It was time for the C5 Corvette to step aside and pass the baton to the C6 waiting in the wings. Corvette fans everywhere held their collective breath in anticipation of how General Motors would salute the Corvette generation that had taken America’s sports car to remarkable heights in the new millennium. The design team had reset the standards for Corvette engineering and assembly quality. Corvette Racing’s C5.R had firmly embedded the Corvette name in professional racing’s record book with championships and victories against the toughest competition. What would GM do to show how proud it was of the C5?
C5.R Racing Success
The C5 boldly took Corvette where it had never gone. It was directly involved in several major advances of the Corvette brand:
- Corvette Racing’s success in America and the Twenty-Four Hours of Le Mans, the world’s most difficult endurance race
- expanding the allure of Corvette performance with the addition of a third body style, the Fixed Roof Coupe, to the traditional Corvette lineup
- resurrecting the Z06 name for the Fixed Roof Coupe to honor Corvette’s racing heritage
The C5.R racing version of the C5 was the weapon of choice when Corvette Racing entered the world of endurance road racing in 1999. The top echelon of road racing is not for the faint of heart and it took Corvette Racing until midway through the 2000 season before Ron Fellows and Andy Pilgrim found their first victory in the sweltering heat of Texas Motor Speedway.
To many, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the Holy Grail of sports car racing. Keeping a car competitive for a full day is the ultimate test of machine, drivers and crew. Following a third and fourth place class finish in Corvette Racing’s first Le Mans attempt in 2000, the two C5.Rs proved the team, led by Doug “Take no prisoners” Fehan, had what it took the following year with an incredible first and second place finish. Ron Fellows, Johnny O’Connell and Scott Pruett took the checkered flag ahead of teammates Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins and Franck Freon. Just to prove the victory was no fluke, Corvette Racing returned to Le Mans in 2002 and again finished first and second. This time Fellows and O’Connell teamed with Ollie Gavin to finish ahead of Pilgrim, Collins and Freon.
C5 Le Mans Commemorative Editions
By the end of the C5’s reign, it was traditional for Corvette to offer special models in the last year of a particular generation’s production cycle. For 1982, the last year for the C3, it was the Collector Edition and in 1996 GM gave us two last-year special models to honor the C4 – another Collector Edition and the Grand Sport.
It was only fitting that the Corvette design team honor the outgoing C5 by saluting its finest racing accomplishments with a special Le Mans Commemorative Edition package for all 2004 Corvette models. The Coupe and Convertible packages included special Le Mans Blue metallic paint, unique badging noting the Le Mans victories, polished wheels, and a special shale-colored interior featuring embroidered Le Mans emblems on the headrests. On the introduction of the Commemorative Editions, Dave Hill, Corvette Chief Engineer, said, “We’ve created the 2004 Commemorative Edition to share our racing achievements with Corvette enthusiasts, while bringing real performance and technology upgrades to the Z06.”
Special to the Z06 were chassis tuning upgrades for increased performance and greater vehicle control. In its quest to minimize the weight of the Z06 CE, the design team created a carbon fiber hood, marking the first use of this material for a painted exterior vehicle panel in North America. Carbon fiber is very strong and exceptionally light, and was used extensively on the C5.Rs. Its use on the production Z06 hood saved about ten pounds over the standard hood weight and brought a tangible example of racing technology to the production Z06 CE. Silver and red graphics on the hood, roof and trunk over the Le Mans Blue metallic paint were unique to the Z06 CE and were reminiscent of the liveries of the C5.R Le Mans cars in 2003.
C5 Corvette Milestones
The C5 Corvette, introduced to the world in January of 1997, was a quantum leap forward in Corvette engineering and design. The Corvette team was given a clean slate to design the new C5, resulting in innovations like a rear-mounted transaxle for better weight distribution, different diameter front and rear tires, and a stronger, lighter hydro-formed frame. Last, but certainly not least, the LS1 all-aluminum V8 engine made its debut in the C5 with the 5.7L engine producing 345 horsepower at 5,600 rpm.
As good as the new C5 was, the Corvette design team wasn’t done. Two years later in 1999, Corvette introduced a third body style to complement the coupe and convertible – the Fixed Roof Coupe. For the first time in its history, Corvette now offered customers three body styles to choose from. Corvette Chief Engineer David Hill recognized that not all Corvette owners cared about the comfort and convenience features offered by Corvette and instead wanted a car that was capable of being the strongest and fastest car on the streets – and that car was to be the FRC.
Along with a fixed roof increasing the chassis stiffness, the Achilles heel of every high-performance vehicle, the FRC had the upgraded Z51 suspension and lost weight by eliminating some standard items. The pared-down FRC included the standard 345-horsepower engine, a six-speed manual transmission, the Z51 performance handling package, a black interior and a choice of six exterior colors. Nothing fancy, but if you wanted to go fast, this package gave you a head start.
The Original Corvette Z06
“Z06” is an almost mythical name in Corvette lore. It dates back to the C2 Corvette, specifically the Corvette Coupes of 1963 and 1964 at a time when General Motors strongly subscribed to a directive from the Automobile Manufacturers Association in the 1950s prohibiting manufacturers from participating in any racing activities. In order to abide by the AMA edict and also keep their racing customers happy, GM devised a plan to sell racing parts to their customers, thus avoiding any direct sponsorship or participation in racing. Developed under Zora Arkus-Duntov, Regular Production Option Z06 was an option package for the Corvette coupe that offered enhanced handling and braking, and could only be ordered on a Corvette coupe equipped with a fuel-injected engine, a four-speed transmission, and Positraction. RPO Z06 was not advertised, but its availability was passed around among serious racers by word-of-mouth.
The first four Corvettes with Z06 options, henceforth called “Z06s” by everyone, were entered in the L.A. Times Grand Prix in October of 1962, a race that would forever live in automotive history. Among the other entries was a new sports car built by a local Los Angeles guy. The local guy was Carroll Shelby and his new sports car was the Shelby Cobra. The Times Grand Prix would be the first ever race between Corvette and Cobra! Shelby entered one Cobra driven by Bill Krause to contest the four Corvettes driven by Dave MacDonald, Bob Bondurant, Jerry Grant, and Doug Hooper driving Mickey Thompson’s car. Being new, virtually untested race cars, mechanical ills took the Corvettes of MacDonald, Bondurant, and Grant out of the race. Krause’s Cobra was also a non-finisher leaving only the Z06 of Doug Hooper who held on to take the checkered flag ahead of the pack. The Corvette Z06 was a winner right out of the box!
Resurrection of the Corvette Z06
Fast forward to the year 2000 and we find the Corvette design team looking for ways to put the Fixed Roof Coupe on the map. Sales had been so-so since its introduction in 1999 and a boost was needed to increase sales. The FRC was touted as a super lightweight with few of the frills of the Coupe and Convertible. Someone came up with the idea of taking their lightweight ‘Vette with the stiff chassis, dropping in a hopped-up LS1, and beefing up the suspension to make it a track-ready car for Corvette fans who want to go fast on track days.
Introduced in 2001, the new FRC track car was given the name Z06 resurrected from Corvette’s racing heritage to let everyone know this model was the real deal when it came to track performance. The hopped-up LS1, now designated the LS6, made 385 horsepower, thirty-five more than the 2001 LS1. Sales of the Fixed Roof Coupe body style jumped from 2,090 units in 2000 as a Corvette price leader to 8,297 units in 2001 as the Z06 track performer. Voila, a star was born.
The future bodes well for Z06s of all ages. It is still a fixture in today’s Corvette lineup and with a limited production of only 2,025 cars, the 2004 Z06 CE remains a highly collectible Corvette.
GM Media: https://media.gm.com/media/us/en/gm/autoshows/detroit.detail.html/content/Pages/news/us/en/2014/Jan/14naias/Corvettes/Z06-corvette/0113-z06-history.html
Top Gear: https://www.topgear.com/car-news/supercar/brief-history-corvette-z06
Motor Trend: https://www.motortrend.com/news/1401-2015-chevrolet-corvette-z06-the-history-of-a-legend
Motor Trend: https://www.motortrend.com/reviews/2004-chevrolet-corvette-commemorative-edition/
Motor Trend: https://www.motortrend.com/features/1603-1999-2000-fixed-roof-coupe-the-rarest-of-all-c5-corvette-models/
Car and Driver: https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/a15140157/2001-chevrolet-corvette-z06-review/
Corvette Racing: www.corvetteracing.com
Corvette Blogger: https://www.corvetteblogger.com/2019/06/11/corvette-racing-at-le-mans-by-the-numbers/
The Corvette Story Z06: https://corvettestory.com/1963-Corvette-stingray-C2-Z06-history-options-photographs-6.php
Corvette Report: http://www.corvettereport.com/first-ever-1963-z06-corvette-stingray-dave-macdonald-picks-up-and-then-races-z06-684-at-riverside/
Bruce Troxell Bio
“There’s no shortage today of enthusiast automotive writers and bloggers. Bruce Troxell, however, is unique. He writes with an understanding of what truly makes cars and car people tick. Bruce is a storyteller, not just a writer. Once you start reading his lead, you can’t stop.” Martyn Schorr – Editor, CarGuyChronicles.com
Bruce Troxell is a professional freelance writer who has been contributing articles on automotive and aviation topics to a variety of websites and print publications since 2009. Following careers as an engineer with a major automobile manufacturer and as a lawyer in private practice, Bruce discovered the joys of writing and has never looked back. He brings a unique perspective and an engaging conversational style to all his writings.
Bruce is a creative automotive storyteller always looking for the stories of the people behind the automobiles. His expertise in storytelling has been recognized by the Automotive Heritage Foundation in their annual journalism competition. In 2020, his story The Day Corvette Became a World Class Sports Car was awarded a Silver medal in the Best Heritage Motorsports Story category. In 2018, his blog Cars We Love came home with a Bronze Medal in the Best Blog or Column category.
An avid sports car fan since he saw his first professional race at Watkins Glen, New York, Bruce’s car interests have blossomed to include vintage cars, hot rods, and custom cars. He has participated in numerous vintage car rallies and is a concours veteran.
Born and raised in New Jersey, he and his wife Cindy now live in bucolic central Virginia with Max, a prescient stray cat who wandered into their lives several years ago and decided to stay.