The Perfect Balance of Street and Track in a Corvette

Some of you might know how the “Grand Sport” name for the Chevrolet Corvette. If you don’t, let me explain. In 1963, Zora Arkus-Duntov was hoping to build 125 lightweight, high-power homologation-special Corvette Sting Rays so Chevrolet could qualify for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. GM smashed that plan to smithereens after Chevrolet had built just five of the so-called Corvette Grand Sports. All five were quickly spirited under the table off to legendary racers with last names like Penske, Foyt, and Hall. All five cars were raced without any factory support.

Since then, Chevrolet has revived the Grand Sport name twice – once in 1996 and once in 2010. Both of those times, the badge meant special editions with beautiful bodywork, but no massive performance gain, unlike the 1963 Grand Sports. The 1996 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 and 2010 Z06 would still outperform the Grand Sports. Of course, the 2010 Corvette ZR1 was still the most serious Corvette of that generation of Corvette.

Of course, Chevrolet’s engineers went hog-wild with the C7 Stingray Z06. It’s a combination of a massively powerful engine that has been described as one of the best-sounding engines ever (I agree), absolutely brilliant suspension, and enough computing power to sequence the human genome. Yet, it’s so approachable for the average driver that it’s truly mind-boggling. It also costs around $80,000. It’s a true giant-killer, especially with a professional driver. Even without a professional driver, this is not a car you want to tangle with.

The Z06 is also quite unlike the Corvette Racing C7.R that competes in one of the highest echelons of motorsports – endurance racing. The C7.R’s that quite simply walked away with the win at this year’s 24 Hours of Daytona actually make less power than the Z06 you can get on your dealership’s showroom floor. There’s no supercharged 6.2-liter LT4 V8 shrieking under the hood of the race-winning C7.R – those drivers have to make do with a 5.5-liter V8 sucking air through a restricted air intake the diameter of a garden hose. Because power is handicapped by a rule book (which didn’t stop NASCAR legend Smokey Yunick), the Corvette Racing team wins races with unworldly grip and highly aggressive aerodynamics. Let’s put it this way – their strategy works well.

It’s interesting that the new Grand Sport, which is the mid-range model, lives up to the “street-legal race car” cliche. It’s got some of the best street tires in the world, aggressive aerodynamics enhancements, and stock engine. Oh, and it comes with a warranty, something most race cars can’t brag about.

Let’s start off with the tires – Michelin Pilot Super Sports are standard tires, or even stickier Pilot Sport Cup 2s with the Z07 high-performance option package, which are the same tires you can get on the Z06. They’re much wider than the standard Stingray tires (40 mm wider up front, 50 mm wider out back), which means that Chevy had to put the Z06’s massive, bulging fenders to clear the massive tires.

GM’s truly brilliant Magnetic Ride Control is standard equipment, as is the highly advanced electronic limited-slip differential, as are the Z06-derived chassis sports custom stabilizer bars and springs. You can pair the brilliant 460-horsepower, 465 lb-ft, dry-sump LT1 V8 with a fantastic 7-speed manual transmission or a pretty darn good 8-speed automatic, both of which come with the Stingray and Z06. What does the Z07 package add? Carbon ceramic brakes, and even more aggressive aero, mostly.

Now, let’s move onto the beautiful bodywork. It’s mostly borrowed from the Z06 part bin. However, it’s got Grand Sport-specific front fender vent inserts. What about from the Z06? It’s got the Z06’s wider track (how far apart the wheels are from each other), an open-mouth front grille, and big differential cooling vents on the rear fenders. The Grand Sport has a Z06-spec front splitter, front splitters, and wickerbill rear spoiler, all of which are finished in carbon fiber in the Z07 trim. Chevy claims that they all create downforce, but the Z06’s clear plastic Gurney flip isn’t available on the Grand Sport. Oh, and then there’s a Heritage package, which adds the traditional front fender hash marks, which are now connected in a horseshoe shape. I somehow forgot to mention that Chevy has more than the entire rainbow’s worth of body, hash, and full-length racing stripe combinations.

Inside the Grand Sport, there is badging depicting the 1963 Grand Sport #002 (the only roadster out of Zora Arkus-Duntov’s original five Grand Sports) on the floor mats, headrests, and on a dash plaque directly ahead of the shifter. The brushed aluminum halo on the right of the center stack has a subtle racing stripe, which is created by rotating the brushing pattern on the metal 90 degrees during the polishing process.

Chevy says that the Grand Sport will hurtle it’s way to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds, and blast through the quarter mile in 11.8 seconds. I’m going to say that’s probably because the Grand Sport has much better tires than the Stingray does.

The Grand Sport weighs in at 3,252 pounds, which is 98 pounds lighter than the Z06. Because there’s no gigantic supercharger, the hood is lower, affording much greater visibility of the road.

Even with the windows up, the A/C on full blast, and the engine contentedly burbling along at 1500 rpm in one of the Grand Sport’s many overdrive gears, you’ll still easily pull over 1 g without the car breaking a sweat. You won’t either.

We’ll move onto the price now. The Grand Sport coupe starts at just a freckle under $66,500, which is a $5,000 premium over the Stingray. It’s also about $14,000 cheaper than a Z06. If you want to drop the top on any Corvette, plan to shell out an additional $4,000. Do you want the Z07 package? Give Chevy $8,000. Even if you buy the Grand Sport convertible with the Z07 package, that still gives you about $2000 to get some accessories, or haggling wiggle room.

The Z06 is a great car – don’t get me wrong. However, the Grand Sport was designed with a different purpose in mind. The Z06 is powerful in a way that you’ll rarely be able to enjoy. 650 horsepower is more than you’ll ever be able to use on the street – with one quick stab of the gas pedal, you’ll be well on your way to jail. On the track, it goads you into probing it’s incredibly high limits, all the while serving a main course of absolutely brilliant chassis tuning and suspension, with a side of driver aides for that moment when you push it too far. To do that on public roads, you’d better have a top-notch lawyer, a very good health insurance plan, and a glovebox filled with bribe money. OK, you can forget about the last part. Cops really don’t like it if you try and give them $20,000 in $1 bills…

The Grand Sport does something truly incredible. Chevrolet designed this car to have the same absurd limits as the Z06, but never leave you feeling like it’s a waste of horsepower because you can never floor it. While grip, balance, and power all work together, which is what makes low-power sports cars so fun, they become magical when you turn the dial up to 11.

What would happen if you put the optional Z06-spec Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires to your Corvette Stingray Z51? It’s obvious that sticky tires are key to making a good car handle well. However, good tires won’t work as well unless the chassis and suspension are dialed into those tires. Even if you somehow figured out how to make those tires fit under a stock Stingray Z51’s seductive bodywork (remember that the Z06 is three inches wider in the back), you still would have a lot of work to do. The ABS system wouldn’t be properly calibrated. Stability control intervention would be much more sudden, and the brakes would slow you down almost instantly because the Z51’s brake calibration is designed for less sticky tires. That means it would apply more brake than necessary. The electronic limited-slip differential wouldn’t perform as well, either. The suspension would also be woefully undersized relative to the massive amounts of grip that the tires generate, which would make the car feel sloppy.

What does this all boil down to? It’s more than a sloppy badge job, far more than a Corvette with some random Z06 parts, and more than a throwback to a legend. It’s the real deal, folks. This car isn’t tuned to within an inch of it’s life (and yours). This is a race car for the…wait, I don’t endorse illegal activities here.

What it Takes to Build a Private Race Track

Any desert traveler should be relieved to see palm trees.  A large grove of palm trees along 62nd Ave. in Thermal, CA, signals the automotive kind of oasis.

A brand-new state-of-the-art race track spanning 4 and a half acres with three different courses, not including go-kart and autocross courses sits behind

This track is so nice and new that BMW recently signed a multi-year contract to hold driving schools here.  If you’ve got several hundred thousand dollars gathering dust in the bank, you can play race car driver here.

While building my own private race track would be pretty damn cool, I didn’t have much of an idea as to how I would pull that off.  Then I heard about Tim Rogers, whose personal $85 million has gone into making this track, the Thermal Club, a reality.

You could safely say that building a race track is much harder than building a strip mall.  Rogers said in an interview with Hot Rod Magazine (where I got all of his quotes from, so credit is given fully to Hot Rod) that even in the middle of the California desert, he still had to do a lot of paperwork and grading before he could even start pouring concrete and asphalt.  He told Hot Rod, “We had to build the highway out here.  We had to put in the structure for all the utilities.  The hardest part was that the water table was eight feet down, so we had to raise the ground before we could dig.  Who would have thought there would be a water-table problem in the desert?”

He estimates that the final cost of building the Thermal Club will be about $120 million, and so far all of the money put towards the track has been used to satisfy all of the city requirements, relocate the palm tree grove that originally was on the land, grade and pour the main tracks, build a 24-hour gas station (that sells race fuel), and put up a “clubhouse” complete with a restaurant, locker rooms, a car wash (in the middle of a drought?  Seriously?), and multiple garages.

One of the requirements of being a member at the Thermal Club is that you have to purchase land and put up a structure that meets rigorous and various aesthetic criteria. No, a quonset hut does not count!  Rogers said, “The property starts at about $375,000 and goes up to a little over a million.”  My dreams of two shipping containers and a travel trailer as a structure are on hold until I can raise sufficient funds to build a house that meets the criteria (hint hint!).  Should you donate money to my cause, you will get unlimited visitation rights!

But seriously, if you had a nice car collection and a desire to go fast, chances are this kind of money is just waiting to be spent.  Membership at the Thermal Club could pay off.  The track was designed to be both fast, safe and fun, with famed track designer Alan Wilson giving feedback about the curves and Roger Penske consulting on the exact chemistry so the asphalt could survive the grueling summer heat (the town was named Thermal for a reason).

If the rest of your family isn’t interested in bombing around a race track, maybe the thought of a nice restaurant, a spa, a pool, and various other luxuries will entice them.  An added bonus is the track is close enough to an airport that you can simply fly in whenever the racing bug bites.  It’s the ultimate rich Californian dream.  Thermal is close enough to Coachella that the kids can go there.  Plus, Thermal is about two hours from Los Angeles, so it’s really not that far from a big city.  Rogers told Hot Rod that most of his 40 available lots.  Since I don’t have enough money to buy a lot and build a house there, I can only hope that I’ll be invited to a private event there.  The sample house is used to house journalists and VIP guests, so the Thermal Club doesn’t have to worry about hotels and logistics.

If you’re really keen on getting a look at the track, the BMW Driving School is a good start. You can visit the BMW Driving School website at http://www.bmwusa.com/performancecenter.  It’s much cheaper than membership, but you don’t get 365-day track access.  However, several large Los Angeles-area car clubs do book the track for meetings and events periodically.

You can visit the Thermal Club’s website at http://www.thethermalclub.com/

There you have it.  That’s how one very rich and determined man built a race track.  Or, you could just become a member of your local track, which might be cheaper.

The Thermal Club is located at 86030 62nd Ave, Thermal, CA 92274.  Their phone number is 760.674.0088.

Amazing Photos From IROC Racing!

“Spanning the globe to bring you a constant variety of sports; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition … This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”  Legendary ABC Sports broadcaster Jim McKay spoke those words every Saturday afternoon for 37 years, from 1961-1998, when ESPN became the premier sports broadcasting channel.  Those words of Jim McKay were heard in millions of American homes.

ABC Sports was particularly fond of showing motorsports.  Every Saturday afternoon, millions of American children (and adults!) were treated to 90 minutes of non-mainstream motorsports like NASCAR, NHRA, demolition derbies, surfing, and even the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show.  While I’ve never seen the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show, it must have been good enough to be shown on one of the very few TV channels on the air at the time.  This is when IROC racing entered the motorsports scene in the early 1970’s.  It ran for a good 15 years or so, reaching it’s peak around 1980.  There was no other place where you could watch NASCAR legends like Richard Petty and Bobby Allison duke it out with F1 legends like Emerson Fittipaldi and Denis Hulme.  Throw in Mario Andretti, and you were bound to sit back and watch one hell of a ride.

The late Chris Economaki was always commentating on some form of motorsports, and his talent showed during the pre-race commentary of IROC V.  IROC V was the 5th IROC season, and the year was 1978.

While most younger Camaro enthusiasts will think that IROC was simply an option package developed for the Camaro starting in 1985, there’s more to the story.  The story behind IROC goes all the way back to 1973 with Roger Penske, Les Richter, and Mike Phelps (no relation to the swimmer of the same name!) all had the amazing idea to put 12 of the world’s greatest race car drivers in identical cars to compete on road courses and NASCAR superspeedways alike in a four-race series.  Richter was cautious enough to say that the IROC series might not determine who the best driver was, “but we sure go a long way towards that goal.”

The first IROC season was the 1974 season, and it kicked off on October 27, 1973.  It consisted of 4 events with all racing done in identically-prepared Porsche 911 RSR’s.  For the 1975 season, Chevrolet came on board, and the Chevrolet Camaro was the car of choice.

Here are some pictures that have only recently been released to the public.  Enjoy.