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Born in 1958: Bill Mitchell’s Sting Ray validates a truism

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Elvis Presley drove the Sting Ray race car, but Autoweek is not Elvis. We collectively anticipated a familiarization drive. We got a photo shoot and ride-along with GM’s driver instead.

Yes, this Sting Ray is a 60-year-old championship winner with a Chevy small block that was one of the first engines to surpass the hallowed 1-hp-per-cube barrier. Today it makes about the same power as a four-cylinder Honda Civic Type R. Its power-to-weight ratio is 60 percent lower than the ZR1 on our cover a few issues back, and Chevrolet happily offered that for a blast around Road Atlanta. Cars, after all, are built to be driven.

Perhaps GM decided the Sting Ray race car is too precious or the lawyers said “not happening” or the perceived benefit was not up to the perceived risk. We’re consoled only by the thought that Elvis drove the Sting Ray in the sorry 1967 film “Clambake,” mostly in front of a rolling background. We rode along through 320 impeccably plotted acres 12 miles northeast of downtown Detroit, designed by architect Eero Saarinen, hailed as a wonder of midcentury modern architecture and dubbed the “Versailles of Industry” when President Dwight Eisenhower dedicated the place in May 1956. We’re talking about the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan, where, in its heyday, the Sting Ray race car was banned from the premises.

No matter. It’s necessary we publish this story, even if we can’t share precisely what the Sting Ray feels like in the hands or under the seat. As Autoweek marks its 60th anniversary, no car better encapsulates the times, trends and sentiments that gave birth to Competition Press in 1958 on Burlingame Avenue in Detroit, not far from the Tech Center.

For our purpose, this Sting Ray is the mythical perfect car. It’s a microcosm of forces that created one of America’s first auto racing-specific publications, which morphed gradually into its only weekly car-enthusiast publication and then into the clarion of car culture in every corner. The elements are synthesized in this Miata-size, fiberglass beauty, starting with rebellion against committee-driven, market-researched corporate consensus. Or with the American hot-rodder’s willingness to co-opt whatever worked, whether it came from military aviation, the sacred engineering halls of Europe or hillbillies running ’shine in Appalachia. Or with an impeccably skilled dentist who started late and raced cars on weekends not for money or recognition, but because he loved racing cars more than just about anything else. Or the multitude who waited at mailboxes across the United States for the latest news on corporate rebellion, co-opting and racing dentists.

Sixty years later, as the world grows smaller and the 755-hp 2019 ZR1 goes like much bigger hell, even as it protects in a stronger, more foolproof cocoon, the Sting Ray race car still blends the universal truths that keep Autoweek rolling and car culture thriving.

There was no factory racing in 1958, but racing was an unstoppable force, just the same, even at the factories. A mutually established racing ban could not keep Detroit’s automakers out.

This was the start of the Bill Mitchell era at General Motors. It produced some of the most beautiful cars GM has created in 100-plus years, and it might best be understood by millennials in the context of the “Mad Men” television series.

William Leroy Mitchell actually started his career on Madison Avenue, drawing cars for the Barron Collier advertising agency. He quickly became friends with the founder’s three sons—Barron Jr., Miles and Samuel (as in the Collier Collection/Revs Institute). The Colliers founded the Automobile

Racing Club of America in 1933 and folded it into the Sports Car Club of America in 1944. Mitchell drew the dirt-spitting Auburn that was the original ARCA logo.

Born in 1958: Bill Mitchell's Sting Ray validates a truism

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