Sebring, 1957. Dr. Dick Thompson,...
Sebring, 1957. Dr. Dick Thompson, a.k.a. the Flying Dentist, and Gaston Andrey co-drove the factory-backed #4 '57 Corvette to a 1st in class and 12th overall in the 12-hour race. Number 20, close behind the Flying Dentist, is the Maserati 300S that was driven to a second overall finish by Stirling Moss and Harry Schell.
After a slow start, the Cor-vette quickly established its reputation as a formidable competition machine. In fact, by 1957 there were few production cars that could challenge it on a road course. The roster of drivers who piloted Corvettes in competition in the ensuing years reads like a who's who of racing history and includes some of the finest drivers the world has ever seen. Many have become legends.
One Corvette racer, though lesser known than many, ranks up there with the best. This man, one of the most capable and successful drivers ever to pilot a Corvette, was not a professional road racer-he was a dentist.
Dr. Dick Thompson, aptly nicknamed "The Flying Dentist," won five SCCA national championships with Corvettes between 1956 and 1962. And in doing so he played a pivotal role in transforming a low sales volume anomaly in the vast GM empire, destined for probable extinction, into a world-class sports and competition car.
Dick was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and learned to appreciate sports cars from his father. His dad, with Dick as navigator, participated in numerous rallies with the SCCA Washington Region.
Though he had no thoughts of racing it, Dick's appreciation for sports cars led him to purchase a brand-new MG TD in 1951. When he picked the car up the dealer told him about the local MG club, which he promptly joined. The club organized rallies and members took their cars to a few local tracks where they did time trials, but nobody was doing any kind of serious racing with the little British sports cars. Then a friend told Dick about an upcoming race at Watkins Glen. He, his wife, and a couple of friends drove to the Glen to watch the race, and while there somebody else told them about an upcoming race in Sebring, Florida, in March 1952. This was the inaugural 12-hour contest and, explains Dick, "we were young, not too knowledgeable, and decided we'd go in the first 12 Hours of Sebring."
Having never raced a car in his life, and after seeing others race for just the first time, Dick and his friend Bill Kinchloe loaded up the MG and headed south. By virtue of good fortune and innate driving skill, the pair drove the entire 12-hour race and finished an astounding 8th place overall, ahead of 24 other cars. And they managed this feat while knowing almost nothing about endurance racing.
"During the first pit stop," remembers Dick, "I pulled in and everybody was sitting in the pits having lunch and nobody moved a muscle. It was about a five minute pit stop, I would guess. It was a 12-hour race so we figured what's the hurry, 12 hours is a long time!"
Dick's good fortune and good finish at Sebring launched his racing career. He successfully competed in the MG at numerous events up and down the East Coast during the remainder of 1952. The following two seasons saw him in a Porsche Super, which he drove to consecutive F-Production national championships.
In 1954, while racing the Porsche at Andrews Field outside of Washington, D.C., Dick drove a 1954 Chevy Corvette. A local Chevrolet dealer brought the car out to the event just to demonstrate it, not to race, and he asked Dick to take it around for a few laps.
"I was impressed with the car," remembers Dick, "because it handled very well, comparable to my Porsche and the Jag I replaced it with."
Though he recognized that Chevrolet's little-regarded sports car had the makings of a competitive racer, Dick did have a couple of complaints. "The '54 had the old six-cylinder and Powerglide, which were not really suitable for racing. And the car had very poor brakes, a problem which was not entirely solved for a number of years."