Chevrolet—Racing? Fourteen Years of Raucous Silence
By Paul Van Valkenburgh. Review by Gary Smith
Paul Van Valkenburgh worked as an engineer for Chevrolet Research and Development during the ’60s, and had a front row seat to all of the goings on between Chevrolet and the racing world.
The principle purpose of Chevrolet’s involvement was the exchange of information, testing engineering solutions to hardware and chassis problems that surfaced in competition. Road Racing was the only racing venue that explored these limits to the fullest, and the exchange of information could be justified because engineering advances would influence components on production vehicles. Drag racing and NASCAR were too specialized and couldn’t provide the same feedback in complete vehicle dynamics as road racing. That suited me just fine because I lived 30 minutes from the Riverside International Raceway.
The connection with Jim Hall is a case in point. As a competitor winning is important. But his passion must have been engineering and innovation—different priorities than Roger Penske, who ran his effort like a business. Roger had to because he needed sponsors. Jim Hall was self-supporting. Nice.
Rattlesnake Raceway eventually became a winter testing facility for Chevrolet R&D’s projects, partially to extend the testing season throughout the year, working around Michigan winters. But mostly Rattlesnake Raceway was far from curious observers, both inside and outside GM. What Chevy R&D tested often looked suspiciously like race cars, and they didn’t need the publicity.
Nowadays remotely gathering of information from race cars is as much a part of the team’s supporting landscape as stacks of tires and parts seen in the background shots in the pits. In the ’60s Chevrolet pioneered the gathering and analyzing information from research vehicles and race cars out of necessity to understand what was happening dynamically in real time. The equipment in the cars got smaller and lighter with more channels as the years progressed. Chevy’s plain white step van’s antenna could be extended to receive signals from up to three miles away, monitoring data sent from transducers on race cars.
The 67-acre “Black Lake” was carved out of a forest at the proving grounds in Milford during this time. Chevy R&D had no place to hurl a car doing 150 mph into component stressing maneuvers that had enough space to bleed off speed before something solid was hit if things went wrong. The telemetry van was there a lot.
The Chaparral Connection
I remember as a kid often being disappointed when the Chaparral wasn’t the fastest car on the track, or broke, or even failed to start. It was so cool. Now I understand that not only was Jim Hall an incredible innovator, but Chaparral and Chevrolet were testing components and finding problems. One of the more interesting accounts in the book was about the 427 Chevy engines first installed in the Chaparral 2F for the Daytona Continental in 1967. They developed hemorrhaging oil leaks during the race that could not be accounted for. Everything was blamed and scrutinized. But it wasn’t until a running engine was put on a gimbal at Chevy R&D that could rock a motor driven engine up to 50 degrees in any direction simulating race conditions that the problem was discovered. During braking and cornering, oil would become trapped in the rocker covers that held the oil, building pressures up to 90 psi. The subsequent relief system not only eliminated oil loss in the 427, it was one of the reasons why the 302 was so successful in the Trans Am—it was able to corner consistently at high Gs without losing all of its oil from the pan and burning up.
After Chevrolet and Chaparral had spend an embarrassing year with the 427, Penske and McLaren then got the credit for the engine being so successful in the 1968 season. In subsequent years their BB Chevy engines were by that time pretty well sorted out and reliable. So to keep ahead of the game, Hall and Chevy R&D continued to innovate and experiment with aerodynamics.
The history of the development of the Chaparral 2H is clarified in the book. The sources of problems with the car included not enough communication between Chevrolet R&D and Chaparral, and insufficient development time.
The 2J “Sucker Car” concept originated with Chevrolet R&D. The chronology of that design is extremely interesting. If it weren’t for Lexan stepping in as a sponsor, the car would have never been completed. Solving development problems with such a radical design in such a short amount of time with limited resources is daunting, to say the least. Vic Elford drove the car at its debut at Road Atlanta, and for the first time in three years, McLaren didn’t have the fastest car on the track. In practice Elford was easily three seconds faster than Hulme, and Teddy Mayer practically went into shock. But there were 400 miles of testing on the fan system without a rebuild, and early in the race an ignition wire fatigued and the fan motor began missing.
The book is filled cover to cover with extremely interesting tidbits of fascinating information like this. In a lot more detail.
Oh, There’s More
Chapters include the inside story of how Chevrolet interacted with Penske and Donohue, Smokey Yunick (comes and goes), Jim Travers and Frank Coon (TRACO), Jerry Thompson and Tony DeLorenzo (Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corvettes), the Yenko Stingers, Chevy powered cars at Indy, and on and on. Duntov’s CERVs and Grand Sports play a definite part in the story.
There is a chapter entitled “The Tale of Two Engines” where development of both the small and big block Chevrolet engines are discussed in considerable detail. And there is a section about the development and reasoning behind Hall’s automatic transmissions.
The last chapter, “The Final End,” explains how and why it was all suddenly over.
This is an excellent book, engrossing to read, and lays bare all of the speculation and intrigue that went on behind the scenes.
Footnote: Larry Erickson bought my first addition copy of Chevrolet—Racing? when we worked in Cadillac Studio in 1987. First published in 1972, it was reprinted in 2000, and is again now out of print. Thinking about the book, I recently bought a used copy of the second addition to review. First additions are rather pricey. I wonder if Larry still has his.
Chevrolet—Racing? Fourteen Years of Raucous Silence
Paul Van Valkenburgh
Hardcover, 316 pages, Indexed
Published by SAE International
First published in 1972. Second edition published in 2000
It is a small world indeed. When the government was testing 3 wheelers back in the 80s, Paul was the engineer testing my 3 wheeler at Edwards Air Force Base on the landing strip of the Space Shuttle.
The pictures show Paul in the background setting up an instrument in their shop. They had the car fully instrumented to test all kinds of vehicle dynamics. Paul said I came out the best of a dozen 3-wheelers, except for braking (now fixed thanks to Ken Mitson). In the other picture Paul is doing the driving on the skid pad at Edwards. I also have movies of all this. What fun this was.
It was and still is a great book, and probably said a bunch of things about Chevrolet/Detroit that had never been noted in public. And I’m sure that created some chafing in those locales. Too bad there was never a counterpart about MoPar.