Most readers of the February/March 1968 issue of Chevrolet's in-house magazine, Corvette News, took little notice of this rather innocuous announcement on the editor's page:
The three A.I.R. Vettes undergo race preparations at Dick Guldstrand’s Culver City (Calif.
"At 1600 hours on November 28th, 1967, three identical Le Mans Blue Sting Ray Convertibles were trucked through the St. Louis plant gate destined for delivery to a single West Coast customer. It's significant that each features the L-88 engine option. Perhaps we'll be hearing more about these cars in the near future."
The folks at Corvette News were being more than a little cagey with that last sentence. They knew exactly who the mysterious "West Coast customer" was—a newly formed team called American International Racing (A.I.R.). They also knew exactly where the public would get their first look at A.I.R.'s thundering L88 convertibles a scant two months later: on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.
The genesis of A.I.R. can be traced back to the epic 1966 film Grand Prix, which follows the fortunes of four Formula 1 drivers over the course of a season. Director John Frankenheimer was determined to make the movie as realistic as possible, and to that end insisted that the staged racing sequences, which were interspersed with a great deal of real Formula 1 footage from the 1966 season, be shot at actual race speeds. James Garner, who had a starring role in the movie, did all of his own driving and in the process fell head-over-heels in love with the sport.
In July 1967 Garner partnered with four other men to form A.I.R., a venture intended from the outset to race cars for both fun and profit. The other principals included Bob Bondurant, Dick Guldstrand, Irwin Sandin, and Donald Rabbitt. Fresh from co-driving a Cobra Daytona Coupe to the 1965 FIA Manufacturer's World Championship for Shelby American and Ford, Bondurant worked on Grand Prix as both technical consultant to Frankenheimer and race instructor for Garner. Guldstrand, who also worked as a tech adviser on the movie, was already something of a racing legend by 1967, having earned his stripes as a driver and racecar builder. Irwin "Sandy" Sandin was a race mechanic who had worked with Guldstrand in the past, and Don Rabbitt was the former public relations man for Shelby American.
Born to run: Exercising the car at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah.
According to A.I.R's first press release, "the aim of the company is to build and race automobiles of all types in behalf of sponsors at events throughout the world." They planned to get started in a very high-profile way by building and racing a turbine-engine car. The inspiration for this undoubtedly came from Andy Granatelli's 1967 Indy 500 entry, a radical new design powered by a Pratt-Whitney industrial gas turbine that developed approximately twice the horsepower of the conventional Offys and Fords then propelling Indy entries. In the '67 500-mile race, Parnelli Jones qualified Granatelli's stunning four-wheel-drive STP Turbocar car sixth and dominated the race until transmission failure ruined his day three laps from the finish. Though it failed to complete the race, the car attracted a lot of attention and demonstrated the potential inherent in a turbine powerplant.
In short order, A.I.R. was on the way to designing a turbine-powered sports racer, with Harvey Aluminum enlisted to provide the body, Garrett AiResearch the engine, and Goodyear onboard for the tires. The turbine program came to an abrupt halt, however, when various sanctioning bodies amended their rules to reduce the allowable inlet annulus for turbine engines. This was done in an effort to achieve greater equivalency between turbines and conventional piston engines.
Still looking for a high-profile start, A.I.R. next turned its attention to racing Corvettes. This is not surprising, given the excitement then building for the coming of the new, third-generation design. Also, Guldstrand and Bondurant both had extensive experience racing Corvettes going back to the 1950s.
Traco-prepped L88s like this one is powered by the A.I.R. race cars to top speeds of nearl
In October 1967 A.I.R. arranged a meeting at Riverside Raceway with Chevrolet merchandising manager Joe Pike, an ardent supporter of Corvette racing throughout his 20-plus-year career with GM, and Goodyear Tire and Rubber's Larry Trousdale. On the strength of the experience of A.I.R.'s principals and the publicity value of Garner's name, Pike and Trousdale each pledged the support of their respective companies to a Corvette racing program.
Pledging support is one thing, but actually having the money in hand is another. Though the intricate details of A.I.R.'s financing are murky at best all these years later, it does appear as though money was an issue in the very beginning. In a June 1969 interview with Motor Trend, Garner stated with respect to the Corvettes, "With help from Goodyear, and money out of my pocket, the two cars were purchased and prepared on a 'crash program,' simply because we were without enough lead time." The Motor Trend article later reported that Garner ponied up $65,000 to help fund all those things that go into starting a new venture, including the purchase of the new Corvettes. But the circumstances surrounding the actual purchase of the cars casts some doubt as to whether there was actually sufficient funding available to pay for them.
Herb Caplan ordered A.I.R.'s three Corvettes through Fred Gledhill Chevrolet in Harbor City, California. Caplan, a WWII veteran who accumulated considerable wealth through U.S. Machinery, a company that sold and leased mining and heavy-construction equipment, began racing Corvettes with the purchase of a new '63 Z06. It is likely that he fronted the money to purchase the cars. It is also likely that the cars were ordered through Gledhill because of Caplan's connection to this dealership.