Despite Corvette’s early spotty racing history, their presence was never missed at race tracks, as they are typically loud and always a contender. Were it not for Corvette’s rich racing heritage, the car never would have become GM’s halo car. Unlike the 50′s when GM said, “We don’t race cars”, the ‘80′s and ‘90′s saw many drag racing and NASCAR factory racing efforts from Oldsmobile and Chevrolet. By the time the C5 came along, GM was DEFINITELY racing.
Race car builders Pratt & Miller were hired to help design, develop, and build the C5-R. By ‘99, the first all-out, factory-supported Corvette racing team hit the track. The first year was rough with 2 finishes in 5 races. In 2000 the team collected 2 wins in 8 races. Then in ‘01 the team took 8 wins in 10 races, including the ultimate prize of winning Le Mans for the first time. For 2002 the C5-R team won 10 of 11 races, including Le Mans. In 2003 the team changed its colors from the familiar bright yellow paint to dark blue with white and red hood and top stripes. Competition was especially fierce in ‘03 and the team “only” won 5 out of 10 races and came in second at Le Mans.
Back in the world of production Corvettes, work was well under way on the C6 Corvette. The C5 had been so well designed that by ‘99 Corvette engineers had done nearly everything they wanted to do with the C5. It didn’t take much convincing for Chief Corvette Engineer Dave Hill to champion an all-new Corvette with a projected launch date to coincide with the 2003 50th anniversary. 2001 was not a good year for GM and the economy, so the proposed C6 was put on hold. When the C6 was finally given a green light, the projected introduction was as an ‘05 model.
The introduction of a new Corvette presented a challenge to Corvette planners; how do you generate interest in the last year of a car’s production when customers know that a new car is coming soon? Answer; make a “special edition.” The last C3 and C4 Corvettes offered special editions. So planners tapped into the success of the C5-R racers and offered the Commemorative Edition option available on all three Corvette models; the coupe, convertible, and the Z06.
All ‘04 Commemorative Edition Corvettes had special Le Mans Blue paint with bold white strips that ran over the hood dome, top, and the top of the rear deck, with thin red strips on the outside of both white stripes. Included were special badges, embroidery on the headrests, and polished Z06 wheels with special center caps. Since carbon fiber is a common material used on race cars, the Commemorative Edition was the first production Corvette to use a carbon fiber hood. You can see the carbon fiber weave between the white and red stripes. Coupe and convertible editions had a two-tone shale interior, while the Z06 had an all-black interior. To sweeten the deal, every performance and luxury option was included. The coupe and convertible option cost $3,700, while the Z06 version cost $4,335. A total of 6,899 units were built, accounting for 20-percent of all ‘04 Vette sales. The Z06 version was the most expensive Corvette in ‘04, costing approximately $13,500 over the base Corvette, for a total of just under $58,000.
So, to get back to our original question; is the ‘04 Commemorative Edition Z06 “the best” of the C5 Corvettes? Not to diminish other C5s, but this package had trim, paint, and the unique carbon fiber hood, all of which were ONLY available in ‘04 with this option package. So, if I have to pick a Corvette that represents the pinnacle of production, performance Corvettes, I’d vote for the ‘04 Commemorative Edition Z06.
I’m sure that if Zora Arkus-Duntov was still running the Corvette show, he would have wanted “more” for the Commemorative Edition – at least front and rear spoilers, a domed hood, driving lights… ah, now I’m getting carried away.
This article was written by K. Scott Teeters, an editor for Alex Schult of www.SmokinVette.com and a freelance columnist and artist with VETTE Magazine. His monthly column, “The Illustrated Corvette Series” has been running consecutively in VETTE since 1997 and can be found on the very last page of every issue. You can find reproductions of his Corvette art at: www.IllustratedCorvetteSeries.com