Tommy Morrison and His Corvettes – Part 1

Tommy Morrison History: His life and career.
Tommy Morrison History: His life and career.

We are looking at Part 1 in our series on Tommy Morrison and his Corvettes. In Part 1 of the Morrison story, we cover the period from 1984 to the end of the 1989 race season. In Part 2 of our Tommy Morrison story, we picked up the thread in 1990.

Tommy Carroll Morrison

April 13, 1941 ~ April 2, 2020 (age 78)

Corvette racer, Tommy Morrison, passed away on April 2, 2020.  Due to the recent passing of Tommy Morrison, we will revisit a two-part series that Wayne Ellwood and Brett Richmond did in the August and September 2011 issues of Vette Vues Magazine on the life and accomplishments of Tommy Morrison.

Tommy Morrison’s Obituary

Tommy Carroll Morrison, 78, of Albany, GA, died April 2, 2020, at Wynfield Health and Rehabilitation Center. No services will be held.

Tommy was born on April 13, 1941 in Glasgow, KY to the late Robert C. and Madeline Morrison. He graduated from Glasgow High School and attended Western Kentucky University.

He moved to Albany, GA in 1964 and was the owner of Pineywoods Properties, Tommy Morrison Motorsports and was an Entrepreneur.

Working for Albany Realty in the seventies, Tommy was a successful realtor specializing in commercial and farmland properties. Tommy’s Chevrolet Corvettes dominated the SCCA and IMSA endurance racing circuits for over two decades beginning in the early 80s. During that time, he secured three FiA land speed records and was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame in 2017.

He served 3 terms on the board of the Smithsonian Institution, American History Museum and was a charter member of the Peach Bowl. He was preceded in death by his daughter, Molly Morrison Parker. Survivors include his children, Melissa Morrison Wood (Alexander Winske) of Savannah, GA and Robert “Bobby” (Hannah) Morrison of Albany, GA, his grandchildren Lee Wood and Stella Wood, Jett Winskie and Alistar Winskie all of Savannah, GA and Arlo Parker of Chicago, IL.

Those desiring may make contributions in memory of Tommy to the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY.


THE MAGNIFICENT TOMMY MORRISON AND HIS CARS – Part 1

By: Wayne Ellwood and Brett Richmond

There have been many articles on Tommy Morrison and his cars. But not too many folks have tried to document all his cars. This is a two-part effort to give an outline of the cars and to say a few words on each. Part 1 will cover the 1984 to 1989 race seasons. Part 2 will wrap up the story from 1990 to 1999. The following attempts to be comprehensive, but not exhaustive.

Tommy Morrison in NCM display.  Photo credits Wayne Ellwood
Tommy Morrison in NCM display. Photo credits Wayne Ellwood

The C4 era (1984 to 1996) marked a significant change in Corvette racing. If the big draw for C3 racers had been tubeframes, wide bodies, and big blocks, then C4 represented a change back to showroom stock, narrow bodies, and small blocks. Just like the early days of racing, the cars were more “street” in their construction and appearance…and they could be run on a smaller budget.

In the fall of 1983, GM had arranged a news conference at Daytona to give journalists their first view at a new tubeframe race car based on the C4 body design that GM planned to make available through the GM Performance catalog. The process may have wandered from this early plan but, amazingly, it wasn’t far off. As it happened, the sanctioning bodies had been testing the endurance race format for showroom stock cars since 1979. For the SCCA, this evolved into the Playboy-Escort Endurance Challenge Cup) and was dominated by Corvette.

GM originally planned to make available through the GM Performance catalog. Photo Credits GM Media
GM originally planned to make available through the GM Performance catalog. Photo Credits GM Media

Against this background, Tommy Morrison emerged as a major player. Yes, there were other players, but none captured the imagination of the magazines more than Morrison. Looking back, we know that Tommy Morrison had a relatively long run in motorsports and spent a lot of money in the process. We know that he had some very solid sponsorship, but his exploits far exceeded his apparent backing. So, what’s the story?

The best background information on Tommy Morrison can be found in a book called Corvette Racers by Gregory Von Dare (pages 162-164). According to Von Dare, Tommy was in the real estate business. He innovated the use of U.S. Geological Survey data on specific conditions of soil and water to match buyers with land best suited for timber or various crops, for the Albany Realty Co.  One sale – for 13,000 acres to Container Corporation of America (a subsidiary of MOBIL Oil) – provided capital to begin his own commercial real estate firm, and also led to a longer-term relationship with the MOBIL Corporation. 

Tommy’s good fortune in real estate seems to have been the tipping point for his entrée to the professional racing game. Tommy had been involved in club racing for many years. But even at this level, his natural tendency was to not get involved if he didn’t have a shot at winning. While he joined his friends at track events, he was serious about it. Tommy is quoted as saying that…” the way I look at it, there’s no need in doing any sport halfway.” Corvette Fever, June 1983.

With the success of his real estate business and the emerging relationship with the MOBIL corporation, the stage was set. By the very early 80s Morrison’s friend, Jim Cook, was pushing for Tommy to join him in the “pro” series. In 1982, they joined forces in a used Mazda that he and Jim ran in the 1982 Daytona race. Then, in 1983, Jim Cook introduced Tommy to Dick Guldstrand. The three of them began talking about a Corvette program for an anticipated showroom stock series in IMSA.  This was the beginning of Morrison-Cook Motorsports.

For sponsorship, Tommy Morrison sold MOBIL 1 on the idea that this was the ideal way to promote their synthetic oil and a contract for a season of endurance racing was signed. When the IMSA series didn’t materialize, Tommy still had a contractual commitment to go endurance racing. So, in 1984, Morrison moved over to the newly formed Playboy-Escort United States Endurance Cup….later the SCCA Escort Endurance GT Championship.

For 1984 the series, Morrison converted his own “street” car to endurance race specs. His good showing got him noticed by some folks inside GM. In fact, between Morrison and others who had the same idea, Corvettes won 19 out of 19 races in the new SS GT category. In due course, he was approached about being one of the corporation’s designated teams to test and develop parts for the Corvette program.

In 1985 car # 98, featuring drivers Don Knowles and Bobby Carradine, dominated the series. Photo Credit: BF Goodrich
In 1985 car # 98, featuring drivers Don Knowles and Bobby Carradine, dominated the series. Photo Credit: BF Goodrich

For the 1985 season, the new Morrison-Cook team entered three dedicated race cars. The best-running car, # 98, featured drivers Don Knowles and Bobby Carradine. They dominated the series. They won at Riverside, Road Atlanta, the 24-hour race at St. Louis, Nelson Ledges and, as a result, the season championship. For the next year, this car would be numbered as # 1. Ads from the tail end of the 1985 season and the 1986 pre-season often show the car in the # 1 configuration.

But it was not all roses. The season had its bitter moments too. During a practice session for an IMSA GTP race, Jim Cook had a fatal heart attack. The name remained on the team items, but it was a serious loss, as was seen in the team’s overall performance.

In 1986, the SCCA’s endurance series was renamed as the Escort GT Endurance Championship series. The team had only one win at the Longest Day of Nelson Ledges….John Heinricy, Bob McConnell and Don Knowles driving a car numbered as # 98. They finished the season 2nd overall in SS points standings. The old # 98 car (i.e. the 1985 winner) ran as # 1, with Ron Grable, Bobby Carradine and Stu Hayner (variously) as drivers. Regrettably, they had an even worse showing.

In 1987, # 97 was driven by (mostly) by Bob McConnell with occasional drives from John Heinricy.  Photo credit: Wayne Ellwood
In 1987, # 97 was driven by (mostly) by Bob McConnell with occasional drives from John Heinricy. Photo credit: Wayne Ellwood
# 98 - 1987 SCCA Escort Endurance Championship car. Photo credit: GM Media
#98 – 1987 SCCA Escort Endurance Championship car. Photo credit: GM Media

In 1987, the Morrison-Cook team won three series races, including the 24 hours of Mid-Ohio. They placed both 2nd and 3rd in team standings at that race. Then, later in the season, Morrison also combined forces with Kim Baker Racing to win the Longest Day of Nelson Ledges. This was a third straight win in a Corvette at that race. Opinions will vary on how much of the credit should be given to which team, but for Morrison, it didn’t matter. A win is a win.

Unfortunately, when the points were tallied, for both 1986 and 1987, Kim Baker (# 4 Bakeracing) swept the series.

In 1988 (end of 1987), SCCA rules changes effectively banned the Corvettes. On the bright side, this marked the beginning of the Corvette Challenge (1988-89). But, while most other Corvette teams switched to the new series, the Morrison-Cook team continued with the SCCA Escort Endurance Championship using Camaros. They won fifteen races in the two seasons, including a sweep of all the races in the 1989 season. The team had dominated the field but for anyone tracing Corvettes, there was an apparent gap in the field.

In fact, were it not for some of the team’s other activities in IMSA and SCCA TA, fans could have been forgiven if they thought that Tommy Morrison had disappeared. Not so. The Morrison-Cook team had been very busy indeed.

The next few years represented some big opportunities for racers in both IMSA and SCCA TA.

Rules changes had been cascading like a mountain stream in springtime. In 1987 things were busting loose…on several fronts.

The # 88 IMSA car was used to test prototype parts for the ZR1, while the # 87 car ran the Endurance Challenge series and was mostly used for tire testing.  Photo Credit: John Stein
The # 88 IMSA car was used to test prototype parts for the ZR1, while the # 87 car ran the Endurance Challenge series and was mostly used for tire testing. Photo Credit: John Stein
# 88 – 1987 IMSA yellow car – engine shot. Photo Credit: John Stein
# 88 – 1987 IMSA yellow car – engine shot. Photo Credit: John Stein

First, the idea that the Morrison-Cook team had been selected as one of GM’s “preferred” testing venues covered a lot of ground. Starting one year earlier (in 1986), Morrison-Cook ran two yellow production-based Corvettes (# 87 and # 88) in the IMSA GTO category, competing against full tubeframe cars from other teams. They scored seven top-10 finishes with these cars which were, as fans later discovered, testing parts for the upcoming ZR1.

Then, in 1987, Morrison-Cook team return to IMSA GTO in partnership with Greg Pickett. This was another move that had a lot more behind it than the average spectator would notice. A lot of this background relates to Bob Riley and his Protofab group.

The # 88 car was also used as a test car for the upcoming LT1 engine.  Photo Credit: Brett Richmond
The # 88 car was also used as a test car for the upcoming LT1 engine. Photo Credit: Brett Richmond

To explain this group of cars requires that we go back to the pre-1987 period. Recall that certain individuals within GM had decided that there was an opportunity to assist more racers to carry the Chevy banner by assuring the availability of a viable C4 tubeframe chassis, suitable for both IMSA and the SCCA TA series. To this end, they had Bob Riley design and sell the chassis. Aerodynamic body parts and heavy-duty race parts for the C4 were developed and put in the parts supply line. The chassis for the new C4 IMSA/SCCA tubeframe race cars were designed and built by PROTOFAB (Bob Riley). Bob designed them to the most recent IMSA and SCCA rules, using his prior tubeframe experience with Greenwood and other Camaros as the start point. The total number of tubeframes built is unclear but we think that Riley eventually produced at least eight of this series of cars for various racers. It also seems likely that several race shops produced clones of the tubeframe, once they had their hands on their first copy…this really confuses the issue.

The Riley-designed C4 tubeframe chassis was suitable for both IMSA and the SCCA TA series.  Photo Credit: GM Media
The Riley-designed C4 tube-frame chassis was suitable for both IMSA and the SCCA TA series. Photo Credit: GM Media

The first car to be delivered went to the Tommy Morrison team. Much of the preparation and fabrication are thought to have been done by Tommy Sapp. Tommy Sapp was a Morrison employee who also worked with Riley in his Protofab shop, so he probably served as a technological middleman between the two.

It was the Morrison shop that did the final outfitting and set-up for the 1987 Greg Pickett and Tommy Riggins (# 2 MOBIL1 – Polyvoltac). This car ran under the Morrison banner for two years. The MOBIL 1 sponsor colors were dominant in 1987 and the new car scored one win and finished eleven times in the top six. Then, in 1988, POLYVOLTAC increased their sponsorship and the car wore the now-famous black and white POLYVOLTAC colors. For 1988 IMSA driving was largely assumed by Tommy Riggins and John Jones.

For 1989, Greg Pickett, Jack Baldwin, and Tommy Riggins would drive at different Trans-Am races. Now, this was a bit strange as the original # 2 car was taken back by Protofab and re-sold. Without further evidence, we conclude that the 1989 car was a clone, built in the Morrison shops. The only race they won that year was in Detroit, with Greg Pickett driving. The same car was driven by John Heinricy in SCCA Nationals (GT1) for several years finally culminating in a win at the Run-Offs in 1993. 

Morrison Motorsport reached its zenith with the end of the 1980s. Cash was still flowing and new cars were on the way.  Photo Credit: Morrison Motorsport
Morrison Motorsport reached its zenith with the end of the 1980s. Cash was still flowing and new cars were on the way. Photo Credit: Morrison Motorsport

For 1990 Morrison purchased (or built) another Protofab chassis and built a second Trans-am car for use by Pickett and Scott Lagasse in Trans-Am and Heinricy in SCCA GT1. Lagasse drove the car for several seasons (1990 through 1992) in Trans-Am and John Heinricy drove the car to a national championship in SCCA GT1 in 1993. This car ran under various numbers at different events with different drivers. It was eventually sold as part of the 1999 E-Bay auction.

OTHER PROTOFAB CARS:

(NOTE: Rember, this is a reprint from 2011, so there is more current information in recent issues of Vette Vues Magazine in 2020.)

The actual number of Riley-built tubeframe cars remains a matter of research. Because these cars were relatively easy to replicate, it is believed that many cars seen on track may have been clones. For this reason, we list the other cars that have clearly participated in the series but make no claims as to the accuracy of this particular categorization.

We do know that a second Protofab car to appear on the circuit was purchased by Jerry Brassfield (PACIFIC SUMMIT RACING) and was prepared with assistance from the MORRISON MOTORSPORT team. Towards the end of the first season, there had been a falling-out between Morrison and Brassfield and the Brassfield team left Morrison. Brassfield retained the (GM authorized) MOBIL 1 sponsorship. This car continued to run as # 88, also in the MOBIL 1 colors, with Darrin Brassfield driving.

Mike Haemmig acquired the # 88 Jerry Brassfield car.  Photo Credit: Mike Haemmig
Mike Haemmig acquired the # 88 Jerry Brassfield car. Photo Credit: Mike Haemmig
The Wally Dallenbach car ran as the twin to Pickett’s # 2, in 1987.  Photo Credit: GM Media
The Wally Dallenbach car ran as the twin to Pickett’s # 2, in 1987. Photo Credit: GM Media

It is also fairly clear that, in 1988, Wally Dallenbach (Jr) acquired a third PROTOFAB chassis for use in the Trans-Am series, running as # 5. Both the # 2 and # 5 cars both ran in the famous black and white color scheme POLYVOLTAC colors, with apparent shop support from Morrison. At the end of the 1988 season, the # 2 and # 5 cars were sold (by Protofab) to John and Hunter Jones, who owned Kuala Springs flavored water.

For 1989, the # 2 car was entered in the Daytona 24 Hour race with an all Canadian team of Hunter Jones, John Jones, and Richard Andison. John Jones continued for most of the Trans-Am series.

At the end of the 1989 season, the cars were sold. One went to Rick Mancuso who re-sold it to Luis Mendez. Luis Mendez was a gentleman racer from Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic. Luis would bring the car to Miami to run the IMSA race, every year, for many years. In 1993, Mendez picked a ride with Irv Hoerr’s Oldsmobile and contracted the Corvette to Tommy Riggins, to drive in the Miami race.

The other car was purchased by Charles Hance (Anaheim, CA), who needed a car to complete his 1990 season when his DeAtley car, driven by Bob Paatch, had crashed and burned.

Subsequent cars are believed to have been delivered to Greg Walker Racing (#68 and 69), and others. The list of official Protofab cars and their final disposition is not known, as at this moment.


THE MAGNIFICENT TOMMY MORRISON AND HIS CORVETTES – PART 2


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