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‘Big’ Bill France May Have Saved the ‘Vette Marque

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 13 2015

Yep, Corvettes once raced in NASCAR. The fingerprints of people like Bill France Sr., Junior Johnson and Herb Thomas are all over this Roadster.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

A 1953 Corvette Roadster with a little-known NASCAR pedigree and 60-plus years of provenance will cross the bidding block Saturday night as a bona fide budget-buster of the annual Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Lot No. 5054, bearing VIN No. E53F001211, is the earliest-known Corvette race car. Billed as the Daytona Beach “NASCAR Unit,” the Polo White ‘Vette with dual blue racing stripes and blue coves was created by the Chevrolet Engineering Department for stock car competition in what likely was a branding effort between Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole, father of GM’s small-block engine family, and NASCAR founder “Big” Bill France.

Cole’s objective was to “save” the Corvette from extinction after sales of only 700 units in 1955 by creating a brand image of speed and performance – calling cards that now have endured through seven generations.

In a letter of introduction, consigner Terry L. Michaelis, president of ProTeam Classic Corvette Collection and Sales, said he purchased No. 211 in 2010 as part of a 14-car lot.

“I was unaware at the time of purchase that there was any significant history, so I advertised No. 211 for sale in Hemmings Motor News and several internet outlets,” said Michaelis, who subsequently was approached by Loren Lundberg, a Corvette historian/enthusiast/collector. Lundberg informed Michaelis that Corvette No. 211 “had Chevrolet Engineering roots.”

That was the impetus for a three-and-half-year research project, during which Michaelis discovered that Corvette convertible No. 211 and a 1955 Corvette bearing VIN No. 399 had NASCAR backgrounds between 1955-57, and that both probably had been owned by the elder France.

NASCAR Corvettes No. 211 and No. 399 were built/rebuilt by Chevrolet Engineering equipped with 1956-

The cockpit of the historic NASCAR Corvette.

spec dual-quad, high-output, 265 cubic-inch V8 engines, 3-speed close-ratio transmissions, heavy-duty rear end assemblies, plastic tonneau covers, small racing windshields and dashboard gauges relocated as per the request of three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Mauri Rose.

The work was performed by the Chevrolet Experimental Shop and Garage under the subject title: “Rebuilding of NASCAR Corvettes for Stock Car Racing,” first dated Nov. 3, 1955. Completion date on the order was Jan. 1, 1956. Under the heading of Reason, the order read: Stock Car Racing Program as requested by Management. The series of orders ended via a cancellation notice dated Feb. 1, 1956, accompanied by a handwritten note inquiring if “anyone was planning to put disc brakes on Bill France’s Corvettes for Sebring?” The answer was a handwritten “No.”

Cole oversaw the project while the conversion was supervised by Rose. But the list of racing luminaries whose fingerprints eventually found their way onto this fiberglass hot rod includes famed mechanic Smokey Yunick, racing brothers Herb and Bob Thomas and NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, “The Last American Hero.”

Michaelis said his research took him to NASCAR’s archives in Daytona Beach, Fla., and the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., supplemented by hundreds of phone calls and emails.

“Interestingly, I found that 99.5-percent of the 3-million Corvette enthusiasts and 99.5-percent of the over 30-million NASCAR enthusiasts had no knowledge that two early Corvettes raced in NASCAR-sanctioned sports car races,” Michaelis said.

Corvette No. 211 – the 211th of 300 ‘Vettes produced during that first year  – was delivered to Smokey’s Automotive Service at 957 N. Beach Street in Daytona Beach in early February 1956. The car was featured in promotional NASCAR photos with Bill France Jr. and Joe Hawkins – along with two swim suit models –and at the Annual Winter Daytona Beach Classics, including the seventh annual International Safety and Speed Trials and Stock Car Races from Feb. 12-26.

Prior to their rebuilds by Chevrolet Engineering, Corvettes No. 211 and No. 399 were raced by NASCAR’s Thomas Brothers , Johnson, Jimmy Massey, Ralph Liguori, Johnny Dodson and Gwyn Staley at Bowman

Living history will be expensive to come by this weekend.

Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and Raleigh (N.C.) Speedway in 1955 (bearing Nos. 55, 62 and 92). After the February 1956 Daytona Beach races, the ’53 Corvette returned to the North Carolina circuit where it was driven by Pee Wee Jones, Bobby Myers, Staley, Johnson, Liguori and Massey (bearing Nos. 3, 16, 27 and 116).

In 1958, Leslie Gray Tuttle purchased No. 211 from NASCAR and received the GM MSO to become the car’s first titled owner. After effectively saving the car from the scrap heap, Tuttle had the car modified for street use, including re-installation of the year-correct “Blue Flame Special” 6-cylinder engine, replacement of the 3-speed racing tranny with an automatic Powerglide unit and addition of a heater from a Chevy truck.

Several changes in ownership occurred over the years prior to its purchase by Corvette entrepreneur/expert Michaelis. The car underwent a body-off restoration at ProTeam Corvette in Napoleon, Ohio, in early 2014 before being reunited last October with Tuttle, Johnson and Danny “Chocolate” Myers, son of Bobby Myers and former crewman for seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt.

Tuttle provided conclusive evidence that helped identify No. 211 as the original NASCAR Daytona Beach and Carolina racer. The car also has been documented by several Chevrolet Engineering Department Build Orders, newspaper articles and vintage photos from private collections, Chevrolet and NASCAR archives.

As per the period paint scheme, the Corvette’s Polo White exterior is accentuated by a red interior and wide whitewall tires mounted on red, stock steel wheels. Sporting vintage NASCAR logo decals, No. 211 will cross the block during primetime Saturday night on Velocity. The first of six days of live TV coverage from WestWorld of Scottsdale will begin Tuesday at 6 p.m. (EST) on Discovery and then switch to Velocity at 8 p.m. (EST).

This edition of “The World’s Greatest Collector Car Auction” will continue through Sunday, with the entire Ron Pratte Collection of 100-plus cars and over 1,400 pieces of automobilia up for bid. All bidding results can be accessed on the web at Barrett-Jackson.com.

The shared story of NASCAR and Corvette No. 211 rates as an historic “barn-find,” complete with rare photographic timeline of the car in various states during its NASCAR racing lifetime.

“Both brands came of age in the 1950s and have left an indelible mark on the American psyche,” Michaelis wrote. “Both faced a quiet fade-to-black had it not been for strong personalities like Chevrolet’s Ed Cole and NASCAR’s Bill France.

“Had it not been for the NASCAR/Chevrolet Engineering experiment, the Corvette may have gone the way of the Edsel or suffered the same fate as other sports cars; imagine adding two more doors and a back seat, i.e.: the T-Bird!”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 13 2015
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