With the support of a small group of Corvette ZR-1 fans, a lone Corvette ZR-1 made a run for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1995. New information sheds more light on the effort.
Before GM officially got behind the C5 Corvette with a factory-backed racing effort in the late 1990s, a small group of Corvette enthusiasts came to the aid of Doug Rippie and his company, Doug Rippie Motorsports in order to support a lone C4 ZR-1 racing effort at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
That car is now available for sale by Total Performance Car in Switzerland.
The Grass Roots Effort Behind the Racing Effort
In late 1994, I had just purchased my own 1990 Corvette ZR-1 and joined an email list group called The ZR-1 Net. It consisted of a group of C4 ZR-1 owners and enthusiasts as well as members of Corvette Engineering, GM Powertrain and Lotus Engineering.
One of those members was Jim Van Dorn who owned Auto Masters in Palm Desert, CA – a state of the art GM repair shop that specialized in working on Corvettes and Cadillacs. Van Dorn had a very close working relationship with Doug Rippie Motorsports (DRM) and was instrumental in shining a spotlight on the infamous “Black Widow LT5” high horsepower engine DRM and MerCruiser were testing in the early 1990s.
If memory serves me correctly, it was around mid to late 1994 when Van Dorn explained that he and Doug Rippie wanted to try and bring a 1995 Corvette ZR-1 to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Because GM had no desire to get behind the effort, money would have to be provided by sponsorships and crowdfunding. That’s where the members of The ZR-1 Net came in. Through several hard working folks and many generous donors, thousands of dollars were raised for the development and support of the car.
Unfortunately, the effort didn’t exactly go as planned.
Doug Rippie Reflects Back on the Effort
August 18, 1995
“Dear ZR-1 Net,
Our Corvette Team USA car has arrived back in the states and we wanted to let you know the happenings at LeMans. We sincerely apologize for the tardiness of this letter, but post-race hassles and day to day business has kept us hopping!
The car arrived in LeMans safe and sound. The crew readied for the first practice on Wednesday evening. After the practice the car was checked over and found to have one cylinder that leaked down slightly different from the rest but still within tolerance. The car was readied for the second practice on Thursday evening and took several laps until the LT-5 breather system was full of oil. The questioned cylinder had given in. The cause unknown, the spare engine was installed and the practice completed.
After the session, the engine was again checked and found to have a similar (but not as severe) leakdown differential. The team’s fuel was checked and found to have a completely different color and smell than that of our neighbors. Could this be the cause? We are not sure but samples have been brought back for our analysis. Also, a previously made change to the LT-5’s cooling system was changed back to a more conventional configuration, just in case.
Race day came and after six hours of hoopla, the race began and John Paul Jr. took #30 around the eight mile course at speed. After four laps #30 was brought in experiencing some overheating problems. Water was added but the next lap proved a long one as the engine overheated. After 30 minutes, John was able to restart the engine and make it to the pits. A compression test revealed little or no compression, the head gaskets had blown and the computer revealed that the oil temp had reached over 340 degrees! It was time to pack up, right? WRONG! A makeshift engine crew jumped in and we were encouraged by all three drivers.
Doug and several other helpers (including Lotus’ Graham Behan and two Team USA members) jumped in and took both LT-5 engines apart and inspected the original block (which must be kept). The Redline oil had protected those precious bearings even under those extreme temperatures! We had a chance and it was worth a shot. We would reassemble the motor with new seals and gaskets and give it a go.
The hand built LT-5 was installed and, after the eight hour pit stop, #30 again hit the track. This time it continued to run for over five hours until the already weakened cylinder collapsed only three hours before the finish of the race. We had achieved 24th position from the 48 car starting field, many of whom had several million dollar budgets for this one race alone (the Ferrari next door in our class had 3.8 million budgeted!)
Corvette Team USA went to it’s first LeMans with only the money and equipment scraped together by it’s members, product sponsors, and of course Doug Rippie Motorsports. We were the only American Corvette in the field and one of only two Americans, period (Callaway is not a Corvette and was originally registered as a German entry).
We went unknowing, but as prepared as possible to do battle with the best in the world, and we did. We learned an incredible amount on our first venture to LeMans and if we can acquire some much needed sponsorship, our next trip will no doubt prove more successful.
Although we didn’t finish this first race, the track steward came to congratulate the team on it’s first showing in LeMans. American ingenuity and perseverance were well recognized and appreciated. Mechanical problems will always be a part of racing, but the important thing is that thanks to all of you, we made it there to do our best. Along with the already made personnel changes, we are actively seeking sponsorship which might help us bring much different results next year. There are some very exciting things happening in that arena and we will keep you posted!
We could not have accomplished this trip without you. The enclosed are a token of our appreciation for your continued support. Any thoughts or suggestions are welcome.
Jim Van Dorn Shares His View From the Pits
“Well, we were there physically but I have to admit, Rippie’s lack of preparation was so severe that afterwards, I found out that many both within The Corporation (GM) as well as the media considered the effort an embarrassment. As some of you old timers might recall, I covered the effort in Corvette Fever and was involved from the early stages to completion but the story I chose to write was a much more “rose colored” one at the time.
You see, I was secretly campaigning to GM for a factory backed, full blown Corvette race program that could return to LeMans and clean their clocks!! What I didn’t need was any negative issues to cloud my presentation, therefore, I used Rippie’s adventures as proof that GM needed to be involved so that it could be done successfully. After all, most all winning teams are factory backed in one way or another.
We arrived at the track and setup, and, believe it or not, proceeded to finish the car!! We finally got it through inspection and sent John Paul Jr out in the car for practice. He had a variety of engine problems hampering the effort and ended up damaging the first engine.
The day before the race we returned to our hotel only to find that we had been “evicted” for lack of promised payment. Those French hate us anyway and they loved the chance to lock our stuff in a pile in the closet. When the race finally started, John Paul made maybe 2 laps until the back-up (and only left) LT5 melted and came to a smoking stop. He waited for a few minutes, then got is started and made it back to pit road where we could push it back.
The head gaskets were severely blown due to a modification to the coolant system causing #7 cylinder to get hot. The crew mutinied, left the pits leaving only Rippie, myself and Dr Kim (a gynecologist from Hawaii) with the car. I had nothing better to do so I put down my camera and went to work to see what we could salvage with both motors. Graham Behan arrived and we all made an engine out of old parts. I’ll bet Dr Kim never had his hands so dirty!!! Graham had some special trick he used to set the cam timing because nobody remembered to pack any timing tools…
We cobbled an engine together using liquid aluminum, sealers, and baling wire, and unbelievably it ran!! We then put the cooling system back to OEM configuration and sent Paul back out where he stayed for many laps. Ultimately we parked the car before the end of the race and the good news is we didn’t finish last. There was a car that blew up on the start…:-))
I bought the last LT5 to race at LeMans from Rippie. From time to time it finds itself nestled between the soft flowing streamlines of the good ‘ol Weekendr. Had to mill the heck out of the heads and block and I figure the compression ratio is somewhere about 14:1. The last time we dyno’d it Hib was there….520 through the cats I believe…:-))
Many of us joined Team ZR-1 USA and supported that effort in a big way. Memberships weren’t cheap at $500 each but loyal ZR1 enthusiasts sent their checks and their names were actually put on the rear wing area of the car. This is one experience that prompted me to form Pirate Racing. I wanted to see if the ZR-1 could really be competitive given a real opportunity.
I’ll never forget the look on everyone’s face back at the season opener in 1999 when Cooper put our ZR-1 on the pole at Mosport…..
In the first 5 races we had a pole, a 4th, 3rd, 2nd, & 3rd and leading the SCCA World Challenge GT Championship at mid-season, I think we proved the LT5 was very capable!!
p.s. John Paul Jr is a real class act. Throughout the whole affair he never wavered, he helped where he could and he stayed close by just in case.”
As the 1997 Corvette Breaks Cover – the C4 ZR-1 and its Le Mans Effort are Soon Forgotten
A year after the ZR-1 returned from Le Mans, Doug Rippie sold the car to Heinz Roth in Switzerland who was a well know Corvette specialist and racer.
Roth removed and preserved much of the ZR-1’s original Le Mans-modified bodywork and went on to privately campaign the car in over 100 races across Europe between 1997 and 2011 where it proved to be quite successful.
In order for Roth to remain competitive with the ZR-1 against the more technologically advanced competition, it would have been necessary for Roth to install a sequential gearbox in the ZR-1’s chassis. In order to do so, a large hole would have had to have been cut into the ZR-1’s all original – undamaged chassis.
Enter Total Performance Car of Switzerland
While Roth never had any intention of selling the ZR-1 he wanted to continue racing. Luckily, Total Performance Car of Switzerland convinced him to leave the car untouched and sell/trade it to them. Roth agreed and traded the Le Mans ZR-1 for a Dodge Viper race car they happened to have in stock.
It was a win-win for both parties as the Viper would allow Roth to remain competitive in racing and Total Performance Car wanted to restore the ZR-1 to its original Le Mans racing configuration.
From Total Performance Car:
“Completely restored back to exact 1995 Le Mans configuration using the original Le Mans body panels. This completely original Le Mans body was carefully protected and put in storage in 1996 when the Corvette arrived in Switzerland (the original Sebring-body was used for all races in Europe – and has been modified with rear wing etc. during the period).
The hood / doors / roof and rear body of the car have not been painted during the restoration and have all original stickers on it – they are still like new – unbelievable 100% original Le Mans condition. The front and lower rear bumper and door sills have been repainted and all correct stickers have been reproduced as per Le Mans 1995. All original mechanical components (suspension, brakes, coolers etc.) from Le Mans have been rebuilt and reinstalled.
Engine builder Heinz Roth has completely fresh built a 32V engine using a correct 1995 ZR-1 cast number engine block purchased several years ago as spare (still unused). The unique stainless steel exhaust headers and exhaust system as Le Mans have been custom built. The problematic Weisman 5-speed transmission was a long time changed to a bullet proof G-Force 5-speed – this transmission was also freshly rebuilt etc. (the restoration progress is documented with many pictures).
The car still has the building team’s signatures visible on the underbody tubing. It’s basically a tube frame car built around a super rare acid dipped light weight chassis provided by GM (an “original chassis” was required by the period Le Mans rules for GT-1 class). The original technical inspection sticker from Le Mans 1995 is still in the car – and all the race numbers etc., are all original.”
The car has now been completely restored and race ready and has been fine tuned to include the correct ECM programming provided by Doug Rippie himself.
While the car has not been actively raced since the restoration was completed in 2012, it did run one lap of honor during the 2012 Le Mans Classic as part of a special display put on by the Le Mans Heritage Club.
For me personally, this Corvette holds a soft spot in my heart.
Twenty eight years ago, taking on Le Mans with a ZR-1 started out as a concept and I remember the buzz that slowly started to form as word spread across the internet about the grass roots effort behind the car. It was exciting to watch the development of the car and the anticipation of getting the next email with more details of its progression and the money being raised.
While it may not have been hugely successful, it obviously made an impression on the European competition that was there at Le Mans back in 1995 and it gave hope to many in the Corvette community when GM really had no interest in competitively racing the Corvette at the time.
It would be awesome to see this ZR-1 return back to the States or even the National Corvette Museum.
Total Performance Car is now offering this incredible piece of Corvette Racing history for sale with complete documentation and a ton of vintage development, racing and restoration photographs.
According to their website, the selling price is set at 350,000 Swiss Francs which currently works out to 382,513 USD. For more detailed photos of the car, head on over to Total Performance Car’s website.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Dave Bright who started the original ZR-1 Net and supplied some of the content for this article.