Throughout the history of auto racing, there have been numerous victors — all of which have become staples of the automotive industry’s long-running lineage as the original gentleman’s sport. Vehicles from a breadth of different areas, backgrounds, and circumstances have battled atop the world’s most sanctified circuits for a chance at glory and recognition, bringing with them the legendary victories, upsets, and stories that have become synonymous with the sport. But amidst auto racing’s extensive history, Europe’s established platforms have always willfully asserted their dominance.
To challenge the world’s most refined engineers, builders, and platforms throughout the 20th century, the greatest minds in American automotive came together to create a number of vehicles that would eventually persevere, showing the world that North American drivers (and their platforms) were a force to be reckoned with. From notable mid-century names like Chaparral and Cunningham, all the way to modern-day dominators like the Chevrolet Corvette C5-R and the Dodge Viper, we’re going to outline the most influential American race cars to ever grace the circuit. So buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride.
The history of the American Can-Am Series can be partially attributed to the success of the Chaparral 2E, a lightweight, ethanol-quenching roadster that elaborated on the storied Chevy Corvette GS-II. It was developed and designed by Chaparral Cars, an innovative team that put a heavy emphasis on utilizing new techniques to redefine the look, shape, and feel of the traditional racer. Though the company was still in its infancy (after being founded in 1962 by famed Formula 1 racers Hap Sharp and Jim Hall) the 2E was introduced in 1966, incorporating the company’s most advanced aerodynamic theories — based off the infamous Chevrolet-designed aluminum 2C chassis. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the newly introduced 2E was a pivoting, variable-incidence wing that towered above the vehicle’s cockpit, bringing newfound respect for aerodynamic downforce to the circuit. Despite its dynamic innovation, the car garnered a single win at the Laguna Seca Raceway in 1966, but not before changing the medium’s view on abnormal design principles — a number of which are still used in today’s modern vehicles.
Chevrolet Corvette C5-R
The Chevrolet Corvette is certainly one of the most iconic vehicles to ever be produced — in fact, it was held in such high regard that American racing teams around the globe adopted it to compete (and win) in endurance races the world over. The beastly C5 platform was initially developed by Pratt & Miller — in association with Chevy — and aimed toward specialized motorsport use, winning at the 24 Hours of Daytona, 24 Hours of Le Mans, and 12 Hours at Sebring, as well as obtaining several championships at the American Le Mans Series. In 1999, the C5-R was introduced to the circuit — powered by a Katech LS1.R that would produce 610 horsepower and 570 lb-ft of torque. Only 11 of the modified chassis would ever be produced by Pratt & Miller, but with over 31 class victories at ALMS, a victory at Daytona, and various podiums at Le Mans, the Corvette stands as one of the crowning achievements of American engineering.
In 1951, Briggs Cunningham announced that he would foster a winning American team in an attempt to secure victory at the world’s premier racing stage, Le Mans. In order to help his hand-selected team to rise to the occasion, the entrepreneur turned to the newly devised Chrysler-powered Cunningham C2-R, which would finish 18th overall during the first year of competition. Cunningham’s resolve led to the conception of the C4-R, a vehicle that would weigh 1,000 pounds less than the C-2 and foster even more horsepower than its predecessor. In 1952, the Hemi-powered C4-R would fail to obtain the win at Le Mans but would finish fourth overall. Although the vehicle would never obtain the title that the American racing community so diligently pursued, it would go down in history as one of the greatest attempts at the legendary endurance race to date — proving that even an American could overtake the Le Mans circuit.
The Eagle Mk1 was a legendary vehicle that would redefine America’s participation in the F1 series. Established teams were plentiful during the 1966 Formula 1 season, making it difficult for up-and-coming platforms to break into the podium standings. To secure a place on the podium, Len Terry designed the first iteration of the Eagle, which was originally powered a 2.7L Coventry Climax inline 4-cylinder engine for Dan Gurney’s Anglo American Racers team. After the vehicle had participated in four races, the Eagle’s engineers decided that an upgrade to the 3.0L Gurney-Weslake V12 was in order, giving the car a monstrous presence within the circuit. In 1967, the Eagle would carry Gurney to the United States’ first Formula 1 victory at the Belgian Grand Prix. The legendary victory would solidify Gurney’s Mk1 in the annals of North American automotive history. Today, the Eagle is regarded as one of the most beautiful platforms to have ever participated in F1.
Dodge Viper GTS-R
Dodge’s winning history in endurance racing can be attributed to the manufacturer’s prized platform, the Viper GTS-R. Powered by a Viper 8.0-liter V10 engine, this naturally-aspirated, front-engined vehicle would show the world that the inclusion of a 10-cylinder powerplant was vital for long-distance endurance racing. It was revealed to the public in 1995 at the Pebble Beach Concours, and after climbing steadily through the rankings for the next three years, the Oreca team would obtain victories in all but one of the 10 races at FIA GT, as well as a class victory at Le Mans. In 1999 and 2000, the GTS-R would emerge triumphant two more times. Following overall wins at Nürburgring, ALMS, and Daytona, the Viper would fall short to a new era of Prodrive-built Ferraris and would fall victim to a phasing-out process that started in 2004 — although, a few remaining platforms would remain dominant in the FFSA GT and Italian GT.
Ford GT40 Mk IV
Ford is as American as apple pie, but the company’s rich heritage in all-out endurance racing can be traced back to an unlikely source. The manufacturer’s GT40 is certainly an iconic vehicle, and though the Mk I, II, and III models were produced overseas as offspring of the British Lola Mk6, the final iteration (the Mk IV) was crafted at Ford’s Wixom, Michigan assembly plant. The vehicle donned a series of different, American-made V8 engines, and although the Mk IV’s proceeding platforms did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to procuring the GT40’s race-oriented pedigree, the 1967 variant played off the strengths of the first three generations. It featured the same 7.0-liter engine as the Mk II and a reinforced J chassis that was specific to the brand’s conceptually different J-4 race car, as well as a NASCAR-style steel-tube roll cage and an exceptional top speed thanks to its newly adopted aerodynamic shape. The Mk IV would participate in two races during its tenure, the 1967 12 Hours of Sebring, and the 1967 24 Hours Of Le Mans, securing a win in both. Only six of the fabled platforms would ever be produced.
The Howmet TX stands in good company as one of the most interesting vehicles to ever be conceived — a jet-powered novelty that would transition from a track-faring engineer’s eye candy into a podium-procuring machine. The turbine-powered vehicle was produced in 1968 as a means of experimentation, focusing primarily on the use of aviation-oriented gas turbines in auto racing. The vision for the vehicle came from none other than race car driver Ray Heppenstall, and after contracting the Texas-based engineering firm, McKee, to build the vehicle’s chassis, the Howmet was outfitted with a turbine engine leased from Continental Aviation & Engineering. Although the vehicle was taken overseas to compete in the International Championship, the Howmet was disabled, damaged, and unable to continue — it returned to America to compete in the SCCA National Championship. It earned two overall victories at the SCCA, two qualifying sprint victories, and remains the first (and only) turbine-powered platform to ever win a race. After its retirement from the racing scene in 1968, the TX would set six Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) land speed records, solidifying its standing as one of the most successful, turbine-powered vehicles to ever be produced.
In the early-1950s, stock car racing was at its height — a critically acclaimed American racing league full of platforms from every corner of the country. As the first automobile manufacturer to become fully involved in the circuit, Hudson revealed various models that would dominate the car scene throughout the first half of the decade, becoming a favorite among stock car enthusiasts due to its 5.0-liter, inline six and 3,620-pound curb weight. In 1952, the AAA season ended with the victory of Hudson Hornet driver Marshall Teague, who had accumulated a 1,000-point lead over the rest of the competition. After winning 12 out of the 13 races it entered, the Hornet was eventually admitted into the NASCAR circuit, where it would continue its dominance by winning 27 of 34 Grand National races in 1952. To date, the vehicle is regarded as one of the most luxurious vehicles to have ever entered the American racing scene, let alone dominate it.
Panoz LMP-1 Roadster
Panoz’s LMP vehicles were an outlandish take on the conventional engine and chassis designs of the late ‘90s, sporting a 6L8 6.0-liter V8 that redefined the traditional placement and architecture of track-faring vehicles. It was introduced as the successor to the Esperante GTR-1, a Grand Tourer that competed in international races years prior to the introduction of the brand’s LMP07. Following the discontinuation of the LMP07, the LMP-1 was reworked by Panoz, who had admitted two special platforms in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1999 — a race where the vehicles would finish in seventh and eleventh place. A third platform would be built for J&P Motorsport, and after a series of races over the entirety of the year, Panoz secured the LMP team championship by only two points over their competitor, BMW. The vehicle was retired from the circuit in 2003 following a series of underperformances, but the abnormal, front-engine design and ALMS series win would be enough to preserve the vehicle’s history as one of America’s most influential race cars.
Shelby Daytona Coupe
Shelby’s Daytona Coupe was bred and built for one purpose: to take on Ferrari’s dominant 250 GTO in GT class racing. It came as the closely-related kin of the company’s AC Cobra roadster and utilized a proprietary design based on the vehicle’s chassis and drive-train — housing a 4.7-liter V8 engine, a newly adopted aerodynamic enclosure, and a curb weight just under 2,300-pounds. This gave it a significant advantage over vehicles that had not yet transitioned into the mindset of weight-reduction and closed-shell aerodynamic properties, and after being admitted into numerous races throughout 1964 and ‘65, the GT Division III circuit bore witness to a new champion. Following two fourth-place GT class wins at the 1964 12 Hours of Sebring, and 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Shelby would administer consecutive GT class wins during the 1965 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, Italian Grand Prix, Nürburgring 1000km, and even the 1965 World Sportscar Championship following the 12 Hours of Reims. The icing on the cake came in the form of 25 different land speed records at Bonneville, solidifying the vehicle as one of America’s all-time greats. So great, in fact, that the vehicle was recently recognized as one of the most significant vehicles in the history of auto racing.
12 Best V12 Cars Of All Time
The evolution of American racing might have been catalyzed by a handful of different vehicles, but the legendary pastime was refined even further by the powerful V12 engine. Head over to our guide on the best V12 cars of all time to read up on the platforms that helped to reshape the future of the original gentleman’s sport.