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This ’95 Corvette ZR-1 Braved Le Mans with “Black Widow” Power

By Grace Houghton /

Most remember the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans because of McLaren, whose F1 GTRs took first (overall), third, fourth, and fifth in the manufacturer’s first-ever attempt. Entered in the GT1 class, and not in the top-spec LMP1 or LMP1 groups, the F1’s dominance was even more impressive; but we shouldn’t overlook another contender that lined up on the rain-soaked grid at Circuit de la Sarthe that year: A Chevrolet-blessed, privateer-campaigned C4 Corvette.

Though it would fall to an engine failure in the 22nd hour, this battle-scarred C4-now up for grabs-remains a tribute both to the King of the Hill (as the C4 ZR-1 was called early on) and to the ingenuity of the American tuning industry surrounding it. This ZR-1 now up for sale, and it stands proudly among the most desirable racing Corvettes of its period.

Doug Rippie got his start racing in 1971 at Wisconsin’s Elkhart Lake in a ’63 split-window. Thirteen years later, he converted his weekend pastime into a full-time gig, tuning Corvettes in his Minnesota shop. When Chevy debuted the $27,016 ZR-1 package in 1990, Rippie saw opportunity.

The top-dog C4 boasted an exotic engine from the factory: a quad-cam, 32-valve V-8 with hemispherical combustion chambers that displaced 5.7 liters and boasted a 11:1 compression ratio. The cylinder head was Lotus-engineered, and the all-aluminum engine was built by Mercury Marine. Stock horsepower rating stood at 375. Rippie couldn’t resist adding his own secret sauce, however, and thus the “Black Widow” DRZ-500 engine was born. Rippie’s shop sold its massaged LT5 in several tunes during the ’90s, ranging from 405 to 525 horsepower. Each of the engines was distinguished by the black crinkle paint on its valve cover.

1995 Corvette ZR1 GT1 Le Mans engine
Total Performance Car/Nicolas Delpierre

(According to the information we could find, the “Black Widow” moniker derived from the engine’s red-accented, black-painted color scheme … but we’d like to think the name is a nod to GM’s officially unofficial racing effort in 1957.)

Rippie had proved his cars’ racing mettle in Corvette Challenge, but he had his sights on the world endurance stage. The ZR-1, and his experience tuning the LT5, would be his ticket to international racing. Chevrolet provided an “original chassis,” per GT1 class rules in 1995, which Doug Rippie Motorsports (DRM) acid-dipped to scrounge a few pounds. The chassis was supplemented with a tube frame for rigidity and safety, and in its nose went a race-spec, 525-hp Black Widow engine.

1995 Corvette ZR1 GT1 Le Mans engine
Total Performance Car/Nicolas Delpierre

The Automobile Club de l’Ouest was so excited to have a Corvette on the GT1 grid that it allowed the DRM entry to skip pre-qualifying. (Racing aficionados will note that the red-liveried C4 wasn’t the only Corvette on the grid that June. A class below it, in GT2, sat two Callaway SuperNatural Corvettes sporting carbon-fiber body kits and LT1-based drivetrains. Despite the differences in powertrain, we hesitate to say that Rippie’s was truly the only C4 that raced at Le Mans; it was the only C4 ZR-1 to compete at Le Mans in the GT1 class.) None of the C4 creations finished with particularly impressive results, however, and the Rippie-tuned ZR-1 was crippled by an engine failure with a heartbreaking two hours to go.

1995 Corvette ZR1 GT1 Le Mans vintage
Chevrolet/Total Performance Car

Today, the DRM Le Mans racer is doubly desirable. It’s a genuine Le Mans veteran and is eligible for the highest-tier vintage motorsports events, a qualification that potential buyers will weigh heavily. It boasts a rebuilt Black Widow engine bearing an original, correct 1995 ZR-1 casting number. As of 2011, the suspension, brakes, and cooling system have all been restored and reinstalled. The car even wears many of its original stickers from the ’95 event (only the lower bumpers, front and rear, and the door sills have been repainted and restored with period-correct reproduction decals.) The only major change will be a boon for anyone who hopes to race this Vette: the original, issue-plagued Weisman five-speed has been swapped for a G-Force unit.

In comparison to the L88 monsters of the ’60s, or to its factory-backed, Pratt & Miller-built C5.R successors, this race-going, Rippie-prepped ZR-1 is often overlooked. But in the realm of C4 collectors, the car is rivaled only by the IMSA GTO Corvettes and the Callaway SuperNatural Corvettes with which it shared the Le Mans grid in ’95. Race-ready and pedigreed, this GT1 ZR-1 is begging to be let loose on the track once more.

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