1969 L88 Rebel Corvette
1969 L88 Rebel Corvette
Over the course of its brilliant racing career, the ’69 L88 Corvette shown here amassed a win record previously thought impossible for a non-professional crew and driver team. The car was special-ordered by Orlando “Or” Costanzo, sales manager of Ferman Chevrolet in Tampa, Florida, and an enthusiast who raced Corvettes at high-profile races. Costanzo had been racing a ’66 427 Vette for three years and felt it was time for an upgrade.
Originally delivered in its factory color of Daytona Yellow in January 1969, the car was promptly disassembled and prepared for the upcoming ’69 12 Hours of Sebring. Newly released fender flares were bonded in place, headers and sidepipes were installed, and wider wheels and tires were bolted on. Costanzo recruited veteran sports-car driver Dave Heinz to be his copilot.
What is an L88?
L88 was a regular production option, or RPO, designed to create a track-ready Corvette right off the showroom floor. In an effort to limit public exposure, L88 cars were only available to a select handful of dealerships and hardcore Corvette racers. In fact, although RPO L88 was offered for three model years, from 1967 to 1969, the factory made no mention of it in the ’67 or ’68 promotional literature. When it finally showed up in the ’69 brochure, the major automotive magazines clamored to test one. Only a few were given the opportunity, but the word was still out: Chevy was building factory race cars.
While the L88 option code referred specifically to a special, high-performance 427ci engine, L88 buyers were required to select a few other “mandatory options” to complete the ordering process:
M22 4-Speed Manual Transmission, Close Ratio, Heavy Duty
K66 Transistor Ignition System
J50 Power Brakes
J56 Special Heavy Duty Brakes
F41 Special Front and Rear Suspension
G81 Positraction Rear Axle
C48 Heater and Defroster Deletion (1967 only)
As for the L88 itself, it contained ultra-high-compression (12.5:1) pistons, which necessitated the use of leaded gasoline with a minimum octane rating of 103. A high-lift cam with solid lifters opened larger-than-normal valves in specially cast aluminum heads, while a high-rise aluminum intake manifold fed the engine with the help of an 850-cfm Holley carburetor.
Horsepower was rated at 430 with the restrictive factory exhaust manifolds, and at an rpm much lower than the engine’s actual peak level. When headers and side exhausts were bolted onto an L88 Corvette, 560 hp was commonplace with the closed-chamber cylinder heads. Power levels well in excess of 585 were achieved with the open-chamber heads.
Special from the Start
Initially, all ’69 L88 Corvettes were to be delivered with the newest, open-chamber aluminum cylinder heads. But Chevy had an abundance of the original-style, closed-chamber heads still in stock, so these were installed during the first half of the ’69 production run.
This particular car was one of four special-order L88 Corvettes produced in January 1969 with the open-chamber heads, nearly six months before they became widely available. All four cars were sold to dedicated Corvette racers.
The car qualified second in the GT class at Sebring, a huge accomplishment considering that Costanzo and Heinz didn’t have a major sponsorship. They were basically amateurs competing against professionals and European factory teams. After 12 hours and 184 laps or racing, the pair finished Third in GT, an incredible showing for a maiden outing.
After Sebring, the car would go on to race in local Florida SCCA events, competing in the A/Sports Racer class due to its aftermarket fender flares. Despite being matched up with other non-factory racing cars, it continued to perform well. At the Paul Whiteman Trophy Races held at the Daytona International Speedway in August, it captured First Place overall.
The ’70 24 Hours of Daytona was the next major event for the Costanzo/Heinz team. The car ran perfectly until the midpoint of the race, at which point the engine crossmember separated from the main framerails. The team used a logging chain as a temporary fix until they found a welder to properly repair the frame. Unfortunately, several laps were lost during this lengthy pit stop. The team finished the 24-hour race Fifth in GT, once again without a major sponsor.
At the ’70 12 Hours of Sebring, the car was pitted against four other L88 Corvettes. It ran extremely well, breaking into the top 10 in the last two hours of the race. Then, at the 11th hour, the crankshaft broke, and the team was out of the race. Costanzo repaired the car and raced it in regional SCCA events for the remainder of the season.
The Corvette was then completely rebuilt ahead of the ’71 season. During this rebuilding process, it acquired the number 57, which Heinz had previously used on some of his other sports racing machines. Bob Johnson from Marietta, Ohio, joined the team as the third driver for the upcoming 24 Hours of Daytona.
At that race, the No. 57 Corvette once again went up against four other L88 Corvettes. It assumed the GT lead at around seven hours in, but an electrical fire would soon force it into the pits for a lengthy repair. The car fell to second in GT and sixth overall, where it would remain until the finish.
At the subsequent 12 Hours of Sebring, the team of Costanzo, Heinz, and Johnson again squared off against a Corvette-rich field. At the 10-hour point, with the No. 57 Corvette running second in GT and eighth overall, Johnson pitted with transmission problems. Fortunately, Zora Arkus-Duntov was present at the Corvette pits, having taken time out from his Florida vacation to attend the race. Duntov consulted with the team about the gearbox problem, and shortly afterwards “Marietta Bob” was back on the track. Using only Fourth gear, the car finished the race Second in GT and 10th overall.
The Rebel Yells
It was around this time that a new racing series, known as IMSA, was being formed. The series contained a GTO category that allowed Corvettes to use the extra-wide fender flares needed in endurance races. It was a perfect fit for No. 57.
With the season looming, the team decided to treat the car to a fresh paint job. The look they came up with was inspired by the Confederate flag and intended as a friendly jab at fellow Corvette racer John Greenwood, whose car wore a Stars and Stripes motif. The No. 57 L88 Corvette was now the Rebel Corvette.
The car acquired also new co-driver for the ’71 IMSA races: Don Yenko. Johnson had already been committed to another driving obligation, and Yenko was more than happy to fill his seat. During this time period, Costanzo sold the Rebel Corvette to team manager Toye English.
Yenko and Heinz made a devastatingly effective team during the ’71 IMSA season, as the following race results attest:
VIR Danville 300: First GTO, Second Overall
Talladega Carter Hall GT: First GTO, First Overall
Charlotte Motor Speedway Piedmont Three-Hour: First GTO, First Overall
200 Miles of Daytona Beach: First GTO, First Overall
Daytona International Speedway: Top Speed Record of 201.4 mph
Things would only get better in ’72. The first race of the season, the 24 Hours of Daytona, was shortened to six hours, but the same quality of drivers and racing machines entered the event as in previous years.
The Rebel Corvette was once again driven by Heinz, but Marietta Bob Johnson returned to the lineup, as Yenko had other driving commitments. The team drove a consistent race as their competitors began to drop out one by one. When the checkered flag dropped, the Rebel team claimed First in GT and Eighth Overall. It was announced after the race that the Rebel Corvette was not only the GT winner, but also the radial-tire lap leader, as the car had been racing on an experimental set of Goodyear racing radials.
The team kept its momentum going as it entered the ’72 12 Hours of Sebring. But with about an hour remaining in the race, and the Rebel Corvette holding the top spot in GT, Johnson pitted with transmission problems. The gearbox was stuck in Fourth again! This time the team was prepared for the problem, and a quick linkage adjustment quickly put the car back out on the track. Johnson drove under the checkered flag at the 12-hour mark. The three-year-old Corvette had finished First in GT and Fourth Overall, beating the brand-new, factory-backed European GT cars and their professional drivers!
The Rebel Corvette had accomplished the impossible. It was a production car that received no official manufacturer support or other major sponsorship. It was campaigned by independent amateurs who self-financed their racing efforts.