July 5, 2014

Arkansas City ‘driving fool’ looks back

Step inside Cliff Gottlob’s shop and you find yourself surrounded by a lifetime of great automotive memories.

Step inside Cliff Gottlob’s shop and you find yourself surrounded by a lifetime of great automotive memories.

“I never throw anything away,” he says, half-apologetically. It takes a big building to hold it all, the memories and the ongoing projects. A small black cat prowls the aisles between old car parts, reference books and racing artifacts, keeping the building free of mice. The cat goes by the name of “Cat.”

Gottlob cut his automotive teeth rebuilding junked-out Tin Lizzies with the help of his dad.

“I built 13 Model Ts I dragged out of creek beds,” he said. “I sold them all in 1959 and paid cash for my first Corvette.”

That was the beginning of a long, enduring love affair with Corvettes.

“This is the car I won Lake Afton with in ’91,” he said, indicating a white Corvette stacked high with books and boxes of parts. Surprisingly, what at first appears to be clutter is apparently well organized, as Gottlob can disappear down one of the alleyways for a few seconds and return with exactly the brochure or keepsake he is looking for.

In one corner sits a rare1965 Cosworth Vega, black with gold trim and only 31 miles showing on its odometer. Nearby is an even rarer 1965 Z-16 Chevelle, one of only 200 built.

’I bought that brand new from Tubbs Motors here in Ark City. It’s got 70,000 miles on it. I retired it in ’71,” Gottlob said.

While stationed in Germany in the military, Gottlob had spent his spare time studying engineering, earning several degrees. He also worked in the aircraft industry, learning a variety of fabricating and design skills, all of which transferred directly to his love of racing.

And it was a great time to be a road course racer.

“In 1965, there were 19 road courses in the Midwest,” he said. He raced them all and amassed an amazing record over the years.

His background and winning ways led to a friendship with Ralph Miller, a zone manager for Chevrolet, which in turn led to Gottlob doing consulting work for Chevy on its road racing cars. It also gave him access to special cars.

“This one replaced the white car,” he said, pulling a dusty cover off of a heavily modified black Corvette racer that still bears the battle scars of track duels.

The “white car” was one of those special cars, an ultra-rare 1967 L88 Corvette that Gottlob was able to buy at a deep discount, thanks to his relationship with Chevy racing executives.

“They only built 20 of them. You had to know somebody to get one. I’ve been very lucky in picking the cars,” he said.

The L88 was modified for racing and out of more than 350 races entered, it tallied 150 wins in eight years of competition. At one point the white No. 89 Corvette reeled reeled off an astounding 52 victories in a row.

But it would be a second-place finish that would give Cliff Gottlob his favorite racing memory. With the help of crew members Jack Blatchford and John Wanko, he decided to enter the prestigious 24 hours of Daytona in 1970.

“We drove from Ark City to Daytona and we took second in our class, GT/O, and 11th overall,” Gottlob recalled, noting that the car clocked straightaway speeds of 186 mph during the endurance race. “Then we put the (license) tag back on it and the glasspacks back in the side pipes and drove that puppy back home,” he said.

There was no enclosed trailer — no trailer at all. Only an El Camino so full of wheels, tires and spare parts that the suspension bottomed out.

It was an amazing accomplishment for anyone, but especially for a home-grown race crew from Kansas. Why did Gottlob even attempt it?

“Because they said it couldn’t be done. That kind of came from my Army days,” he said. A few months later, the re-engined car would become the first road racing Corvette to better the 200 mph mark, clocking 203 mph at a track in Alton, Ill.

Eventually, Gottlob retired the car and focused on making a living doing machine work and assembling car projects for other people. He finally had to make the tough call to sell the “white car.”

“I really hated to part with the car, but I was going through some economic strife at the time,” he said. It was later resold to Dana Mecum of Mecum Auctions and David Burroughs, the CEO of Bloomington Gold, which certifies the authenticity of Corvette restorations at a national level.

They have preserved the No. 89 Corvette in as close to its original racing form as possible.

“They left all the battle scars on it,” said Gottlob, who got to climb in the cockpit one more time at a concours event in Champagne, Ill. “They let me drive it. Dana Mecum said, ‘You made this car famous. I want to tell everyone I rode with you.’ ”

Gottlob is still involved in road racing, passing his experience and advice on to a younger generation of drivers.

“I’m just a driving fool, I guess,” he chuckles.

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