The Good Old Days?
By Craige Pelouze
In the winter of 1967-68, I had just come off another rousingly successful season of SCCA racing. Actually, I had earned enough points in D Sedan to qualify for the run offs (the first time in 10 seasons) but I had blown the engine in my Fiat Abarth 1000 Berlina Corsica and couldn’t afford the $300 (that Faza wanted to extort from me) for a new crank in time for the National Championship event. So, I sold my race car back to Sam Caronia (and threw in the trailer for good measure).
Prospects for the ’68 season looked bleak and my job as regional manager for Ford Motor Co. kept me traveling the Mountains of Virginia.
One of my customers mentioned to me that his friend was going to drive in the 24 Hours of Daytona and needed a co-driver for the Corvette. “Yeah-sure” I said and then asked “Who?”
J Arnold Michele, the proud owner of the 427 Corvette, was the head chef at The Homestead Resort about 40 miles away and when he invited me over to see the car I was there in a “Chevy Heartbeat”. Arnold, a displaced Frenchman who had come to this country aboard Henry Ford’s yacht and defected to the Blue Ridge Mountains, displayed this gleaming red 1966 427 Vette to me and his entry form for the 24 Hour. According to Arnold, he had bought the car from one Roger Penske who had the engine blueprinted and balanced and Arnold was going to run it in the 24 Hour. With my impeccable credentials (puffed up just a little), he signed me on the spot and didn’t even ask for any money. My co-driver was to be Ed Ross, another small bore unknown, and his buddy Lloyd James who had recently contracted meningitis and wouldn’t be able to drive but a few laps. "The Mighty 427" Craige Pelouze Collection
As there was less than a month till the big race and I was drooling over the fastest thing I had ever had the prospects of getting my hands on, I asked Arnold how he expected to get this street machine prepped for such a prestigious international race in such a short time. Arnold replied that an old time stock car builder in Daytona was going to build it in two weeks before the race and he set off to tow it on the ground the 800 miles to Daytona.
When Arnold pulled into Red Vogt’s garage behind the Speedway, the first of a streak of luck began when the tow bar broke and the Vette coasted to a stop six inches from the door! Preparations underway in Red's shop Craige Pelouze Collection
When I arrived at the shop the Sunday before the race, the car was well along --- the roll bar was installed. As the other two drivers and I frantically helped Red prepare the car we discovered that we had a standard 16 gallon fuel tank and no refueling rig, a 4.11 (drag racing) gear and only four American mag wheels. “Not to worry” said Arnold in his offensive French accent. “My VP friend at General Motors is sending a 36 gallon tank, a 3.70 rear and eight more wheels. “Not to worry” said Red in his best Ford/Nascar lingo “You won’t need a 36 gallon tank or extra wheels because this fiberglass piece of junk won’t run 2 hours, much less 24!”
In desperation to find a rear I called Chevy dealerships, went to Smokey Yunick’s garage (he offered me an aluminum center section out of an experimental Indy car) and I finally drifted over to the track to walk around the pits and look for another ride. Once I had gotten my breath back after seeing the 24-degree banking for the first time, I went in the garage and found James Garner watching as the rears were being taken out of his three Corvette entries. After getting up enough nerve to speak to James, I quizzically asked why they were taking out all those differentials. He explained that these were worn out in practice and were being replaced with new ones for the race. He looked a little puzzled when I asked to buy one of those worn out ones but said, “OK, for $200.” When I got back to Red’s and asked Arnold for the $200 he said he was broke!! Well, the three drivers dug deep and we had a rear (albeit slightly worn). Red Vogt Automotive Craige Pelouze Collection
By the time we got through tech, Wednesday night practice was starting and we had never even been around the course. Lloyd went out first and at the end of his first lap he came down the pit road by mistake and looped it right in front of our pit. Lloyd stepped out of the car, checked the squishy feeling in his suit and announced that he had completed his night practice.
Thursday, we qualified well and were in the field with the likes of Vic Elford, Jo Siffert, Rolf Stommelen, and Hans Herrmann in Porsche 907s, Jerry Titus in a Mustang, Ronnie Bucknum, Nino Vacarella and Mario Andretti in Alfa T33s, Peter Gregg in a Porsche 911, Jerry Grant, Joie Chitwood, Sam Posey and Peter Revson in Sunray DX Corvettes along with Don Yenko and Dick Guldstrand in factory Vettes, and my old SCCA racing buddy Mark Donohue in Penske’s new, trick Z28 Camaro.
By Friday night the car was perfect, our pit crew was beginning to arrive, and we were getting excited! Arnold was still promising the wheels would arrive but it was too late to install the big tank even if it did show up. We flipped to see who would start at noon Saturday and decided we would run strong until the tires were worn out and then retire the car. At least, we consoled each other, we could tell our grandchildren some day that we “ran” the 24 Hour.
Saturday morning, we pushed the car to the grid in our new driving suits and lined up just like the Big Boys (only they didn’t know that the only wheels we had were on the car). As I sat on the pit wall and contemplated the enormity of the whole spectacle, I didn’t have a clue as to the memories I would own from having the privilege of participating in such a historic event. Craige Pelouze, Arnold Michele and Ed Ross on the grid prior to the race Craige Pelouze Collection
As I turned around, I spied a brand new Vette (with American mag wheels) pull in and park right behind our pit. A young college kid and his girlfriend emerged. When I asked him how he would like to have four slightly used racing tires in exchange for his wheels for 24 hours, he said “jack ‘er up”, and we were ready to race. Ed Ross readies himself for the start Craige Pelouze Collection
Our streak of good luck continued through the race, aided by the impeccable driving skill of the two Stump Jumpers from Virginia. Before I ever turned a lap in practice, wise old Red asked “Sonny boy, what do you know about driving on a banked track?” I confessed that the sporty car tracks I had driven on were pretty flat and I didn’t know a thing. Well, wise old Red said, “I want your ass in lane four right up against the outside wall in the banking.” When I said “But Red, that wall is 5 feet tall and 3 feet thick”, he responded “Yeah, and if you’re up against it and lose it you will just graze it and it will straighten you out and not hit it head on”. Well, wise old Red saved my butt about dusk when a Mustang blew up in Nascar turn 4 and dumped oil in the “groove”. I was high on the banking, well out of the groove, and watched in horror as three cars hit the oil, and then the wall, and then exploded right in front of me. I knew I needed to avoid that at all cost because we did not even have a roll cage, much less a fuel cell, and that would have been disastrous.
Our luck continued through the night, but I felt a little sad when I walked down the pit and saw the only other open cockpit car (with which I had developed a little hand wave rapport) a Morgan sitting lifelessly all alone in its pit stall. I commented to my friend that it was a shame that the Morgan wouldn’t finish and she pointed to the solo driver/pit crew sleeping on a cot behind the wall. After his nap, he serviced the car, climbed back in, and finished the race. After the race, I understand he drove it back to New England by himself!! I guess since it was ONE of him to have the fun you could say that he had more fun than any other team.
He was no more dedicated than our fueler Chuck Jett, who had driven solo Friday night from Richmond, VA, poured every one of the 335 gallons of fuel (with our home made 5-gallon dump can) every hour and ten minutes, drove straight through back to Richmond Sunday night, and reported for work Monday morning!!! That’s the kind of friendship and dedication that makes this sport what it is; or what it used to be.
Sunrise is a beautiful thing at Daytona, especially if you’re still running. Although the Vette was still strong we were short shifting and using the next highest gear through the infield to keep the enormous torque from that mighty 427 from smoking the tires coming off the corners. With the end of the race near and prospects of finishing high, I was particularly careful and moved over to the outside at the hairpin to let a T33 have the preferred inside lane as he passed me. Evidently, Mario thought I moved over to block him and he gave me the universal hand signal that I was number one. The last few hours I decided to hold my line regardless of who was lapping me. Craige Pelouze takes one of his stints behind the wheel. Craige Pelouze Collection
Thirty years later in the pits at Daytona, I met for the first time the driver of the 1st place GT car and found that he had driven his Porsche 911 down from Jacksonville for our race and drove it back home without ever changing the left front tire.
We came in 22nd overall and 3rd in GT. Not bad for a rogue team of amateurs against the best in the world at that time in history!!
Those were the Good Old Days. Thanks Arnold and Red.
P.S. All three of Garner’s entries went out --- reportedly with rear end failure. A job well done. Now loaded up and ready to head home. Craige Pelouze Collection