A Little Yankee Ingenuity Goes Off to Le Mans

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here is a Cinderella story where even Cinderella looks a little homely.

It involves a rookie racing team without sponsors and a 2-year-old Chevrolet Corvette prototype that in a previous life entered nine races, won none and regularly finished behind the tow truck.

The car does have a new 900-h.p. engine that cost $40,000. But the motor was designed primarily for cabin cruisers and drag racers. It has never been installed in a car and has logged fewer test miles than the average lawn mower.

Yet this unknown, under-financed, untested and certainly baldfaced Eagle Performance Racing Team of Santa Barbara is in France anyway.

And on Saturday it will be America's only entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the toughest ordeal for drivers and machines since Patton pounded through Sicily.

"Sure, we're a low-budget effort and even getting there will be a major accomplishment," said team driver Dennis Kazmerowski, 43, of Morristown, N.J., before the group flew to Paris. Kazmerowski has been racing cars for 15 years but far from the rarefied level of Le Mans. "I think we'll be 20 miles (per hour) off the pace . . . our aim is to start the race and be around at the end."

Team founder and co-owner Paul Canary could sing no happier tune. "It's an horrendous challenge," he said.

Canary, 50, restores collector cars in Santa Barbara and is the only member of Eagle Performance Racing who actually has driven the 8.3-mile road circuit at Le Mans. "That was in 1981. But we had a French driver who had an accident in qualifying and we didn't get to start the race," he said.

Former drag racer and car designer Joe Schubeck, 52, head of Eagle Engine Co. of Westlake Village, built the power plant for the team's recycled Corvette. "What we've got here is a dedicated, flag-waving, fired-up, gutsy patriotic effort that says 'Born in the U.S.A.,' " Schubeck said.

"Unfortunately, that doesn't win races. So the object is to keep the car alive . . . and if we get close to the end, maybe then we'll be able to kick butt and do a little dragging down the straightaways."

Kick derriere at Le Mans? Mon dieu!

For Le Mans is the Indy 500 of Europe and Mardi Gras with croissants. This small city of grain and Gothic architecture, 112 miles southwest of Paris, was the birthplace of grand prix racing in 1906. It also was the death place for 80 people in 1955 when a Mercedes rolled and spun into spectators.

Le Mans is a circuit of remorseless extremes varying from the 250-m.p.h. Mulsanne straight followed by floor pedal braking for Arnage Corner that must be taken at a dawdle. Men have been expendable throughout this daylong ordeal because the history of Le Mans is written as periods of domination by manufacturers and not drivers: the Bentley years; the Alfa Romeo reign; the Jaguar, Ford and Ferrari eras.

Jaguar has arrived at this year's Le Mans with four cars, a dozen engines, several transporters loaded with parts, 150 helpers, rented helicopters--and a large slice of the $25 million Jaguar annually spends on big sports car racing.

Nissan is entering seven cars at Le Mans. Toyota, three. Mazda, three. And there will be 22 Porsches filling a field of supercars capable of topping 250 m.p.h. and racing 3,000 miles in one day.

"There are not," noted Canary, "too many out-and-out junkers there."

Le Mans represents million-dollar American drivers who ascended to legend: Dan Gurney. Phil Hill. Carroll Shelby.

The pilots for Eagle Performance Racing are Canary, Kazmerowski and amateur sports car racer Daver Vegher, 30, of San Francisco; all are driving for nothing.

Factory drivers usually arrive at Le Mans by Concorde from New York or private jet from Zurich. Members of Eagle Performance Racing booked early on Pan Am from LAX to Paris and traveled midweek to qualify for a $600 seat in economy coach.

"Our entire budget for the car and engines, putting everything together and getting everybody to France has been $500,000," said Canary. "We (Canary and Santa Barbara business associates Jay Drake and Jim Brucker) raised that by selling off a couple of classic race cars . . . a couple of CanAm racers and the car that Johnny Rutherford drove to second place in the 1975 Indianapolis 500."

In world racing, sponsors pay up to $2 million to have their products advertised on big-name cars. Goodyear gives tires to its blessed favorites.

"Goodyear wouldn't even sell us tires for Le Mans because they are dealing with other entries," said team manager Drake. "We went for Bridgestone and paid full price.

"We turned down sponsorship from a soft drink company. They wanted to paste their name all over the car for $20,000. We decided we didn't want to sell our soul for that."

Discounting all underdog parallels, there is indeed a proud, solid soul to Eagle Performance Racing.

The idea began with Canary a year ago.

He wanted another shot at the race denied him in 1981, one more opportunity to make some small scratch on the history of "the ultimate challenge in sports car racing . . . Le Mans, the hardest to win, the most historic, the most nostalgic, the most prestigious."

But beyond the spiritual was the commercial.

Canary--through his Santa Barbara Competition Motorsports--wants to manufacture a limited-edition American supercar.

In his mind, it will be faster than the 200-m.p.h. Ferrari F40 street car that goes on sale in the United States this summer and will accelerate quicker than the proposed Jaguar 220. It will also be a precise copy and a legal street version of the car Canary has taken to Le Mans.

"That means a top speed of 250 m.p.h. with a zero-to-100 m.p.h. time of between six and seven seconds," Canary explained. "So Le Mans, for us, is an opportunity to get some publicity for the car and the engine for when we produce copies for street use."

Few cars could be more all-American than Canary's Le Mans car. Although built on an aluminum honeycomb chassis developed by Lola, a British firm, the 1988 car was constructed as a Corvette prototype racer powered by a short block Chevrolet V-8.

But in two seasons of American racing, the Corvette GTP fell out of the money and short of its promise.

"It didn't have enough horsepower," said Drake. "It was a sprint engine, a high-compression engine that couldn't last for two or three hours of racing."

Kazmerowski, a Corvette racer, bought the car when it was retired from racing. He sold it to Canary, who then went looking for an engine and found Schubeck working on a huge and thundering thing of aluminum and steel and double overhead cams.

"It's a V-8 engine that combines European engine technology with American brute horsepower," said Schubeck. "Think of it as a (European) Formula One engine on steroids."

It also was an engine that Schubeck--while developing new techniques for cooling cylinders and strengthening the engine block to allow higher horsepower--was designing for dragsters and off-shore cruisers.

"That didn't matter," said Canary. "What he had was a big, powerful motor giving high speed at slow revs (engine revolutions), and 860 h.p at 5,200 revs should be ideal for Le Mans."

So the car was built and tested at Willow Springs race track near Rosamond. The drivers reported that it ran powerfully, was well balanced and very quick out of the turns.

"But, basically, despite working night and day for the past six weeks, we have run out of time," continued Drake. "We should have spent more time testing the engine. We should have been running with a more rigid chassis, one built for this race."

Additional time might have produced a richer, kinder sponsor. More money would have purchased backup engines. Yet in such shortages, Drake added, there are assets.

"It makes me sad to realize that everybody loves a winner only after you have won," Drake said. "And that there's no reward for old-fashioned Yankee know-how these days.

"But facing that has become about 50% of our incentive. We want to show people that hard labor can offset cost and that individual dedication can be worth much more than a $2-million race budget."

So Eagle Performance is off to the races in mismatched driving suits and with no frills to spare. Canary, Kazmerowski and Vegher will familiarize themselves with Le Mans by driving the circuit in a rental van. Their only spare engine is one borrowed from Schubeck.

This team cannot possibly win.

But that's exactly what everyone said when Cameroon trotted out to play Argentina in last week's World Cup.

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