Priceless '57 Corvette SS race car gets a little smoky at Indy

One of the conundrums of classic-car collecting is that your rare and valuable investment usually needs to be driven every so often — but doing so inevitably puts all those moving artifacts at risk. The Hall of Fame Museum at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway knows this more than most, as it keeps a collection of Indy 500 winners and other vehicles in running condition. Last weekend, the museum brought one of its jewels to the track — the one-of-one 1957 Corvette SS that was once destined for Le Mans. As you can see, it's now destined for some time in the garage.

This car occupies a pivotal point in American auto history; the result of General Motors hiring racer and engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov to spur what was at the time a moribund Corvette sports car. Duntov wanted the Corvette to compete against the world's best on the track, and set out to build a car that could prevail at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. With the dominating Mercedes 300 SL gull wing as a benchmark, Duntov and engineers crafted a Corvette body out of magnesium alloy to shave 900 lbs. off a production model, with a 307-hp V-8 under the hood.

At its debut race at Sebring, Fla., in 1957, the Corvette SS only lasted 23 laps before it had to retire with technical problems — but its performance was so intruiging that none other than racing great Juan Manuel Fangio was allowed to take it for a few practice laps. In a car he had never driven before, Fangio not only outpaced every other car at Sebring that year by four seconds but set a new lap record.

Sadly, that would be the only time the SS ever turned a wheel in professional anger; within weeks, the auto industry would self-impose a ban on manufacturer-sponsored racing in the wake of several fatal crashes. Ten years after its debut, Arkus-Duntov presented the SS to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; legend has it he did so on the run from GM execs who wanted the car dismantled.

For the Brickyard Invitational last weekend at the speedway — one of the largest gatherings of vintage race cars from several eras ever — the museum brought out the '57 Vette SS for a few parade laps around the oval, which, as with its original race, ended in what the museum called an unspecified mechanical malfunction. The musuem isn't afraid to put its treasures on the line; in 2011, it let the 1911 Marmon Wasp that won the first Indy 500 on track, and it threw a rod. The Marmon was put back together again, and whatever's wrong with one of the most important Corvettes ever built will likely be put right as well.

Photo: IMS