“Mr. Corvette” and “The Flying Dentist” – Corvette Legends of Le Mans
Chevrolet to Honor “Mr. Corvette” in Celebration of 50th Anniversary of Corvette’s First Le Mans Participation
Dick Guldstrand has been inextricably linked with Chevrolet’s sports car for more than 50 years, an enduring relationship that has earned the Californian the nickname “Mr. Corvette.” Guldstrand’s exploits include an expedition to the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans with co-driver Bob Bondurant in a red, white and blue Corvette – a journey that left an indelible impression on the two American drivers and legions of French racing fans. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Corvette’s first participation in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Chevrolet will salute Guldstrand as one of the Corvette Legends of Le Mans at the American Le Mans Series Monterey at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on May 21-22.
“It all started when Roger Penske hired me as his first professional driver in late ’65 to run his Corvette,” Guldstrand said. “It’s a long story, but we won the GT category in the Daytona 24-hour race. Then we went on to Sebring, and that same car won that race. So can you imagine the sensation if a Corvette Stingray won the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
“I was managing the Dana Chevrolet High-Performance Center in southern California, and we were really on a high,” Guldstrand explained. “Duntov (Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov) was beside himself. He’d call me every day and say, ‘Dick, we got to do this, and this, and be careful of the aerodynamics.’ Of course, there weren’t any aerodynamics – we used an old piece of aluminum underneath the front end to try to keep the nose down!”
The patriotically painted Dana Chevrolet Corvette was transported via air freight to Paris-Orly Airport – and then the team’s Le Mans adventure truly began.
“We arrived at Orly and unloaded the car off the plane,” Guldstrand recalled. “Well, they forgot to bring a trailer. All we had was a Bedford diesel, a four-door Opel, and us. So Bobby Bondurant and I filled it up, jumped in the race car, and drove the whole distance to Le Mans. The sidepipe exhausts were wide open, and in every little town we went through, the crowds got bigger. When we got to Chartres, we damn near broke the stained glass windows out of the cathedral. A gendarme was standing on his little box in the middle of the square directing traffic, and he gave us a salute as we drove by and about blew him off the box.
“By the time we got to Le Mans, we had a following that was staggering,” Guldstrand said. “The French loved that crazy red, white and blue Corvette. Of course, our competition protested us. The car was way too light because we’d stripped it. We had to fly the bumpers, the grille and all the stuff over to France and put them back on the car before we could qualify.”
Nothing in Guldstrand’s racing experience had prepared him for the challenge of the immense Le Mans circuit.
“I’d done quite a bit of fast driving at Daytona and Sebring, but nothing like the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans,” he said. “We were flat out for nearly 3.5 miles, and it was mind-boggling. There was this little kink when you got near the end of the straight, and you had to be perfectly on the button to go through there. That’s where the ‘Mulsanne Stain’ comes from – it’s a little brown stain in your shorts, because I used up all of the road and some of the dirt getting through there!
“The Corvette was blindingly fast, and I think we hit 180 mph on the straight,” Guldstrand noted. “Halfway through the race we were leading our class by 17 or 18 miles, but then a wrist pin broke and put a connecting rod out through the side of the block. We knew that was a weak point and we were just trying to take it easy, but it didn’t survive.”
Decades later, Guldstrand still cherishes the memories of his Le Mans adventure.
“Bondurant was really a big help in teaching me the Le Mans course,” Guldstrand explained. “We had been friends for 20 years, and we finally got to drive together. We had dedicated people like Junior Johnson and (Chevrolet general manager) Ed Cole, and of course Duntov helping us. We were almost like a family. That was a wonderful, wonderful time.”
Guldstrand’s Corvette credentials are still impeccable. He won three consecutive Pacific Coast championships (1963-1965) including the Southern Pacific A-Production championship, and he won the GT class at the 1966 24 Hours of Daytona driving a Corvette. When his driving career began to wind down, Guldstrand’s love for the technical side of racing led to the 1968 launch of Guldstrand Engineering on the famed “Thunder Alley” in Culver City, Calif. His development expertise and years of experience with the marque were evident in the performance of the race-prepared C4 Corvettes that won numerous events and set track records at the Mid-Ohio 24-hour event and the 12-hour race at Willow Springs. Guldstrand also has organized Corvette events and served as a global goodwill ambassador for the marque. Chevrolet is proud to salute “Mr. Corvette” as one of the Corvette Legends of Le Mans.
Dr. Dick Thompson, the championship-winning Corvette driver known as “The Flying Dentist,” carried Corvette’s performance message around the world. Chevrolet will salute Thompson as one of the Corvette Legends of Le Mans at the American Le Mans Series Monterey at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on May 21-22.
Thompson co-drove one of Briggs Cunningham’s trio of Corvettes in the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans in Corvette’s first appearance in the world’s biggest sports car race. He later became the first driver to win a race in the iconic Corvette Grand Sport, and served as a Chevrolet development driver and promotional spokesman for production Corvettes in the ’60s.
Thompson will be reunited with the restored No. 2 Cunningham Corvette that he shared with Fred Windridge in Le Mans 50 years ago. The Thompson/Windridge Corvette retired at 20 hours, but the sister No. 3 Cunningham Corvette driven by John Fitch and Bob Grossman won the large displacement GT class and finished eighth overall. Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov accompanied the Corvettes to Le Mans as an advisor and was listed as a reserve driver by the Cunningham team.
“I enjoyed racing in Europe very much, and competing at Le Mans in 1960 was an unforgettable experience for me, and for the entire team,” Thompson said. “Briggs Cunningham had the experience, and quite frankly the money, to put forth an effort that was second to none. We had support from Chevrolet, from Zora, and others. The cars were race prepared by Alfred Momo at his shop on Long Island. We knew going to Le Mans that the cars would be ready and we’d have a very real opportunity to win our class there.”
The Corvettes were in near-stock trim, with larger gas tanks, quick-fill gas caps, magnesium wheels, oil coolers, driving lights, racing seats and heavy-duty suspension components among their limited modifications – an expression of Duntov’s philosophy of using racing to develop high-performance components for future production vehicles.
“Our car was quite fast but the brakes were a problem, as they almost always were in those early years of Corvette racing,” Thompson recalled. “And of course, we had those skinny little bias-ply tires. Our Corvettes were really not big cars, but to the average Frenchman, compared with what they were used to, they looked like great big cars. More than a few of them were rather shocked to see us running around at those fantastic speeds on the skinny tires we had.”
When the 55 entries were lined up for the traditional Le Mans start according to engine displacement, the three Cunningham Corvettes occupied the first three spots with their 283-cubic-inch fuel-injected small-block V8s. A fourth Corvette entered by airline pilot Lucky Casner under the Camoradi USA banner rounded out the Corvette quartet.
“At Le Mans in those years they still did a running start,” Thompson said. “All the drivers would line up opposite the cars on the front straight and when the signal was given we’d each run to our car. I managed to get away ahead of everyone, and going under the Dunlop Bridge I had nothing but open road in front of me, and the entire field behind me! That was quite an exciting feeling. Of course that didn’t last, and the faster modifieds, the sports racers, managed to pass me.”
Rain soon inundated the Le Mans circuit, and the drivers had to endure a cold and wet night on the pitch-black course through the French countryside.
“The Le Mans race was really a remarkable experience for me,” Thompson remembered. “By 1960 I had done quite a bit of driving, at a lot of different tracks, but Le Mans was unique in many ways. It was particularly interesting at night. Sebring of course was quite dark at night, but at Le Mans it was a different feeling, a feeling of really being alone out there. The fog and the rain added to that sensation, the feeling that you’re driving through the countryside as fast as you can possibly go, with nothing but the rain, the darkness, your car, and your courage!”
The No. 2 Corvette lost time when it was mired in one of the numerous sandpits that lined the circuit, and then the overtaxed engine expired in the 20th hour.
“It was the brakes, indirectly, that took our car out of the race,” he said. “The engine failed in fairly dramatic fashion, but that was not because of a problem in the engine. The brakes gradually got worse and worse and we relied more and more on the downshifts to help slow the car. The engine had been over-revved by about 1,000 rpm on some of the downshifts, and this was recorded on the tell-tale tach, and it ultimately caused the engine to give up.”
Cunningham drivers Fitch and Grossman continued to circle the immense circuit in the No. 3 Corvette, running as high as seventh overall. In the waning hours of the race, the engine overheated and lost coolant but regulations prohibited the team from refilling the radiator. Team manager Momo instructed the crew to pack the engine with ice from the team’s catering tent. Driving at reduced speed, the ice-cooled Corvette finished first in the 4000-5000cc GT class and eighth overall – the best finish by a Corvette until the arrival of Corvette Racing four decades later.
Thompson’s racing career is a chronicle of the early days of Corvettes in competition. A Corvette propelled him to the 1956 SCCA C-Production national championship, putting the world on notice that Corvette was a genuine contender against European sports cars. Thompson and his Corvette left their mark in the record book in 1957, earning a class victory at Sebring and another SCCA national title. The dentist from Washington, D.C. went on to win three more national championships driving Corvettes, including the C-Modified title with Bill Mitchell’s Stingray Racer in 1960, B-Production in a Gulf Oil-sponsored Corvette in 1961, and the A-Production crown in another Gulf Oil Corvette in 1962.
Thompson was one of a handful of racers who transformed Corvette’s performance image at a crucial period in the car’s history. He played a pivotal role in laying the foundation for success that Corvette has enjoyed on the street and on tracks around the world. Chevrolet is proud to salute the Flying Dentist as one of the Corvette Legends of Le Mans.
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