Factory backed motorsports programs are often justified on the premise that racing improves the breed. Theoretically, putting production-based cars through their paces at the racetrack ultimately benefits the quality of the cars we drive on the street. While traditional methods of testing usually sort out the bulk of real world engineering flaws, racing quickly finds the weak links in the high performance realm. If you own a fifth-gen Camaro, rest assured, racing has improved what you drive on the street.
When the latest installment of the Camaro was introduced in 2009, there were never any doubts that it would eventually end up on a racetrack. By 2010, those predictions had come to fruition. That year, Stevenson Motorsports, partnered with Chevrolet, began campaigning the Camaro in two very specific flavors in the GRAND-AM series. The Camaro GT.R, fabricated by Pratt & Miller for the Rolex GT series, was a purpose-built tube-frame car that wore a Camaro skin. The tamer Camaro GS.R, fabricated by Riley Technologies, was the weapon of choice for the production-based Continental Tire GS class. While both appeared very similar, beyond its visual appearance, the GT.R had very little in common with the street Camaro. The GS.R, on the other hand, was a production-based racecar that shared the bulk of its components with the streetcar. The GS.R was also eligible to compete in the European GT4 class in world competition, and the SCCA's World Challenge GTS class.
While the GS.R was labeled as "production-based,"it must be pointed out that anyone with a desire to go racing couldn't simply walk into a dealership and purchase a road-going Camaro, add a roll cage, and hit the track. The GRAND-AM business model, over the years, has been to partner with approved constructors and suppliers to build and support the cars for the series. Their vision with the GS class has been, since its inception, to encourage race competition of standard volume-produced cars sold domestically to demonstrate their quality and reliability. They also seek to promote drivers, manufacturers, and other participants.
As the sanctioned builder, Riley begins the fabrication of every a GS.R from a bare unpainted chassis commonly referred to as a "Body-in-White."They structurally optimize the chassis by seam-welding the entire body and installing a roll cage as specified by the rules. They also install an FIA approved seat, 6-point harness, and an engine oil and differential cooler. Teams ordering a GS.R also have the option of using approved carbon fiber body panels. There is also a list of optional equipment that Riley can provide at an additional cost. The base package will set a team back roughly $225,000 for a complete rolling chassis.
In terms of propulsion, the LS3 is the only engine allowed. As with the chassis, the engine preparation is also done by a licensed vendor. Concord, North Carolina based CRD Engine Development is the designated supplier. As dictated by the rules, CRD starts with a stock crate LS3. They replace the OEM pistons with forged units yet retain the stock compression ratio. As a measure to increase durability, valve springs are also changed due to the additional stresses. Beyond that, they still use a stock intake, and exhaust manifolds, and each engine is sealed to prevent any further tampering. The gearbox is also an off-the-shelf item. All the GS.R's come with the 6-speed Tremec TR-6060 manual box. It is kept in its stock configuration right down to the gear ratios. They also use a stock differential housing yet are fitted with an OS Giken limited slip differential, which allows teams a broad range of adjustability.
While the general spirit of the GS.R is to be compliant with the rules as much as possible, every team finds the grey areas that they can massage to improve things, yet stay within the rules. Stevenson Motorsports lead mechanic, Grant Ford points out, as an example, "we've done a lot of research and development on the ABS module. Bias ABS settings are pretty much customized to each individual driver. We've also done some research on the gearboxes and clutches. Also, when we first started running this car, we were blowing axles in the rear as if they were free. We had to research and experiment with such things as our ride height, different CV joints, grease, and cooling, to get our rear axles to survive. You have to stay within the rules, but you have the grey areas within those rules."Team manager, Mike Johnson also adds that, "Our car came out before the ZL1, so there were a lot of things we did that we learned from. There are some things we've done and suspension problems we've solved in the road-racing environment. Some of these GM has been able to incorporate into the ZL1, and especially in the 1LE."This transfer of technology is the cornerstone on which GM builds most of its racing programs.
2013 marks the fourth year that the Stevenson squad campaigns fifth-gen Camaro's. They double up with one GT.R in the Rolex GT series, and a GS.R in the GRAND-AM Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge series. John Edwards and Matt Bell return as the drivers in the No. 9 Camaro GS.R. Edwards is also the full time driver in the GT.R. As in previous years, the season kicked off on the banked ovals of Daytona. With a fresh car, the team was hopeful for a solid start to the season. However, Daytona is a track that presents a unique set of obstacles for teams. The combination of the banking and infield road course challenge teams to achieve a balanced setup. With a limited amount of track time, dialing-in a car can become a make-or-break situation leading up to race day.
The team was looking for a decent result in the books leaving Daytona. Unfortunately in the first practice session, they ended up with body damage as a result of contact with a Mustang. In the second session, with Edwards at the wheel, a fuel line ruptured, causing a massive fire in the engine bay. He reacted quickly as the cabin filled with smoke, and was able to get the car as close to a fire station as possible before getting out of the car. The damage was so extensive that everything at the front of the car was destroyed. This forced the entire team to readjust strategies in order to repair the car. Johnson put it in perspective by stating that, "this was more of a mental setback than anything else because it just took away any momentum we might have had from any practice session, or from the end of last year, and it annihilated it right off the bat. You have to get past that. Once we saw what we really had, then all we lost was some track time and a little bit of sleep."
Anyone who doubts the expression "racing is a team sport"would only need to witness the effort that went into repairing the No. 9 Camaro. As a result of the fire—the engine, the wiring harnesses, along with all the auxiliary components, right down to the subframe assembly, needed to be replaced. The rebuilding effort required the assistance from both sides of the Stevenson Motorsports tent. Bell explained that, "once you figure out the Camaro, you can build a formula and you know to what point you can go back. They had to replace the whole subframe. With the alignment, and how these cars are built, every time you bolt a new one on, there are subtle differences with the tuning, and everything you need to do, so the team had to play catch-up really quickly."The herculean effort from both groups got the job done. It was enough to allow for one test lap in Friday's final practice session ahead of qualifying. With a car that was unsorted, they managed to qualify with a 1:58.009 minute lap, which was good for the eighth spot on the grid.
Bell would be the starter for the two hour and thirty minute race. At the front of the pack, the Camaro was stacked behind a few Aston Martin's, a Porsche, BMW, and some Mustang's. There were also three other GS.R's in the field. Since this was a sprint race, there was no shortage of aggressive driving, which resulted in numerous lead changes. As a consequence of a lengthy yellow flag caution early in the race, at the restart, that aggressive driving caught the leaders out as they made contact, which allowed Bell to assume the race lead. That lead would last for a few laps. Almost mid way into the race, Bell handed the Camaro over to Edwards, who rejoined the action in the fourteenth position. As the race progressed, Edwards was able to stay towards the front of the field. The Camaro gave up speed on the banking, yet was able to reel the faster cars in the road course section. With 15 minutes left in the race, Edwards was running in the third spot, but gradually slipped back to finish sixth.
"What a great result, considering where we started,"Johnson pointed out. "We had maybe 20 laps of practice the whole weekend. After the fire, we had an out-lap of practice, and one lap of qualifying, and we still had a car that ran in the top-five all day, led a bunch of laps, and finished sixth. This is a great start to the season, and the good news is that the car was really fast on the infield, so once we get to some handling tracks, and if we can keep that reliability up, we'll be in a great place."
In a surprise move, to make sure no cheating took place, Grand-Am pulled all the front-running cars and strapped them to a dyno in one of the garages right after tech inspection.
The Stevenson GS squad left Daytona sixth in points. On the series second stop at the new Circuit of the Americas, the Camaro ran third for most of that event. They were punted off with fifteen minutes left, and ended in tenth overall. That result wasn't what they had worked for, but it was still a top-ten finish, which moved the team to fourth in the points race.
Round three took place at Barber Motorsports Park. Bell qualified the GS.R in the seventh spot. On race day, the Camaro ran up front for most of the event. Towards the end, Edwards missed a shift, which was just enough to give up the lead. They ended in second overall, which moved the team up to second in the points standings. On the Rolex side, the GT.R won its first race of the year.
With momentum on their side, the Stevenson crew came to Road Atlanta for round four on a high note. Qualifying was cancelled due to heavy rain on Friday, so the starting order was determined by the points standings. Bell started from the front row and was able to keep the car up front during his stint. When Edwards assumed control, efficient pit work allowed them to stay in the hunt and ultimately gave them their first win of the season in the GS class. This was a historic weekend for Stevenson Motorsports, who also won with the GT.R in the Rolex race. "It was a great day,"said Johnson. "Like last weekend at Barber, we didn't come in thinking we would do very well in either class. The GS car struggled all weekend. I don't think we ever cracked the top-10 in practice. We didn't even put on new tires until the race. We got to start up front because of points, because we've been having a good year, and Matt (Bell) kept it up front, and John (Edwards) kept it up front, and it was a great race."The win solidified their second spot in the points and moved them closer to first in the GS category.
With seven races left on the schedule, the championship will be won on consistency. That consistency will depend on teamwork and reliability. The Stevenson crew is having an excellent season, and the success of the Camaro on the track is a testament to the quality of the cars that GM builds for the street.