Chevy's racing triumvirate
Vince Piggins, Frank Winchell and Zora Arkus-Duntov negotiated political obstacles to lay a foundation for Chevrolet motorsports
Chevy's Corvette C6R endurance racer has one 24 Hours of Daytona victory, half a dozen Le Mans class wins and 15 championships to its credit. Over the past 13 years, the factory-backed Corvette team has won 81 races in 127 attempts. While the C6R can make winning look easy, it wasn't always so. Half a century ago, internal and external politics frustrated Chevy's push for racing fame.
The arrival of the small-block V-8 in 1955 got Chevy racing rolling. But without concerted effort by Vince Piggins, Frank Winchell and Zora Arkus-Duntov, that epic engine would never have made it to the track.
In 1955 and 1956, Chevrolet and Ford faced the task of breaking Chrysler's NASCAR racing dominance. After Herb Thomas won the 1955 Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C., noted engine tuner and car constructor Smokey Yunick made his continued involvement with the factory-backed Chevy effort contingent on the hiring of Vince Piggins as team manager.
Piggins, a lanky, self-taught engineer, had worked in Packard's engine department before helping Hudson win 80 NASCAR races in the early 1950s. Chevy chief engineer Ed Cole approved Yunick's request, and Piggins got to work raising Chevy's racing game.
Reacting to Ford's superior 1956 performance -- 52 NASCAR wins, compared with Chevy's 38 -- Piggins established Southern Engineering Development Co. in Atlanta; hired a staff of veteran racers; and stocked the facility with the parts needed to compete in both NASCAR and USAC events.
One of Piggins' smartest moves was avoiding the use of the word "racing" to describe the fortified powertrain and chassis components capable of withstanding the rigors of competition. The descriptors "heavy-duty" and "for off-highway use" were more likely to pass scrutiny with officials committed to maintaining purely stock specifications.
While NASCAR had mixed emotions about the escalating Ford-Chevy battle, the Automobile Manufacturers Association -- a trade group representing all domestic automakers -- decided that the growing emphasis on power and speed would undermine the industry's safety reputation. In June 1957, the AMA proclaimed an official end to direct factory racing involvement.
Piggins downshifted but didn't lose momentum. Southern Engineering Development Co. closed, and the stock of parts and cars was given to worthy racers. In his new role as Chevy's product performance manager, Piggins kept the heavy-duty parts pipeline flowing from the engineering department to the racing community until he retired in 1983.
Zora Arkus-Duntov, who was born in Belgium, raised in Russia and educated in Germany, went to work for General Motors in 1953 and always kept a racing project up his sleeve.
Backed by engineering chief Ed Cole, he constructed the Corvette SS sports racer for the 1957 12 hours of Sebring. But the preparation was rushed and a suspension component failed after only 23 laps.
Although the AMA racing ban dropped the curtain on that project, the SS enjoyed a fruitful second life as Bill Mitchell's Sting Ray racer in amateur road racing and was the design inspiration for the 1963 Corvette.
Paying lip service to the AMA racing prohibition, Arkus-Duntov called his next two Chevrolet racing projects engineering research vehicles.
The first was a mid-engine, open-wheeled, single-seat speedster designed to comply with 1959 Indy racing rules. The second, four years later, was Arkus-Duntov's retaliation to Ford's GT40 Le Mans racer. It had enclosed wheels, four-wheel drive and a small-block single overhead cam, but political headwinds stopped it from progressing beyond one running test car.
He had no college degree, but Frank Winchell was one of GM's most accomplished engineers. As head of Chevrolet r&d from 1959 until 1966, he formed longstanding liaisons with several racers to find ways of making Chevrolets faster, better-handling machines.
When he needed a safe place to study vehicle dynamics, money from Chevy's r&d budget was used to grade 67 acres at GM's Milford proving grounds northwest of Detroit and pave them with asphalt, yielding the testing pad now nicknamed Black Lake.
Winchell's r&d department collaborated with racing greats such as Roger Penske and Mark Donohue, but the longest and most fruitful relationship was with Jim Hall's team at Chaparral Cars.
Texas oil man Hall was wealthy, well educated and a capable driver, and his engineering curiosity made him a worthy Winchell ally. Through the 1960s, Chaparral and Chevy delved deeply into aluminum powertrain and chassis advancements, composite plastics, tire developments, racing automatic transmissions, data acquisition techniques and aerodynamic features.
Chaparral Cars scored only one Can-Am victory, but their technology greatly advanced motorsports. The final 1970 Chaparral 2J, built after Winchell had moved on to head GM's r&d operation, used a radical concept to improve cornering speeds. Two engine-driven fans, in conjunction with sliding side skirts, evacuated air from under the car, creating a pressure differential that greatly enhanced tire traction without need for the usual wings or spoilers. Painstaking development made the idea work, and the ground effects era was born.