Avant-Garde: The Story of The 1983 Daytona 24 Avanti
Probably one of the most unlikely GT cars ever created
Ok, so some of you may already be looking at this article and be asking the question "what the hell is an Avanti and why is it so special?" Well, that's a a whole story in itself, as the Avanti itself is actually one of the last ever cars designed by a small American car manufacturer named Studebaker which, after exiting the auto business in 1967, has been nearly forgotten by the general public for years.
The Avanti itself is a very interesting piece of automotive history (aside from it being Professor Utonium's personal car in The Powerpuff Girls.) The car was conceived as a performance 4 seat coupe in 1962 and featured 289 cubic-inch (4.7 L) V8 along with other oddities for the time including a fully fiberglass body, front disc brakes, and a grille-less "bottom-breather" design. However the Avanti proved to difficult and expensive to produce in massive numbers, and would only be produced for two years.
Ok, so that was relatively easy to follow, right? But now that begs the question, "how did a car from the early 60's end up racing in one of America's premier endurance races 20 years later?" Well, the closing of production for the Avanti is only the beginning of the car's long and strange history. After the original run of cars had ended the tooling was bought by Studebaker dealers Nate and Arnold Altman, and Leo Newman. This began a long run of Avantis being made under multiple owners using multiple chassis and engines which didn't come to an end until 2006 when the company under Michael E. Kelly folded due to him running a Ponzi scheme fraud.
So now that we established that the Avanti was indeed alive and kicking in 1983, let's dive into the story of how a car which was essentially a small boutique effort ended up at the Daytona 24 of all places. Well that would be the work of one Stephen Blake, who had just bought the Avanti company from it's original owners in late 1982. In an attempt to give the Avanti company a boost into the public eye by entering cars into the Daytona 24 Hours and the more production based Escort Endurance Mid Ohio 24 Hours. The car for Daytona would be a tube framed GTO class car prepared in only 6 weeks by stock car builder Ray Dillon and feature a small-block 305 cubic-inch Chevy V8 producing over 630 HP. The car would be piloted by former Pontiac designer and designer of the new "second generation" Avanti, Herb Adams, along with NASCAR driver Joe Ruttman, former AMC Trans-Am driver John Martin, and Leonard Emanuelson.
So now this is the part where I talk about how this quickly put together, small time effort failed miserably, right? Well actually that's not what happened at all. During qualifying the car surprised even it's own crew by setting a GTO class lap record of 1:47.4 at the hands of Ruttman and with a special 700 HP qualifying engine built by short-track racer Bo Laws, beating out the next fastest GTO car, the Stratagraph Camaro of Le Mans pedigree, by 3 seconds, and placing it 6th on the grid overall, beating various Porsche 935s and full prototypes in the GTP class. At least, that's what should've happened. IMSA had chosen Ruttman's cooldown lap of 1:51.477 as it's qualifying time instead of its record setting run claiming that the engine used was illegal, leaving it third behind the two Stratagraph Camaros. This was after a qualifying time of 1:50.1 was set the following day on the normal race engine, IMSA giving the advantage to the Camaros based on the day the qualified.
The race would start well for the Avanti, with it running as high as 4th until lap 30, when Ruttman would spin the car on the banking while avoiding a competitor blowing its engine, causing some bodywork damage. When the car came back into the pits, even more time was lost when the car refused to start, the issue eventually being figured out as a battery problem. After around 10 laps the car was back out and running well until suspension and drivetrain problems throughout the race. As Sunday morning comes around, heavy rain begins to fall around that track, squandering any opportunity the Avanti had to try and regain any time. As the the checkered flag fell, the Avanti finished 27th, 208 laps of the lead.
Even with the less than stellar race result, the Avanti managed to make an impression on the racing world for a very brief period of time before fading into obscurity. But you really can't complain when your small company that builds cars that were designed 20 years ago manages to go out and flatten the ego of some of the most established names in racing from completely out of nowhere.