JFK, Gordo and Gus
Rathmann had a Chevrolet dealership near Cape Canaveral, and GM saw the marketing value of the astronauts driving Corvettes.
The company let Rathmann lease Corvettes to astronauts for $1 a year. Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard took him up on it.
About thirty miles south of the Cape’s launch-pad row, Jim Rathmann ran the local Chevrolet dealership. A world-class race-car driver who was the 1960 winner of the Indianapolis 500, he was really cut from the same cloth as the astronauts, the only difference being that Rathmann did his speed on the ground instead of in the air. He worked out a deal with General Motors to give the Mercury Seven new Corvettes. Of course, such an arrangement would not be tolerated today by NASA, but in 1960 Jim Rathmann sold General Motors on the fact that the public-relations and advertising benefits would more than offset the cost, and the guys happily hopped into a strong friendship with Rathmann and his hot ’Vettes.
At first, there was a Barney Fife wannabe who was determined to give the astronauts tickets. The Mercury Seven, and those who had gathered to watch the fun, regarded this deserted and restricted road as none of his business. They took his ticket book and ripped it to pieces. Cooper decided to eat a few pages while the others undressed the “Rent-A-Cop” and threw him and his pistol, badge, and uniform into the surf. Next they drove his patrol car deep into the sand, where it took two wreckers to get it out. It was a great way to get rid of the tension that built up during the long work hours, and the polite astronauts thanked Barney Fife for the good fun.
The traffic-cop matter was soon dropped because the U.S. Attorney had the final say on federal property, and it seems that he had married the sister of one of those involved. The ticket writer was invited to leave the Cape. He found a ticket-writing vacancy in the Cocoa Beach Police Department.
Soon Gordo Cooper was leaving Alan Shepard in the dust at the starting gate of the drags. Alan wasn’t laughing. Fuming, he turned to Gus. “What the hell’s going on?”
Gus grinned. “You’re getting your ass kicked,” he told Alan, who drove off disgusted and headed for Rathmann’s Chevrolet.
Jim was in the garage, and Alan went in growling. “There’s something wrong with my car, Jim; you gotta do something.”
“Leave it with me, Alan,” Jim said, smiling.
Jim Rathmann partnering with Gordo on the prank, and when Alan picked up his ’Vette and tried Gordo again, he lost. He had expected his ’Vette to perform better, but now it was even worse. Alan was beginning to smell a rat, and he took the car in again, even more adamant with Jim that something be done.
Fighter pilots had a tradition of painting swastikas or rising-sun flags for each kill on the side of their cockpits during World War II. When Alan's Corvette was returned this time, his car had four Volkswagens and two bicycles painted on its driver’s door.
He soon learned the mechanic had changed the rear-end ratio on his ’Vette. This gave him more speed but less pickup. Gordo’s car could outrun Alan’s for about two miles—long enough to win every drag. It was truly a classic “Gotcha.”
Alan once loaned his Vette to his boss, Walt Williams, at NASA, but realized it was a perfect set up for a prank:
Alan turned and ran into the launch pad’s office. As Walt was turning onto the main road, he phoned the cops. “This is astronaut Alan Shepard,” he shouted. “Some sonofabitch just stole my Corvette. He’s headed for the south gate.”
Walt chugged and jerked Alan’s ’Vette up to the Cape’s exit, and the guards pounced on the stoic man, lifting him from the car and spread-eagling him over the hood.
Alan was already on the phone with NASA security chief Charlie Buckley. “You better get to the south gate right now, Charlie,” he laughed. “They have the boss in handcuffs.”
Astronaut Gordon Cooper (seated in race car) is seen here with Jim Rathmann (kneeling) and astronaut Gus Grissom (standing on left) in Rathmann’s garage, where most nasty pranks were hatched.
From left to right Jim Rathman, Jim Robbins, and astronaut Gus Grissom
They got along great, and in 1965 Cooper, Grissom and Rathmann, at Rathmann's suggestion, bought a rear-engine supercharged Offenhauser called the Pure Firebird Special.
They entered the car in the 1966 Indy 500.
Cooper and Grissom at first were silent partners but soon admitted they were the "G" and the "C" in "G.C.R. Inc.," the car's registered owner. They hadn't notified NASA of their venture, and NASA was not happy. "We were called on the carpet for it," Cooper said a month later.
"That bothered me because I figure this is part of our private life and didn't seem right for them to be regulating it. I figured it was part of our recreation and hobby interest. But when we got to the right people, there was no problem at all. Gus and I and some of the other astronauts are real interested in racing. Gus has a competition Corvette and I have a single-overhead cam 427 Ford that can go 180." Cooper said
1966: Lee Roy Yarbrough tried to qualify a car owned by astronauts Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper and 1960 "500" winner Jim Rathmann.
Greg Weld was hired to drive the Pure Firebird Special. Weld crashed the car on his final qualification attempt. The car was repaired, and Art Pollard drove it the rest of the season and had his best finishes, a fourth and a seventh, in races at the Milwaukee Mile track. Cooper and Grissom, when they had a weekend off from NASA, worked on Pollard's pit crew.
Months later Grissom ordered from Rathmann a new Corvette, a 1967 convertible specially geared and modified in the rear to accommodate extra-wide racing tires.
Cooper and Rathmann returned to the Indy 500 in May 1967 with another race car. Grissom was gone, but they continued to call their team G.C.R.
After the 500, it was revealed that Wally Schirra very quietly had been a part owner of the 3rd place race car driven by Joe Leonard, 2 time Indy car series champion and three-time American Motorcyclist Association champion, one of only two drivers to win national championships on two and four wheels. The only man to win back-to-back national championships in motorcycles and cars Indy, '71 and '72. He took 3rd at the Indy 500 in '67 and '72
In total, he won 27 national AMA races and six IndyCar races, and he also raced BRCA midgets