set of slicks, so Mazmanian and his team got to work transforming his new Corvette into a bonafide quarter mile terror.
Big John Heads To The Strip
Equipped from the factory with a fuel injected 283ci V8, four speed manual gearbox, Positraction rear end and a removable hard top, it wasn’t long before Mazmanian’s little red Corvette was running in the high 12-second range. With his nephew Rich Siroonian behind the wheel, Mazmanian’s team would take home the class win at the 1961 Winternationals and set an AA/SP class speed record of 109.96 mph in the process during a 12.94-second pass.
But this would prove to be just the beginning of this Corvette’s drag racing history.
The following year they’d return to the Winternationals and though the car was still largely stock, they were placed in the CM/SP class due to some modifications done to the car versus the year prior. They’d promptly set a record there too, this time clocking 113.84 mph.
Though they wouldn’t find their way to the podium at the strip that year, Mazmanian’s Corvette would end up taking third place honors at the Winternationals car show that NHRA held just before the racing got underway, due to its new 24-coat Candy Persimmon red paint job by Junior Conway, along with the car’s new tuck and roll interior and the gleaming brightwork found throughout.
The next time the Corvette head back the garage, Mazmanian had far more dramatic modifications in store for it. First, the Corvette’s four-speed gearbox was swapped out for a B&M two-speed Hydromatic, then the team turned their attention to the small block. The motor received a Crank Shaft Company stroker kit that bumped displacement up to 316 cubes, while a host of Edelbrock and Iskendarian go-fast internals were added as well. Placed atop this reworked mill was a 4-71 GMC supercharger with a Hilborn injector. All in, the combination was said to make in excess of 600 horsepower by Mazmanian’s estimate.
The body saw some significant tweaks as well – up front the grill was removed and a polished Moon gas tank was put in its place, while the rear fenders saw some impromptu bodywork at San Gabriel Raceway one afternoon so the team could make room for the 10.00×16 Dragmaster slicks they wanted to use, and the suspension was reworked to send as much of the weight to rear end at launch as possible. According to team’s crew chief Dick Bourgeois, Mazmanian had invested more than $10,000 modifying the car, though Big John himself would only admit to $6,300.
It was clear where the money had been invested when glazing up Mazmanian’s gasser Corvette – both at rest and in motion. The car could now dispatch a quarter mile in 11.11 seconds at 129 miles per hour, a feat proven for the crowds at Fontana Dragway during an AHRA championship in the summer of 1962.
It would catch the attention of editors of Rod and Custom at the event, and later grace of the cover of Hot Rod Magazine as well. Mazmanian still wanted more from the car though, and between the 1962 and 1963 seasons the Corvette’s mechanicals underwent surgery once again. By the time the 1963 Winternationals rolled around the motor was now displacing 327 cubes thanks to a 3/8-inch stroker crank while the original blower was swapped out for a 6-71 GMC, upgrades which bumped the car into the BM/SP class.
1963 would prove to be a period of change for Mazmanian’s team though. His driver, Rich Siroonian, would end up in the Army that year so co-driver Bones Balough took over piloting duties, and while Mazmanian had initially expressed interest in building a new dragster based off the new Stingray Corvette, he would instead change focus to the Gasser classes and build one of the first supercharged Hemi-Willys for the 1964 season. It wasn’t long before the Corvette was sold off to fund other racing projects.
“Big John” Mazmanian’s 1941 Willys would prove to be his most potent drag race project yet, posting a 9.77 second time at 149 miles per hour in the A/Gas class in the 1964 season. Mazmanian and his team would go on to become early pioneers of both the Gasser and Funny Car movements in the mid-to-late 1960s before Big John would retire from racing in 1972.
As for the Corvette, it would end up in Minnesota where it was raced briefly before changing hands several times and its whereabouts became unknown. Then in 1989, after years of pursuing the Mazmanian Corvette, collector Steve Hendrickson acquired the car and began an exhaustive total restoration on the car.
The project was completed 1998 and just in time for the NHRA’s Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, where Mazmanian was being honored for his place in drag racing history and was reunited with the car for the first time in more than three decades.
In the years since its racing career ended, Mazmanian’s Corvette has become an icon in drag racing circles due to both its record-setting performance and eye catching looks. Not surprisingly, its value has risen substantially in turn, as evidenced by the car fetching nearly a quarter of a million dollars at auction back in 2009. Considering the substantial economic shift that was occurring at the time, we can only assume the car is worth even more today.
When interviewed for the 1962 Rod and Custom feature, Mazmanian’s team mechanic, Dick Bourgeois, was asked why John would go to such an expense to build a Corvette “that’s only good for quarter-mile drags, when John could have the fun of driving this car anywhere for half the expense. Is it because he’s only out for records?”
“No,” Bourgeois replied. ““He likes the sport and likes to see it grow. He enjoys improving the breed.”
While Mazmanian’s contributions to Corvette performance lore are undeniable, perhaps the most compelling motivator was revealed when Bourgeois added that, “The money isn’t as important as the satisfaction of knowing he has an untouchable Corvette.”