Last month, we introduced you to the exciting world of NHRA Super Gas (S/G) drag racing and explained how the Corvette quickly became the dominant body style in the sport. Our history lesson continued with the story of Tommy Costales, a race-engine builder who earned a place in the record books by piloting an original-body '67 Sting Ray to the Super Gas World Championship in 1984. Finally, we told you about the rise of aftermarket Corvette bodies, which came to prominence when real midyear Vettes became too rare and expensive to subject to the rigors of competitive drag racing.
This month, we pick up our history of NHRA Super Gas in 1997, when NHRA racer Jim Hughes introduced the fifth-generation Corvette to the sport.
NHRA racer Joe Scarlata (far...
NHRA racer Joe Scarlata (far left) and friends pose with his NHRA Nationals-winning, Don Davis-built '62 S/G Corvette. Scarlata is credited with helping bring aftermarket S/G Corvettes to popularity in the 1990s. This photo is from 1999. Photo courtesy of the Joe Scarlata Collection
"Aftermarket C5 bodies would not have joined the first- and second-generation Corvettes in S/G racing if it wasn't for the relationship I have with race-car builder Don Davis," Hughes recalls. "Don started building aftermarket, full-bodied C4 Corvette race cars in 1987. We called them 'door cars' because they had two doors and a roof, unlike the S/G Corvette roadsters, which you had to climb into from the top. In 1990, while driving a C4 gasser at more than 140 mph, Don realized the need for better visibility. He chose the '62 Corvette body style and built his first S/G Corvette C2 roadster for Joe Scarlata, which won NHRA Best Engineered awards twice in 1996 and Best Appearing at the O'Reilly Fall Nationals in 1999.
"While building '27 Ford S/G roadsters in the mid-'90s, Don saw the need for a new look in the S/G class and started work on a '57 Corvette, which he knew would be more aerodynamic and better-looking than the Fords. About that time-it had to be in the spring or summer of 1997-I saw the brand-new C5 Corvette, in Torch Red, for the first time. The radical new design impressed me so much that I stopped at the closest Chevrolet dealership and got a '97 Corvette product brochure. When I showed it to Don, he agreed I had found the new look for a super aerodynamic roadster that looked fast standing still. I still remember my exact question to him: 'What would it take to make an S/G roadster with the Corvette C5 body design?'"
This never-before-published photo shows the very first S/G C5 Corvette in the final stages of assembly, at Don Davis' shop in El Paso, Texas. Photo courtesy of the Jim Hughes Collection
Davis replied, "Get me a new $40,000 Corvette for 30 days!"
Luckily, Jim's brother, Bill Hughes, was general manager for Midway Chevrolet in Phoenix, Arizona, and was willing to order (and later take delivery of) a brand-new Torch Red '97 Corvette for himself. "With only six miles on it, he let me take it to Don for a pattern. I failed to tell Bill that his Corvette would have 600 pounds of clay and fiberglass on it to make the mold," Jim laughs.
"A star was born," he continues. "The C5 Corvette Don Davis roadster-purpose built for the S/G class-incorporated a flip-up body and a chassis design like no other. It has proven its dominance at tracks nationwide from day one."
Jim debuted the Davis S/G C5 Corvette at the 1998 IHRA World Finals at Norwalk Raceway Park (now Summit Motorsports Park) in Norwalk, Ohio, where the car was awarded Best Engineered. "The reaction from racers was fantastic," Jim remembers. "The following week we went to the NHRA U.S. Nationals-easily the biggest, most prestigious race of the year-and again, our Vette was awarded with Best Engineered, beating out 900-plus other cars."