Chevrolet Big Mazmanian Corvette Drag Racing Car

While drag racing gained popularity nationwide through the 1950s, the epicenter of its popularity was southern California. This was the land where speed and engineering prowess often went hand in hand with beauty and mechanical excellence. Spurred on by fellow car club members, parts availability, and a growing performance-oriented group of periodicals, racers began to gravitate toward a more serious trend in modifications. This was the case of John Mazmanian of Whittier.

Mazmanian was typical of the sort of guy who made up the serious base of Golden State performance enthusiasts in the pre-muscle car era. He had bought and rebuilt his first car, a Model A Ford, while still in grade school (so he knew it inside and out before he could ever legally drive it). He was a member of the Gophers Car Club, which had been a crucial part of the Southern California Timing Association since prior to the Second World War, but like many had left the salt behind to try his hand at drag racing. That culminated in one of the more important vehicles of the early 1960s, the stunning Corvette offered here.

By 1960, the 31-year old Mazmanian was operating a successful waste management and removal business. He decided to go all out and buy a new 1961 Corvette in late 1960; VIN 108675100093 documents that this was the 93rd Corvette to come down the assembly line that year. One of 10,939 produced that year, with the base price of $3,934. It was equipped with RPO 419, the 237.75 optional removable hardtop. The very first ‘Big Go West,’ NHRA’s just-named Winternationals to be held on the Pomona Fairgrounds in January 1961, would give John and his nephew and driver Rich Siroonian a chance to try something new. The duo had already been competing with Stock and Gas class cars (some which had been tuned by Don Nicholson); the Corvette would fit into NHRA’s hot Sports Production classes.

Established for 1960, the SP divisions were created to give racers in both imported and domestic vehicles a chance to race; Sports Car – Domestic featured Corvettes and early Thunderbirds, while Sports Car – Imported would be Porsches, Volkswagens, and their ilk. These were combined into a single group of five Sports Production classes rated on shipping weight to advertised horsepower, and ran in what was then known as the Street Eliminator division. Changing the car (such as swapping in a more reliable American engine, a commonplace occurrence among the hot-rod set of the era) moved it up into the Modified Sport Production classes, of which there were four classes. Before he was done, Mazmanian’s Corvette would be winning in both configurations.

For 1961, after reportedly using the car to clean some clocks on the streets of Southern California, Siroonian had the Mazmanian & (Earl) Wade ‘Vette running in the high 12-second range to take home Winternationals class honors in the hastily-established AA/SP class (apparently thanks to the Corvette’s new 315-horsepower 283 cu. in. engine) with a 12.94 at 109.96 mph; according to Mazmanian at the time, the speed was record-setting. The 19-year-old driver then went on to run through the Street Eliminator division field on Sunday afternoon, going all the way to the final against Johnny Loper’s Willys for runner-up honors.

By the time the event happened again in 1962, changes had been made to the car that were radical enough to move it over into the CM/SP division. Pictures from the 1962 Winternationals show it was still not the beast it would become – it had the stock grille in place, and the wheelwells had not been opened up yet, but it did have a American Torque-Thrust wheels and a low-profile scoop on the hood. Regardless, the look was all business, and proved it indeed was when it won the CM/SP class title and another speed record at 113.84. He then downed Loper’s Willys during the Street Eliminator runoffs on Sunday (though he did not go to the final round that year; former partner Earl Wade won that title in another Corvette in A/SP trim). The entire car had been repainted in 24 coats of Candy Persimmon by Junior Conway, Eddie Martinez had done a roll-and-tuck interior including the trunk, and almost everything that could be bolted on was chromed or polished. As a result, Big John’s fast Corvette had also taken third place honors at the big Winternationals Car Show that NHRA held just before the competition event.

The car was soon in the shop for some serious upgrades. The engine received a Crank Shaft Company ½-inch stroker that pushed the displacement to 316 cu. in. Atop this went a 4-71 GMC supercharger and a Hilborn injector. Hot parts from Iskendarian and Edelbrock further reworked the engine’s internals. The factory four-speed was removed and replaced with a B&M two-speed Hydromatic. The grille was removed and a polished Moon gas tank was added front and center in its place, and now the chromed externals jutted through the hood and off the wheel hubs. After stiffening the suspension, the rear wheel wells were opened up one afternoon at San Gabriel Raceway to fit a bigger rear tire. According to then crew chief Dick Bourgeois, Mazmanian had about $10,000 tied up in the car (Big John admitted the modifications had cost more than the car itself had).

It was in this condition that it drew the attention of track-goers with an 11.11 at 129 mph at the original Fontana Dragway during an AHRA championship race that summer, as well as the cameras of Petersen Publishing. It was featured in this format in the October 1962 issue of Rod & Custom. This was followed up with a cover inset and feature in the March 1963 issue of Hot Rod magazine itself. By the time the 1963 Winternationals had rolled around, the car had been modified again. The engine now displaced 327 cu. in. thanks to a fresh 3/8-inch stroker crank, and the blower was now a fat 6-71 GMC; co-driver Bones Balough and the guys at Bill’s Garage had put that one together, and the car was now moved up into the BM/SP ranks.

But things were changing; Siroonian had ended up in the Army in 1963 (Balough was driving), and Mazmanian, who had initially stated he would build a new Sting Ray for the sport divisions, instead decided that George Montgomery, Fred Stone, and the guys in the Gassers classes needed some company. He turned his attention to building the first supercharged Hemi-Willys for 1964, and the rest was now drag racing history.

Perhaps one more point is in order. Mazmanian’s Corvette was likely the first current-model stock-body car to be supercharged, and was highly visible during its active career. Within 12 months of its retirement, both Dodge and Mercury would themselves use supercharging on factory-backed late-model vehicles of their own in an effort to promote those cars. These exhibition machines in turn bred a new form of late-model drag racing, one that ended up being called ‘funny car.’ Because of its unique position in racing history, this car may indeed be one of the true catalysts of that soon-to-come era.

At any rate, once Mazmanian decided to sell the car and join the ‘gasser wars,’ the Corvette ended up with a new owner in Minnesota, was raced only briefly, and changed hands a couple of times until a collector named John Lange ended up with it. In 1989, after several years of pursuing it, Bloomington Gold winner Steve Hendrickson acquired the unrestored car to begin a complete restoration; that effort was completed in 1998 in time for NHRA’s Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, where Mazmanian was being honored and was reunited with the car for the first time in over 30 years.

Never radically changed since 1964, this Corvette retained a great deal of original equipment despite its race background – windshield, top, radio, etc. – plus original racing equipment like the Moon tank in the grille. Hendrickson embarked on a plan to apply techniques normally reserved for high-end Corvette restorations on the vintage racecar. As one change since its California days had been fender flares, a rear clip was installed - to not bring it back to stock but to replicate the original unique cut-outs. The original frame was detailed, as were the factory chassis components. Among other things, Deist supplied a fresh ribbon-slot parachute, racer Tony Nancy sewed a fresh blower cover together, and Jon Kosmoski, founder of House of Kolor paints, helped prep and then repaint the distinctive candy hue on the car. The interior was faithfully brought back to its show-stopping status. The stance of this car for those who recall it is unmistakable – that is because the same oak blocks that Big John had selected to raise the center crossmember up for drag-strip clearance remain in place after all of these years.

The motor package chosen was the one based on the original Ed Iskendarian-recommendations, the early 1962 version using a ½-inch stroker crank and using as many original speed parts as could be found. With extensive paperwork available, this engine was rebuilt with basically no expense spared including all-new hardware and parts; a 6-71 GMC blower with a four-port Hilborn injector on a Cragar intake is again atop the engine, fired by a Vertex magneto. Chrome and polish abounds, including the ceramic-coated headers. However, a factory Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed returned to the transmission tunnel in place of the problematic race unit, though the steep 5.14 rear gear set remains in the racing-type differential. As a final touch, a correct vintage racing helmet was found, repainted, and signed by both Mazmanian and Siroonian.

Hendrickson admitted that some special pieces were very hard to acquire, most importantly a set of real period-created 10x16 M&H Racemasters for the wide back wheels. The Firestone 6.70x10 Deluxe Champion bias ply tires on the front rims are NOS. However, many items like the column-mounted Sun tach are the very ones installed when the car was setting records, making the car very authentic when measured against other racing restorations in this field. Steve Coonan photographed the car once it was finished for Rodder’s Journal; it ran in Issue Number Seventeen with accompanying text and history.

The final part of this package is something very rarely seen – copies of the actual paperwork Mazmanian filled out for both the Rod & Custom story of 1962 and the Hot Rod story of 1963. These dossiers also include copies of photographic outtakes from the magazines files and the hand-edited text pages for the print type-setter. As a result, a huge amount of invaluable data, some of it seen in Mazmanian’s own handwriting, can be used to show the car’s authenticity and verify its timeline. Additionally, this car was the subject of a highly detailed 1:18 scale diecast model by Precision Miniatures.

While history-setting Corvette road race cars are among the rarest and most valuable of the breed, very few drag versions have surfaced, and none at all have the notoriety that this one did, setting records, winning events, and being covered in the most important periodicals of the day. A Corvette like Big John Mazmanian’s 1961 will not surface again.

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in September 2009 at the Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, California.

316 cu. in. supercharged Chevrolet V8 engine, four-speed manual transmission, independent front suspension with unequal-length A-arms, coil springs and anti-roll bar, live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes, with a supplemental braking parachute. Wheelbase: 102"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel

Be part of something big