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National Corvette Museum celebrates century of Chevrolet Racing

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1957 Chevrolet 150 “Black Widow.” All images courtesy of the National Corvette Museum.

Chevrolet’s history of racing goes back to even before Chevrolet was formed in 1911. Louis Chevrolet, the company’s namesake, a self-trained engineer and designer, had made a name for himself racing a variety of makes, before the Swiss-born racer teamed up with William Durant and other investors to form the Chevrolet Motor Car Company.

Chevrolet, the man, distanced himself from his eponymous company within a few years, owing to Chevrolet’s significant differences with Durant on how to run the company. Durant, of course, used the success of the Chevrolet company to regain control of General Motors, though his second tenure at the helm of the corporation he created ended no better than the first. Given the Chevrolet company’s start with a renowned racer as the source of its name, it should surprise no one that the Chevrolet badge has gone down in racing circles with significant victories across the world over the past century. To celebrate this more-than-100-year history, the National Corvette Museum recently opened an exhibit titled ““Louis to Le Mans: The History of Chevrolet Racing.”

A bust of Louis Chevrolet in front of a 1910 Buick Model 60 Special, aka the “Bug.”

Scheduled to run through January 4, 2019, the celebration is displayed in the museum’s main exhibit hall and includes race cars from Louis Chevrolet’s days racing Buicks—when he first got on Durant’s radar—to the company’s foray in the nascent NASCAR to its many years of glory on that circuit to the Corvette’s more recent history as a force to be reckoned with in sports car racing, most notably in the most grueling race of all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In a press release, Derek E. Moore, the curator at the museum, shares his thoughts on the genesis of the display: “The idea of the exhibit started with Corvette’s success at Le Mans over the last few years, and with the recent heyday of how well Corvette Racing is doing, I wanted to look at how Chevrolet wound up at this point.”

1915 Cornelian Indianapolis racer shown with Louis Chevrolet at the wheel with an unnamed mechanic by his side.

The display includes three cars that Louis Chevrolet piloted in races. The first is a 1909 Buick Model 16 Indy car. Don’t let the date fool you—the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened two years before the first 500-mile race. The second is the iconic 1910 Buick Model 60 Special, aka the “Bug,” one of two commissioned by Durant to make a name for Buick in racing circles. Powered by a massive 622-cu.in., overhead-valve four-cylinder engine, the single-seat racer was good for 105 mph at the top end, but proved a handful as a racer, not particularly attuned to curves. The third car of racer Chevrolet in display is a 1915 Cornelian, a car designed by Louis Chevrolet that he entered in the Indianapolis 500 that year, finishing in 20th place when a broken valve ended his day on lap 76, well out of the prize money.

Any Chevrolet racing history would be incomplete without NASCAR representation and the museum has one of the all-time iconic race cars. The 1957 “Black Widow” was a fuel-injected speed machine that Chevrolet supplied via a shell company operating out of an Atlanta-area Chevy dealer. Base on a stripped-down 150 two-door utility sedan, each Black Widow was outfitted with a breathed-upon, solid-lifter, fuel-injected V-8 that likely made over 300 horsepower. Countless other modifications helped Chevrolet win a bunch of races and the driver’s title for Buck Baker, even though Detroit all but abandoned racing mid-year 1957 with the industry-wide agreement to ban all factory support of any kind of racing.

1910 Buick Model 60 Special, aka the “Bug.”

A bevy of other bowtie-bedecked racers are included in the exhibit, such as a 1964 Cheetah, the Cobra fighter from the mind of Bill Thomas, but with plenty of clandestine support from GM; a 1983 Monte Carlo SS “Pepsi Challenger” NASCAR Cup car; a pre-production, world-record-setting 1989 Corvette ZR-1 (with its Lotus-designed, Mercury Marine-built DOHC, multi-valve V-8 engine); a 1997 Corvette C5.R homologation special that marked the start of the Vette’s dominant play on the world sports car stage; a chrome-wrapped 1997 Monte Carlo NASCAR cup car; a C6.R GT1 test car; and a 2010 Chevrolet Cruze WTCC, the latter the equivalent of NASCAR in Europe and other parts of the world where highly competitive, production-based sedans duke it out.

Check out the National Corvette Museum’s website, for details and to plan your visit to Bowling Green.