Area Corvette club celebrates 50 years of devotion

By Rick Starr
Sunday, April 6, 2008

No American sports car has remained as true to its two-seat, high-performance heritage as the Corvette.

For 55 years, the Corvette has challenged the world's top sports cars from Europe and Japan.

As an automotive icon, it has no rival.

"It's always been a sports car that turned heads," said Mike Weber of Irwin.

There were no Corvette clubs in 1953 when the first true American sports car rolled off the General Motors assembly line in Flint, Mich.
It didn't take long, however, for 'Vette enthusiasts like Donna Mae Mims of Bridgeville to help get a local club rolling. Mims, who's now behind the wheel of her ninth Corvette, is one of the earliest members of the Corvette Club of Western Pennsylvania.

The club started by having racing events in 1958 but has evolved into the longest-running group of Corvette enthusiasts in the state.

Corvette Club of Western Pennsylvania celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a slogan no other similar club can match: "Shifting Gears for 50 Years."

These days, the club has grown beyond racing. Upcoming events include detailing shows, car cruises, picnics, a tour around the state and a banquet.

"Some members don't even own a Corvette, but they're here because they're enthusiasts," club president John Walko said. "You don't have to have that perfectly restored Corvette to belong to the club. Our club, like many of our cars, is a work in progress."

At the heart of all the activities is the car itself, said club member Laura Forsythe of Munhall.

"It's always been a snazzy car, and it has a lot of power when you want it," said Forsythe, who, in 1953, owned one of the first Corvettes ever driven on Pittsburgh streets.

Club members drive, show and own Corvettes for different reasons, Mims said. She has 170,000 miles on her Corvette and has no plans to slow down.

"My Corvette is just a regular car," she said.

Regular, except for the hood image of legendary movie actress Marilyn Monroe.

Regular, except for the color. All eight of Mims' previous Corvettes were the same shade of pink.

Regular, except for the fuel-injected, 283-cubic-inch V8 engine. Mims' car is strictly business under the hood, she said, and that business is speed.

"It sure has a lot of power," says Mims, who used to race cars at tracks across the East starting in the late 1950s.

While some owners won't drive their prized Corvettes in winter weather, Mims once put chains on hers to plow through the snow.

Walko, 63, of Penn Township, Westmoreland County, recalled watching autocross events during the early days of the club. Members raced against a stopwatch at the newly constructed Norwin Shopping Center on courses marked by cones.

"In the late '50s and early '60s, people would drive out Route 30 on a Sunday," Walko said. "Here was this great asphalt parking lot. I remember, as a kid, looking at these people driving like idiots through the parking lot."

Now, the club has more than 450 active members from all walks of life.

"This isn't a club for rich sports car owners, although we have some members who are pretty well off," Weber said.

Walko also drives his Corvette year round. He has 114,000 miles on his 1967 Corvette Sting Ray. The car can run wide open at about 120 mph, and he's reached that mark numerous times at speedways.

Walko said the Corvette has undergone six major makeovers without losing its appeal.

The loyalty of Corvette owners also sets the industry standard.

Weber, 52, said he became hooked on Corvettes while growing up in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh.

"I knew more about Corvettes than some of the (Don Allen Chevrolet) salesmen," he said. "Dollar for dollar, you can't get more performance than with a Corvette. Because of the way they're built (including six-speed transmissions on newer models), you get more horsepower per dollar than any other car on the market.

"And the new (C6) Corvettes are so comfortable, if you put the air conditioning on and a CD in, it's like you're riding in a full-sized sedan."

The club's anniversary celebration will include a trip to Memphis and Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion.

Festivities will end with a Nov. 22 banquet at the Monroeville Radisson Hotel. Events also will include a June 3 cruise across the Roberto Clemente Bridge near PNC Park.

The annual picnic will be at Beaver Run Raceway, Beaver County. Club members will have the track to themselves for an hour if they care to put their V-8 engines to the test.

"It's a chance to drive your Corvette like it was meant to be driven," said Weber, a club member who owns fully restored 1966 and '71 Corvettes.

About 30 Corvettes from the club will be displayed May 18 at the annual spring show at Day Chevrolet, along on Route 286 in Monroeville.

"The Day show is for owners who like to get their car shined up and spiffed up and get it judged for trophies," Walko said. "They like to clean up and detail their cars, and let others appreciate it."

Weber has a shelf full of club trophies that attests to such passion.

"My Corvettes have only seen a few light drops of rain, and only once," he said.

The club also participates in one of the largest gatherings of Corvette enthusiasts in the country, Corvette Carlisle, from Aug. 22-24, in Cumberland County.

Weber said the club can be a resource for anyone interested in restoring an old Corvette, because many members have gone through the process of obtaining rare parts.

The club also raises money at its events, Walko said, for charities including food banks and the Salvation Army.