LeMans History: 1969 Chevrolet Corvette L88/ZL1 Greenwood Race Car

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It is a harsh reality that many race cars will meet an inglorious end. Some will give their lives in the field of battle, while others will find new homes when they have served their useful purpose. However, many will be cannibalized for parts, with the remains left to rot in a field or make a final journey to the scrapyard. After all, today’s state-of-the-art racing machinery can quickly become tomorrow’s also-ran. A hardy group of enthusiasts set themselves the goal of preserving such vehicles, which is the story behind this 1969 Chevrolet Corvette L88/ZL1 Greenwood Race Car. It underwent a Concours restoration to recapture its glory days and is set for auction. The seller listed it here at Mecum Auctions in Indianapolis, Indiana. It will go under the Hammer on Saturday, May 20th, and, unsurprisingly, the auctioneers consider it a Main Attraction. I must say a big thank you to Barn Finder Mitchell G. for spotting this fantastic vintage racer.

The history of some racing machinery can be fascinating, and this 1969 Chevrolet Corvette L88/ZL1 is no exception. It is 1-of-3 cars produced by John Greenwood for competition between 1971 and 1973. Initially designated as a show and display vehicle, it was upgraded to racing specifications when one of the other Corvettes suffered significant accident damage. It carries its correct “Stars and Stripes” livery and decals as designed by Bert Greenwood and was sponsored for its entire Greenwood racing career by BF Goodrich to showcase the company’s newly released T/A Radial tires. Its racing career post-1973 is unclear, but its owner treated it to a Concours restoration by specialists Corvette Repair of Valley Stream, New York. Its presentation is flawless, from the bulging fender flares and hood scoop to the sparkling paint. The huge Minilite wheels add to the car’s sense of purpose and are wrapped in period-correct T/A Radials from the Corvette’s sponsor. The headlamps demonstrate the attention to detail by the car’s creators. The pop-up system is gone, with the now exposed lights protected by aerodynamic Plexiglass covers. The subtle front spoiler helped keep the nose nailed to the deck as speeds reached the double-ton while feeding cooling air to the enormous front brakes.

This Corvette rolled off the line as a genuine L88 car, churning out 430hp direct from the factory. That would never be enough for competition purposes, so Greenwood Racing made changes to improve its on-track prospects. The original motor made way for a race-spec ZL1 427 that fed its copious power to a Muncie close-ratio four-speed transmission. In keeping with its racing pedigree, the suspension received considerable upgrades to improve handling and allow the engine’s 750hp to hit the tarmac. Was it fast? It sent jaws dropping at LeMans in 1973 when it set a new GT-Class top speed of 215mph on the Mulsanne Straight. The car failed to finish then, but it collected a class victory at the 1972 Watkins Glen Six-Hour race. Other starts included the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Daytona 24 Hour. Driving duties fell to such legends as John Greenwood, Bob Johnson, Dick Smothers, and Don Yenko. The Corvette now houses a fresh ZL1 assembled by Chevrolet racing experts, Traco Engineering. It is in excellent health and could easily find its way onto the track for a spot of spirited historic competition work.

Race car interiors rarely feature luxury touches, and this Corvette is no exception. Items like the windows feature no power assistance because the manual versions remove precious ounces from the Corvette’s racing weight. It retains much of its factory upholstery and trim, although a body-hugging racing seat holds the driver firmly during hard cornering. The original gauges and switches are gone, with their place filled with racing items that can be quickly and easily read to monitor the health of that beast under the hood. A thick leather-wrapped wheel helps the driver remain in control, while a sturdy rollcage protects the driver in the case of an accident and improves the car’s torsional rigidity.

Preserving any classic car is vitally important because they often provide a window into a different era in our history. However, saving vehicles like this 1969 Chevrolet Corvette L88/ZL1 Greenwood Race Car allows enthusiasts to recall past glories and marvel at the ongoing development in the ever-changing world of motorsport. I have been involved in racing in one form or another for decades, and although it is only eight years since I hung up my helmet, I am continually amazed by the changes and advancements since then. Motorsport’s future is unclear, but it seems the focus is shifting towards hybrid and zero-emission technology. Vehicles like this can be easily dismissed as dinosaurs, but they were considered cutting-edge when they graced our tracks. It raises the question of how we can appreciate evolving technology if we don’t have a benchmark from which to work. The simple answer is that we can’t. That is why saving cars like this is critical. I hope it goes to a home with a new owner who will hit the track occasionally to give it a good gallop. It is a race car, and its natural home is the track. Spending its days in a museum is not what its creators intended. Preserve it, yes, but using it would be a fitting tribute to the people who slaved to turn a dream into a reality. Do you agree?

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  1. bobhess bobhessMember

    Up close and personal is what we got when Greenwood brought his “Spirit of 76″over to Le Mans in ’76. Got to look at that car all over and was amazed at the amount of work it took to build the car. It had upgrades from this car that they raced in the early ’70s. Sad part about the ’76 car’s Le Mans race was it blew a tire on the first part of the race that took out the fuel cell, which they didn’t have a replacement for. We were standing by the pit entrance at the time and helped push the car to the backside of the pit area. Sad to see but the locals sure liked what they did coming down the Mulsanne straight. If you look at this car you can see the lower portion of the fuel cell and it’s chances of being damaged by one of the large rear tires.

    Like 20
  2. Nevadahalfrack NevadahalfrackMember

    Great find, Adam! Thank you. This was always a favorite if for no other reason than to show that an underdog, relatively speaking, could compete with the worlds biggest and best.
    The fact, too, that you were there bobhess just adds to the richness of this forum like the many readers (and our editors!) with historical first hand knowledge that can’t be duplicated.

    Like 9
    • bobhess bobhessMember

      True. It was a once in a lifetime shot and we took it.

      Like 8
  3. Alan Feinstein

    Five of us, all GI’s stationed in Germany went on leave to speed week & the 24hrs of LeMans in 1973. You could clearly distinguish the roar of that big block as it tore around the circuit, and the side mount headers glowed bright orange as it cranked down the Mulsanne straight. There was no chicane to slow them down back then. We traded the French soldiers some of our C rats (canned peaches being most requested) for entry ino the pits, and the American Pavilion’s gratus champagne & cigarettes. We took photos on Mulsanne, standing right next to the track workers with fire extinguishers, no further than 10ft from the race track.

    Like 22
  4. Big Bear 🇺🇸

    I remember seeing this Vette on Wide World of Sports channel 7 in NY when I was a teenager. Love to watch racing back then. All types. But Spirit of America was damn fast!! I miss those days!! 🐻🇺🇸

    Like 4
    • George Smith

      Saw that car run. The sound of that big pushrod V8 was awesome. It looks the same again. Great restoration

      Like 1
  5. Bill

    And I watched this car driven by Dick Smothers John Greenwood at LeMans in 1972. Had a pass that allowed us on the wall right above their pit. Those were then days my friends.

    Like 7
  6. RC Graham (Vette427)

    I traded the HemiCuda convertible for my 1st (2nd?) Corvette. I was enamored of the Corvette in this article. I wanted a ZL-1 desperately.

    The year was 1976 (if I remember correctly). Since this specific car was unavailable, I undertook to build my own – sort of.

    My car had the oval-port 427, Tri-Power, 4-speed and factory A/C (much better for Arizona summers). It needed a lot of repair, including paint, and even though the paint on the Greenwood car was magnificent, I got a yen for the Rally Sport (red on the bottom, black on the top – separated by gold, orange and yellow stripes) paint that a few contemporary Camaros had.

    My ’69 received the same ZL-1/L-88 flares that the Greenwood car did. I used the same Hooker chrome side exhaust as well. 1973 Corvette leather buckets replaced the standard interior. There were adapted “Stars and Stripes” influences on my Corvette everywhere.

    In the end, it was a beautiful car that I had shown at the world of wheels, and led to many more Corvettes (including a 1968 that was in every way the same specs as the 1969).

    I’m 71 years old, now. I miss the girls. I miss the cars. I miss those days.

    But, I still have a Corvette.

    Like 15
    • bobhess bobhessMember

      Great to hear stories about folks having fun with their cars. The C2s in particular were made for that kind of fun.

      Like 2
  7. George Mattar

    This was restored by the elite Corvette shop in the world, owned by Kevin McKay. His staff does work beyond reproach.

    Like 2
  8. drew

    Here is a well put together film from ’73 with in-car footage that is insane.


    Like 4
    • RC Graham (Vette427)

      @drew – Until today, all I had were a few miscellaneous pix of the car and of course, the iconic poster of that Corvette at speed. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the info.

      BTW – I understood from comments on here, that the Corvette retired at LeMans with a blown tire, which took out the fuel cell. However; the film indicated that it was the bottoming-effect of the track design near the entrance to Mulsanne.

      Was the driver report just politics, or was the track design really to blame?

      Thank you, again, and I guess my question is really for anybody with the good info.

      Like 2
      • bobhess bobhessMember

        We never got what caused the problem and didn’t follow it up. Thanks for the info. If you find any more information let us know.

        Like 2
      • drew

        I am glad I could share the film. This film is from ’73. The blown tire, fuel cell damage might have occurred in ’76. I had read that the race organizers paid Greenwood $50k to race there in ’76 as it was the bicentennial year.

        Like 1
  9. JoeNYWF64

    Surprising seeing a Pontiac formula steering wheel in a Chevy.
    The stock tach is actually bigger than the one fitted here – was the stock one not all that accurate?
    Are not the headlites partially blocked on the bottom?
    Was it not odd to run a race car with pts & condenser ignition?

    Like 0
  10. George Smith

    Really appreciated the coverage of the 73
    Lemans race. I think cars were more interesting then. Some of the factory cars were highly sponsored but you see what just plain effort and ingenuity is able to produce

    Like 1
    • RC Graham (Vette427)

      Preach it, George. Amen.

      Like 1

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