A 1960 Chevrolet Corvette returned here this week to a hero’s welcome on the 50th anniversary of its victory in the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race. The Corvette’s place in history might not have been remembered so enthusiastically, if not for a son’s desire to fulfill one of his late father’s last wishes.
Lance Miller, of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, now owns the actual #3 Corvette that won its class, and placed eighth overall in the 1960 race. He inherited it from his father, Chip, who died unexpectedly at age 61 in 2004 of a rare disease (Amyloidosis).
Chip Miller had purchased the car in 2000 and had spent two years restoring it to the exact condition in which it was raced by John Fitch and the late Bob Grossman at Le Mans in 1960. “It had been my father’s dream to return the car, with John Fitch driving, if he was still living, to the site of what he called ‘Corvette’s grandest victory’,” Mr. Miller said in a recent interview.
Mr. Fitch is still alive, and now a spry 92 years old; he was eager to honor Chip Miller’s request to attend this year’s Le Mans event and again the drive the Corvette.
“My father never had the opportunity to go to LeMans,” said Lance Miller said. “He asked me shortly before he died to please make sure the Corvette would still go back to Le Mans, if it was possible. So that’s what started all this.”
His son made it possible, with an attention to detail and a flair for the dramatic that would likely have made his father proud.
First off, he shipped the Corvette over to France this month by boat, just as it had been 50 years earlier, when Briggs Cunningham brought three of them over for an assault on the Le Mans record book.
The Back Story
A Corvette, which first came out in 1953, had never raced at Le Mans before. Cunningham, a noted sportsman in his day, believed that despite shortcomings such as unsuitable brakes, the Corvettes were fast enough to challenge Ferrari, Maserati, Porsche and other more expensive sports cars for the victory.
One of the Corvettes, with Dr. Dick Thompson, the so-called “Flying Dentist” from Washington, D.C. at the wheel, was the fastest qualifier. The car, #2, had a factory-spec 290-horsepower, fuel-injected, 283-cubic-inch V8 engine.
It was first off the line in the race, after Dr. Thompson had sprinted to it and jumped in the driver’s seat in the traditional foot race that used to start Le Mans. He set a top speed record of more than 161 m.p.h. on the Mulsanne Straight.
But a heavy downpour three hours into the event caused Dr. Thompson, running among the overall leaders, to spin off course and into a sand pit; he was only able to extricate himself after losing a decisive amount of time. Another teammate, Bill Kimberley, flipped his #1 Corvette in the same storm. Only Mr. Fitch was able to soldier on unimpeded; he had overturned a Corvette in a race at Sebring, Florida, three months earlier – perhaps it helped him better understand the car’s limits.
Dr. Thompson, down-shifting the transmission harshly to slow the car as compensation for its failed brakes, said it was only a matter of time before the engine would expire. It did, in the race’s 20th hour. The Fitch-Grossman #3 entry experienced engine overheating in the final hour; it was only able to keep going to the finish by packing ice from the team’s soft drink coolers into the car’s engine compartment during frequent pit stops.
But the Corvette’s class victory was a major achievement; it wouldn’t be until 2002 that any other Corvette racing at Le Mans could even equal that feat. (A two-car team of 2010 Corvettes was entered in this year’s race, and among the pre-race favorites to win again.)
After the 1960 race, what was left of the Le Mans Corvettes were shipped back to the United States. Mr. Thompson had expected the cars would go into a museum, since Chevrolet officials had told the drivers these were special Corvettes now, and would never be raced again.
Instead, Cunningham had the cars returned to a dealership where all the racing equipment was stripped off and replaced with the original factory-installed equipment; the cars were then repainted, and sold to the public! (“Low miles, driven only once!”)
Fast Forward to 2010
The #1 car has since vanished.
Dr. Thompson’s #2 was found in 1978, in an Irwindale, Calif., junkyard, where a sharp-eyed collector purchased it for $300. The #2 Corvette now leads a pampered life in the collection of Bruce Meyer, former chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Mr. Fitch’s #3 Corvette changed hands numerous times before the Miller family acquired it in 2000. No expense was spared, Mr. Miller said, restoring the #3 Corvette to its 1960 Le Mans trim. “If we couldn’t find the exact part – some of which no longer exist – we had new parts manufactured,” Mr. Miller said. “It was an exhaustive effort, but my dad made sure everything was exactly as it should be.”
(A fourth Corvette, raced by the Camoradi team at Le Mans, has reappeared recently after having gone missing for many years; but questions surround that car’s provenance.)
That either of the Cunningham cars, much less the drivers, survives is quite miraculous. Mr. Fitch, an Indiana native and much-decorated World War II fighter pilot and former prisoner of war, went on to other racing successes during a long career; he eventually came to be general manager of Lime Rock Park race track in Connecticut.
Dr. Thompson decided he couldn’t safely make a decent living behind the wheel. So he quit racing, and continued practicing dentistry until he retired at age 75. Now 89, he lives in Florida, and although he attended ceremonies in Laguna Seca, California, last month commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Corvette’s Le Mans victory, he was too frail to travel to Le Mans for the festivities there.
Mr. Miller worked with Le Mans organizers to have the #3 Corvette displayed in the speedway’s Musee Automobile de la Sarthe the week prior to the 2010 Le Mans classic. It was also invited to lead a parade of 50 Corvettes on “un tour d’Honneur” around the eight-mile racing circuit. At the wheel again was John Fitch, the man who drove it to that checkered flag a half century ago. Alongside, in the passenger seat, was Lance Miller.
Mr. Miller believes that although he now owns the car, it will always be remembered as “Chip’s Le Mans racer.”
“The 1960 Corvette was an amazing car,” Dr. Thompson told me in an interview. “There was nothing else like it. I’m glad to see it getting its place in history. It’s well-deserved.”
June 9, 2010