Unstoppable SCCA B-Production Class 1958-1959 Racer
1959 Purple People Eater – One of the Most Renowned Racing Corvettes in History
The Purple People Eater Corvettes (yes, there were three altogether) raced during the ‘58 and ‘59 seasons. During that time they won the SCCA National B-Production titles and a race at Nassau Speed Week. The Purple People Eater MKIII was a 1959 Corvette that was literally unbeatable in SCCA B-Production racing. The 1959 model, won every race it entered, except the last one, with Jim Jeffords behind the wheel and mechanic Ronnie Kaplan turning wrenches.
The car was built by a team at Nickey Chevrolet in Chicago, said Tom Stephani, whose father, Jack Stephani, was Nickey’s secretary/treasurer. “Primarily, my father was the marketing, sales and promotions guy. My uncle (Ed Stephani) was the finance and operations guy. While my uncle was interested in racing and supported the effort, my dad was the one who really got bit by the racing bug,” Stephani told HMM in a telephone interview. The Stephani family acquired Nickey Chevrolet in 1933, when Tom’s grandfather, Edward, got it in exchange for a mortgage he held on Mr. Nickey’s home.
The car got its name in 1958, when Nickey Chevrolet first got into racing Corvettes. The dealership ordered a stock Corvette with all available “racing” options. “The first car was silver, and when they took it for a shakedown run at a Wilmot Hills, Wisconsin, regional race, my father complained that it was hard to pick out Nickey’s car. Most racers of the day just left their cars whatever color they came in, and there was an abundance of white, silver and light blue Corvettes. Since my dad was new to racing, he wanted his car to stand out. So, after some discussion with the crew, they took it over to the Nickey paint shop and directed them to come up with a metallic purple paint job. This coincided with Sheb Wooley’s ‘Flying Purple People Eater’ song that peaked on the charts in June 1958,” Tom Stephani said.
This story may be argued, but due to the fact that his father was directly involved with this famous race car, Stephani is certain this is what transpired. Today, Stephani is a resource for the Miller family of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who owns the car. The owner was the co-owner of the Carlisle Fairgrounds, Chip Miller, who passed away more than a year ago. Today, his son Lance is the caretaker of the car. At last year’s Corvettes at Carlisle Racers Reunion, Stephani gave Lance Miller some of the original paperwork on the Purple People Eater that, without a doubt, provided authentication for this famous car.
When the Nickey team was looking for a driver, none other than Zora Arkus-Duntov recommended Jeffords to Nickey. Jeffords was considered a very fast race driver, but hard on equipment. So confident was Jeffords that he told Ed and Jack Stephani if he didn’t win the SCCA B-Production Championships in 1958 and 1959, he would reimburse Nickey for expenses. “He basically guaranteed my dad that with the right funding, equipment and personnel he would win the championship, and he did.”
The car had a 283-cu.in. Chevrolet V-8 with factory Rochester fuel injection and a four-speed manual transmission.