Last year 27 cars showed up to run hard and prove that with the right combination of parts, and driver's skill, old cars can be made to perform as good as, if not better than, modern sports and muscle cars. The event was the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational, and it was part of a growing trend we're very happy to see.
We still remember when cars were judged by how many square feet of chrome festooned their engine bays, and how fast they appeared, not by how fast they actually were. No one really cared if it could handle; all that mattered was "the look." In hindsight, those were dark days. Today we can have our cake, and chow down on it as well. Our cars can look wicked fast and actually back it up on the track. This is thanks in a large measure to the aftermarket, which has stepped up to offer a plethora of performance-based upgrades for our Camaros. Another reason is the desire of builders and owners to run their cars hard. In turn, this has driven the aftermarket to work even harder to churn out cutting-edge performance parts.
Last year our 1968 Chevy Camaro took home the top honors. We had a good car and a great team of drivers. As winners, we were the first invited back, and we knew it was going to be a whole new ball game. You see, last year there was a scant two months' notice of the event, but this time everyone had a full year to prepare. What kicked ass last year would only "keep up" this time around.
For the most part the rules were the same as last year. Each of the three performance event's lap times would be accumulated into a final score. Think of golf: The low score wins. The build quality and style portion would be judged on a 1-10 scale with 1 being the best score. Also, any car not able to finish all the events would be disqualified. On the big course, there would be a warm-up lap followed by two timed laps, then one cooldown lap. The cars would be sent out individually; it wouldn't be fender-to-fender racing though. The autocross would consist of three timed laps. Hitting a cone would result in a 1.5-second penalty, and making a wrong turn in the cones would result in a DNF. One change this year would allow drivers to be able to throw out their worst time in each event. This way if you made a mistake, you weren't taken out of the competition.
This year a big change was made to the rules. Well, sort of. According to last year's rules, anyone was allowed to drive any car. If you could have talked Michael Schumacher into driving your ride, then more power to you. This year it was stipulated that the owner or builder had to drive the car. The only problem was that the term "builder" wasn't clearly defined.
Last year we put together a team to drive our Bad Penny project car. David Pozzi got the road course, Mary Pozzi got the autocross, and Steven Rupp was to handle the 0-60-0. The new rules meant Mary Pozzi was off the team since she hasn't spun a wrench on the '68 enough to be considered a builder. Sure, we could have embellished a bit and got her on the team, but that wouldn't have been keeping with the spirit of the event. Dave Pozzi would drive the road course and Rupp would handle the autocross and 0-60-0. Rupp is no Mary Pozzi (who is?), but he's gotten enough practice over the summer to become fairly adept at dodging pylons. Besides, driving is more fun than taking pictures all day.
We also gained an invitation to bring our new '10 SS Camaro out to play. Since Rupp was busy with Penny, the natural choice to dive the car was editor Nick Licata. In a former life, Licata was the official wheelman when magazines needed to test cars. In other words, he can drive.
Over the summer, our '68 had been getting beat on at events all across the country. After returning from the Run Through The Hills event in Tennessee, we only had a month to get the Camaro ready to race. After making some changes (detailed in the February issue), we were confident in the car's handling. Unfortunately we had zero experience on the Hoosier A6 racing tires and didn't know what type of feedback we would get on the road course. In hindsight, we should have brought the car home sooner so that we could get some track time.
Our '10 was on the same "rush-to-get-ready" schedule. Blowers, brakes, suspension, and wheels were hastily bolted into place. The new Boze wheels and Nitto NT05 tires were installed literally days before the race. It was crazy, it was hectic, it was hot rodding, and it was fun.
Our '68 was set to be displayed at the SEMA show, so we drove it from Pahrump, Nevada, to Vegas, and after SEMA, we made the 60-mile drive back to Spring Mountain in Pahrump. Unfortunately we had screwed up installing our new brakes by running the wrong master cylinder push rod. This overheated the brakes and warped the brand-new rotors. Thankfully, Todd Gartshore over at Baer took pity on us and hooked us up with a fresh set, but the only time to put them on was the night before the event, in the dark, and using headlights for illumination. Ten hours before the race was to start, we were driving around the Spring Mountain complex trying to bed in the rotors, or at least burn off the zinc coating.
When morning came, the track was alive with the sound of muscle cars firing up and all the other cacophonous sounds associated an automotive event of this scope. Tech inspections, driver's meetings, and warm-up laps started unfolding at a frantic pace. The Ridetech autocross event was running on the upper paddock area, while the road course competition, sponsored by BFGoodrich, became a blur of activity. In the afternoon, that same upper paddock area was reconfigured for the Baer-sponsored 0-60-0 event. If there was any hope of running all 50 cars through the various events, the organizers knew everything had to run smoothly. Concurrent to the performance events, judges were visiting all the cars to score them in the style category. During the day there were failed parts, off-road excursions, scattered engines, and a host of other hiccups, but for the most part everyone had a great time. Sure we were all there to compete against one another, but in a friendly way. When we had to replace a bad pump, tools were offered and assistance rendered, and this wasn't just an isolated incident. With that said, nobody was cutting slack out on the track.
In the end we didn't win, although among our peers, we finished just behind two very badass, sorted out Camaros. Even with the mechanical issues, our '68 did us proud and fought hard. Our '10 also did well, and even though we discovered a few areas that needed addressing, it ran hard and didn't let us down. But most of all, we got to spend the day beating on cars, and that's always a win.
Road Course Report
Driving Bad Penny at Spring Mountain this year was like driving a different car. Gone was the excessive understeer, body roll, and unbalanced handling in left-hand turns I felt last year. Shifting was also much easier due to the new T56 Magnum transmission, and I found I could heel and toe downshift under braking without much trouble. Turn-in and precision was made better by the Pfadt spherical bearings in the A-arms. With all this good stuff happening I expected lap times to drop by several seconds.
A look at the data shows high cornering g-forces, but only a little better than running Toyo R888's, like we did last year. The sticky, autocross Hoosier R6 tires we used this year have a different feel when pushed near their cornering limit, and I don't know if I got the most out of them. I was warned to not over-slide them, but I think I was too conservative. The previous test we did with Penny revealed the rear shocks were severely limited in stroke and causing Penny to snap into oversteer unexpectedly when trying to put the hammer down on corner exit, hurting any chance at building speed down the straightaway. The remedy was longer rear shocks from Bilstein, but there wasn't time to test our fix, leaving me with just three laps on the track to figure it out. I found it very difficult to overcome the feeling that I might be suddenly facing backward! I'm sure with a few more laps, I would have found my "groove," but that's not how this event works. It's the same for everyone, so I guess the moral of this story is, "Know your car."
The Racepak data showed that our miles per hour were higher than last year all around the course, except for Turns 6 and 11, where I hit the brakes too early. We'd installed brand-new rotors on Penny the night before the event (don't ask). They worked well, but were not fully seasoned and broken in. While we had no fade, I took it a bit too easy on them and it shows in the data. I also made a poor choice to not downshift in two places on the course. This left me lugging the engine at 3,500 rpm out of the corners. I didn't want to be upshifting while cornering, and it would have added two extra downshifts, but in retrospect, it would have probably been worth it. While I only missed one downshift, I discovered the clutch master had failed when I returned to the pits and couldn't put Penny in First gear.
Autocross and 0-60-0 Report
What a difference a year makes. With the help of quite a few people, we worked hard on sorting out Bad Penny over the year since the inaugural Optima Invitational. The Camaro ran better, reacted quicker, and overall felt phenomenal when dodging little orange cones. And while David Pozzi had a hard time adjusting to the Hoosier A6 tires on the road course, I had snuck in a practice race the month prior and was anxious to drive the autocross segment. Earlier in the day, David Pozzi reported a power steering hiccup while out on the big course. It felt bad at idle, but improved when I brought up the revs, so we decided to tackle our three timed runs. I launched for the first run and the pump decided to go on vacation. This really caught me by surprise when I went to make my first turn and the steering wheel was unwilling to move. We pulled out of line, but discovered there was nothing to be done short of replacing the pump. Since I had made my first lap, I didn't feel it was fair to stop for a repair. The right thing to do was to suck it up and finish my runs. Let's just say my arms were a bit sore for the rest of the day, but we turned in a respectable time. Later, we ran down to AutoZone, bought a stock GM pump, and thanks to Detroit Speed for lending us a puller, repaired the Camaro. Still, the whole "what if" deal was killing me, so Jimi Day let me make an exhibition run with a fully functioning car. The Camaro performed flawlessly and knocked down a time of 42.89 seconds, a time only bested by the '66 Cobra. That time, even unofficial, made all the work we did worth it. In hindsight I probably should have done the repair before my final two runs, but that's water under the bridge and all of us are very happy with how the '68 performed.
The 0-60-0 event is one that I had practiced, although never on the A6 tires. When the starter said "go," I dumped the clutched and put the throttle to the carpet. The Camaro squatted down, kicked a touch to the left and launched like a rocket (the iPod registered 1.10 g's on the launch). When the indicator light came on I mashed the brakes and the Hawk pads chomped down on the fresh Baer rotors. We had a tiny bit of brake lockup, but the Camaro stayed pretty straight, and our 0-60-0 time of 7.4 seconds was the second quickest of the day. We actually tied a GT-R that was in the exhibition class. He had ABS and all-wheel drive, but we had stickier tires. All in all, we had a great time at the event and we're very happy with the car and will keep making improvements to dial it in. Next year we plan on being back on the podium!
2010 SS Camaro Report:
After getting our '10 project Camaro some testing time a few weeks before the event, I was positive the car was sorted out to the upper edge of its ability. It was ... only one problem, so was every other '10 Camaro at the party.
Overall, the Camaro was ready for a fun day at the track, but "fun" wasn't enough, as it needed to be ready for "battle." We've upgraded the car with stiffer springs and sway bars, but I found out early on in the day that the car was going to need more stiffening. For starters, we'll have to add subframe connectors, strut tower bar, and aftermarket struts. The Baer brakes performed flawlessly. There was no noticeable fade, even on the road course where hard braking can really push the pads to their limit.
As for power, the car might have held up better had we not done the autocross first. It seemed like the intercooler to the supercharger was fine for hard street use, but after being thrashed on the track, heat soak can cause some loss in power. When you are going up against cars that are lighter and have more horsepower than yours, every bit counts.
I was extremely happy with the outcome of the event. The car finished in the upper half of the field, and I got a feel for what we'll need to do to make the car faster.
There's no doubt that with more track time and performance upgrades, the '10 Camaro will be able to keep up with the best of 'em.
And a special thanks to the sponsors • Optima Batteries • Ridetech • K&N Filters • Speed by Spectre • BFGoodrich • Baer Brakes • Magnaflow • Bowler Transmission • MSD • VP Racing Fuels • The Roadster Shop • Pfaff Designs • Felser/Moss • Anvil Auto • Mr. Norm's Garage • FM3 Performance Marketing • Detroit Speed Inc. • Vintage Air • Eibach Springs • Classic Instruments • Goodguys Rod and Custom • Shelby Automobiles • Silver State Classic Challenge
Q Results (*Indicates car was disqualified for not finishing all events)