Friday, February 19, 2010

The Delmo Johnson Corvettes

Mecum Performance Auctions held their first-ever Monterey sale last year during the Historic Weekend in August. In preparation for that event I flew to California in early June to audit a private collection that was consigned to the Monterey auction. I spent a fascinating couple of days poring over documentation, spec sheets and photo albums, and along the way had the opportunity to drive several highly collectible and incredibly valuable cars - exciting in theory, but a bit intimidating in practice, at least whenever I stopped to consider the price tag on whatever I happened to be driving.

Two of the most interesting cars in the collection were factory-prepared Corvettes originally raced by Texas Chevrolet dealer Delmo Johnson and his friend and co-driver Dave Morgan, whose partnership excelled in SCCA A-Production competition. The owner of the collection arranged for me to call Delmo for an interview which, as sometimes happens, never made it into the promotional materials for the auction.

So here for the record I am pleased to share Delmo Johnson’s thoughts on campaigning these two Corvettes in the golden era of American road racing:

On the 1962 Corvette

We did well at Sebring in 1962- I enjoyed racing that car. We always used cerametallic brakes but that was the first car to use forward self adjusters and the expanding shoe package. Of course they originally had conventional reverse self adjusters which were no good during a race. Before Sebring I kept asking Zora, “do you want us to spin out a lot?”, because the only way to adjust the brakes was to apply them while the car was in reverse. So he finally sent us brakes with forward adjusters for Sebring, but then those worked too well! We had great brakes for the first two hours, then none for the next ten, which wasn’t that big a problem for us; we were able to adapt to that without too much trouble.

After the race the mechanics put the car up on jacks right away because they wanted to have a look at the brakes, and boy, they were surprised- the linings were long gone, just the t-shaped shoes were left and they were metal-to-metal with the drums. But we finished high anyway, first in GT by our scoring but officially we came third in GT.

That car was a winner. We (Johnson and his racing partner Dave Morgan) had a lot of confidence in it. Just to mess with the competition we’d load a six pack and a small tool kit into the car and drive it to the races- that got into their heads. Then Morgan took to racing an open wheel formula car sometimes in support races so we put a hitch on the Corvette and showed up with the formula car on a trailer out back. And that really shook ‘em up.

The stock engine was really good. When a new one came from Zora we would take it apart and blueprint it, because the stock specs were just right for the 327. You might get one with the bore angle at 89, maybe even 87 degrees to the deck, so we’d bore it out and straighten it to 90 degrees, things like that just to make sure everything was exactly the way it should be. If you did that, those 327s would run all day long and make all the power you’d ever want. In fact, if you kept them at 6,500 RPM they’d last forever. Of course, most guys couldn’t hold back like that, and they all learned the hard way that you can’t run for long at 8,000 RPM.

You learned something every time you raced, and we always rebuilt what we didn’t like, but Chevrolet made that ’62 so that right off the showroom floor it was a very useable race car. We added an oil cooler, maybe a rear end cooler, stuff like that, but Zora did a very good job designing and building those cars.

On the 1963 Z06:

There was nothing special or secret in that car, we ordered it through the dealership on a normal order pad. Mind you, we were in constant communication with Zora, and we know he had some influence with the assembly, but I couldn’t say what, specifically. Chevrolet usually began annual production around September 15 and we normally did not receive a new car until late December, but we got the Z06 in time to run a few races in the Dallas area and develop it before Sebring.

That was the first car with two-bar spinners for the knock off wheels. They came in a “race box” Zora sent us. We ran into a problem right away: the right side wheels fell off the first couple of times we tried them, because they had sent us four right-side spindles. So Zora sent us a pair with reverse threads and that solved that.

We did a lot of test work for Zora. He’d design some piece and send it to us in a box, we’d test it and if it failed we’d send it back so he could determine why and redesign it to correct the problem. Sometimes we’d hear about it from Zora and other times we never heard from him again. Every time we went racing we’d have something experimental on the car, but we always had the original part for back-up so that we could change it back if it broke. But racing was how Chevrolet improved their cars. Positraction, brakes, 2-by-4 carbs, fuel injection, the small-blocks, the big blocks; almost all those things, and a lot of accessories, came from Chevrolet’s racing program. That was just how they did it then.

The basic Z06 was always a good race car. Sometimes stuff broke, but we were very active racers so that was bound to happen. We raced fifty weekends a year, and the only reason we didn’t race fifty-two was that no-one held a race on Easter Sunday or Christmas Day. We raced from Mexico City to Chicago, Phoenix to Nassau; all over the Southeast. But it was just too far to go to California too often or to the Northeast- you could waste a whole day driving two thousand miles, you know.

For most of us there were only two reasons to race: a few did it to make money, but for most of us it was just because it was so darn much fun. We had a lot of great times and made a lot of good friends and memories.

We were serious about the racing itself, though. The first time out with the Z06 was at Caddo Mills; I got stuck behind a guy in an older Vette who was obviously slower but there just wasn’t enough room to get clean around him. So I approached him afterwards and said, “hey, my car is faster, why don’t you be a good sport and let me past so I can race?” And he starts talking about how Delmo Johnson is more worried about his bright shiny new car than about winning. He said “If you’re so fast, then pass me." So I took my key and ran it along the side of the Z06, and I looked at him and said, “I don’t give a shit about the car. I’m here to race, so if that’s how you want it, that’s fine with me". Next time out, he saw me coming and moved right over.

But that sort of thing didn’t happen too often; it was mostly just a lot of fun.

You can read more about Delmo Johnon's 1962 Corvette racer here, and about the 1963 Z06 here.

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