My 1956 Corvette has spent nearly its entire life as a race car. It raced in Sports Car Club of America B Production the first 35 years of its career and the last 27 years have been spent vintage racing, mainly with the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association and Historic Sportscar Racing events, but also with Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula and Historic Motor Sports Association.
The car was built by Jerry Bakker and Jim Swan. Jim and Jerry wanted to get into the speed shop business. At the time, Jim Swan was working at his family’s Pontiac dealership in suburban Chicago and was an officer in the US Army Reserves. Jerry Bakker was working as an engineer at Sun Electronics, the manufacturer of Sun Tachometers, which were very popular during the 60’s with drag and road racers. Sun also manufactured diagnostic, electronic testing and monitoring equipment used in the automotive repair business. Jerry was also Sun’s representative at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He would set up the magnetos used on Indy cars in the late 50s and early 60s. Together they founded Motor Sports Research located in Des Plaines, Illinois a Northwestern suburb of Chicago.
They needed a way to test their ideas, theories and services and they felt there was no better way of doing that than building a winning race car. They bought a 1956 Corvette from the service manager of a Pontiac dealership. As Jim describes it, “I bought the car as an average condition turquoise, low performance 1956 Corvette street car. The title and the VIN plate support that. We didn’t care since all we needed was the frame, rear end and body. We planned to call the car a ‘57, using the number 57, since it was essentially a 1957-spec car when done.” Motor Sports Research removed the 265 cubic inch engine and installed “a brand new highly enhanced 283” cubic inch engine which was introduced in 1957. The induction system was a Corvette fuel injection unit that they cut in half, added a section to the center and re-welded it to increase volume, fuel mixture and improve air flow. The car was known as “the fastest 283 in the country.”
Wins Begat Winning
Because of their success, Mr. Bakker and Mr. Swan developed a working relationship with the General Motors Technical Center in Rochester Hills, MI. That success moved them to a very high priority for the latest “go fast” parts out of the Tech Center. In addition to the latest engine components, the car also ran with the large fiberglass enduro fuel tank and the factory big brake package, all sourced from the GM Tech Center.
Before replacing the 283 engine, the team won the 1966 Badger 200 at Road America. To quote Mr. Swan, “we did win the Badger 200 with the 283, but we were aided by some rain and good driving”. The car was also occasionally driven by Doctor David Ott of Chicago.
The competition was running with disc brakes while the Motor Sports Research Vette was still running drum brakes. – Jim Swan, Corvette racer
Their first engine change from the 283 F.I. motor was not a 327 which was the direction most teams took, but an early, pre-production 302 with larger 4-bolt main bearing caps. They were testing the durability of the 302 that would be raced in the factory supported Trans-Am Camaros. Mr. Swan also said, “the 302 had a swivel oil pan pick-up which we didn’t use. We also ran the 302 with a pre-production Chevrolet aluminum Z-28 intake manifold and a modified Holley 4-barrel carb that they received direct from Holley. The car was so quick with the 302, that Mr. Swan out-qualified Tony Delorenzo’s 427 Sting Ray at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
The Motor Sports Research Team raced against 327 Stingrays and some fast Shelby Mustangs in B-Production and quoting Jim once again, “I didn’t feel guilty about competing with the 302 since the other cars had a substantial edge.” The competition was running with disk brakes while the Motor Sports Research Vette was still running drum brakes. Little did they know that “an average condition turquoise, low performance 1956 Corvette street car” would turn their goal of owning a speed shop into multiple store locations throughout Chicago and southern Wisconsin.
Jim Swan ordered a 1967 Z28 in late 1966 to replace the Vette. Because of production delays, the soon to be introduced Z-28 the team ordered wasn’t delivered in time to make the 1967 race season. Jim had ordered the Z28 to replace the Vette because the car was getting long in the tooth and it was becoming more difficult to be competitive with the car. Motor Sports Research advertised the car for sale in “Competition Press & Autoweek” on March 11, 1967. The Vette was advertised with the moniker it had earned, “The Fastest 283 In The Country”.
The Vette was sold to another Chicago-based racer. I met the second owner at Road America in 2015. He told me he viewed the car as a “training car” for his planned step up to professional Trans-Am racing. It was his first race car and he learned to be a racer driving it. He raced the car four years and sold it to buy a 1969 Trans Am Camaro. While he owned the car, it won 12 SCCA races in 1968 and 11 races in ’69, becoming the Midwest Region Champion in those years. Another Chicagoan bought the car in 1971 and successfully ran it at tracks in the Midwest, mainly focusing on Blackhawk Farms Raceway and Road America.
The car was then sold to a gentleman from Memphis, TN in early 1974. He raced the car in nine events, finishing Second three times and Third twice. His races took place around the mid-south, including Stuttgart, AK and Mid-America near Omaha. He renamed the car the Sebring Corvette and painted it in an American flag livery. After the nine races, he put the car in his museum, named the Corvette Castle, which was located at his home near Memphis.
This is where the history becomes cloudy. The car was sold to an individual in Maine where it remained until the mid-80’s. I have no history of the car during this time other than it sat without being used during most of his ownership. It was eventually sold to ProTeam in Napoleon, Ohio in the mid-80’s and sat for nearly three years because no one was buying old race cars in those days.
On August 24, 1988, Bill Morrison bought the car from ProTeam and began a two-year restoration. From the late 50’s until the late 80’s, the car had remained polo white. Mr. Morrison decided during the restoration process that he would change the color to Mustang Grabber Blue with White stripes. He also installed a race-prepared 327 cubic inch engine similar to those used in Sprint Cars of that era. Bill ran the car first in SCCA BP successfully throughout the Midwest. The car was still equipped with the T-10 four-speed transmission, a solid rear axle and drum brakes. While successful, it wasn’t as competitive as it needed to be against the cars from that era.
The car was still equipped with the T-10 four-speed transmission, a solid rear axle and drum brakes.- Dave Roberts
Not wanting to destroy the integrity of the car, Bill began racing the car in SVRA events at tracks like Mid-Ohio, Putnum Park, Blackhawk Farms and Road America. His first SVRA event was in Group 6 at Road America in May 1995 where Bill finished first overall and first in class. He had many race successes over the next 24 years, but he and the car retired from racing after the June SVRA 2009 event at Road America. He parked the car in his Evanston, Illinois garage. In 2015, he decided to sell the car and advertised it in the Mar/Apr 2015 edition of Vintage Motorsports. I bought the car from Bill on April 4, 2015.
Back On Track
After buying the car, I sent it to Nick Short of CRP Racing in Harrisburg, NC. Nick went through the car, replacing the safety equipment, all critical steering components and the engine. It is powered by a bored 283 (301 cubic inches) with Carter dual quads pumping out approximately 500hp. The engine was built by Tesar Engineering in Minnesota. It has a T-10 four speed and 3:73 posi rear end, plus other period correct components like drum brakes. It weighs approximately 2,750 pounds and its first outing was the Brickyard Invitational at Indy in 2015.
The highlight of the Brickyard Invitational is the Pro-Am race where veterans of the Indianapolis 500 share a late 60’s to early 70’s Trans Am era car which is owned by the amateur driver. I was registered to race my 1969 Trans-Am Camaro in the Pro-Am race, partnering with Alex Lloyd. Born and raised in England, Alex began racing go-karts at age 9. In 2004, Alex’s success was rewarded with a test in a legendary McLaren-Mercedes F1 car. In 2006, Alex and his family moved to the U.S. and in 2007, he was the Indy Lights Champion, never finishing lower than 5th the entire season. He still owns the Indy Lights record of the most wins in a season. In 2010, Alex competed full time in the Izod Indy Car Season, finishing 4th in the Indianapolis 500 and being named Rookie of the Year. His experience at Indy, qualified him to race in the Brickyard Invitational in my ‘69 Camaro.
In the final Brickyard Invitational practice, the Camaro spun a rod bearing. With the Camaro out of commission, we were allowed to enter the under-powered and more importantly under-braked, drum brake Corvette into the Pro-Am event even though it was older than allowed and was running a smaller engine than allowed. Much to our surprise after starting in the rear of the field because we missed qualifying, we finished 15th overall out of 33 cars. Next up was The Hawk at Road America, where I finished first in class in Group 3. We then headed to Savannah for the HSR Savannah Speed Classic where I finished first overall in Group 2.
In March 2016, I raced at the inaugural Amelia Island Vintage Grand Prix, The Mitty at Road Atlanta in April, the Brickyard Invitational at Indy in June and The Weather Tech International Challenge at Road America in July with the 301 cubic inch engine. About mid-way through the 2016 race season, I was invited to attend the Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca. Because of the historical significance of the Reunion, I purchased a stock 283 cubic inch engine, installed a Duntov-like solid lifter “30-30” cam and an original dual quad intake manifold and carburetors. The car’s color was changed to the original Polo White and the Motorsports Research livery.
Upon returning from the Pre-Reunion and the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion races, I raced the Corvette at the Gold Cup at VIR in September, the HSR Savannah Festival of Speed in October and the 12 Hour Classic at Sebring in December. Of late, it has also been driven by Ron Fellows of Corvette Fame. Ron is a good friend and we occasionally share one of my Corvettes or my ‘69 Camaro at vintage races throughout the US. This November, Ray Evernham and I will be racing the car at Daytona in Group A at the Classic 24 Hours of Daytona. This is a period correct race car that can run with modern cars. It is fast and has been a successful race car all of its racing career.