15 minutes of fame. Callaway Corvette: 1994 LeMans
Running out of fuel is a painful way to lose at Le Mans, especially when a debut win looks on. Reeves Callaway tells Gary Watkins about a muscle car heartache
No one knew quite what to make of the strange silver projectile that turned up at the Le Mans test day in May 1994. The name Callaway conjured images of golf clubs rather than GT racers and little was known of the US muscle car builder in Europe except that it did weird and wonderful things with Chevrolet Corvettes.
The Callaway Corvette C6-R barely set the world on fire that day: anything that could go wrong did go wrong and the car never set a representative time. Six weeks later, though, everyone was talking about Reeves Callaway’s latest creation.
The C6-R not only claimed pole position for the GT2 class against Honda’s megabuck factory operation, but Boris Said and co-drivers Frank Jelinski and Michel Maisonneuve battled for the lead for more than half the race. It was nip and tuck with the best of a flotilla of Porsche 911 RSRs, only for an elementary driver error to leave the trio wondering what might have been.
Reeves Callaway had started his tuning empire after winning the National Formula Vee title in 1973. “I was convinced Roger Penske was going to call me,” he explains. “When that didn’t happen, I needed to start earning money.”
Twenty years of building what the company motto describes as ‘Powerfully Engineered Automobiles’ had finally put Callaway in a position to go motor racing. The company’s European base was in Germany and it was from there that it launched an attack on the new German GT Cup.
“As we became more of a distinct brand, it was natural to want to go to Le Mans to compete with the world’s best,” explains Callaway. “The GT Cup was merely practice for that.”
The result of that dry run was the C6-R, a car built with the ultra-fast Circuit de la Sarthe in mind “We styled the body on what we thought the requirements of Le Mans would be,” he says. “We needed low drag for the Mulsanne Straight, good cooling and good serviceability. Hence that big one-piece hood.”
The car had run only on an airfield prior to the test day, “to make sure it stopped, started, steered and cooled,” but with more testing under its belt the C6-R quickly emerged as one of the class pacesetters. “Honda really wanted the pole because I’m sure they were convinced their NSXs weren’t going to last,” recalls Callaway. “I told Boris to go out there and find a second. And that’s just what he did.”
The race quickly developed into a battle between the American car and the best of the Porsches, the French-entered Larbre example with a driver line-up including Jesus Pareja. The Callaway had the edge on speed, but the 911 was spending less time in the pits. Not only was the Porsche more fuel efficient, but the Callaway was losing time at lyre changes courtesy of the five-stud fixings on its standard Corvette hubs.
The lead swung back and forth between these two very different racing cars until local driver Maisonneuve missed his pit signal, not once but twice, and ran out of fuel on the circuit. He did eventually reappear in the pits, only for the car to be disqualified for receiving outside assistance, otherwise known as a jerry can of fuel from a spectator.
“The car was running pitch-perfect,” remembers Said. “I’m sure we would have won.” Proof of that was provided three weeks later at Vallelunga in Italy. Callaway entered the car as it had ended its Le Mans campaign: it won its class and took second overall in a four-hour International Endurance GT Series race.
There was another podium that year, at SpaFrancorchamps, and further poles at Le Mans. A customer-entered C6-R ended up fastest in 1995 and, six years later, the next-generation Cl 2-R did the same. But Le Mans ’94, according to the company founder, remains the “highwater mark” for Callaway in motorsport. “It was,” he says, “very nearly a dream debut.”