Circuit Gunship: This Apache Pilot Prefers Racing Classic Corvettes
Photography by Will Mederski
Most of us have an appreciation for a large range of classic and vintage automobiles—some of you might even like modern cars… for whatever reason. But all of us have a preferred car. Be it a specific type, marque, or an exact year, model, trim level, we’ve got The Car in mind.
For Army Warrant Officer and Apache gunship helicopter pilot Jim Sandberg, that car is the Chevrolet Corvette. Although he’s had many different models, he prefers to race this 1969 Chevrolet Corvette C3—and here’s why:
Andrew Golseth: Jim, when were your gearhead roots planted?
Jim Sandberg: The very first time I really got my socks knocked off by a car, I was about 10-years-old. One of my brother’s friends, one of the rich guys in town, he came over to talk to my brother about something and he pulled up in a 1967 Marlboro Maroon Corvette coupe. Of course, growing up in a little town in North Dakota with a population of about 500 people, I’d never seen something like that.
He pulled up and I heard this beautiful rumble outside. I was inside watching cartoons and hopped up out of my seat, walked out there and saw this incredibly gorgeous car. I was used to seeing pickup trucks and here’s this beautiful ’67 Corvette. He didn’t even say hi to me, he just walked on inside. I stood out there the whole time he was in the house just looking at that car.
He comes outside, crawls in, and cranks it up. It had those stock side pipes. He started going and he turns right up a hill, he didn’t hardly give it any gas at all, but the tail end came out and he just sort of held it out going up the hill. That was it for me. I was in love with Corvettes from that point on. That’s how it all started.
AG: So, you’ve always been a Chevy guy?
JS: Well, I’ve always kind of held that interest in cars, and in particular sportscars. When I was in high school, I sold a saddle and a couple other things to save up. I was going to buy this ’57 Chevy, two-door hardtop, it had a 327 with high-rise headers in it and all that stuff. I was real excited about it. I found it in a little town about 30 miles away.
I went to school and told a buddy about it but I had a few more things to sell before I could afford the (if you can believe it) $1,500 asking price. Well, my buddy went home and told his dad and they went up there that night and bought the damn car out from under me! (laughs)
Fortunately for me, my buddy wasn’t a very good driver. So, for the next couple of years whenever we raced the car he’d give me the driver’s seat. We had a pretty good time in that. We had fun.
Then at 18 I joined the military and went to flight school through the warrant officer program. Once you finish the instrument stage you pretty much know you’re going to make it through because there’s a pretty high rate of guys busting out up until that point. That’s when everybody buys cars.
Well, this was in 1978 and Corvettes were at their most anemic level—hell, all cars in the States were at their most anemic level! I was looking at a 1957 Corvette that was in a parking lot that somebody had for sale, but I had to drive from Fort Rucker, Alabama all the way to California as soon as I graduated, so that wasn’t a good idea.
Anyway, I went to a dealership in Enterprise, a Mazda dealership and they had this new car that no one had ever seen before: an RX-7! (laughs) I thought, “Wow, now this is cool!” It didn’t have gobs of power but it looked great so I bought that thing brand new.
I graduated flight school, drove to California, and I didn’t see another RX-7 for at least four months. They just weren’t around yet, no idea how they were delivered to Alabama before California.
AG: Those first-gen RX-7 are considered classics now, not to make you feel old or anything! (laughs) When did you finally score a Corvette?
JS: I ended up getting out of the military, went to flying civilian for a while, and ended up in Texas. I got the urge to finally get that mid-year Corvette, so I was watching the papers and classified ads. I found a guy in town who had a Corvette shop and he had a car he was going to sell. I went and looked at it and the body was off the frame, there wasn’t a piece of carpet or speck of wire in it but the suspension was put together.
We worked out a real reasonable deal for $13,500. It had boxes and boxes of brand new parts. I got the car home and had the garage full of parts and about six months later I took that Corvette to the George R. Brown Corvette Expo and won second place! That was pretty cool. That was my first Corvette, a 1966 roadster.
I put together a 427 L88 Frankenstein motor, back when eBay was crankin’ up and all that, when you could get parts real reasonable. I’m still driving that car today. It’s got 40,000 miles on it since I restored it and, in fact, I had it out this last Sunday. Drove it all day.
My kid was turning 16 and I was getting deployed and I wanted him to have the car he wanted. I asked him what he really wanted and he said a ’69 Camaro SS. So, I was up in North Dakota in my hometown, sort of a big gathering reunion thing, and I was asking everybody if they knew of any Camaros around. Well, one of my old friends from high school says, “Not only do I have a ’69 Camaro SS, but it is your cousin’s old ’69 Camaro SS.”
So, we went and looked at it and I asked if I could drive it. Well, he tells me when you pour tranny fluid in it, it leaks right out the bottom. Being a car guy I’m thinking, “What, that can’t be.” I took the fill tube and shook it and it’s not even connected to the tranny! So, I made him an offer right there, bought the car, and brought it back home.
My kid and I took the thing down to bare metal in our driveway, painted it ourselves, and pulled the valve covers off and realized we had a 1970 Corvette LT-1 engine in there! It wasn’t running very well because one of the pushrods had poked a hole right through the rocker arm. They didn’t realize it was a solid lifter motor so they didn’t adjust the valves. We put a new rocker in it and now it runs like a top.
My kid drives it pretty frequently. A few years after that, I guess now we’re talking 2005, something like that, I go out to visit my sister and she tells me her husband had made a deal with a guy, he moved a bunch of stuff for this guy because he has some big trailers, and he gave my brother-in-law a Corvette that had been under restoration.
I’m thinking it’s probably a ’78 Corvette, something I don’t want. I go out to visit and here it is, a 1969 Corvette. I tell my sister I want to buy it. I had been going to vintage races for years and really wanted to build one myself. Of course, she says, “I’d love to get this off my property, it’s just junkin’ it up.”
I asked her how much she’d want for it, she said, “How about a $1,000?” I said, “Hell, I’ll give you $1,500 for it!” Came back with a buddy with a big trailer. She lives up in the mountains in California near Lake Tahoe, so it was a fun trip from Texas. We loaded it up and hauled it back to Texas.
I started tinkering on it, started kind of slow, and I had another deployment to go to. I came back and worked some more on it, even rented a garage space. The process of trying to figure out how to build a racecar was tough. I didn’t have any friends nearby that had built a racecar. Thankfully, this guy from Dallas, Bob Caudle, he’d talk with me for an hour at a time over the phone giving me a direction to go with the car.
Like, he told me to weld up every seam of the frame–I’ve got 35 pounds worth of welding wire, minus what I welded off, to stiffen it up. It gives you, like, 20-percent more stiffness on these type of cars. Little stuff like that. He’s given me clues and directions to go with on the car and other people would come by and help out too.
This one guy, a painter, I got to know real well, once he figured out it was going to be a really cool car with the flares on the body and all that, he said, “I want to paint this car!” Of course, I’m like, “Great!” (laughs) I’d already decided on a paint job. There was this guy who used to race these cars back in the day in FIA in Europe. His name was Henry Greder and he ran the 24 Hour of Le Mans six times in a 1968 Corvette. He did all of those races with the same L88 motor!
Greder’s Le Mans Corvette had this beautiful paintjob. It was kind of Ferrari-like. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” So, I got some pictures of the car and tried to recreate it as accurately as I could. The only thing I didn’t do was the multilink rear because CVAR [Corinthian Vintage Auto Racing] doesn’t allow that. Over the course of about a year and half, the car went from being in pieces to being complete. That’s the car I’m racing now.
AG: Very cool. So, that Le Mans Corvette, that’s what inspired you?
JS: Well, it didn’t inspire me to be interested in racing. It just inspired to build a tribute to that car because the paintjob I thought was perfect. It’s racey, it’s the right color, and I love the big stripe. It just looks good on the track.
AG: It looks fantastic. So, when you initially picked up the car, was your plan to turn it into a track machine from the get-go?
JS: Oh, absolutely! You know, originally it was a small block car. It wasn’t anything special. It obviously at one point in time was in Hawaii because the car came with Hawaii license plates—I guess somebody shipped it back-and-forth or something. So, I didn’t feel bad about tearing up the car because it wasn’t some pristine beautiful original L88 car so I could do what I wanted with it.
As I’m searching eBay over the years, I find an L88 short block. It wasn’t listed as an L88, it was listed by the assembly number so people weren’t really looking for it. I win it for 4,200 bucks, which is dirt-cheap. As it turns out it was from the Salem Chevrolet dealership in Oregon. They had an offsite warehouse they were cleaning out and they came across this engine still on the original crate, which had the assembly number on it. They put it up on eBay and took what they could get for it—I’m not sure if they really knew what they had.
AG: What a score! That’s some good eBay hunting. Walk me through the build.
JS: The engine itself has gone through a couple of rebuilds—in fact, I’m about to rebuild it again because I blew it up at COTA on the second to last lap of the last race! A rod bolt came loose. I got it out already and it’s not that bad. I’ll have to replace a couple of rods and stuff like that.
I’m running Manley rods, a good steel crank. The heads are original 074 heads from back in the day. Obviously, they’ve been breathed on pretty heavily. They’re ported and polished and flow a little better that Edelbrock Performer RPM heads. The intake is a stock intake but it’s been port-matched. That’s basically the motor. I’ve been running a wet sump but I’m switching to a dry sump to avoid loosing oil pressure when going through the big sweepers.
The front suspension is stock but I have offset cross-shafts for the a-arms so I can get more caster in—caster is very important in these cars, you can’t get enough. Instead of the stock rubber mounting joints up front, I’m running spherical bearings, which allow the travel it needs but doesn’t allow the camber to change. For brakes up front, I’ve got hats and rotors and Duntov racing pads.
For the rear suspension, I have aftermarket trailing arms that are offset to allow for wider tires. The rear also has spherical rod ends with camber adjusters. I have a Duntov Motors Company rear-end in it that’s just about bulletproof. I’m running the stock rear brakes, stock calipers and discs.
It’s got a stock power steering pump and Borgeson power steering box that eliminates the slave cylinder and all the rest of the stuff underneath. The valve is shimmed to reduce hydraulic pressure so I can feel the road better.
Obviously, I’m running the optional, back in the day, L88 fender flares all the way around the car and the FIA headlights—the fixed clear plastic lens units. That saves a whole bunch of weight there. Of course, it’s got the Hedman type side exhaust on it.
Interior, the dash is gone, hand built aluminum panel dash with a full rollcage, stock pedal assembly, stock throttle cable assembly. I run a stock center console that’s been modified and cut to fit. I used aircraft type switches and circuit breakers because I’m an attack helicopter pilot, so I went with a gunship theme—even the license plate reads “GUNSHIP.” I even put in a fake gun switch on the console as a joke! (laughs)
It’s got a Fuel Safe fuel cell and the battery was relocated to the rear of the car for better weight distribution. I run a stock glass windshield but removed the door windows and the rear side windows, but I kept all the trim around it. I even ran bumpers for the first couple years until I got a little faster and decided to lose a little extra weight, so I took those off.
AG: You’ve done a bang-up job—the car looks mean as hell! How did you get into vintage racing?
JS: I’ve always been kind of interested in it. I had a 2000 Corvette hardtop, you know, the “Billy-Bob” Corvette right before the Z06, and I’d go and do NASA track days. Eventually, I sold that to a friend and bought a 2006 Z06 and continued a couple times a year doing track events. You know, you spend 20 minutes on a track in a car that handles well, the bug just gets’ya—all other hobbies just pale in comparison.
Hemmingway said it best, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” That’s where the bug really got ahold of me. That’s where a lot of people start now. I realized Corinthian Vintage Auto Racing was out there and I went to those races for 10 years before this car was done.
AG: That’s one of my favorite quotes. What do you like about running in the Corinthian Vintage Auto Racing events?
JS: It’s a Texas-based vintage racing association. Their primary track days are held at Texas Motor Speedway, Hallett Motor Racing Circuit, Eagle Canyon Raceway, now we’re running Motorsport Ranch, and now co-events with SVRA at both New Orleans and Circuit of the Americas.
It’s a really good organization. They’ve got really tight rules to try and keep the vintage spirit in the preparation of the cars and the driving and all that.
AG: I love the ‘era-appropriate’ mindset of these vintage racing clubs. What makes the C3 such a special car to race?
JS: I think the C3, the body style itself with the fender flares, it looks like it’s going 100-miles-per-hour just sitting there. If you look at it from above it has that Coke bottle shape, it’s sexy. They’re big cars compared to a lot of what I’m running against so it’s a lot of fun to drive. You throw that thing around the corners. It’s not some short-wheelbase 2,000-pound Cobra.
You’re pushing 3,000-pounds through the turns, that to me is a lot of fun. You’re sliding and the adrenaline is pumpin’. It’s a fun car to drive and the look of the car—I mean who doesn’t love a Corvette… except Mustang guys? (laughs)
AG: Well, those “Mustang guys” are wrong! (laughs) How often do you get to track it?
JS: Well, I started in 2010 but I’ve been deployed once since then. You know, being in the military, I can’t make all the races. I’ve only made all the races one year but it looks like next year I might be able to make them all. So, I guess that’s… six years now? But really only five of those I’ve got to race.
AG: You’re still in the military?
JS: Yes sir, I’m an Apache pilot. I’m a CW5 Warrant Officer, just passed 39 years of service this past June. My son just went to Fort Rucker, Alabama for Flight School last week. He’s kind of following in my footsteps. I’m a proud dad. He still has that Camaro SS and I promised him I’d get him the car of his choice if he graduated college. So, now his everyday driver is a 2012 ZL-1 Camaro with 580-horse, man! They’re badass.
AG: That’s great. Father and son sharing the passion for cars and serving our country in the military. Thank you both for your service and continue to Drive (and race) Tastefully.