Think of names in the great pantheon of those who made eternal reputations with the Corvette: Arkus-Duntov, naturally. Guildstrand. Mitchell. And in with that trio was inevitably The Flying Dentist out of Washington, D.C., Dr. Dick Thompson, arguably the greatest pure Corvette racer of them all. Photos at the end of the post. Dr. Thompson died in 2014.
Dr. Dick Thompson Remembers
From FAST CHEVYs by Alex Gabbard and Mary Gabbard
I got started toward racing when I bought a Renault 4CV in ’48 or ’49. That got me into foreign cars. After that, I bought a Morris Minor from a local dealer. A friend of mine told me about a local rally where they raced such cars, and while there, I saw an MG-TD. The Morris dealer also handled MG, so I bought one. Another friend, Bill Kinchloe, told me about races with MGs at Watkins Glen, so we went. Someone told us about a race in Florida at Sebring in March, and Bill and I decided to go.
It was an AAA race and all you had to do to get a license was sign in. We signed up and we were in the race. We raced my MG-TD. Someone had told us that you couldn’t race the whole thing on one set of tires and wheels so we took along a spare set from Bill’s MG. This was 1952.
We won a trophy! We finished 8th overall, 6th on handicap and 3rd in the 1500cc class. (This was the first Sebring 12-Hour. Completed 129 laps, 670.8 miles. Averaged 55.9 mph). I had only seen one race before and here we won the J. S. Inskip trophy for outstanding MG performance. Inskip was the MG importer in my area and awarded the trophy for the highest finishing stock MG.
It was the very first race for both of us. We only had one helmet. In practice, both of us were in the car where we critiqued each other’s driving. I was a practicing dentist at the age of 32 and just a “weekend warrior” racer.
After Sebring, we towed the tired MG back to Washington DC where we rebuilt it. I started going to local races, mostly in Pennsylvania—the Reading Hill Climb, Giant’s Despair, Watkins Glen and others. At Watkins Glen, Bill Spear was in an OSCA. Bob Fergus with his MG-TC and I had a great race. Both of us finished. Bob won and received a trophy for the 1st place MG.
The course went through town and out around the countryside. Coming back into town, the course went down hill with a sharp left, then a hard right onto main street. Down hill, the car was turning 6500 rpm, much more than it was really capable of, but it held together. There were two OSCAs in the 1500cc class, but I finished 3rd or 4th in class with them.
In ’53 I bought one of the 1500cc Porsches. In those days, they were mostly VoIkswagens. By then, the MG wasn’t very competitive and could only run for special trophies. Later, the Porsches became so popular that many of the events became virtually Porsche races.
That year, I was recalled into the Marines because of the Korean War. I had been in the Marines after graduating in 1944 and had been in the Second World War. I was sent to Paris Island, South Carolina, as a dentist I arranged with the Marines to be let off for racing, which they thought was a good idea for exposure. They let me race at Bridgehampton where I won the 1500cc class in the Porsche. What made that win so interesting was that I drove up, won the race against a special Glockler Porsche and drove back. Like most people back then, I always drove to and from races.
I got out of the Marines in early ’54 and raced six or seven races and won the SCCA 1500cc National Championship (tied with Art Bunker for the F/Production title.) I did all my own work, but the Porsche didn’t need a lot.
At the end of the ’54 season, I drove to Florida and got on the boat to Nassau for the Speed Week. I raced five or six races and finished 3rd or 4th in class against Baron Von Hanstein who was there with a couple of factory Porsches. He was the factory’s chief engineer. What made the Nassau thing so attractive was that I saw an ad that said “all expenses paid.” All I had to do was get my car to Miami. That was the first time I had expenses paid to go racing.
The Baron was a lot of help when I rebuilt the Porsche. He recommended the good Porsche parts instead of Volkswagen pieces. Neither I nor anyone else knew the difference in those days. They didn’t make any more power, but the car held together better.
I sold the Porsche in the spring of ’55 and bought a Jaguar XK-140. I raced it first at Hagerstown, Maryland. That was a notable race because some guy spun in a 300SL Mercedes and crashed into Bill Spear’s parked Bentley.
Chuck Wallace and I had a competitive year in our Jaguars. Chuck had a 120M. I was in contention for the championship throughout the season but Chuck won, his first of two in that
During the year, Paul O’Shea showed up with a factory 300SL. Back then, SCCA had a real “thing” about amateur racing. No factory and dealer support was allowed, so it was all done “under the table.” We raced several races, and he asked me to co-drive with him at Sebring. That was the first time I had gotten paid for racing. We had one car to race and one car each for practice. Fangio’s team of mechanics were our crew. Unfortunately, we never made the race.
The cars were fitted with a dry sump system with five gallons of oil. Sebring had five or six fast curves and oil came out the filler and spilled onto the track. That big disaster at Le Mans made people worry about cars sliding in the oil, and the engineers couldn’t stop it within the rules. So they withdrew the car. We only practiced. After that, I went back to the Jaguar.
Sebring was the first time the Corvettes were raced. Zora Duntov and John Fitch and a big crew of people spent three months testing. Almost every day, an airplane came in bringing new parts or equipment and went out with something for the factory. O’Shea and John Fitch were friends. John and Zora wanted someone to race the Corvette, but since it was all supposed to be amateur, they asked me to buy the car. 1 was to send the car back to the factory after each race.
It was all arranged through Barney Clark. He was my “guru,” my liaison with the factory. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to get anything done. I took delivery of the car in California because Chevrolet wanted the car in the first race of the year. That was Pebble Beach. I didn’t expect much, but it turned out to be a lot better car than I expected. In practice, it had great handling but it had fuel starvation problems. The Chevrolet engineer assigned to the car, Frank Burrell, said he could fix it, and by the start of the race, the Corvette was really running well.
Pebble Beach was a course through woods so you didn’t make mistakes. The car was entered in Class C for production cars along with seven or eight 300SLs as the fastest cars. Two or three of them were factory cars. I had a bomb under me. The Corvette was a very good car. It handled beautifully and went very well, but wouldn’t stop well after six or seven laps. After getting off to a bad start, I was leading after the first lap and led most of the way until near the end when the brakes were gone entirely. Rudy Cleye’s factory 300SL got by me, but I still finished first in class and second overall. That made Barney happy. At the end of the race, I had to stall the car in gear to stop in the pits. When the mechanics took the hubs off, brake pieces fell out on the asphalt. That was the Corvette’s first race. I was thirty-six years old.
As far as Barney was concerned, the Corvette was competing against the 300SLs. Both were the fastest production sports cars in the world, and Barney wanted the Corvette to be THE fastest although the Mercedes-Benz cost a lot more. Barney was a great help with the politics with GM. He was a great politician.
The Californians didn’t like the Corvette doing well. They favored foreign cars, especially the Mercedes-Benz in production cars. Ferrari was tops, but there were no production Ferraris at the time.
During the ’57 season, we went all around the country: Cumberland, Maryland; Thompson, Connecticut; Bridgehampton and Watkins Glen in New York; Meadowdale and Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin; Sebring; Texas; California. We went to every national race that year. All I had to do was pay my air fare and the car would arrive complete with mechanics.
After the races, the car went to Zora at Chevrolet or Red would take it to a local dealer for whatever work it needed. The car was an engineering exercise. I was, in effect, the factory’s development driver although it was all under the table. Previously, GM had to stay officially out of it, but this year, it was overt factory backing. Still, we had just one car.
The car was basically a “blue-printed” production Corvette with a 283 engine. It had two four-barrel carburetors and a four-speed transmission. What it didn’t have was a limited slip. That was something it really could have used.
Sebring was the first race of the ’57 season. Gaston Andrey co-drove with me. We had raced against each other many times. Foreign cars dominated the race, but we finished 12th.
The Automobile Manufacturer’s Association ban in the middle of ’57 was the end of the Corvette deal. Chevrolet wouldn’t touch racing with a ten foot pole after that. We continued on through the end of the season, and I won the B/production National Championship with the Corvette the second year running. Although Barney was my connection with the factory until then, there was nothing after the factory clamped down on racing.
For 1958, I had a lot of different rides. I raced a Saab for the factory in the 12-hour sedan race at Lime Rock, and the owner of Manhattan Auto, a local Washington DC dealer, asked me to drive his Austin-Healey. That was a 6-cylinder car. We raced it for the entire season and won the D/Production National Championship that year.
In 1959, I raced the Sting Ray for Bill Mitchell. I had known Bill from my earlier Corvette days. He had the SR-2 that I drove at Marlboro and won with in 1956. He decided he wanted a better car and built the first Sting Ray from the mule chassis of the SS. He was a very enthusiastic guy, very effervescent.
Some of the guys from his group at GM worked on the car. It was a totally volunteer effort. Larry Shinoda, one of his stylists, had been my mechanic on the SR-2, and he was my mechanic on the Sting Ray. Zora couldn’t give us anything, engines, nothing. His hands were tied by GM management. Everything on the Sting Ray was strictly a Bill Mitchell effort, and, of course, being a Corvette, it had no brakes to speak of; no discs, nothing like the Scarab.
That Sting Ray had absolutely no help from GM. It was Bill Mitchell’s creation to publicize the Sting Ray styling. And, I suppose, GM didn’t like it much. They might have given him some grief over it, but he had his own little empire and there wasn’t much they could do about it. The car had quite a potential even without factory support, but it was strictly amateur. It even had a production engine.
We won the 1960 C/Modified National Championship with that car, but the Sting Ray wasn’t what it could have been if they had let Duntov do what he wanted. It could have been a lot of car if some of the CERV engineering were let loose and applied to the car. His group had all kinds of things, but he wasn’t allowed to use anything.
That car didn’t get light in the front, not like the later Grand Sports, but it didn’t go as fast, either. To my knowledge, nobody checked it aerodynamically. Back then, nobody knew anything about aerodynamics. I guess it would do, maybe 160. The earlier Corvette, the SR-2 in ’56, was capable of around 140, I guess, and the Sting Ray was maybe 20 mph faster.
We took three stock Corvettes to Le Mans that year. Briggs Cunningham entered the cars, and we were very welcome at Le Mans. He was very well liked, and it was quite a big promotional deal. It was the first American production car effort since the Cunningham Cadillacs of the early ’50s. Zora and a bunch of his people went over two months early for practice. It took two days to get the cars through scrutineering. Since they were production cars, every part on them had to be stamped.
During the race, we had brake problems as usual, head gasket problems because of the three mile long straightaway and gas problems. They had sent Briggs a sample of the gas that was going to be used during the race, but, of course, it wasn’t the same gas at all. John Fitch and Bob Grossman finished, their’s was the only Corvette that did, but it did so with a blown head gasket. The water had leaked out, and according to the rules, we couldn’t add water or oil. With about three or four hours to go, Frank Burrell, who had been my mechanic with the SR-2, thought of packing the engine with ice. We bought all the ice we could find from concessions, and every four or five laps, they would bring the car in and it would get a bucket of ice dumped on the engine. They didn’t go very fast, but the car finished.
Fred Windridge was my co-driver, in car number two I think. The engine blew fifteen hours into the race. That was my first drive at Le Mans. It was very intriguing. Really, there is no race like it except maybe Indianapolis. The whole town becomes the race; thirteen kilometers of countryside with a couple of little towns. There was an awful lot of people. So many of the entries were factory teams with all sorts of members.
At Le Mans, we weren’t running against anyone in particular. Maybe if you were leading, you might race against someone, but we were trying to do as well as we could and finish. It rained as it always rains at Le Mans. Fog. Night. Just keeping the car going required all our attention, so we didn’t do much racing against other cars.
After Le Mans, I continued the SCCA season with Mitchell and the C/Modified Sting Ray. We raced against the Scarabs, the Devin SS, mainly the Scarabs. I’d have to say that Augie Pabst was my fiercest competitor. The Scarab was a much better car, better brakes and a much more powerful engine. The reason I won the C/Modified Championship that year was that we went to more races. (Pabst won the B/Modified Championship in the Meister Brauser team Scarab.) We raced ten or twelve races that year; Riverside, Laguna Seca, Meadowdale, Elkhart Lake, Watkins Glen, but no endurance races. They were too expensive. Remember, Bill Mitchell financed the whole thing. Nobody got paid. Everything was strictly volunteer.
The Sting Ray was a lot heavier than the Scarab. It would accelerate with the Scarab , but it wouldn’t stop with it. We raced the Sting Ray a little in the 1961 season, but I’m not sure about that. It just got too expensive. Overall, racing hadn’t changed much, but it was becoming more and more professional.
At the time, Don Yenko was driving for Grady Davis. Davis was Executive Vice President of Gulf Oil Company. I think it was after the third race that season that Yenko lost his license. His car was caught with a Sebring flywheel in a production Corvette. Grady called and wanted to know if I could finish out the season. To win the championship, I had to win every race remaining on the schedule. I started in the fourth race of the season. Bob Johnson had won the B/Production championship the year before and had won the first three races in a Corvette, as I recall.
Grady financed everything. The cars had Gulf logos on them, but there wasn’t any Gulf money in the program. He just liked racing. We finished out the year with me winning the B/production Championship that year. That was my eighth National Championship in eight years of racing.
The next year, he had two Corvettes. Yenko drove the B/Production car, and I drove A/Production. Don won the B/Production championship in his Corvette, and I won the A/Production championship. That was a good year of racing for Grady.
In ’63, Grady ran a Grand Sport and an A/Production Corvette. Don drove the production car. The Grand Sport and A/Production Corvette were really no comparison. The Grand Sport was a thousand pounds lighter and had good brakes. It went fast enough that aerodynamics began playing a part. It got light in front.
Dr. Dick Thompson
SCCA National Championships:
1954 (tied) F/Production—Porsche
1960 C/Modified—Sting Ray
Source: FAST CHEVYs © 1989 by Alex Gabbard and Mary Gabbard
Gabbard Publications Inc.
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