There are some of us in this world who are Luddites: We like fountain pens, miss our film cameras, and still find ourselves mightily stirred by the low rumble of a big-block. Practicality, however, drags many of us kicking and screaming into the modern era, which includes the LS series of engines from GM.
Introduced to the Corvette in 1997, the new architecture of the LS engines began with the customary 5.7-liter displacement (346 cubic inches, to be precise). All aluminum and fuel injected, the new motor made nearly 1 horse per cube and hit fuel-economy numbers literally twice or better what the old ground-pounders from the 60s could do. Both powerful and efficient, it was an entirely different kind of wicked than the old small- and big-block V-8s that preceded it.
Good things typically migrate, and the LS has done exactly that, becoming the motor of choice for engine swaps of all kinds. For these carsand the many thousands of Corvettes, Camaros, Firebirds, trucks, and other vehicles that came with LS power from the factorytheres LS Fest.
Sponsored by Holley, a leader in the LS aftermarket (and some of whose conversion parts will appear in an upcoming LS swap on our 72 coupe project car, aka Scarlett), LS Fest is a long weekend held annually at Beech Bend Raceway in Bowling Green, Kentucky, a stones throw from the Corvette Museum. Note that its held at a racetrack: While there is a show-n-shine event, as well as a leisurely cruise through the nearby rolling countryside, LS Fest is about going fast in a safe, controlled environment.
Even if you dont want to put your own baby out on the track, theres great joy to be had in watching someone take out a flawless C6 Grand Sport and simply flog it. While you can show up in any kind of car, only LS-powered vehicles are allowed to raceso while I made the trip up to Bowling Green in Scarlett, she stayed in the parking lot.
Much of what has driven the popularity of the LS is the Pro Touring movement, many of whose adherents were in evidence at the Fest. A natural follow-up to the drag-race-oriented Pro Stock cars, the Pro Touring canons require that a car be able to accelerate, stop, and turn with equal confidence, as well as being able to be driven comfortably for some reasonable distancethings, incidentally, that the Corvette has always done. With this ethos, it doesnt take long to figure out why the lightweight, efficient LS has become so popular. As one of the major Pro Touring events, LS Fest features racing events geared toward all these newly appreciated facets of automotive performance: drag racing, braking, autocross, and even drifting.
Drag racing is, in many ways, the main event to watch, with covered bleachers on either side of the track. In an endless line, the Camaros, Corvettes, and everything else step up, stage, and disappear into the mirage down the track. If I had any remaining prejudice against the idea of non-big-block cars being fast, LS Fest pretty much sorted that out: The fastest Corvette there, an 07 Z06 piloted by Mark Carlyle, cleared the quarter in 7.47 seconds, with a trap speed of just over 206 miles per hour. Thatll do.
Speed Stop is drag racing with a twist: In addition to launching as hard and fast as you can, you have to haul the car down to a complete stop within a box of cones. Lowest time wins.
In many ways, according to Jeff Cleary, whose 67 coupe posted the lowest time for a non-ABS Corvette, the Speed Stop is the most difficult event because of what it does to the cars balance. While accelerating, you want all the weight on the rear wheels, to minimize wheelspin; while braking, you want all the weight transferred up front so the front wheels, which do the lions share of the deceleration, bite hard instead of just locking up and skidding. Coming down from full throttle, though, initial braking makes the wheels want to lock before the front end really gets planted, requiring a delicate touch to keep the car from just sliding gleefully through the box. With a time of 7.4 secondsover a full second quicker than the fastest ABS-equipped Corvette, Mark Hardys silver 06Clearys obviously got a pretty good handle on that part.
His car, of course, isnt every other midyear. Its built on an SRIII chassis with late-model suspension and brakes, powered by an LS7 with a sheetmetal intake and other mods, and was featured recently in these semi-hallowed pages (Zero to Hero, June 12). All told, the black C2 pushes some 700 horsepower and has run as fast as 10.77 seconds in the quarter. It also acquitted itself well on the autocross track.
Generally consisting of a cone course laid out to test a cars handling in a reasonably confined area, autocross is a relatively low-speed eventcompared, say, with those 200-plus-mph trap speeds on the dragstrip. At LS Fest, the course was laid out in a track area about the size of a football field, surrounded by a concrete wall to contain anyone who got a little enthusiastic on the gas.
Autocross, incidentally, is not a spectator sport. Dont get me wrong: You can watch it, and its pretty entertaining to see, but standing behind the concrete wall, idly critiquing other drivers lines and braking technique, is absolutely nothing compared with being behind the wheel.
01 Held each year at the Beech Bend complex in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Holleys LS Fest is a great opportunity to see some beautifully crafted cars put through their paces on the trackand to do the same with yours in a controlled environment.02 For pure go-fast, the action was at the dragstrip, where the competition was fierce. Eleven-second times were relatively common, with the fastest Corvette (Mark Carlyles IPS Motorsports Z06, shown here) posting a blistering 7.47-second quarter-mile time at 206.45 mph.03 Virginias Jeff Cleary put his wild LS7-powered 67 through its paces again at this years Fest, nabbing the VETTE Magazine Fastest Corvette/Speed Stop (Non-ABS) award in the process. He also snared a coveted invite to the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational.04 While you can do a lot of other things in them, this is what Corvettes were made to do: Go fast around curves. Autocross provides one of the safest ways to do that in a legal, controlled environment, where all youre likely to hit is a cone.
Id been talking to Cleary about his car between runs, when I noticed he carried a passenger for a lap. I dont want to be forward, I asked him when he pulled back around to the grid to wait his turn for the next run, but would you mind letting me ride with you?
He grinned. Absolutely!
Let me go get my helmet.
With the helmet on, and having signed the tracks I-wont-sue-you-waiver, I slipped down into the passenger seat, fumbling with the cam lock on the five-point harness, inadvertently releasing it several times until I finally figured out you just plugged each strap in, one at a time. Tightening up the shoulder straps, there was nothing left to do but wait as the line of cars inched slowly toward the starting line. Momentarily leaning my helmet backwards against the padded rollbar behind my seat, I no longer heard the engine. Instead, I could feel its churning idle rumble through my entire body as we waited.
The lights at the starting line come on slowly: pre-clear, stage, and then, without fanfare, an unannounced whisper of a thing, the green light blinks unceremoniously on. And the world explodes, the tires scramble for grip, and the car launches, hurtling forward at improbable speed down the short straightaway as your mind wonders in almost disembodied fashion when youll ever start to slow downand you suddenly realize there are cones right in front of you and youre making a U-turn, smooth and hard, and you feel the even transition from power to brake and back againbrake, gas, brake, brake, gasfeeling the pulsing throttle as the driver constantly modulates the power to the rear wheels, keeping the tires clawing at the absolute limit of traction, right on the ragged edge of watching the scenery start to go sideways. A right, another right, then a left, through the orange cones and toward the white wall, close one moment, farther away the next, and the car negotiates the curves, then the last hard left and a pair of chicanes as you rock from one side through the dogleg, pulling hard toward the pair of checkered flags on either side of the finish line, and then to the stop cone beyond them, where the car must come to a halt or be penalized.
The sensation is unique: rocketing wide open toward the concrete wall, an all-consuming rush, a fear without panic, again wholly focused on When are we going to stop accelerating? And then, suddenly, stillness. The car stands motionless, the checkered flags once again hang limp against their staffs. Look left to see your time in big red numbers on the display near the starting line, then idle slowly back to the staging area and get in line to do it again.
Fastest Corvette honors in the autocross went to Russ Coleman and his silver 02 Z06, which negotiated the cone course in a blistering 44.31 seconds. Its worth noting here that in addition to its own merit as a track event, LS Fest also serves as a qualifying event for the wildly popular Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational, which ensures fierce competition from all comers. This is especially true for companies like Pro Touring powerhouse Detroit Speed, which showed up with some particularly impressive first- and second-gen Camaros, and whose reputation is built on making old American iron handle. And make no mistake, while Corvettes are more naturally suited for such things, the Camaros finished strong, accounting for four of the fastest five cars in the autocross, with an LS-powered Miata being the sole standout.
While it went on throughout the duration of LS Fest, I didnt sit down and watch the drifting until late Sunday afternoon. The event was held in the same track area as the autocross, but with the cones moved around to create a figure-eight of sorts for the drift cars. While there were Nissan 240SXs, other Japanese cars, and a sole late-model GTO, significantly, there were no Corvette drift cars.
For those unfamiliar with it, drifting is basically what we all would have done with our Corvettes if wed had them in our teens. Revolving almost entirely around the idea of controlling the car while skidding sideways around the track in a cloud of smoke, often in groups of three or four, drifting looks like a combination of synchronized swimming and most of the common moving violations. I have no comprehension of how its scored, and my general assessment of the sport was well-summed-up by the words some anonymous wag Sharpied on a porta-potty at Road Atlanta: Drifting isnt racingits screwing up. That said, when some dude in an LS-powered 240SX starts blasting toward you at the speed of heat, engine at full song, then yanks the hoon stick and turns that sucker sideways at a good 60 or 70 mph, pulling around the end of the track in a flawless loop, its hard not to be impressed.
After Id had enough fun admiring their driving skill, it was time to head outtime to make the long drive down to Nashville, then east, over the sinuous curves of Monteagle, through Chattanooga, and finally, home. Home to call the engine builder to check on that LS3 416 were building for Scarlett, to get out that check for the transmission, and to plot to show up again next year behind the wheel of a car built with malice aforethought.
...hurtling forward at improbable speed down the short straightaway as your mind wonders in almost disembodied fashion when youll ever start to slow down
05 Indiana-based RPM Transmissions brought a handful of fleet Corvettes to the Fest, including this nitrous-snorting C6, which ran mid 9s in the quarter.06 While it wasnt the primary focal point of the event, the Show-n-Shine area nevertheless contained a panoply of impressive, LS-powered street Vettes. This LS1-swapped C3, in particular, really gets around: We spotted it at the Mid America Motorworks Funfest in Effingham, Illinois, a week later. 07 Fest-founder Holley is one of the leaders in LS performance and conversion parts, as evidenced by this Hi-Ramtopped LS3 in display at the companys tent. Keep an eye out for an upcoming LS swap into our 72 coupe project car, a job that will feature several Holley components.08 Where theres smoke, theres tire. If youre sensitive to the smell of burning BFGoodrich, LS Fest may not be for you. While the water box at the dragstrip is the main culprit, most autocross competitors also light em up before staging, not to mention the drifters.09 Clearys wasnt the only LS-motivated midyear at the event. We spotted this LS1-powered convertible tearing it up in the autocross (shown), dragstrip, and Speed Stop events.