I have always been a car nut. I attended Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, to study engineering with the hope of being a great car designer or racer. But as I got close to graduating, I decided to stay in SLO and open a British sports car repair and restoration shop.
After a couple of years I had made a few dollars so I decided to pursue my dream of sports car racing. I built an H-Production Bug Eye Sprite and began racing in SCCA events. But after a few years it was time to pursue my dream of being a professional racecar driver. Since I was partial to sports cars, I had no desire to race a formula car. At the time, IMSA was going strong and the GTO class presented the opportunity to see what I could do. The “cheapest” competitive GTO car was a Corvette, so off I went to find my dream car. My friends thought I was nuts to jump from a 948cc Sprite to a 427 Corvette! The Corvette starter motor had more power than the Sprite!
I found a used 1969 L88 Corvette roadster race car in Autoweek. The previous owner had installed a Greenwood wide-body conversion and was running IMSA GTO -- perfect for what I wanted to do! The price was right and this was not a state-of-the-art machine but more of a club racer that occasionally ran west coast IMSA races. It was all I could afford and I loved it.
The next step was to get my FIA license and go racing. I first ran an SCCA A-Production national race and then set my sights on a pro race, and what could be better than the LA Times GP at Riverside, a 6-hour enduro that was full of racing greats?
Funding was a challenge. Racing a 6-hour enduro was expensive. I could barely afford the race gas alone. So I set out to find sponsorship in my small town. I went to my favorite restaurant, F. McLintocks, and they put up a whole $250! I hit up another local business whose owner I knew was a car enthusiast and got another $250! I was ready to go but had none of the equipment required to run an enduro. For instance, how do you quickly fill a 40-gallon fuel tank? A group of friends and I built a fueling tower from scrap steel and a 55-gallon oil drum. It wasn’t pretty but it worked.
But all the required spares and equipment wouldn’t fit in my truck and single trailer; the next obstacle was to find a large enclosed trailer. After begging and borrowing, I came up with a 40’ enclosed trailer from a local construction company. We loaded it up with the Corvette, fueling rig, tires, wheels, spares, and tools and we were off. Except for one minor problem: My truck could barely move the loaded trailer at anything over 50 mph. Braking was hopeless. It was a very long drive to Riverside, but once we were there the excitement was tremendous. Once we were assigned our pit space the thrill set in. On one side was the MOMO racing team and on the other was Paul Newman. I had made it to the big time.
We next had to make the grid. My co-driver was an experienced pro Super Vee driver, so I thought he could at least get the car into the race, but after two days of practice and qualifying I was 2 seconds a lap faster and my time got us a reasonable starting position! The race was on the NASCAR Riverside course with a very long straight. We calculated I was hitting about 175 mph on the straights which seemed very fast. That was until a GTP car passes you doing 240 – they passed me so quickly I thought my car had popped out of gear!
To celebrate, we went into Riverside that night to have a drink. Sitting next to us were Mario Andretti, Al Unser Sr., A.J. Foyt, and one other big-name racer I cannot remember, but I immediately bought them a round of drinks and again thought I was now playing in the big leagues!
The next day we finally got down to what we came for, the race. We knew a reasonable, steady pace would give us a good finish and off we went. The first couple of hours went to plan but then a rocker arm stud broke and our day was finished. I was disappointed, but Paul Newman broke down before we did so I figured that for a first-time, under-funded amateur team, we did OK. That and seeing my name in the Los Angeles Times that week was exciting to say the least!
I went on to race the car in a few SCCA National events and another IMSA race at Laguna Seca. I also rented the car to Phil Currin for a west coast IMSA race so he could get championship points. I think that was the only time a car I owned scored IMSA points.
After a couple of years of an under-funded effort (and wrecking the car a couple of times) I realized I was in over my head. Racing and business were starting to take a toll on my first marriage. There were other problems, but being a racer certainly did not help. So, much to my regret, I sold the Corvette, never realizing the car’s potential. The marriage went the same year, too.
I went on to race a Jaguar in SCCA and vintage events since it was a better business tie-in. There were no illusions of becoming a pro and the time commitment and cost were more in line with what I could afford. I have owned that racing Jaguar ever since and I have enjoyed it for years but I always missed the challenge and raw power of the Corvette.
So about five years ago I began to search for the car in Autoweek, vintage racing magazines and on eBay, hoping to find the old beast and give it one more try. When I sold the car I kept one of the SCCA log books so I knew the roll bar number. Amazingly, a few years ago I found an old Corvette racer in pieces in the same part of the country where I had sold the car 25 years ago. How did I find it? On eBay of course! I asked the seller if the roll bar number was still on the car, and sure enough it was my old car! I immediately bought it, but it was now just a chassis and roll cage with a few body panels and suspension parts. But it was a start.
Working on the car brought back old memories, but this time I had the budget to do things to a level I could only dream about 30 years ago, with better components, more power, and first-class cosmetics.
After three years of work the car looked the part and sounded simply bad ass, but I had one nagging question: At age 58, could I still drive a 600 HP Corvette not known for great handling? The car tested reasonably well at Button Willow, but testing is not racing and the tight course left a lot of questions unanswered. I had to race it.
I chose the Big Bore Bash at Willow Springs as I always enjoy the event and I know the track pretty well after racing there for more than 35 years. Still I was nervous. My two goals were to not do anything stupid and to finish the race, which is difficult with a new, un-sorted car.
I tested a bit on Friday and the car felt reasonably comfortable so I thought I was ready to race. On Saturday morning my first problem popped up. I forgot to charge my transponder so I got no qualifying time! This meant for Saturday’s afternoon race I would have to start last -- 29th out of 29 cars! Certainly a challenge in a new car.
Much to my amazement, as soon as the green flag dropped the car leapt into action and felt quite manageable. I worked up to tenth and was very pleased with the result. After running for years with my Jaguar in that class and being 100-200 horsepower down on everyone else, it was great to have the power to pass at will, and fun too!
The next day was the main event, the Ford/Chevy challenge. I started tenth and felt confident. Within two laps I had worked up to fourth and was moving strongly when disaster struck. A rock punctured the differential oil cooler. Within a short distance, the differential friction-welded itself into one solid mass and put an end to my day. Not the best result, but at least I knew the car was reasonably fast and I could drive it well enough to not embarrass myself, although I did have to endure lots of snide comments about the car not being a Jaguar.
I am now excitedly looking forward to 2010. And, by the way, my wife of the last 22 years is very excited to see me race the car, so I think this time the car will be a much better experience even though my dreams of being a pro driver are long gone. – Jason Len
A few notes about the following video: This is the qualifying race for the 2010 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. Jason experienced near total brake fade early on in the race -- you'll notice that he begins to short-shift after a couple of laps and is obviously being pretty conservative entering corners. A change to super-high-temperature brake fluid for the race later that day cured the problem and Jason had a great race with some other Corvettes.