Stars & Stripes BFG #48 and #50
by Wayne Ellwood
We might arguably claim that racing Corvettes reached a high water mark during the 1968-76 timeframe. And, in this period, the cars that made the biggest noise were the 1972 and '73 John Greenwood/BFG Lifesaver Radial racers.
In following the ownership line for the BFG cars, I first came across the #48 and #50 cars. At the time (1995) both cars were owned by one man, Ed Mueller. Later he acquired the #49 car to round out the set. The set was broken up when Ed sold the cars individually in 2001.
BFG had already approached Greenwood, in the midst of the 1971 season, after his win in the BFG-sponsored 6 hour enduro for cars on street tires. This special endurance race at Michigan International Speedway (MIS) saw Greenwood defeat the current BFG "Tirebirds" as well as everyone else. Frank Cipelli was the manager of MIS at the time and he helped put BFG in touch with John. The concept of a team of three cars to compete on their new Radial T/A street tire in five long-distance races, including Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring was a spectacular publicity coupe and Greenwood announced the new liaison at Daytona in November of that year. By 1972 the cars were on the track and racing. Using street tires against slicks imposed a huge penalty in terms of pure racing, but for BFG the investment was gold. The Stars and Stripes were an instant hit everywhere they went and Greenwood's status as having the fastest noisiest cars always generated crowd appeal.
The #48 and #50 BFG "Stars & Stripes" cars were originally built to pretty much the same specification, with individual modifications creeping-in over time. The #49 car was rushed to production before the two main cars, for publicity purposes. As a result it was not as well equipped as the other two.
The BFG #48 and #50 were built on roadster chassis acquired at local yards and, as noted, the third was built from the t-top "pr" car. All three cars received fully molded front and rear clips featuring the 1968-69 fender and door configuration, special interior molded pieces and L-88 flares. There are, of course, a couple of ways which collectors distinguish the #48 and #50 cars. Because John Greenwood is fairly tall, the #48 car was set up with the seat further back. John does not recall ever racing in #50 but hedges his bets by saying that he definitely chose #48 whenever possible. In later cars, Greenwood devised his own adjustable pedal setup to make life easier for the driver.
Finally, when examining photos of the era, you can also see that the roof mounted lights were designed to help pit crew distinguish which car was approaching during the night races. Car #48 had one orange and one red light on the passenger side of the roof while car #50 had two orange ones.
Sidebar by John Greenwood
The BFG cars, and some of my other cars, have become pieces of history now. This whole historical thing has caused some difficulties; several people have brought me cars that they want me to verify their cars as the ones I built. The BFG cars were easy enough but the validation of other race cars from the’70s is quite difficult. Someone will put one part on a car and call it a Greenwood car. Same with the racers; they can buy a few parts and then pass it off a few years later as one of our customer cars. Also, in that period I probably did work on over a hundred cars for other people, adding this or that. Some times even one of our original cars has been changed so much that it can’t be positively identified -- that’s just part of the problem with race cars. It really is the responsibility of the people buying them to research the ownership trail. There’s only so much I can tell from looking at the frame and welding.
Take the whole question of the cars leading up to the BFG cars and the confusion which other people have introduced about the BFG cars. There were two cars which I raced prior to the BFG cars. The first was the car I built in 1969 (coupe) and then rebuilt in mid-1970 as a roadster. It started as #18 and then we switched it to #48. That was the car that another club racer totaled at Gratten. It ran some races in black/white/orange colors. I ran it at Elkhart, Daytona and Sebring.
There was a second car we built for the 1971 season (roadster) and it was designed more for the longer distance endurance races. We would run whichever car was best suited to the track, or run both, or rent them out. For example, we did a deal where we had Don Yenko driving a car at Daytona on the same weekend that we ran the National Run-offs and we had another car (forget driver’s name) running against Jerry Hansen. That weekend we had two cars running that I wasn’t driving. I think I remember one of them being #20 (maybe). They were painted entirely different from anything we ever ran as a team car.
So right off the top it appears like there were more cars than you can count, but really there were only those two that I ran as my own cars. I sold these cars once the BFG cars were under construction. The first one (I think) was sold to Mike Murray in July of 1971; he ran it for the rest of the year and earned enough points to go to the run-offs. The other car was sold to Denny Long later in the year, after the run-offs as I recall.
Now the BFG car deal was announced after the Michigan International Speedway event in the spring of 1971. Then we started to build them. There were three (3) new cars built. Not four. Not five. No PR cars. Nothing else. Just three cars.
The Making of the BFG Connection
Frank Cipelli was the manager of MIS at the time that BFG sponsored the 1971 six-hour enduro for cars on street tires. As I mentioned, he had been my driving instructor at Waterford Hills. Anyway, he was also involved in some consulting work for BFG and he really put the two of us together.
There were some other guys from BFG who helped put the program together but after the deal was made they were sent off on other programs. Mike Leonard worked with us the whole time. Dave Corbett (PR) was involved with the MIS deal and worked the first year of the program with us. Karl Hoyle was another name I remember.
We also had a connection with Brigg’s Chevrolet at that time. He was (is) a Chevy dealer/sponsor and we were going to get together to sell parts. And he did put together a catalogue. He had a key guy that worked for him and we were going to do a street program, but that never quite worked out. Briggs also went racing with a lot of guys for a couple of years but we never did get the street program going. He had another friend, Jim Wanger, of Wanger Chevrolet in Wisconsin who also sponsored some of our races.
The deal with BFG was for only three cars and it was really only for one year, with an option. I don’t know how the story about a fourth car got going but it might have resulted from the coupe we used to set up a photo shoot for BFG’s advance publicity program. At one point BFG needed some PR pictures but they had a four month lead time. So we took a coupe and painted it for the publicity shots. It was cold and the shoot was at MIS. You can see from the photos that it wasn’t really prepared -- it was a stocker. Although it was originally a manual transmission big block we just stuck in a small block with an automatic transmission and a little stick to put it into gear. We just took what we had and made it look good. When we brought it back to the shop it then became a BFG car.
A lot of people ask how the cars got their numbers. Well, I started racing with #18 but we switched to #48 after the 1971 crash. We picked that number after Dan Gurney’s success. We were winning so it seemed OK as an expression of respect.
It was about the same with the Stars & Stripes theme. We had developed a scheme which we were running on the roadster in 1970 and on both cars in 1971, but we needed something different for the BFG cars. I recall that Randy Wittine of General Motors developed the actual paint scheme based on my idea.
Technical Highlights on the BFG Cars:
A lot of the parts were basically heavy duty GM parts. The organizers for the long distance races still felt that they needed some rules which linked the cars to production-types, so GM did its research and then homologated a lot of special parts. These were parts they were developing as part of their own programs; the heavy springs and sway bars for places like Daytona were an example. But there were also a few suggestions from racers that worked their way into the process.
The BFG cars were evolutions of our 1970-71 ideas. We did a lot of improvements especially with the chassis and suspension. We had already learned to notch the rear trailing arms. It was just a standard trick. We also sectioned the rear frame around the rear wheel arch by about 1 inch. SCCA didn’t allow sectioning the first year that I ran the Nationals (1970). But by the second year (1971) they saw that people were blowing tires, so they allowed it the next year. Our cars had a lot of tubing under the back. It was boxed real strong and the roll bar had evolved into a triangulated cage, so sectioning the frame didn’t affect us. Some of the other cars didn’t do that and they lost rigidity. You can recognize the early cars by the fact that several bars of the cage come to a central joining point behind the driver’s seat; the other cars didn’t.
The lightweight front and rear body sections were fully molded. The rear fenders had the L-88 flares included. I don’t recall right now if the fronts weren’t molded in. There were new floor pieces we made up as well. Now the coupe (#49) was basically a back-up so it may not have received the floor pieces. Come down to it, I don’t think I ever even drove the #50 car.
The large oil pressure gauge was just a reflection of my original street cars. When I had to spend my own money, I made sure that I didn’t hurt them. It didn’t really have anything to do with Petrie like some people think, although he was hard on the engines. The idea of having all the electrical circuits for each individual item on each side of the car individually switched and fused on the dash was also something I picked up early.
The Minilites were originally built for the Penske Javelin program, so they were in a four-bolt pattern. They had the same offset as we needed and we needed more, so we bought about 60 wheels. They made up plugs of the same material, freeze-pressed them and then remachined the holes. It worked and the price had been very attractive.
The cars were set up to match my driving style. I don’t really consider myself as a driver, so much as a builder, so it’s a little difficult to talk about this. But, basically, I set up the chassis and engine to get the best balance and control. I set up a car to go into a turn braking hard. I turn quickly and just get back on the power. By the time everyone else is getting to the apex, I just slingshot past because I got on the power earlier. But part of the deal is that the engine has to be set up not to spin the wheels. It has to deliver the power. It’s just a question of the right cams and stuff. Once it is set up, it might look like you are burning up the tires, but really you are running 20-30 degrees cooler than anyone else.
There were some other interesting things about our racing with the BFG cars but I guess some of them should stay secrets, just to add to the mystery. Maybe there is one interesting story about the Heinz (R.E.D.) car that Goodyear sponsored to Le Mans that I could share. I guess it’s not surprising that when the idea of a tire company sponsoring me to put together a program came along, I looked into the other possibilities. I spoke with Leo Gogg at Goodyear but they weren’t interested. Then they had to turn around and spend four times as much to get the Toye English #4 car together. It was good for Heinz and the others because they got to run a first class effort and Goodyear made sure they had more support people at Le Mans than the other teams.
The BFG story and especially the Le Mans effort have been written-up quite extensively. I don’t know if I can add anything new on that front. Maybe the thing that is most misunderstood is that when the BFG contract expired we were free to continue racing through the rest of the 1973 season. We thought we could do better on pure race tires so we picked up with Goodyear and finished the SCCA series that year. We won at Road America and Edmonton, which combined with other point finished allowed us to win our class. This was using the BFG cars under a variety of paint schemes, mostly the black one.
Restoration of #48 and #50
Jack Boxstrom undertook the initial restorations on both #48 and #50. Jack is an avid collector and historic racer, so he buys and sells many notable cars. Jack was much more active racing the #50 car than the #49 car, so he updated more of the safety features to current standards, as permitted in the SVRA regulations. Jack Boxstrom treated #48 as more of an historical restoration, however, and had the car rebuilt as close as possible to standards which applied for racing in 1972 and‘73.
When Ed Mueller acquired the cars, he did some additional restoration, using the services of Kevin Mackay. He restored several elements of the dash, seat and other interior components. The engine compartments on both cars are restored to the "as-built" condition, although with the benefit of time and a restoration mentality, #48 has received at least as much attention to detail as Greenwood's originals.
One thing is for sure, they are both impressive. Naturally the engines are both based on the L-88 configuration. Jack Boxstrom modified the engine in the #50 car; it's bored, stroked, and balanced. Brodex heads help bring power output up to a registered 660 HP. Dry sump lubrication assures endurance. Ed Mueller also did some basic work on car #48, installing a balanced and blueprinted ZL-1 putting out a mild 534 HP @ 6800 according to TRACO's dyno sheets -- the engine formerly in the car was what might be described as an expensive failure.
On the topic of restoration, Ed shares a lot of Jack's views. It is nearly impossible to replicate a race car to any particular configuration. Race cars may have been built on GM chassis but they rarely had serial numbers. Configurations could change at every event -- with parts being jettisoned or new systems being added as time and budget permitted. Ed's changes to the interior of #48 are relatively minor and reflect his desire to see it in a configuration which his research shows to be most "commonly" raced in 1972.
One of the biggest remaining questions seems to be, "Was there a fourth car and, if so, where is it?" Some people feel that there may have been a street car outfitted and painted to look pretty much like the 48/49/50 cars and was displayed in the paddock areas during races. Both John and Burt Greenwood are emphatic that there were only three official BFG cars. There was a "photo" car which they put together before the actual building program for the BFG cars; this car was originally an L-88 t-top but it was minus the engine and transmission. The Greenwoods put in a small block automatic to get it to the track and painted it to look like the race cars in order to meet the four month lead time required by BFG "PR" staff. After the shoot, this car was taken back to the shop and the top was removed. This car did become one of the race cars -- probably the t-top as they saved the windshield pillars and reportedly moved it back and forth from roadster to coupe configuration several times.