Wednesday, July 20, 2016

How the Corvette Thing Started

First, Happy Birthday to Sharon (Cox) Winne!

Sharon was a friend to my Mom back in 1962 when I was 15 years old.  It was Sharon who introduced me to the magic of Corvettes and started my 50+ year love affair with the Original American Sports Car!  Thank you Sharon!

The story of how this all happened is found in Chapter 10 of Beltsville Shell: You Are What You Drive!  Then, in the Epilogue of the book, Chapter 41, the story of how I was miraculously reconnected with Sharon, after so many years (thanks to Darryl Richards) is recounted.

10 My First Ride in a Corvette

“What’s a tach?”
Cary Thomas, 1962
In 1962 I was 15 years old. My world was limited to Yucca Street in Beltsville, going to school, and delivering newspapers for the Washington Post on the motorbike Charlie Hopkins built. The Dads on my street drove mostly used cars and no one had a sports car. My Mom had taken her first job outside the house working at the American Research Bureau, we called it “ARB”, with Johnny Bradley’s and Gail Shirey’s Moms. One of my Mother’s ARB coworkers, Sharon Cox, would stop by the house from time to time. Sharon had graduated from Howard High School a year earlier in 1961. She was slim, with pretty red hair and a sexy smile. I had a secret crush on her. Sharon drove a spotless blue Corvair with “baby moon” hubcaps. One day she asked me, “What car are you going to drive when you turn 16?” I told her I did not know. She said, “My boyfriend, Jimmy McEvoy, has a new car I would like to show you!”

The next Sunday, Sharon and a handsome guy showed up at our house in a brand new, Honduras maroon, fuel injected, 360 HP, four-speed, 1962 Corvette. It had a removable hard top, and a convertible top, but this day it was in its top-down wind-in-the face configuration. I’ll never forget the ride I took in Jimmy’s car.
I had never been in a sports car. The only new car I had ever ridden in was my Uncle Tommy’s 1957 Chevy. Most of the time I rode in my Dad’s 6-cylinder Dodge sedan that couldn’t have had more than 90 HP.
Completely awestruck, I slid into the passenger seat of the Corvette to check out the interior. There was a speedometer that went up to 160 MPH. I understood the fuel level, oil pressure, ammeter, and temperature gauges. There was a gauge I didn’t understand. I asked, “What’s a TACH?” Jimmy starts the engine, then gooses the gas pedal, and says, “Tells you how fast the engine is turning.” I got it. Each time he revved the engine the tachometer would quickly arc from idle to brutal.
I was sitting on the edge of the smooth passenger seat as we drove away from the house and headed for the seclusion of Gunpowder Road. At the end of a long straight section of road he stopped the car. This confused me for a moment – no one had ever done this before. Then he revved the engine until it sounded like it was going to explode and without any warning at all he popped the clutch. I was flung back in the seat, instinctively reaching for the grab bar and instantly understanding why this new interior feature was required for a Corvette. The wailing engine never slowed, and instead the rear tires started to screech. I could see the smoke and smell the burning rubber of the poor rear tires. The rear of the car swerved slightly from side-to-side – “fishtail” it was called – and only when I got my own Corvette would I understand the skill it took to keep the car going straight under a full-power launch. I watched the speedometer having a race with the tachometer and was astonished how fast the guy could shift gears. His left foot jabbed the clutch while his right arm snapped the floor shifter. At each gear change the rear tires erupted in smoke and yelled out in protest. The telephone poles looked like a picket fence as we flew down the road, faster than I ever imagined a car could go. Finally, in fourth gear, at something substantially over 100 MPH he let off the gas and the Corvette growled back down to 60. The whole glorious event lasted less than 15 seconds but affected me for a lifetime. He looked over at me with a big grin. I was speechless.
I was stricken not only with the Corvette mystique, but also with the adrenaline rush of drag racing. I would never be the same.
When we got back to the house I told my Dad that someday I was going to have a Corvette. I know that he didn’t believe me.

Jimmy McEvoy

Jim McEvoy was four years older than Sharon. He graduated from Laurel High School where he was an active student in glee club, prom committees and was even vice president of the student council. His ambition was to go into the Air Force, and after graduation he did. Jim got the Corvette bug in part by driving his father’s 1961 Corvette.

Sharon Cox

Sharon Cox was the first girl I ever met that actually knew something about cars! And she knew a lot. Her Dad had taught her about engines and how to do her own routine maintenance. Her independent nature was reflected in her taste in cars as well. For example, she liked Dodge Lancer hubcaps, whether other people did or not!
She liked cars, she liked driving cars, and she liked cruising in cars. She passed her driver’s test while in the 10th grade in a 57 Chevy Convertible – what class! She then began lobbying for her own car. Finally she got a ’57 Ford Fairlane for high school graduation, traded it to her brother for a VW Beetle, and then traded in the Beetle for a Corvair.

41 Epilogue

“All Corvettes are red. The rest are mistakes”
John Heinricy, Corvette Test Driver

It’s Tuesday morning, December 3, 2002. Nan and I are in Bowling Green, Kentucky at the National Corvette Museum, across the street from the assembly plant where Corvettes are built. The odyssey here has been longer than one would imagine. So was the odyssey in completing this book.
I thought “The book” was “finished” on January 31, 2002. The next day, Nan and I flew to Paris to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. When we returned home, there was an e-mail message from Darryl Richards. Darryl had tracked me down through the internet and sent a message to me from his retirement home in St. Petersburg, Florida. Darryl’s message asked if I remembered him. How could you forget someone like Darryl, Beltsville Shell’s guardian angel/Cop? After an exchange of e-mails and long distance phone calls I was lucky enough to visit with Darryl a few months later in his home for a fantastic reunion.
This phenomenon continued for a year! Every time I though the book was complete, someone from the past would appear in my present! Through Darryl I located Jimmy Noll. When we visited in August 2002, Jimmy gave Nace and me a ride in his ’55 Chevy and suddenly it was 1969 again.

In Search of Sharon Cox

Darryl also helped me locate Sharon Cox. I had been trying to find Sharon and her boy friend since 1998 when my own ’62 Corvette appeared in Vette Magazine. Hundreds of internet searches and countless e-mails titled “In Search of Sharon Cox” sent to all the wrong Sharon Coxes had proved fruitless. When I explained my frustration to Darryl, he said, “I know someone who can help us. T Quill! T knows everyone in Laurel, Maryland.”
Darryl picked up the phone and dialed a phone number. He handed me a second cordless phone. Someone answered then Darryl said, “T – hey it’s Darryl here. How are ya? Listen, I’ve got an old friend here from Beltsville Shell. Name’s Cary. He’s trying to locate some girl named Sharon Cox or somethin’ who drove a blue Corvair and dated a guy with a ’62 Vette. Can you help us?”
First there was a pause. Then the voice on the other end of the line said, “Yep. Her name was Sharon Cox. Dated a friend of mine named Jimmy McEvoy. The Vette was a ’62 fuelie, Honduras maroon. Jimmy lived on Bond Mill Road, not far from my parents’ house.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Someone actually knew the people I was searching for. T and I exchanged phone numbers and he agreed to see if he could track down Sharon or Jimmy for me. Then the night before Thanksgiving 2002 my phone rang at home. It was T Quill. He said, “Cary, I got a number you’ve been looking for.” T’s sister-in-law had been to a high school reunion and had secured Sharon’s address and phone number from a mutual friend.
On Thanksgiving Day, 2002, I called a phone number in Harpers Ferry West Virginia. An astonished woman at the other end of the line was at first confused by the caller, but when I said, “You drove a blue Corvair with baby moon hubcaps”, she was convinced that the call was genuine. I had a lot to be thankful for that day. Sharon and I finally met face-to-face again in March 2003 forty-one years after our first meeting.

I am so happy to have Sharon in my life again, and to be savoring our history as well as our love for cars!  Thank you, Sharon, for having an amazing influence on my life!



Saturday, July 16, 2016

Le Mans 2016: National Corvette Museum takes 50 Corvette Enthusiasts to France

[Author's Note: The article below was the basis for a news article in the National Corvette Museum magazine, "America's Sports Car" that was published in July 2016.  Very special thanks to Bob Bubnis, Editor,  for his excellent edits!]

The most historic automobile endurance race is run each June at the Circe de Sarthe in Le Mans, France.  Dating back to 1923, The 24 Hours of Le Mans, has been the proving ground of legendary race cars:  Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Bugatti, Ferrari, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche.  And equally legendary drivers: Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell, Tom Kristensen, Phil Hill, A.J. Foyt, Dick Thompson and so many more.

Corvette competed at Le Mans for the first time in 1960 when Briggs Cunningham shipped four Corvettes to France to compete against Europe’s finest marques.  That year a Corvette driven by John Fitch and Bob Grossman finished first in their class against great odds.  If you have never seen it, you simply must get a copy of “The Quest” for the story of this amazing feat and, more surprising, the story about the location of the long-lost winning Cunningham Corvette and its return to France 50 years later to be driven on the track again by John Fitch.

In more recent history, Corvette Racing has competed at Le Mans every year since 2001.  In that span, a Corvette has finished 1st in class eight times, 2nd seven times and 3rd three times, for eighteen Podium finishes in sixteen years.  

Corvette lovers can look to many organizations for support of their passion for America’s Sports Car including their local Corvette clubs, The National Corvette Restorer’s Society, and the National Corvette Museum (NCM).  NCM’s “Museum in Motion” (or MiM) program strives to take Corvettes and their owners to interesting and fun places.  In January MiM announced that they would offer a tour of France that included entrance to the 2016 Le Mans race.  The 50-seat roster was quickly sold out.  Participants included 27 parties (couples, a father and son pair, a mother and daughter pair, and Corvette friends) from 16 States and Canada who collectively own fifty-seven Corvettes.  Our group included an NCM past-Board member, collectors, racers, restorers, Chevrolet dealers, Corvette event organizers, the legendary Corvette Racing blogger (Charley Robertson), and equally legendary wife of Corvette racer Dick Thompson (Eve Thompson).  Some participants had been to Paris or France, but none of us (other than Eve Thompson) had ever been to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The itinerary included a tour of Paris, Normandy, Le Mans, and castles in Northern France, attendance at the pre-race parade, and watching the 24 hour race.  By the end of our eight-days together we had traveled 1,300 miles, made new friends, and experienced the grandeur of France’s past, the beauty of its countryside, the sadness of D-Day, and the unique experience that is Le Mans.

Our Paris tour began on Sunday, June 12th at the ultimate icon – the Eiffel Tower – giving us a preview of the spectacular sights we would see over the next three days.  Laid out before us were the grand avenues of Paris, museums, sculptures, parks, the River Seine, and a city alive with activity from early in the morning until late into the night.  

Our next stop was the Hôtel national des Invalides (The National Residence of the Invalids), a complex of buildings near the center of Paris containing museums and monuments, all relating to the military history of France, as well as a hospital and a retirement home for war veterans, the building's original purpose. The buildings house the military museum of the Army of France with artifacts dating back to the days of jousting and suits of armor.  Most impressive was the Dôme des Invalides, a large church with the burial site for some of France's war heroes, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte.  Following lunch in local Brasseries, we took a river cruise on the River Seine viewing the majesty on either side.

On Monday we hit the museum trail again.  The Louvre is the world's largest museum located on the right bank of the Seine.  It contains nearly 35,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century exhibited over an area of 652,300 square feet. The museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, originally built as a fortress in the late 12th century.  It first opened as a museum in 1793.  It could take days to fully appreciate the contents, but our tour guides, Ange, Emanuele, and Rabia, ushered us through the most interesting exhibits, including the sculpture of Venus de Milo and the painting of the Mona Lisa, in record time.  We then strolled through the Tuileries Gardens to the Place de la Concorde, the largest public square in Paris.  It was here that we came to realize that thousands of soccer fans had invaded France this month for the European Soccer championships, “EUFA Euro 2016”.  As Monday drew to a close we climbed the stairs of the Arch de Triomphe for another panoramic view of Paris and the Champs Elyses.

Tuesday brought us to left bank of the Seine to see the Musee d’Orsay, a grand railway station built between 1898 and 1900 that has been converted into one of the largest art museums in the world. The museum holds mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1914, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photography. It houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world, by painters including Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin and Van Gogh.  We finished the day by visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral.

On Wednesday we left Paris to drive to Normandy, stopping at The Palace of Versailles in the early morning.

A symbol of the extreme opulence of the French Royalty, as well as the absolute rule of the French Monarchy, the Palace was constructed in many phases between 1623 and 1774.  The massive estate includes multiple residences, vast gardens, sculptures, paintings, and original furniture.  But Versailles is probably best known for its Hall of Mirrors, the site of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.  Our next stop was Omaha Beach in Normandy.  Here we visited Arromanches Museum (or the D-Day Museum) to watch video and scale model presentations showing the immense feat achieved by the Allies of World War II to create, in a few days, the floating harbor that supported the effort to drive the German Army out of France in June 1944.  We closed the day with an NCM-hosted dinner at our hotel.

Thursday proved to be sobering and reflective when we visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  Meticulously maintained grounds hold the graves of 9,387 American soldiers.  The bright white grave markers go on and on and on.  Everyone was prepared for what we would see here, but no one could escape the emotion of so many young lives taken in the cause for peace.  You could hear a pin drop as our bus left for Angers and Le Mans.

By Friday everyone was in a mood to see some racing.  Corvette Racing, General Motors, and the local Corvette Club worked together to make the NCM group feel right at home in Le Mans.  When we arrived at the track the Corvette Corral was ready for us with great food, video screens, raffle prizes and Corvette merchandise.  Many of the local Corvette owners brought their cars to display at the Corral and to greet us.  We were treated to a visit from one of the driving teams:  Oliver Gavin, Jordan Taylor and Tommy Milner.  GM executives Mark Reuss and Jim Campbell stopped by to thank us for our loyalty.  Everyone loved the Corvette Corral!

The big event for Friday was the Grande Parade des Pilotes.  The whole town of Le Mans and about half the race track turned out for the town-clogging parade which included classic cars, modern supercars, Le Mans drivers (present and past), dignitaries, and thousands of racing fans.

By 3 PM on Saturday we had toured the track, feasted on Corvette Corral food, visited all the booths and were ready for the race to begin.  Luckily we had covered seats near the start/finish line to protect us from the torrential rain storm at the beginning of the race.  It was clear from the start that 2016 was not going to be favorable for Corvette Racing.  But the Corvette fans cheered for our cars as fervently as if we were in 1st place.  A few of the faithful stayed the entire night.

By Sunday night our whole group was tired, but in good spirits.  Corvette Racing had run the best race possible under the conditions, and we were proud of the team, the mechanics, and the drivers.  Monday morning we made the long drive back to Paris, stopping to see two Chateaus enroute.  Then we exchanged good byes (and email addresses), thanked our tour guides, and everyone headed for home. 

I’m not sure the National Corvette Museum will ever be able to top this trip.  It was fantastic from beginning to end.  The participants had bonded more and more each day, sharing their stories and affection for their beloved Corvettes and the people who own them.  

Thank you, National Corvette Museum (and especially Karen Renfrow) for an experience of a lifetime!