Jan Hyde’s Corvette Racing Saga: From Motorama to Victory Lane
In the world of motorsports, there are stories that transcend the boundaries of time and continue to inspire generations of racing enthusiasts. Such is the tale of a sleek, sporty 2-seater that made its debut at the GM Motorama show in New York City back in January 1953. But this isn’t just a story about a car; it’s a journey through the heart and soul of Corvette racing, a passion that has burned brightly for decades. Jan Hyde of the Registry of Corvette Race Cars shares his story of how he had the privilege of being a part of this remarkable journey. From the glory days of the iconic 1962 Corvette bearing the number 69 to the trials and triumphs that followed on the racetracks of America, this is a story of camaraderie, challenges, and the enduring bond between man and machine. Join me as we delve into the annals of racing history captured in timeless photographs and witness the unyielding passion that defines our world of Corvette racing.
Camaraderie, Challenges, and Checkered Flags: The Corvette Racing Legacy
By Jan Hyde – Registry of Corvette Race Cars
Photo credits: Bob Dunsmore, Dave Gooley, Tony Mezzacca, Jeff Wong, Lance Smith, Bob Harrington, Dan Tooker, Gordon Jolley, Chris Vandagriff, David Palmeter, Jack Woehrle
Allow me to introduce myself; I’m Jan Hyde, and I hold a deep and enduring affection for a sleek, sporty 2-seater that graced the stage at the GM Motorama show in New York City in January 1953.
My true passion, however, lies in the world of Corvette racing. The year was 1970 when Frank Dominianni, a man 15 years my senior, extended a generous offer. He handed over the reins of his retired 1962 Corvette, bearing the iconic number 69, which had seen its glory days in 1966. This Corvette was equipped with a sizable 24-gallon center-fill tank, formidable brakes, a tuned racing suspension, and every imaginable modification that complied with the rulebook.
As destiny would have it, by the time the car came into my possession, the odometer bore witness to nearly 14,000 miles of Frank’s victorious journey to clinching the SCCA BP National points championship in 1964.
Fast forward to 1987, when Steve Earle announced the 14th annual Monterey Historic Races with a special tribute to the Corvette, I swiftly rallied my dear friend and Corvette restoration expert, Richard Engelhard, to prepare our beloved #69, extending an invitation for him to join me as part of the crew.
Leon Hurd, hailing from Ayer, Massachusetts, stepped in generously, offering us precious space in his dually trailer for the cross-country voyage to California. After a successful test run at Lime Rock, we entrusted #69 to Leon’s capable crew, led by Steve Moulton and Doug Hatch.
It was a heartfelt decision, and I thought it would be a fitting tribute for Frank himself to take the wheel.
The Laguna Seca circuit, in its original configuration, presented a faster and more formidable challenge.
My primary concern was whether our engine could endure the rigorous demands of the track. Little did I know that our real challenge lay in a fateful encounter when Frank’s Corvette brushed against Tony Denman’s fierce rival, resulting in a suspension from the track for a full 13 months.
Labor Day weekend witnessed Frank’s triumphant return as he piloted the aging #69 at the Lime Rock historic festival, marked by an impressive lack of incidents, save for a heart-pounding 360-degree spin on the uphill and a broken axle—an ominous sign of things to come. To our relief, Richard Engelhard swiftly replaced the damaged axle with a spare, bypassing any makeshift, welded-up repairs.
A few weeks later, a surprising $400 check arrived from Leon Hurd, covering half of the towing expenses, a reimbursement facilitated by Steve Earle. This unexpected gesture revealed a profound lesson about the unyielding integrity that often graces the world of club racing.
In 1989, we embarked on a singular venture that left an indelible mark, captured in the lens of our cameras.
This epic event unfolded on a temporary circuit nestled in the New Jersey Meadowlands, a stone’s throw away from the bustling heart of New York City. The catalyst for this spectacle was none other than CART, the breakaway Indy-car series seeking to bask in the limelight. Our itinerary encompassed the high-octane Corvette Challenge series and a vintage race generously sponsored by a local bank.
Amidst the fervor, an unexpected twist occurred during practice when Frank’s path collided with a Porsche, sparking a frantic overnight quest for spare parts to mend the wounded left front inner skirt. The unlikely workshop for this repair mission was the hallowed ground of the NJ Nets arena, where our vintage cars were nestled in their paddock.
As the sands of time flowed, the nefarious Savings & Loan scandal cast a pall over our racing aspirations, extinguishing any hopes of a 1990 racing season.
Fast forward to the autumn of 1991, and we found ourselves participating in an endurance race at Bridgehampton under the auspices of EMRA (Eastern Motor Racing Association). Frank, ever the tinkerer, adjusted the injection unit until the very last moment before unleashing its full potential. An eventful day culminated in an unforgettable spectacle, as he made a memorable punt of a Pinto on the final lap, following nearly three hours of intense racing. Remarkably, this incident failed to mar the enduring bond of our friendship.
Around this juncture, Rich, our ever-resourceful comrade, introduced me to another racing enthusiast in his clientele – Ken Mennella, a graduate of a driver’s school. Our collective focus shifted towards a momentous occasion in early July 1993, a grand celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the Corvette.
(For those curious, my days behind the wheel abruptly stopped after surviving a harrowing crash at the 25th edition of the 3.4-mile Duryea Hillclimb in Reading, PA, in June 1975).
With zeal in our hearts, we set for Mid-Ohio, arriving two days before orientation. Our pride quickly turned to despair as a broken axle left us feeling like mere novices. However, Rich, the savior of the day, arrived with a spare axle tucked away in his baggage. It took three arduous attempts, but we eventually conquered the vexing issue.
That Friday, we nestled ourselves under a vast tent alongside fellow Corvette racers, forging friendships that continue to endure to this very day.
Another scary thing happened later in the 1993 season finale at Lime Rock. Ken slid off on the downhill turn into the tire barriers during practice. Unbeknownst to us, the impact cracked a stout cast metal bracket anchoring the steering mechanism. I shudder at what could have happened if it broke loose during the race. It was Rich to the rescue once again with a new bracket and the knowledge to disassemble and re-install a rather complex system.
We signed up for the inaugural vintage race at Pocono International Raceway in July 1994, braving the challenges that came our way.
It takes big courage to carry speed through turn one at the end of NASCAR’s longest straight, followed by a white-knuckle run through the tunnel turn and heavy braking onto the infield course. A team of awesome lightweight E Jags blew us away as we struggled to learn more.
We finished up at Lime Rock and then traveled to the Finger Lakes Region for the historic Watkins Glen Festival. We did the race enactment over the 6.6-mile original public road course and ran the fast 3.4-mile race course perched above the town at the tip of Lake Seneca. Frank’s 327 fuelie motor gave us all it could before expiring mercifully late that Sunday as our season ended.
In 1994, Ken embarked on a project to build a robust 350 cubic inch motor equipped with a sturdy 4-bolt main crank and a sizeable Holley 4-barrel carburetor. During this time, we also made several key enhancements to Frank’s well-worn American Racing Mags, replacing them with lightweight aluminum torque thrusts.
Furthermore, we addressed a vital safety concern by swapping out the cracked, original big brake drums for identical NAPA parts designed for Buicks. Additionally, a custom-made ATL fuel cell was expertly installed.
The journey continued into 1995 when we ventured to Elkhart Lake, WI, for the prestigious Chicago Historic Races held on the sprawling 4.1-mile Road America track. The event, masterminded by the late Joe Marchetti, a renowned Ferrari enthusiast and Como Inn restaurateur, drew a staggering 72-car field. In this highly competitive race, we secured the 18th position, with the experienced Bill Morrison prevailing as the victor in a formidable 1956/7 Corvette with porcupine heads. Augie Pabst, scion of the beer empire, also competed in a stunning polished aluminum Aston Martin.
Following our performance at Elkhart Lake, our journey took us to Pocono, where we displayed improvements in our performance. Subsequently, we tackled Lime Rock and Watkins Glen in early September. With the car still in pristine condition, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to participate in the SVRA finale at Road Atlanta in mid-October.
Ken made an early pilgrimage to Road Atlanta to acquaint himself with the track layout. This circuit was notorious for its treacherous dip, which has since been replaced with a chicane.
Upon my arrival, I noticed the car’s body was slightly askew. During practice, Ken had a close call when the rear axle failed once again. Incredibly, the harmonic balancer pulley also tore itself apart from its mounting bolts. Despite these challenges, we persevered and triumphed in our class as the “last man standing.”
It was a stroke of luck that Bob Aliberto, a fellow vintage racer and vocational school teacher, took on the substantial task of rebuilding the car. Rich, to his credit, decided against it. Ultimately, we discovered Moser axles, which resolved our persistent issues. These axles featured fairings that effectively distributed the stress forces concentrated between the shaft and the perpendicular wheel mounting plate.
In 1997, amid the backdrop of culture shock and Mother Nature’s unpredictability, we found ourselves racing on consecutive weekends. The first leg of this adventure took us to Lime Rock in the northwestern corner of Connecticut, where the reserved locals only begrudgingly tolerated racing. This was followed by a visit to Watkins Glen, where racing was integral to the community’s lifeblood. Unfortunately, our Saturday at Watkins Glen was marred by lingering fog from Hurricane Irene.
Our journey in 1998 began at Pocono, but it got off to a rocky start when we collided with an overly exuberant Porsche driver named Steve Marshall. Steve had spun off the track’s infield section, and in his haste to rejoin the race, he slammed into Ken’s car.
Our first race at Watkins Glen in July was hosted by HSR, a group from St. Petersburg, FL, known for their affinity for Porsches.
The second race, held in early September and hosted by SVRA, saw us competing against familiar rivals, including Bob Wechsler in his 1957 Corvette, Max Heilman in his “lightweight aero cheater” Jag XK140, and some swift Datsun 240Zs.
During this period, the IMRRC (International Motor Racing Research Center at Watkins Glen) opened its doors for the first time. Now in its 25th year, this exceptional institution has become a shining example for our burgeoning Corvette Race Car Archive project.
Virginia International Raceway celebrated a grand reopening in 1999. This track, where Frank raced in 1964, had remained dormant since 1974. The next weak link in our driveline to break was the differential. The solution was a sturdier Ford 9-inch rear end, which also necessitated a different type of axle.
Our final hurrah, as it turned out, was at the Monterey Historic Races in 2002, once again celebrating the Corvette. Ken provided a block, and Frank skillfully built and dyno-tuned a beautifully period-correct 327 fuel-injected engine that met all the regulations.
As fate would have it, a prospective buyer emerged during this time. Mike Yager, a prominent car collector and proprietor of Mid America Motorworks, a prominent mail-order business located on the outskirts of Effingham, IL, showed keen interest. I pledged to cover any necessary repairs (which, as it turned out, were minimal), and Ken clinched fifth place in our final race, a broadcast on ESPN featuring the late Brock Yates and Bob Varsha.
Over the course of a decade, Mike Yager, a skilled marketer, enjoyed both a steady stream of income and the increasing value of his cherished collection.
In 2011, #69 also conquered the Road America track during the Corvette World Tribute.
As online sellers began encroaching on Mike’s mail-order business, he decided to part ways with some of his collection. Fluctuating prices left him in possession of just four “orphans” by 2016, falling short of his expectations.
Despite seemingly long odds, the future of old #69 was far from bleak.
Mike contemplated donating these four cars to a non-profit institution, allowing him to deduct their value from his revenues for tax reduction. To make a significant impact, a high valuation was needed.
After consulting with an expert, Mike’s four Corvettes were appraised at a total of $6.3 million. Each of these unique vehicles had a distinct connection to the state of New York that couldn’t be replicated. For instance, #69 SCCA 1964 National Points Champ raced out of Valley Stream Long Island; #8, the 1968 SCCA AP Runoffs winner, had an L88 engine made in Tonawanda, NY. GM crafted a special 1964 Corvette for Chevrolet general manager Bunkie Knudsen and a Bill Mitchell-styled car, both showcased at the World’s Fair in NYC. Regardless of how you assessed them, #69 alone held an implied value of at least around one million dollars.
In the end, Mike Yager decided to donate the quartet to the Pierce Arrow Museum in Buffalo, NY.
It was a delightful experience to visit #69 and take a guided tour with the owner, Jim Sandoro. I encourage Vette Vues readers to visit it and show their appreciation.
Post Script: This rags-to-riches narrative of a humble Corvette race car is another reason why many of us are committed to expanding our Corvette Race Car Archive.
In the world of motorsports, Jan Hyde’s remarkable journey through Corvette racing serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit of those who live and breathe the roar of the engine and the thrill of the racetrack. From the elegance of GM Motorama to the triumphant moments on America’s iconic racetracks, this tale of camaraderie, challenges, and enduring passion will forever be etched in the annals of racing history. As we bid farewell to this captivating narrative, may it inspire future generations to embrace the exhilarating world of Corvette racing and keep the legacy of Jan Hyde and his beloved #69 Corvette alive on the track and in their hearts.
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