Daring Disappointment - 1996 Callaway C7R

After the painful collapse of the World Sportscar Championship at the end of 1992, the world was suddenly without a top level sportscar series. The resulting power vacuum was subsequently filled by the BPR Global GT Series, the brainchild of Jürgen Barth, Patrick Peter, and Stéphane Ratel. The three were linked to Porsche and Venturi cup series, and decided to join forces to found a new prestigious series for grand touring machines in 1994.

With the total absence of sports prototypes save for major events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, BPR very rapidly gained a foothold in the global racing scene. As the years went by its popularity soared, and it quickly caught the attention of major manufacturers like Porsche, Lotus, Ferrari, Jaguar and McLaren.

The BPR Global GT Series became the world's top endurance racing championship.

The BPR Global GT Series became the world's top endurance racing championship.

On the other side of the pond, the BPR Global GT Series’ flash success hadn’t gone unnoticed either. As luck would have it, American tuning firm Callaway Cars Inc. had started the development of a GT racer a short while before the debut of the new GT series. The firm was famous for its highly modified twin turbo versions of Chevrolet’s Corvette, including the insane 900 horsepower, 409 kilometer an hour (254 mph) Sledgehammer.

The company was capable of much more than just brash overpowered speed record cars however. Callaway was no stranger to the European racing scene, having prepared powerful V8-engines for Aston Martin’s 1989 AMR1 Group C car. Having learned much from his time with Aston Martin, founder Reeves Callaway decided to focus his efforts towards producing his own GT machines to challenge the European establishment.

The Callaway C6 SuperNatural was a relative success.

The Callaway C6 SuperNatural was a relative success.

The project started life in 1993. Just a year later one half of Callaway’s plan had been completed, with the introduction of the C6 SuperNatural GT2, a heavily modified version of the C4 Corvette. The car performed admirably in both BPR and at Le Mans, leaving much of the GT2 field far behind in qualifying. The SuperNatural’s relative success was certainly encouraging, but Callaway wanted to take the fight to the highest level. To do this the decision was made to enter the far more extreme GT1 category.

GT1 had started out as a home for mildly modified road going supercars like the Mclaren F1 and Ferrari F40, but with each passing season the cars became a little more extreme. After just two short seasons Porsche torpedoed the humble nature of the regulations with their 911 GT1, a pure racing car more akin to the Group C prototypes of old. The clever Germans had exploited the rulebook to the fullest extent. The regulations stated the cars competing had to be based on a road legal vehicle, but didn’t specify how many of those vehicles needed to be produced. This prompted Porsche to design a machine which was a racing car first and a road car second.

Corvette no more: the C7R was a completely new design.

Corvette no more: the C7R was a completely new design.

Seeing the same opportunity, Callaway set about designing a similar machine. The new car, dubbed C7 in good tradition, would be built up as a racing car with road use as an afterthought. With this in mind Callaway decided to abandon the familiar Corvette base, and design their first complete vehicle.

To ensure a competitive package, Callaway set up some key design parameters. Firstly the car would have to be a simple as possible to increase serviceability and reliability. Secondly the car would have to be as light as humanly possible, guaranteeing good tire life, acceleration, braking and cornering. Lastly the design should ensure high top speeds through the use of clever aerodynamics and a huge powerful V8.

One key feature curiously missing from this battle plan was the location of said big V8. Ever since the early 1960’s mid-engined designs had been dictating the pace in virtually all disciplines of motorsport. Stubborn as they were, even Porsche had acknowledged this, as the normally rear-engined 911 reverted to a mid-engined layout for the GT1 model.

The big V8 was found in the front, but behind the front axle.

The big V8 was found in the front, but behind the front axle.

Mirroring their compatriots Panoz, Callaway decided to throw two decades of development to the wind. Despite the opportunity to turn the C7’s bespoke carbon fiber monocoque into anything they saw fit, the car ended up with the engine in the front like a real car should.

The engine in question was based on the SuperNatural unit, complemented by a large Roots-type supercharger. Because of GT1’s intake restrictions, the big brute belched out 650 horsepower and a mountainous 835.2 nm (616 ft-lbs) of torque. Although placed in the front of the car, the engine did little to affect its balance, as it was mounted behind the front axle line. This effectively made the C7R mid-engined. With the 5-speed manual transmission mounted in the back, the car possessed an excellently balanced chassis.

The smooth-bodied C7R looked more like a concept car than a racing car.

The smooth-bodied C7R looked more like a concept car than a racing car.

With two cars completed, Callaway immediately went to work. The exploits of the GT2 machine had given the firm easy entry at Le Mans, which presented an immediate opportunity to test the new C7R against the best of the best. Eager to prove their worth, Callaway took the two cars to the French countryside for the 1996 Le Mans Pre-Qualifying Test.

This event was held a month in advance of the actual 24 Hours, and was meant to weed out any cars too slow to compete in the race. Additionally established teams used it to rack up some miles, and new drivers clocked their mandatory night driving hours.

Testing at Le Mans, 1996.

Testing at Le Mans, 1996.

With the second car acting as a reserve, a lone C7R was sent out onto the track to defend the company’s honor. Faced with opposition from production-based machines like the McLaren F1 GTR, Lister Storm GTS, Ferrari F40 GTE, Chrysler Viper GTS-R, and Nissan Skyline GT-R LM complemented by exotic homologation specials like the SARD MC8-R and the new Porsche 911 GT1, the C7R had a hell of a job to do.

The car failed to make an impression on Circuit de La Sarthe.

The car failed to make an impression on Circuit de La Sarthe.

Driven by loyal C6 driver Enrico Bertaggia (ITA) and IMSA GT star Boris Said (USA), the car sadly failed to deliver. The armada of more developed and more advanced GT1 machinery was too much for it to conquer. In the end it managed to set a time only good enough for 53rd in the 66 car field, which wasn’t sufficient for it to qualify. Worse still was the fact Callaway’s own C6 GT2 had beaten the C7R by 6 places, settling into 47th.

The disappointing showing at Le Mans prompted Callaway to introduce some radical changes to the C7R. Gone were the silky smooth lines that made it stick out like a sore thumb. Instead, the car received an aggressive aerodynamics pack consisting of a huge front airdam, a sculpted rear section with and integral spoiler and a much larger straight rear wing. The extensive rebuild had transformed the C7R from a pretty wallflower to a unabashedly muscular beast.

The second iteration featured a much more aggressive aero pack.

The second iteration featured a much more aggressive aero pack.

As the car was denied a Le Mans entry, Callaway decided to keep things a little closer to home. The revised machine was entered into the 1997 24 Hours of Daytona instead. Far from the raging homologation special revolution back in Europe, the team could focus on beating much simpler IMSA GTS-1 machines.

Daytona, 1997.

Daytona, 1997.

For the event Boris Said and Enrico Bertaggia were joined by IMSA specialists Johnny Unser (USA) and Ron Fellows (CAN). The quartet had to commence battle with an assortment of silhouette versions of the Chevrolet Camaro, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Chevrolet Corvette. Also in the mix were three Porsche’s 911 GT2 Evo, a Chrysler Viper GTS-R, a Lister Storm GTL and a NASCAR Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

Getting passed by a Rile MkIII, Daytona 1997.

Getting passed by a Rile MkIII, Daytona 1997.

Again the C7R performed below expectations, managing only 9th on the grid. Luckily the race at Daytona was known for its incredible intensity and car-breaking potential, which should have lended the advantage to the meticulously prepared Callaway.

At the 12 hour mark this was exactly what appeared to be happening. Through retirements and different strategies from its competitors the C7R confidently grabbed the lead in its class. Unfortunately the car’s supposedly bulletproof design developed a fault not long after. An electrical gremlin relegated the car to the pits, and after a while it became clear it would not be able to continue.

The C7R had a brief moment of glory on the famous oval.

The C7R had a brief moment of glory on the famous oval.

Still coming down from the disillusions of Daytona, Callaway received another blow to the chin. The FIA had finally decided to change its homologation requirements, which saw the C7R excluded from further competition. With nowhere left to race and little incentive to continue with the troublesome car, Callaway promptly cancelled the project.

The Callaway C7R was an daring ambitious attempt by a small firm to outsmart the big boys. Like Porsche, Callaway realized the potential hidden in FIA’s moronic homologation loopholes. Their approach was very different to that of the stoic Germans however, and the results showed it.

An unsuccessful run at Le Mans and a heart-breaking DNF at Daytona crushed any hopes of the car being a viable competitor . Adding insult to injury, the FIA slammed the door for Callaway not long after. Sadly, this series of events caused Callaway’s first complete in-house design to be a complete and utter failure.