Early on, when it came to racing Bob set his sights high. Bob mastered his craft on motorc
Bob won 18 out of 20 races in 1959 in the ’57, which smartly won Bob the “B” Production Championship and “Best Corvette Driver of the Year” in 1959. That’s when other car owners took notice of Bob’s driving ability.
The pair needed money to race so Bob and Don went to work for Peyton Cramer who owned Dana Chevrolet in South Gate, known for its high-performance Corvettes, as well Camaros. “They had a used car lot there, Don worked on the cars and I sold used Corvettes.”
Dick Guildstrand of Guildstrand Motorsports in Burbank was the manager: “Dana was number one in sales on the West Coast because we were racing,” Guildstrand states. “The whole difference was the crowds who gathered around the Corvette with Dana Chevrolet on the door at the races and who sold cars. The other dealers weren’t racing like we were. We had a meeting with Peyton Cramer and he wanted to go to Le Mans in 1967 and I said we gotta get one of the new L88s.” (That was the 427 with solid lifers, aluminum heads—just one bad-glass, 500-horse Vette capable of 170-plus mph down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans.)
Look for the Burning Ferraris
“I had never been to Europe before so it was exciting to be able to race there,” Guildstrand continues. “We get off the plane at the Paris-Orly Airport and there was just a small diesel truck but no trailer and an Opel waiting for us. We barely got the spare parts in the truck.”
No question, Bob was a stone hot rodder and it was hard to break the habit with as many Fl
Guildstrand and Bob decided to fill the Corvette’s tank with essence (fuel) and drive it to Le Mans. “It wouldn’t idle under 70 mph. We’re blasting down the road in a red, white, and blue Corvette with the side exhaust pipes making a huge amount of noise down a lot of dirt roads. Of course we’re blowing dirt up in the air from the exhaust so you could see us coming. One little Gendarme (French police officer) was standing on a box directing cars at this traffic circle and saw us coming right at him in a cloud of dust … you can imagine the noise. We damn near blew him off the box but he gives us this great big French salute. (The two Yanks didn’t realize the French national colors are blue, white, and red, which might have had something to do with the salute.)
“We got there two days before the race and the GT 40 Ford guys opened up their great big trailers and let us use the machine shop to make stuff and weld … they had a huge effort.”
Bob knew the circuit well, having raced Le Mans in 1964, winning the GT Class in a Ford Daytona Coupe with Dan Gurney. Guildstrand asked Bob how to tell when he was approaching the Tertre Rouge corner at the end of the long (4381 feet) Mulsanne Straight at night. Bob says, “Look for the burning Ferraris.”
Guildstrand set a record of 171.5 mph down the Mulsanne. After 13 hours their lone Corvette packed it in with a broken wrist pin. “We still finished 17th, we were that far ahead,” Guildstrand laughs.
Bob’s first entry into Formula 1 was one that almost took his life in the ill-fated ATS Grand Prix Car he was about to drive on one of the deadliest tracks in racing—Monza. ATS was formed by disenchanted team members who broke away from Ferrari, including Phil Hill.
Over the years 52 drivers and 35 spectators have lost their lives on the 3.6-mile track. Bob was told that the high-speed corner, Curve Grande, was taken flat-out. Of course it would take some laps before he would build his confidence not to lift.
Many Formula 1 drivers felt it was better to be thrown clear than be in the car when it crashed; in fact belts weren’t mandatory until 1972. Masten “Kansas City Flash” Gregory, another American who drove in F1, once stood up in the seat of his car and jumped out just before impact. Gregory was at Monza instructing Bob on the difficult course.