The Beastly Yellow Corvette

May 2nd, 2011

The ‘77 English Leather Corvette, featuring its new and improved air dam-added rear spoiler.

I’d been wheeling Mopar-bodied Funny Cars since I got into that line of racing work. It all started with the infamous “Flying Fish,” the Southern California Plymouth Dealers’ rear-engine Barracuda.  In quick succession came the ex-Candies & Hughes Barracuda then on to the Dusters from Hot Wheels through Beechnut, finally ending with the Navy/English Leather rides. Those Dusters were aerodynamic bricks, especially compared with all of the swoopy body styles the GM and Ford guys were sporting. Plus, Chrysler wasn’t digging deep into its corporate pockets to keep me on board. So, come 1977, it was time to move on.

I’d always liked street Corvettes, and through the years I had several as personal drivers. The current body style, distorted into Funny Car proportions looked plenty slippery. So, I approached Chevrolet about becoming involved with the old Mongoo$e. This was in that dark period of oil embargos, spiking gas prices and low horsepower offerings from the factories. It was a bleak period even for Corvette, as far as performance was concerned. The deal went as high as Chevy’s racing honcho Herb Fishel, who informed me that drag racing didn’t sell new cars.

As much as it pained me to do so, I cracked open my piggy bank and had J&E pop one of its new ‘Vette bodies out of its molds and mount it to brand new pipe. Over the winter I’d ordered a super0lightweight chassis from Jaime Sarte, a Hawaiian transplant to SoCal. He also did the tinwork.  He shaped little windows on the firewall to look like pineapples. The guy was a real craftsman. Anybody know whatever happened to him?

I’d even recruited new crew guys for the season. Pat Galvin, one of Don Prudhomme’s guys, and Steve “Okie” Bernd were now in charge of my operation.

The rap on this new Corvette body was its spooky handling characteristics.  On the first run of six or so bodies all had crashed except one. I’d driven so many different cars, dragsters and Funny Cars, and gotten them successfully down the track (most of the time!), this Corvette wouldn’t be any different. It was kind of like the Wild West days when bronc busters broke the wildest of horses that nobody else was able to, so normal folk could ride them.

Also, I had plenty of hands-on experience with all kinds of aerodynamic issues.  You have to keep in mind, until fairly recently, we didn’t have access to wind tunnels, or for that matter, detailed aerodynamic data of any kind. Early on everything we did was based on the concept of “bolt it on and see what happens.”

Probably my first experience was on the Adams and McEwen “High Back Gasser” gas dragster. We learned by angling a sheet of plywood from the front of the chassis to the blower, the downforce created allowed us to unload 50 pounds of ballast from the car. It was crude but effective.

Of course, next was my ’65 Barracuda, which literally flew while making a pass at Lions. Obviously, we didn’t know it at the time, but what we built with that car was basically an airplane wing. Its nose-high stance, weight distribution and body shape created lift. At speed the air flowing over and under literally caused it to fly. On the second version we learned from our mistakes and the car drove pretty well.

We also experimented with the Yeakel Top Fueler, attaching a wind to the roll cage. It must not have made much difference, because it didn’t stay on long.

Then there was the “Super Mustang,” which all the Ford engineers were so tickled about. It was supposed to be cutting0edge design work for its time. And who knows, if the chassis/suspension hadn’t been such a problem, it might have been a rocket ship.

The first Hot Wheels Duster was also a handful. When the Mattel design guys drew the car up, they put a spoiler on the rear edge of the roof, for no other reason than it looked cool, which it did.  So that’s where it went on my race car. Unfortunately, the airflow didn’t like it. So, once again aerodynamics bit me on the butt. At about 800 feet, the Duster picked the rear wheels off the ground. One run and that spoiler was off the roof and onto the deck lid—problem solved.

I also ran canard wings on my rear engine Hot Wheels dragster. Those were little wings that attached on both sides of the chassis, just in front of the motor. If I recall correctly, it wasn’t to solve a problem, but like on the Yeakel car, it was that old seat of the pants engineering at its best.

So, with a totally new, unproven car and crew we launched the ’77 season. It started out pretty well. We won the Best Appearing Car award at the NHRA Winternationals. A short while later at the IHRA winter race at Darling, I won.

I’m here to tell ya, race fans, the early success didn’t come easy. This new ride was a bear to drive, probably the worst I’d ever experienced, which says a lot considering some of the questionable rides I’d piloted. If you’ve been reading these “Journals” since I started writing them, you know in my early days, I drove Top Fuelers for a dozen teams. Have fire suit will travel.

You see, this new ‘Vette, like the Hot Wheels Duster, wanted to pick up the rear wheels at speed. So if you can imagine, you’re hauling ass down the track, when all of a sudden, you can feel the rearend lift off the ground. Now you have no traction, so you start to slow down, which brings the rearend back to earth. It might land on both wheels (which didn’t happen very often), or the right or left. When the wheels (or wheel) touched down, the car would make one hell of a move, right or left.  You were either headed in a big hurry for the guy next to you or the wall.  Keep in mind, this all happened in a few split seconds. You didn’t have a lot of time to ponder your next move.

To complicate issues, sometimes it would drive straight and true. We were at an AHRA race at Dragway 42 in East (or West—don’t remember) Salem, Ohio, on my first pass, right down the track for second low elapsed time. The next time up I smacked the wall and we were done for the race.  Now, in addition to concentrating on staging, cutting a good light, shifting the two-speed, and getting down the track, I had to be ready for this thing to eat the guardrail.

Through all this, we’re searching for an answer. There weren’t any issues with the chassis, so it had to be the body. Seeing as how all the other ‘Vettes had crashed, this seemed like the most reasonable conclusion.  If you look at the Corvette compared to other Funny Car bodies of the time, its roof line came down at a steeper angle, right to the molded rear spoiler, there was no deck lid at all. That old devil aerodynamics had once again reared its ugly head.

When we be debuted the car, instead of having one spoiler running from side to side, it had two, with a gap in between. Our first thought was, the gap was the problem—on went a one-piece unit. That didn’t fix the issue.  Our next thought was that it wasn’t tall enough for the air to grab a hold of. Little by little we added more spoiler. Soon we had enough aluminum sticking up in the air to side a house. Higher wasn’t the answer because the problem remained the same, the rearend was still getting airborne.  Talk about frustrating.

Before the Indy Car drivers started carrying briefcases instead of their helmets to the track, we used to hang out with them: Mario, AJ, Parnelli, the Unser brothers. A couple of us drag racers went to The 500 qualifying that spring and I started studying the race cars. I noticed that in addition to all of the different types of spoilers they sprouted, there were side pieces to those spoilers called air dams. I talked with one of the engineers and he explained the aerodynamic principle of those side plates. When the air rushed over the car onto the spoilers it didn’t spill out over the sides.  Those air dams trapped the air on the surfaces of the cars, creating downforce.

Once again, if you look at photos of Funny Cars of that period, none had side plates to their spoilers, or at least none I could find, anyway. I was off to the drawing board to design a new wing for my tail happy ride. With air dams in place, we started lowering the height of the rear spoiler. I’ll be darned if it didn’t start working! We finally arrived at the right ratio of rear and side height and it tamed that beast of an ill-handling race car.

After we figured out the problem, this body style became much more popular. John Force even raced one.

The ’77 Corvette wasn’t my last winged challenge. Stay tuned for future aerodynamic adventures.

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