Home Cars American Race Cars That Tore Up The International Scene

American Race Cars That Tore Up The International Scene

Vukasin Herbez February 11, 2020

Despite being the biggest car industry since the dawn of the automobile age, American car manufacturers have been focused on production and sales rather than motorsports competition.

But despite the lack of racing action overseas, some American racing cars were highly successful and influential all over the world. Although they designed some cars as such, others became racing cars when somebody realized they had potential. With the right drivers behind the wheel, history was easy to make. American racing cars always had more power than their European counterparts because they manifested a different approach in the same class of each competition.

So keep reading to learn all about the top 20 vehicles with considerable international success and notable wins. Some are famous and some are obscure, but all are successful. From the Le Mans and Formula One to the GT championships and rally dirt tracks, U.S.-built models were dominant and fast. This list will commemorate the machines that took the U.S. car industry to the next level by beating famous European names.

20. 1960 Chevrolet Corvette

The 1953 Corvette was the first true American sports car, so it was only natural this car should go racing. However, the first Corvettes with straight-six engines were not that fast. But when Chevrolet introduced the V8 option in 1955, the Corvette was finally capable of some racing success.

Chevrolet didn’t have a factory racing project until 1960 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. In fact, 1960 was an important year for the Corvette since it backed the famous American racing impresario, Biggs Cunningham, and his Le Mans effort. Cunningham was one of the biggest names on the international racing scene in those days.

He tried to win Le Mans several times in his own creations, but never managed to do so despite good results. So in the late ’50s, Biggs teamed with Chevrolet. This proved to be a perfect match.

So, on the 26th of June 1960, a highly modified Chevrolet Corvette became the first American car to win a 24 Hours of Le Mans race. It won the GT class in front of numerous Jaguars, Ferraris and Porsches with John Finch and Bob Grossman at the wheel. This success made Corvette the talk of the global sports car community, transforming it into a respectable force on the racing scene.

19. Shelby Cobra 289

The story of the Shelby Cobra 289 is infamous. In 1962, retired American race driver Carroll Shelby heard that AC Cars from England was shutting down the production of their Ace sports roadster because Bristol engines weren’t available anymore. In just a couple of days, Shelby managed to get several engineless bodies on the transport ship to his Venice Beach shop where he had Ford 260 V8 engines waiting for the new bodies.

The small but powerful American V8 in a light, nimble body proved to be a match made in heaven. Soon, Shelby installed the 289 V8 with 271 HP, bringing some serious performance to this little roadster. Of course, Shelby’s main goal was racing. Tthe Cobra dominated domestic championships, beating Corvettes, Ferraris and Jaguars. But Shelby wanted to go to Europe and prove his concept.

So, in 1963-64, Shelby campaigned Cobras all over Europe’s finest race tracks, repeating the success. The small V8 roadster proved extremely capable, so it dominated the GT class. Even though the Ford V8 was a durable and reliable unit, Shelby’s knowledge and racing know-how were crucial in setting the car right for different tracks. Also, Shelby sold factory-prepared “Competition” Cobras to private teams.

18. Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport

In the early ’60s, Chevrolet was successful in motorsports. With Zora Arkus Duntov and Ed Cole as head engineers for Corvette, the racing version of the Corvette Stingray was a logical next step in its development. The Corvette has already proven itself on the market, and now it was time to prove itself on the race track. Back in the day, Ford sponsored the Shelby Cobra, which was dominant at the race tracks, so the Corvette team wanted to beat it.

Zora and his team prepared five Grand Sport Corvettes with modified bodies, special suspensions, fully loaded race engines and a host of other specially-built components. The Grand Sport Corvette produced over 550 HP and was capable of brutal performance. The Corvette team had big plans, entering the Grand Sport Corvettes in several races.

It got promising results until the decision came from the top of General Motors to cease all racing activities. For some reason, GM decided to stop investing in all forms of racing in early 1963. This killed the fantastic Grand Sport program before it could prove its worth. It also made the Corvette Grand Sport one of the greatest “what if” stories of the racing world. Thankfully, all five cars survived and are still around today.

17. Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe

The Cobra roadster dominated the international GT racing scene in the early ’60s, but Shelby noticed that the roadster body was not suited for all tracks and races. Even with the hardtop, the Cobra couldn’t reach top speeds due to poor aerodynamics. Also, on long straights like Le Mans, it was slower than the competition. The answer was to redesign the car and turn it into a racing missile capable of insane top speeds.

To do that, Shelby needed to fully modify the Cobra. He constructed a longer chassis. They also relocated the suspension and designed a new longer, sleeker and more aerodynamically efficient body. Lastly, they named it the Daytona Coupe. It was a pure racing car barely suitable for street driving.

Shelby finished the car just in time for the legendary 1965 racing season. They shipped it to Europe, where it dominated due to the perfect American engineering. It won the 1965 GT Championship, which was an extraordinary success for Ford, Shelby, and his team.

16. Scarab

Scarab race cars are not widely known these days. However, back in the late ’50s, these metallic blue race cars were one of the best American racers available. Tom Barnes and Dick Troutman started the company using Chevrolet engines they professionally-rebuilt and highly-tuned. The Scarabs earned considerable success, first on the domestic and then on the international car scene for engineering, quality, and speed.

In 1960, Scarab decided to enter the Formula One championship with a front-engine car using a four-cylinder Offenhauser engine. Unfortunately, the venture failed because the Scarab wasn’t competitive enough. The company abandoned the Formula One venture and soon stopped producing race cars. But, before that, in 1963, it won two races in Nassau, the Bahamas, beating all the famous names of sports car racing.

15. Bill Thomas Cheetah

The global success of the Shelby Cobra inspired many American race car builders to build a similar car to compete on an international level. From this perspective, nobody came close to beating the Cobra. However, Bill Thomas, a famous Chevrolet tuner and racecar builder was a serious candidate. Unfortunately, due to various circumstances, the Cheetah never got a proper chance.

As you know, Chevrolet and GM pulled out of racing in 1963. But several independent race shops worked for GM’s backdoor programs where they supported private racing teams with racing know-how or special racing parts. Thomas’s shop was one of those outfits. He decided to build a Cobra competitor with Chevrolet power, and that’s how the Cheetah was born.

Thomas built it on a special lightweight chassis, adding a small block V8 as far back in the car as possible. Covered in a light fiberglass body, the Cheetah looked and performed like a race car. Despite some overheating problems, the Cheetah was a remarkable performer. It even won some lower rank races, as well as the 1968 SCCA championship. Unfortunately, a lack of support, mechanical problems and a fire at the shop in California stopped production after they built just 20 cars.

14. Cunningham Race Cars

This list mentioned the legendary Briggs Cunningham and the fantastic Corvette win in the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans race. But Briggs was more than a Chevrolet team leader. He was a world-famous entrepreneur, racer and constructor who introduced American cars to the European sports car scene in the 1950s. His dream was to build a racing car to dominate both sides of the ocean.

Cunningham also wanted to win Le Mans with an all-American machine, driver, and crew. From 1952 to 1955, Cunningham entered the Le Mans race with several cars of his own design. He also used Chrysler’s Hemi engine, which was one of the most powerful engines of the era.

They called the cars the Cunningham C2-R, C4-R and C6-R. Despite a promising performance, he never managed to win this prestigious event. The best finish was third place in 1954. Despite his failure to win the Le Mans, Cunningham cars were victorious at Sebring and other famous racing circuits.

In the late ’50s, Briggs decided to abandon his Le Mans-winning dreams, concentrating on racing as a team manager. However, in 1960, he won the Le Mans as the team leader of the Chevrolet Corvette team. Those cars carried his signature paint scheme, which was white with blue racing stripes.

13. Ford GT40

The story of the Ford GT40 is a saga of enormous effort and incredible support. It took a meeting involving several talented people in one place to create automotive history. After a failed attempt to buy Ferrari in the early ’60s, Ford was angry at Enzo for his childish behavior. They decided to beat him on the race track to prove who the real boss was. But at the moment, Ford didn’t have a racing program or even someone to manage it.

So, the company looked for outsourcers who could make things happen. They found the base for the Ferrari-beating race car in England. It was the Lola Mk6 that they re-engineered and redesigned. They gave it a new racing 289 V8 engine, turning it into the first Ford GT40 in 1964.

The car didn’t look promising at the beginning, but meticulous work and money transformed the GT40 into a world-conquering machine in several months. Ferrari was humiliated between 1966 and 1969 when the GT40 won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times in a row. It was an amazing success and an incredible achievement for a company that never appeared in Le Mans before the mid-60s. The GT40 became an outright legend and a symbol of an American race car by dominating the European racing scene.

12. Eagle Mk1

One of the best American racing drivers of the ’60s was the legendary Dan Gurney. He was an immensely talented guy who was an integral part of Ford’s Le Mans success story. Gurney dreamt of entering the Formula One championship with his own car and his own team. So in 1966, his dream became reality when he entered the Eagle Mk1 in the F1 Championship.

The Eagle was a single-seater race car Gurney constructed with Westlake and Climax engines. The team was promising, but a lack of funding and time kept them from achieving major success. Finally, in 1967, Dan Gurney made racing history as the first person to win a Grand Prix race in his own car when he piloted the Eagle Mk1 to victory in the Belgium Grand Prix of Spa.

11. Shelby GT350R

Shelby started building Mustangs in 1965. Those fire-breathing machines brought Ford recognition and performance credentials. But, the cars responsible for his racing success were the 34 “R” models they produced just for 1965. They sold them to privateers and racing teams all over America, as well as the world.

Those cars were not street legal and purely for racing purposes, which was something they did extremely well. The GT350R had numerous modifications. It was also lighter, faster and sharper than the regular GT350. The R version had the same 289 V8 as the regular Shelby GT350 with close to 400 HP and numerous racing modifications.

The car was light and well-balanced, so it proved to be extremely fast. It won races in America, Europe and South America, as well. Each example had numerous wins and every R model is an extremely valuable piece of Mustang and racing history.

10. Chaparral Cars

One of the biggest names in the prototype class of the 1960s was Chaparral. It was an American racing team that built and raced several highly successful, influential race cars from 1963 to 1970. A Texan named Jim Hall, who was a talented driver and constructor was the creative force behind the Chaparral team.

Under his leadership, the team produced a few advanced cars with rear engine layouts, aerodynamics, and innovative materials. In fact, the Chaparral was one of the first racing cars to feature active aerodynamics. It was also the first to use high-positioned wings for additional downforce. The most interesting and extremely fast model was the famous Chaparral 2J.

It featured two fans and rubber skirts around the vehicle. With an additional two-stroke engine, the fans sucked air from under the vehicle. Then the plastic skirts kept the vacuum to hold the car sucked to the ground. That was an insane combination, but it worked. Years later, Formula One cars used the same principle, which shows how good Hall’s vision was.

9. Panoz Esperante GT1

If you’re a ’90s kid, you probably remember the Panoz Esperante GTR-1 from racing games like Gran Turismo and Midtown Madness. This American supercar was the talk of the racing community in the late ’90s. However, despite the promising start, Panoz built only a few racing versions and one street-legal example.

The technology behind the Esperante was clearly for racing purposes. They mounted the front engine towards the middle of the car for the best weight distribution. Even though the characteristic front of the car was aerodynamically efficient, it wasn’t all that attractive.

Under the hood was a Roush-built, Ford-derived V8 with over 500 HP they mated to a sequential gearbox. Panoz successfully raced the Esperante on numerous race tracks all over the world, but only built one street version.

8. Dodge Viper GTS-R

The resurrection of the American performance car scene in the ’90s brought many interesting road cars. It also revived manufacturer racing efforts on an international scale. One of the most successful racing models in those days was the mighty Dodge Viper GTS-R. It debuted in 1995. Soon, it became one of the best GT racing cars in the world.

Nobody thought that the Viper could become a sharp and nimble sports car. Its road-going version was a burly muscle machine with an enormous V10 they stuffed in the front. When the racecar engineers developed the GTS coupe into a sharp GTS-R racing car, it could beat anything coming from Italy, Germany, or England.

In its long racing career lasting over 10 years, the Dodge Viper GTS-R had over 160 victories in numerous international championships. This included several class victories on Le Mans.

7. Chevrolet Corvette C6-R

In the late ’90s, Chevrolet decided to enter the GT racing scene with the Corvette C5-R, a specially-designed racecar. The C5-R proved extremely successful and opened the way for the C6-R. It was the next generation featuring improved engines and better technology. Soon, the C6-R became one of the most successful American racing cars of all time.

The C6-R debuted in 2005 and stayed in racing use until 2013. This is quite a long time for a high-tech racing machine. They built the car on Corvette Z06 base featuring several V8 engines with a displacement varying from 5.5-liters to 7.0-liters. The Corvette C5-R proved extremely dependable and fast. It was also well-received by racing teams all over the world.

In 2006, this yellow beast managed to repeat history by winning the class victory at Le Mans. This is a success the Corvette C6-R has repeated a few times.

6. Ford GT

Ford’s quest for performance and racing victories in the early 21st century is the mirror image of the Total Performance Program of the ’60s. Only this time there was no Ferrari or revenge. Instead, there were racing GTs and Shelby Mustangs to remind the world of American performance.

The 2016 Ford GT GTE Pro racing car is an example of impeccable timing, extraordinary effort and a quest for performance. When Ford introduced the new GT supercar in 2016, the most common question was about a competition version. Ford didn’t hide its racing ambitions. So, in 2016, Ford entered the Le Mans in the GTE Pro class.

They used the new GT racing car and it won after a long battle with Ferrari. Ford’s success was a commemorative moment for the legendary 1966 Le Mans win. To make things even more interesting, the Ford GT also beat a red Ferrari, winning first place.

5. Duesenberg 183

Despite being on the market for only 24 years, from 1913 to 1937, Duesenberg left an everlasting mark on the American and global automobile industry. In fact, this brand was so fantastic that even today, 80 years later, people still recognize the name and the legacy. With the nickname, “Duesy,” the Duesenberg company was responsible for some of the greatest American-made cars of all time.

The “Duesy” was also one of the first Grand Prix winners, winning the French Grand Prix at Le Mans in 1921. This win not only promoted American luxury but also American performance overseas. They named the car the Duesenberg 183 and specially built it just for this purpose.

4. Ford Falcon Sprint Monte Carlo

When it debuted in 1960, the Falcon was Ford’s first compact model as well as an instant bestseller. With a modern-looking body and a nice selection of economical six-cylinder engines, the Falcon was an affordable yet high-quality product that appealed to many customers. Soon, Ford introduced more powerful versions, V8 engines and a convertible body style that made the Falcon even more popular and interesting.

The Mustang took over the Falcon on the market and on the race track. But, before that, the Falcon had a glorious outing. In 1964, on the gruesome Monte Carlo Rally, it won its class, placing the little compact Ford into the racing history books.

3. 1963 Ford Galaxie

You’re probably thinking the only place that big cars like the Ford Galaxie could race is on NASCAR ovals and superspeedways. However, the Galaxie was a big hit on European race tracks in the ’60s.

Common in the European Touring Car Championship, some of the biggest names in the business drove the 1963 Galaxie, winning numerous events. Ford later replaced it with the smaller, more nimble Mustang, But this cool-looking cruiser is famous as one of the most successful American cars in Europe.

2. Chevrolet Corvair Yenko Stinger

Everybody knows about the fantastic Yenko 427 Camaros, but perhaps not the Yenko Stinger. It’s a race-prepared Corvair that won the SCCA championship. Even before the Camaros, Yenko produced at least 100 white Yenko Stingers. They all came with special suspensions, modified bodies and 160 to 190 HP flat-six engines.

The cars proved to be highly-competitive, fast and stable in comparison to other SCCA competitors at the moment. However, when they introduced the Camaro, Yenko started converting the 427, putting the Yenko Stinger project on hold. Today, these white coupes are legendary collector cars.

1. Chevrolet Corvette C3 Spirit of Le Mans 1976

This Corvette never won the prestigious Le Mans race. However, it became one of the most recognizable Corvettes in history and one of the best racing cars of the ’70s. Just look at the specs. It has a 600-cubic inch V8, cross-ram induction system, special suspension, and brakes. Also, it produces 1,000 HP and has a crazy Greenwood body kit.

They built it under the supervision of the legendary Zora Arkus Duntov. The “Spirit of Le Mans” incorporated the best of GM’s racing technology and the best engineers.

These are Uncle Sam’s racing legends and 20 of the most accomplished American racecars ever. They raced into automotive history and are so iconic, most people recognize and remember them. Although some of these cars are long gone, they were the impetus for future automotive innovations.

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