The National Corvette Museum has announced its 2019 inductees to the Corvette Hall of Fame. Briggs Cunningham was inducted in the racing category. The other inductees are Dollie Cole (married to a GM executive) in the enthusiast category and designer Tom Peters in the GM/Chevrolet category.
The three will be inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame during a ceremony and banquet on Aug. 30. Their induction will be part of the Museum’s Aug. 28-31 25th Anniversary Celebration. Since this is a racing website, we are going to focus on American sportsman Briggs Cunningham’s selection here.
I met Cunningham in 1983 at his museum in Costa Mesa, Calif. I was sent there by Christine Eisenberg, who arranged collector car auctions for Christie’s back then. The museum was in an industrial park and I got a bit lost looking for it. Then I heard and followed the sound of a racing car engine until I saw a blue 1920s Bugatti Grand Prix car buzzing around the parking lot. At the helm was Briggs’ right-hand man John Burgess.
An engineer and artist, Burgess stopped the racing car and invited me inside for a museum tour. At noon, he excused himself with, “I go home every noontime to have lunch with my wife, but I’ll return in an hour and you can relax until I get back.” A few minutes later, a white-haired gentleman came into the room and started making photocopies of a drawing done by one of our artists. The man was Briggs Cunningham. He was copying the car drawing to do a contest for employees in his restoration shop. I told him I’d provide the contest prize.
A few weeks later, I sent Cunningham a book to award as the prize. Shortly thereafter, I received a hand-written letter on Cunningham’s personal stationary thanking him for the book. That letter now proudly hangs on my wall in my car storage building, and I will always remember Briggs Cunningham as a real gentleman, a devoted car enthusiast and a really nice guy!
Briggs (his very suitable middle name was Swift) Cunningham was an American sportsman with a passion for yachting and auto racing. He won the 1958 America’s Cup. Briggs thrived on automobile racing and set his sights on challenging the Europeans with American technology. A talented driver, he also hired Dick Thompson, John Fitch, Roger Penske, Stirling Moss and others who had the nerve and skill to win. Cunningham became one of the most prominent figures in the auto racing world and appeared on the cover of TIME magazine.
The Corvette came along at the just right time for Cunningham. It was being hailed as America’s sports car in the late-‘50s and had proven itself by winning Sports Car Club of America championships. After talking with Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, Cunningham bought three 1960 Corvettes to take to France for the most famous race on the planet, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
On June 25, 1960, the three race-modified Corvettes, painted white with blue stripes, went up against the best cars in the world. Despite putting on a good run, the No. 1 Corvette of Cunningham and Bill Kimberley skidded in rain, flipped and caught fire. Corvette No. 2 of Dick Thompson and Fred Windridge was also wrecked and left the race. But, Corvette No. 3 – driven by Bob Grossman and John Fitch – made history by becoming the first Corvette to win in class at Le Mans. It secured Cunningham’s place in the Corvette Hall of Fame.
Since 1997, a group of 71 individuals have been inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame. Bios, photos and in many cases videos of each inductee are available on the National Corvette Museum website at www.corvettemuseum.org. Many of the winners came from the world of racing.