Style, speed, history fuels WV Corvette Club through past 40 years

·6 min read

May 29—Standing beside her blue 2007 convertible, Patty Peter extolled the Wabash Valley Corvette Club's camaraderie.

The bonds that form among those three-dozen members — as they drive the sleek, low-riding sports cars in caravans to festivals, car shows, museums, retro eateries and ice cream shops — keeps Peter active in the group. Her husband, Tom, drives a red 2002 convertible Corvette and also is member of the Terre Haute-based club that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

"Mostly it's just getting out with people that have the same interests," Peter explained, as the club gathered at a Terre Haute sports bar earlier this month. "It's just the fellowship. I think we've made lifelong friends."

As she walked toward the restaurant, Peter added, "And, [the cars] really don't go that fast." Peter's grin revealed she was joking.

Indeed, performance, style and get-up-and-go has fueled the Corvette's popularity since Chevrolet introduced the model in 1953. Its look and components have gone through eight generations of changes, and the automaker has produced 1,741,417 Corvettes in the past 68 years, according to the Standard Catalog of Chevrolet. The owners include President Joe Biden, who calls the 1967 Corvette Stingray convertible, given to him by his father, one of his most cherished possessions.

Here in Terre Haute, Tommy McGregor has owned three of Chevrolet's Corvettes, including the red 2001 Z06 version he drives today. He bought his first 'Vette as a 20-year-old in 1966. He paid less than $6,000 for that brand new car and sold it a year later.

"I traded it in for a little blonde," the 76-year-old McGregor quipped. He was referring to his wife, Judy. They were newlyweds, ready to start a family, and he was headed into military service.

It was 36 years before he got another Corvette, another 1966 version in upstate New York that McGregor spotted in a trader magazine. It had a snazzy white exterior, blue interior, 427-cubic-inch engine and 390 horsepower, but it lacked a few road-trip niceties like air conditioning. So, Tommy and Judy sold that '66 and bought the Z06 from a Paris, Ill., acquaintance of the late NASCAR racing legend Dale Earnhardt.

Today, Tommy and Judy routinely drive the Z06 on road trips together, or with the club. He serves as the group's president, and iconic automobile is the common thread between the members.

"It's a unique vehicle. It's not for everyone," McGregor said. "It's kind of a challenge, but it rewards you with its performance."

Nationwide, the car owners tend to fall into two categories, McGregor explained with a laugh — "gearheads" and "the gold-chain society." The former like to rebuild their own Corvettes, discuss accessories and talk in motor lingo. The latter enjoy showing their cars and getting second-glances for the public. Some like whimsical, last-minute outings, spurred by a post on Facebook. Others prefer the planned ventures to eclectic diners like Ford's Garage in Noblesville.

McGregor's goal is "to involve the majority of the Corvette owners in the area, and that's difficult because everyone's got different expectations," he said. "I try to incorporate all of those people."

The current iteration of the club formed in 1981. Technically, the group could also celebrate its 60th anniversary this year.

An earlier version organized 60 years ago, according to a small story in the Oct. 1, 1961 edition of the Terre Haute Star. "Harry Rose, salesman at Downtown Chevrolet, reports that a Wabash Valley Corvette Club is being formed," the Star reported. "Ownership of a Corvette and residence in the Wabash Valley are the only requirements."

The following February, the club conducted its first rally at Southland Shopping Center on Margaret Avenue.

Dave Lawrence is the longest-serving member of the 1981 iteration of the club, having joined in the mid-1980s. He drives a 2000 fixed-roof Corvette, equipped with a souped-up motor, brakes and other high-performance upgrades.

"This car was about 15 years ahead of its time," Lawrence said.

It's capable of reaching 180 mph. Lawrence knows how to go fast. He describes himself as "an old racer," who once drove a 1932 "built-for-speed" Ford 164 mph on the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Lawrence goes slower these days on the roadways, generally.

"I try not to speed. I'm 80 years old," Lawrence said. "But it's hard not to stomp on it, sometimes."

Fellow club member Eric Gambill saves his high-speed Corvette moments for the racetrack. The 55-year-old Bainbridge resident works as a high-performance driver education instructor, teaching folks to navigate racetracks such as Putnam Park Road Course, east of Putnamville.

Gambill also owns three Corvettes. Those include the brilliant yellow 2000 "Baby" version Gambill drove to this month's club meeting in Terre Haute, as well as a 2019 model and a 2003 'Vette crafted as a "dedicated track car." Using the latter vehicle, Gambill turned his fastest lifetime lap this month at Putnam Park, where his son also took a turn behind the wheel.

"He's a natural," Gambill said.

His vehicular "Baby" Corvette, one of only two made by Chevrolet, packs 550 horsepower, thanks to its engine, specially built by Mike Morris Motors of Plainfield. It also features a long list of specialized elements.

Away from the racetrack, Gambill — retired from 32 years of U.S. Army and Army National Guard service — slows his pace. "I probably used to drive too fast on the roads," he said. "And then I started driving on the track, and now I tend to drive like an old man out on the road."

Fittingly, Gambill joined the Wabash Valley Corvette Club after meeting Tommy McGregor at the annual Vets 'n Vettes event in Bowling Green, Ky. At the Vets 'n Vettes, military veterans such as Gambill and McGregor (who served in the Air Force in Vietnam) let their Corvettes be driven by wounded veterans.

Now, Gambill — a Gary native — is a regular in the WVCC.

Bowling Green also is home to the National Corvette Museum. The museum, surrounded by a 55-acre campus, has 104 vehicles in its collection, including nearly 80 on public display. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people visit the museum yearly, except for the past year through the pandemic.

The nation remains fascinated by the Corvette because carmaker Chevrolet stuck by its original mission of keeping the car "attainable by the average American," Derek Moore, the museum's curator, said by phone last week.

As luxury sports cars go, that is. The 2021 Stingray carries a starting price of $59,900, according to Car and Driver magazine. As with past versions, the '21 models carry the latest equipment.

"Offering the new technology that every generation brings with it keeps that interest in the Corvette," Moore said. "[Chevrolet has] made it the most affordable super car that is being built in the world today."

The Corvette was the first mass-produced sports car after World War II, when Americans flocked to the open road — an annual summertime ritual that is expected to resume again this Memorial Day Weekend. The AAA motor club estimates 37 million Americans will travel this weekend, and 34 million will do so by automobile.

Those adventurers, no doubt, will include some Corvette drivers from the Wabash Valley.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting