If you had told Sam Strano back in May 1994 that he would one day win several autocross national championships and make his living based on his experience, he never would have believed you. "I was terrible," Sam said after attending his first event. He had just heard about the sport in a TV ad on the local public station while visiting his sister at Penn State (University). "Luckily that region was very laid back-I asked a lot of stupid questions and nobody laughed." It's no coincidence that today Sam returns that good karma to his customers at Strano Performance, as well as to his performance driving students.
After a stint with a Datsun 280Z, Sam started to come into his own with the purchase of a '91 1LE Camaro. However, when GM announced that for the '01 model year it would be upgrading the intake manifold on the already potent LS1-effectively increasing horsepower to 310 and torque to 340 lb-ft-he knew he had found his ticket to the winner's circle. The order was placed at a local GM dealer for the Arctic White hardtop six-speed Z28 in 2000, and it ran in the SCCA Solo F-Stock Class shortly thereafter. Around that time, Sam began experimenting with different aftermarket products permitted in the class rules, like non-adjustable shocks and front sway bars. His research and development paid off in 2002, when he took home the ProSolo Series Championship. Soon after, more and more people were turning to Strano for advice. Eventually, this blossomed into his current occupation as a performance driving instructor and owner of Strano Performance. When he made the switch to the E-Street Prepared Class in 2004, in what he called a natural progression, more R&D would result in greater products for his customers-and his Z landed him three more trophies in 2004 and 2006, including two national championships.
Strano Performance sway bars, lowering springs, and Koni shocks have played an integral role in the Knox Dale, Pennsylvania-native's success. Having used other production parts, he was able to model his own sway bars after various front and rear combinations. The best balance for retaining some understeer, while gaining enormous bump control and stability, was established with a large 35mm front and modest 22mm rear bar. Using hollow 6.25mm thickness tubing up front, and 4mm thickness in the rear, up to 20 lbs of weight savings could be had over a solid bar. This was deemed crucial in reducing the massive unsprung weight plaguing F-bodies, which is also why great caution is taken in adding more sway bar or spring rate to the rear. Only 150 lb/in is necessary to balance with the custom Koni coilovers in the front, which use 600 lb/in springs. These precisely dialed-in spring rates work in concert with well-tuned, off-the-shelf adjustable Koni shocks for excellent stability that, Sam says, makes his Camaro a better street car than stock.
In addition, the national championship-winning Z sports a number of other key mods for proper suspension articulation and geometry. Custom offset Delrin upper control arm bushings, for example, allow even more negative camber than the limited front suspension adjustments normally do. The stiffer upper bushing is balanced by a softer 1LE rubber bushing in the lower control arm, which is also used in the stock rear-lower control arms. Since class rules prevent the use of rod ends or aftermarket control arms, this has been deemed the best alternative (due to polyurethane's tendency to stick), and it adds roll stiffness and prevents flex. Urethane, however, does prove a valued substance in retaining the sway bars, as it is used in the mounts and endlinks. A K-member from a convertible F-body replaced a damaged stock piece for its extra bracing, but was later considered not much of an improvement.
To combat a severe axle hop problem occurring under hard braking with the use of stickier tires, Sam made the switch to an adjustable UMI Performance torque arm. Though some improvement was made in straight-line traction, the lack of axle wind-up-and its subsequent short-circuiting of the ABS system-made it worth its weight in gold. A QA1 rod-ended Panhard bar from UMI was needed to locate the rear axle without concern for binding or flex. Given the E-Street Prepared's virtually unlimited tire restrictions, the DOT legal Hoosier A6 autocross slicks were chosen in gargantuan 315/35R17 dimensions at all four corners. The meaty rubber required a 17x11 Forgeline RS-Competition wheel to keep weight down, and meanwhile, a set of 17x9 SS wheels was needed to mount Hoosier Radial Wet 275/40R17s to combat hydroplaning on wet courses. Class rules have the Camaro's brakes pigeonholed with stock calipers, but a set of Brembo rotors, stainless steel lines, ATE fluid, and Hawk HPS pads prove sufficient. Though some autocrossers may prefer a grabbier pad, Sam believes a broken-in set of HPSs is more linear and helps prevent overbraking (especially on faster turns).
For straight-line acceleration on the tight confines of the autocross course and highway cruising, Strano's Z28 has the benefit of an SLP airlid and Loudmouth cat-back exhaust. Stainless Works long-tube headers with stainless steel 1.75-inch primaries, 2.5-inch collectors, and Y-pipe with high-flow cats increase the stock LS1's efficiency. A Fluidampr harmonic balancer (with 10 percent underdrive), NGK Iridium plugs, MSD plug wires, Redline fluids, and a custom tune from friend Phil Knowles were the only other components needed to produce 321 hp and 319 lb-ft of torque on a Mustang chassis dyno. These numbers are achieved through a Spec Stage 2+ clutch, stock aluminum driveshaft, and stock 10-bolt rear-though it does also make use of a Torsen T2R limited slip differential.
Surprisingly, despite his success, Sam's Camaro is incredibly streetable, pulls down 28 mpg on the highway, and still retains the factory air conditioning, radio, rear seat, and other amenities. Besides the Sparco Evo racing seat and harnesses, very little has been changed from the stock interior, keeping things quite comfortable. I guess it just proves that you don't need a race car to win races-just a good driver and a good setup, both of which are products of time and patience.