Dick Thompson's racing career began a year before the first Corvette was made available to
In 1956 Dick went to Sebring to drive a factory-backed Mercedes 300 SL with Paul O'Shea. It was there that John Fitch first spoke with Dick about racing a Corvette in SCCA events for the '56 season. Fitch was manager of Chevrolet's Corvette team at Sebring and led the crash development program that quickly molded the car into a competitive machine. Chevy brass had hoped Fitch would continue to campaign a Corvette after Sebring, but he had other commitments. When Chevrolet asked Fitch if he could suggest someone else, he immediately thought of Dick Thompson. Dick remembered his favorable impression of the Corvette he drove at Andrews Air Force Base a couple of years earlier and readily accepted the offer.
For numerous reasons Chevrolet could not openly support a Corvette race program, so they sought a privateer who would do a competent job on their behalf. In return, Chevy promised to support the effort behind the scenes.
"Because of SCCA rules and official Chevrolet policy I had to buy the car," recalls Dick, "but they sold me the Corvette at a very reasonable price, supplied parts and a mechanic, and took the car back after each race to evaluate it."
Dick's first event in his new Corvette was at Pebble Beach, and his performance there was very im-pressive in spite of a bad start. "In practice I didn't do very well," he remembers, "because those old four-barrel carburetors would starve out in the turns and of course, the brakes didn't last very long."
Frank Burrell, a brilliant engineer who was instrumental in the '56 Sebring effort, was on hand to assist. The day before the race Burrell worked his magic, recalls Dick. "Frank told me, 'Don't worry, by tomorrow that will be fixed, just don't ask me how.' I started on the grid in sixth and by the first corner I knew I really had something because it didn't starve out at all. By the end of the first lap I was leading. I passed four 300 SLs and thought 'this is going to be a piece of cake!'"
Dick would have won the race, but with one lap to go the brakes disappeared altogether. This was not entirely unexpected, since the Cerametalix linings that had been fitted the night before were, according to engineer Burrell, much better than the stock linings but still only good for one hour of racing. Tony Settember's Mercedes passed the hobbled Corvette on the final lap to take the win and Dick finished a respectable second.
"By the last lap I had no brakes whatsoever," remembers Dick. "I used the transmission to slow the car down and when the race was over I killed the engine in the pits to stop the car. When we pulled a drum off all the brake parts just fell out on the ground!"
Dick was very happy with the car in spite of the brake problem, and looked forward to the next race at the Seattle Seafair. "I was very impressed with the car," he says. "Strangely enough-and people don't believe this-it was a very good-handling car. The power-to-weight ratio was better than the 300SL. The only thing it didn't have was brakes!"
Many in the racing community, particularly on the West Coast, did not take the fledgling Corvette seriously. Was Dick's impressive performance at Pebble Beach some kind of inexplicable oddity, or was this fiberglass upstart created by the boring transportation folks at GM a genuine contender? Those who were surprised to see Dick and his Corvette lead the pack at Pebble Beach must have been utterly shocked to see them repeat the performance in Seattle. He led the race right from the beginning and, in spite of again finishing without brakes, got the checkered flag a full 30 seconds ahead of Paul O'Shea's Mercedes.
Dick went on to race the Corvette at most of the major SCCA events in '56 and, together with Frank Burrell, as well as other engineers and mechanics from Chevy, he made considerable strides in improving the car's performance.