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First Love

A High School Sweetheart That Actually Puts Out

Johnny Hunkins Feb 8, 2005

For even the least sentimental of people it is not hard to remember their first love. My case is the most pathetic of sorts, being a late-bloomer I didn't feel butterflies in my stomach until senior year of high school. Worse yet, mine was of the unrequited sort. Some more fortunate than I, however, don't have to invoke these images as if it took place in another life. Those fortuitous few have managed to keep their first love at arms length, celebrating their mutual affection physically with some long smoky burnouts, high rpm launches and even quiet nights cruising around town.

Jeff Blackburn of Chesterfield, Michigan belongs to this select group as the proud owner of a 1991 Z28. "I have liked Camaros for as long as I can remember, probably before I was five years old. I even have a picture of myself in front of one at age five," said 25-year-old Jeff. As a child of the eighties he had grown up with the third gen styling, and when more aggressive aero elements were added for the 1991-92 model years he was completely smitten. "While the LT1 was popular, and the up-coming LS1 was exciting, the platform design didn't stand out to me like the third gen. Unfortunately it wasn't until I was out of high school that I could seriously consider affording a nice third gen."

After spending the better part of a year looking for an L98 equipped '91-92 Camaro in good condition, he returned to a previous find at a local used car lot. After six months of persuading, the salesman finally agreed to a "reasonable price." Unfortunately, 18 months later the Camaro was vandalized, which necessitated a new paint job that would open Pandora's box to further modifications. Not long after coming up with a custom candy mix to match the original dark red metallic, the bolt-ons started piling on.

Things started getting serious when he decided to install a NOS wet kit that would deliver 100 hp worth of laughing gas into the stock TPI 350. Little did he know that in short time he would be swapping the L98 for a 383 shortblock and Fastburn heads from GM Performance Parts. Unfortunately, difficulties tuning the stock ECM lead to the demise of the 383, but it was soon replaced by a sturdier 388ci 4-bolt iron block built by nearby Performance Fabrication and Engineering. The General sent this troop well prepared for battle, as it had a GMPP 4340 forged steel crank enabling a 3.80-inch stroke. Crower 5.7-inch forged connecting rods would do its bidding, moving the forged Diamond flat top pistons along a 4.030-inch bore. The Fastburn heads, ported and polished by Advanced Airflow Engineering, were recycled for use with the new short-block. There was no need to let them go to waste, as the 2.00-inch and 1.55-inch valves enabled 275/182 cfm at 0.600-inch lift. Capped off by a complete Comp Cams valvetrain, the heads were well equipped to handle the aggressive 0.622/0.604-inch lift cam Jeff picked out.

The next challenge was making sure the new engine didn't fall victim to the same fate as the last. As Jeff's 388 was equipped with a TPIS Miniram III intake, which utilizes the stock speed density based ECM, he was again having trouble finding someone with the expertise to balance the new components. Many suggested switching to an aftermarket ECU, but he wanted to stay with as many OEM parts as possible to save money and maintain reliability. Luckily he met Shaun Collins, a local tuner whose proficiency far exceeded even some of the biggest names in the industry to successfully tune Jeff's 388 (big cam and all).

With the motor pretty well endowed, Jeff realized that his suspension was definitely in need. PA Racing chrome moly tubular k-member and A-arms were used to stiffen up the front end, while Kenny Brown LCAs and an adjustable panhard bar took care of the rear. However, these modifications did little to keep the 10-year-old chassis from twisting under hard acceleration. Even Southwest subframe connectors and 1LE sway bars could not stand up to the massive torque of the 388ci powerplant, so it was time to take a trip to Club Concepts for a six point chrome moly cage. This important addition might also keep him from being thrown off the track if he decided to make a few passes at any of the F-body events he frequently attends. Unfortunately he has yet to do so with the new motor, but hopes to bring back 11-second time slips on motor. Though his previous 383 lacked proper tuning, he reached 12.6 at 114 mph indicating that the new set up should put him within striking distance of his goal.

"Besides tuning, one of the biggest challenges with this car has been finding the right shock and spring combination," said Jeff. "I had been through several different setups and while I did manage to improve the handling, I wanted it lower and more aggressive looking. I had talked to several people at Air Ride Technologies, but they didn't offer a kit for the third gens. Fortunately I was able to convince them to fabricate a kit for me, and it has given me the adjustability I was searching for without having to remove the wheels as well as combining the looks and handling that I couldn't get otherwise."

In order to make the system work Jeff needed QA1 to custom design a 12 way adjustable strut to work in concert with the Air Ride Technology air strut in the front. Fortunately the rear required less work, regular Bilstein HD shocks were sufficient as no such interaction with the ART Cool Ride air bags was needed. Adjustments are easy as the air pressure in the struts and air bags can be made from a digital controller located in the center console. Jeff says he keeps the rear dialed in at about 65 psi on the street and 70 on the track with an extra 5 pounds on the left to compensate for his body weight. In the front the QA1s are set to full loose at the track with the air strut adjusted to about 60 psi to enable weight transfer, while normally running 85 psi on the street. "Out of all the modifications I have made to this car, the ART suspension is the best thing I have ever done. It truly makes it enjoyable to drive, it handles just as tight as the coilovers without the punishing ride."

After coming this far, it seems there was no stopping Jeff as he continued on his warpath of modifications. A Baer Racing 13-inch Track kit replaced the now underpowered front brakes and Baer Racing 12-inch rotors were used for the rear. To fit the upgraded brakes and maintain the stock looking five star wheels, Jeff contacted Larry Kingsland at Boze Alloys who had just the solution. Stinger model wheels crafted out of billet aluminum with a custom offset allowed him to run 18x8 and 18x10s with out the large Toyos rubbing or adding too much weight. Next, he purchased a fiberglass hood from ASCD that effectively removed 80 pounds from the nose of his Z28. Lastly, the interior was pimped to no end, adding Corbeau racing seats, a complete set of Autometer gauges, a 3,000 watt stereo system, Playstation 2 and a navigation system. The unfortunate down side to these accessories is that they total about four hundred pounds. On raceday though, he trims it down to a slim 3,100.

Even with the large amount of modifications, Jeff has managed to keep the exterior as stock looking as possible, a testament to his true love of the factory styling. Instead of looking to completely change the look of his car, Jeff's goal through all of this has been to maintain what he always loved about the car with a few subtle changes. A little more rumble to the engine, a little more sparkle to the paint, and a little lower stance go a long way to make an aging beauty queen look like a high school cheerleader. There are very few among us who can say the same about our first love.


The ride height is raised on the Air Ride Technology suspension with the push of a button. 3,000 watts and three 12-inch JL Audio subwoofers are enough to rattle your fillings loose.

The owner-installed cover conceals plenty of wires, not to mention the two 10-pound nitrous bottles.

Mmmm...Boze and Baer, two killer B's. These polished billet wheels were designed to look similar to the stock five star Camaro wheels, but with much larger 18x8 and 18x10 sizes making a perfect match to the high-performance Toyo Proxis T1-S rubber.

A new stock dash, center console and door panels are overshadowed by the Corbeau TRS leather seats, B&M Megashifter, Autometer gauges and MacEwen white face gauge overlays.

An ACCEL 58mm throttle-body feeds the Miniram III, and is matched nicely by the polished Hotchkis chrome moly strut tower bar and Chevy valve covers. A 200-horse jug shot should pump power to around 650 at the flywheel.

At six feet, two inches and 200 pounds, not only do Mustangs not fit Jeff Blackburn's frame, but they don't fit his style.

Baer's 13-inch track kit is used up front and 12-inch rotors in the rear to keep Jeff's 388 powered Z28 on the pavement where it belongs.


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