“They threw the green flag and the oil light went on! As the oil light came on, I said, ‘that’s it. I’m not doing this again.’ ” Is it really possible that Mark Rife’s ’63 Corvette Stingray coupe had run its last lap in anger? After 35-plus years of heavy abuse on autocrosses and road courses, you can see Mark’s dilemma. Why continue to beat on an old car that was not only a sought-after classic, but an important family heirloom laden with golden memories?
Quitting, however, was not an option. Competitive to a fault, this highly driven businessman and Vietnam veteran from Dayton, Ohio, soon saw the light. The red mist of competition cleared from his skull, Mark saw the bigger picture: he and his family had derived so much enjoyment from the ’63 over the decades that he couldn’t bear the thought of retiring it to mere show car status.
Let’s turn back the clock to 1972, when Mark originally purchased the 22,000-mile split-window coupe to use as a race car. He’d rescued it from an ill-fated attempt at a stock restoration, but don’t worry chalk-mark dudes, Mark still has all the original parts. “I bought it to race. It even had a rollbar in it,” Mark says. “I had it together that winter for a mall show in Dayton and by summer I was racing the car, autocrossing it. We didn’t embarrass ourselves too bad.” It quickly became the family toy that the Rifes all enjoyed. As events would unfold, the now Viper-red split-window will have been raced by Mark and his family for some 39 years. “We made many friends. It was a great big extended family group of about 20 or 30 of us. All the kids grew up together. We were all tied together because of that Corvette.”
Mark and his family started to get more serious, and began vintage racing it. He did some SCCA stuff and things sort of grew from there. “I kind of retired it and did some vintage stock car racing and some spec Miatas,” Mark says. Then about five years ago, a bunch of guys he did some racing with bugged him about going back to vintage racing. He brought the car out and went through it, replacing the foam in the fuel cell and updating the belts to get it ready. Mark ran the 327-powered Corvette over the weekend and things went great—until that dreaded oil light flickered.
Not wanting to take the chance of messing it up, Mark put it in the trailer and went back to Dayton with it. “A friend of mine thought we should pull the engine out and look at it. Turns out it was just the oil pump drive off the distributor. We put autocross tires on it and ran it that weekend.” Problem solved, but it got Mark thinking. If he was going to dust off the old split-window for more serious track work, he really needed to update it with a modern chassis and an über-reliable powerplant.
Mark’s friend, Mike Combs, helped him pull the body off the car back in Dayton. That move prompted an interesting bifurcation of the project that would eventually lead to two cars being built. More on that later. Mark had been to an NCRS show where he found out about Tray Walden at Street Shop in Athens, Alabama. Walden specializes in building modern chassis for old Corvettes using C4, C5, and C6 suspension components. It was just what Mark needed to update the ’63, and by selecting an earlier C4 style, it would allow Mark to mount a five-speed overdrive Tremec in front, behind the engine, instead of in the rear which would necessitate cutting up the body.
Using the old frame as a roller, the car went to Trophy Rides in Wilmington, North Carolina, for body and paintwork. (This would make it the sixth time Mark had painted the car since he’d had it.) As part of that parallel chassis/paint process, the wheels and tires (315s in front and 335s in back!) had been selected with the mission statement: make these fit! Mark says: “I told [the chassis guys at Street Shop] what wheels I wanted to put on, so he put some extra gussets in the chassis.” The fender flares had been put on back in 1975, so the goal was to build the new chassis with the suspension as in-board as possible.
New Street Shop frame in hand, Mark decided the old ’63 frame might make the basis for a nice vintage racer to replace the ’63. “I had the body off, so I took all my old race setup off, and I bought a ’69 Corvette from eBay,” Mark says. “I sold everything off of it and put that ’69 body on my old ’63 chassis. I don’t have any memories with that car, so if I tear it up, who cares? It’s just money.” The ’63 was now free to explore all the limits available to modern technology, and that would include a GMPP LS7 crate engine mated to a Tremec five-speed overdrive.
Pretty much a Corvette guy since birth, Mark has driven nearly every generation of the pla
Mark tells PHR: “I had been at probably about 500 hp back in the day with the old 327 small-block, and wanted to keep the power about the same. You can’t do that reliably with pump gas these days without fuel injection. I bought the LS7 crate motor and the Tremec five-speed—it’s all stock. I put a K&N filter on it and that’s it.” Mark notes that the power level was initially soft due to some very rich, conservative tuning, but some dyno work yielded impressive results, pushing the tally another 65 hp higher to 454 hp at the tire.
Back to the time line: “I put the engine in the chassis and bolted up the [Wilwood] brakes, put in the lines, and brought the car up to Stainless Works in Cleveland. They built the whole exhaust system: 1⅞-inch long-tube headers into 3-inch dual exhaust. This was the prototype car. The car originally had side-exit exhaust on it, but that wasn’t practical for the new system. They did a very good job on it. All the loud noise is behind me now!”
The car was finally ready for the Charlotte Goodguys in October of 2009. Unfortunately, Mark’s wife, Carol, would not be able to attend with him because she felt ill. With just 100 miles on the new rebuild, the ’63 handily won that autocross. But then life dealt a cruel blow to Mark and the entire Rife clan. When Mark returned from Charlotte, he found out his wife Carol was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—essentially a death sentence. Nine months later, she was gone. “I’m kind of finishing off the dreams that we had with the car,” Mark says.
To that end, Mark tied up some loose ends at his businesses and at home, then hit the road with his ’63 Corvette for a whirlwind tour in 2011. He autocrossed it at Goodguys Columbus, Goodguys Indy (winning a PHR Street Challenge jacket), Goodguys Pleasanton, Goodguys Scottsdale, and Goodguys Del Mar with a stop somewhere in there for the SEMA show and an appearance at the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational. “These five or six weeks of coming out west and all the Goodguys stuff fits right into it. We never got a chance to travel out west due to business, and I’m just completing that dream in her memory. She would’ve enjoyed all this for sure.”
Mark Rife on OUSCI
“At SEMA, Optima wanted me in, and Bret [Voelkel] at RideTech lobbied to get me in too. The car had what they were looking for. But on track, the car didn’t feel good at all. It had a lot of rear brake bias since it was set up for autocross. I thought we had set [the brake bias] back, and we really turned the rear brake bias up instead of down! I ended up spinning it once at Optima. The cars they thought would do well, they would put a chase race car behind you with a camera. They had a chase car behind me filming, but I spun out and they stopped following me. When the rear tried to swap ends on the corner, it spun out. Other than that, the car handled excellent. They don’t give you any test time—you’ve got to be ready when you get there!”
The man behind the machine is owner/driver/wrencher Mark Rife. The woman behind the machin
By The Numbers
1963 Chevy Corvette
Mark Rife, 62 • Carolina Beach, NC
Type: 427ci LS7
Block: GMPP, cast aluminum with pressed-in steel sleeves
Bore x stroke: 4.125 x 4.00
Rotating assembly: forged steel crank, forged titanium rods, cast-aluminum pistons
Compression ratio: 11.0:1
Cylinder heads: stock GMPP LS7, CNC-ported aluminum, rectangular port, 70cc chambers
Camshaft: stock hydraulic roller GMPP LS7, .591-inch lift, 211/230 degrees duration at .050-inch lift
Valvetrain: stock LS7, 2.20-/1.61-inch valves, 1.8:1 roller rocker arms
Induction: stock LS7, injection-molded nylon polymer cross-ram
Oiling: stock LS7, dry-sump
Exhaust: Stainless Works; 1⅞-inch stainless steel long-tube headers, dual 3-inch exhaust
Fuel system: stock LS7/Z06 Corvette
Engine management: stock LS7 Corvette Z06
Ignition: stock LS7 coil-on-plug
Cooling: stock LS7 water pump, custom Griffin aluminum radiator
Output: 454 rear-wheel horsepower at 7,200 rpm
Engine built by: GMPP
Transmission: Tremec five-speed manual transmission with Quartermaster clutch
Rearend: stock ’96 Corvette Dana 44, narrowed 2 inches, posi carrier with 3.73 ring-and-pinion
Frame: Street Shop (Athens, AL) C2 bolt-in chassis for use with C4 suspension components
Front suspension: stock C4 Corvette with Mustang II rack-and-pinion, RideTech triple-adjustable coilover shocks, RideTech-spec Hyperco springs
Rear suspension: stock C4 Corvette, RideTech triple-adjustable coilover shocks with RideTech-spec Hyperco springs, transverse spring delete
Brakes: Wilwood; 13-inch rotors with six-piston calipers, front; 14-inch C5 rotors with 4-inch pistons, rear
Wheels & Tires
Wheels: Team III; 11x17 (front), 12x17 (rear)
Tires: Kumho; 315/35R17 (front), 335/35R17 (rear)