I was talking to a pair of legs in a motel parking lot. Midwest winter pale, they were, grease-dirty, jutting from beneath a well-worked-over orange and white '67 Mustang. But this was Colorado or maybe Kansas, sometime, somewhere on the third Hot Rod Power Tour. Those tree trunks belonged to Bret Voelkel, a man who was destined to accelerate straight and true, just not at that particular moment. One thing's for certain: Bret's piece was the only car in the PT armada that rode on air instead of steel.
As a matter of fact, the blown small-block Pro Street Mustang hurt itself just about every day on that tour. This day in particular, the carpeting had caught fire and burned up a little on that road to hell. Shotgun rider Rob Kinnan had the presence of mind to extinguish it with a beer. Nobody got hurt. That was the beginning of a new daily plague. Regardless, most every night Bret was huddled beneath the Mustang, communing with it, talking to it in no uncertain terms, hoping to make it better so that it would wake up and run straight and true again the day following. It ended with finality when the motor up and bent a rod.
In the decade since, Bret's life, as well as his cars, has changed completely. His Air Ride Technologies (ART) is the industry standard: an ongoing R&D program; real-world participation; gauntlets thrown down; full-on, unique products; and a jammed-to-the-gunwales event of his own. He's also completed several cool and different hot rods (a slick '58 Buick among them) and has urged on a company that has become the undisputed leader of its niche. This is me talking now: At first it was all about stance and being able to flop your ride flat on the tarmac when you shut it down. A deck of cards wouldn't have fit beneath the rocker panels. Aesthetics are what they are, art forms true, but usually static, and after a while becomes tiring in its torpor.
Bret had a plan, intuitive or not: He shifted his mental gearbox and stepped up and away from the lowrider gig to develop complete suspension systems founded on the efficacy of the almighty air bladder. He wanted people to aspire to his on-the-ground ethic but he also wanted them to have a suspension option that would outride and outmaneuver the best conventional systems in the universe, yet be absolutely acceptable mile after mile over the road.
I experienced this first hand when I drove many miles on another Power Tour in a Chevy 1/2-ton owned by Donald Hardy. I had doubted. I had scoffed. I had wondered if Bret had lost his mind completely one snowy Indiana night. But Bret's a Midwestern boy who doesn't know the meaning of quit or can't be done. He just went ahead and did it. Donald drove it hard, abused it, and his nose-heavy, 20-inch wheel half-tonner rode and handled better than most purpose-built cars I'd ever been in. That was five years ago, folks. Slap my heretical lips, please. I became an ART bible-carrying convert right there. As for the Stuka alter ego Velocity Camaro, you see here it's a testbed for products under extreme scrutiny, most of which will eventually wind up in the hands of hot rodders like you and me.
The Ju 87, or Stuka, was an early dive-bomber imbued with distinguishing characteristics. It carried two Luftwaffe snots, its wings were gull-shaped, and its fixed landing gear was fitted with sirens designed to unnerve the eventual recipients as the Stuka made its rapid decent. It has been said that once you heard a plunging Ju 87, you never forgot its hellish wail. Even the bombs it carried adapted the scare-the-crap-outta-you sirens. This is our fantasy. Bret's '68 Camaro, while designed as a dive-bomber of more benign ethos, has no connection to the Stuka other than its prebent order for the annihilation of road-bound chumps. Bret replaced the Stovebolt 6 with a World Products Warhawk 427ci all-alloy LS7X engine dyno-proven at 614 hp, which screams in a different way, but screams nonetheless. No less than 575 lb-ft of pavement-rippling torque is full-on at 5,700 rpm. An MSD throttle body sits squarely on the Edelbrock intake manifold, and a John Meaney Big Stuff 3 sequential EFI colludes with MSD coil packs. A Rick's Hot Rod Shop stainless steel tank using a submerged Aeromotive fuel pump and filters pushes pump 93 through Earls 650 Proflex plumbing. Bret thought long about making the exhaust headers unique and brought his idea to neighboring Dynatech, who reciprocated with monstrous 2-inch primary pipe headers, obviously prototyped on the Velocity 427 (12-degree valve-angle cylinder heads). Dynatech plumbed the system through 3-inch-diameter pipes. ART finished off the piece with Vintage Air's Frontrunner accessory drive. Since this was a total high-tech rendition, Bret eschewed the presumed clutch transmission and amended the gear with CompuShift electronics directing the Bowler 4L60E overdrive transmission fastened securely to a Bowler tubular crossmember package. Ancillary help is in the form of an Earl's engine oil and transmission fluid cooler. Torque ropes copiously down a carbon driveshaft from Precision Shaft Technologies to a Ford 9-inch with 3.70:1 gears, a Detroit Locker, and 31-spline Moser axles. Engine cooling, breathing, and inspection fall to a custom-machined ART radiator cap, breather caps, oil cap, and oil and transmission dipstick caps. At the forefront of all this mechanical finesse is the essential Afco LS1 double-pass aluminum core.
What, you expected something ordinary and usual under here? Ol' Bret applied all his magic to Velocity's chassis, beginning with a complete Street Challenge ART air suspension package. Components up front are founded on Ridetech tall spindles, StrongArm tubular control arms, dual-action ShockWaves, Musclebars, and a PosiLink antisway bar, as well as billet tie rod adjusters. The rear combination uses the AirBar and dual-action ShockWaves. The back tires are large to say the least, and to make sure they'd be able to rock and roll without swiping any of the sheetmetal, ART tunneled them in Detroit Speed mini-tubs. Air control, and therefore the stance, are the province of ART's 4100-series AirPod with the LevelPro sensors. Like the highly maneuverable Stuka, the Camaro jukes with a 12.7:1 Detroit Speed steering box joined with a Turn One power steering pump.
Ain't no better place to begin than with an original, straight, rust-free, 70,000-mile black-plate California car. Bret: "This thing was so perfect that it needed no panel replacement or panel repair, interior or exterior. I've started with rust buckets and I'll never build another car from one of them again." Precision Coachworks (paintgods.com) did the deed and did it admirably. John Hemmer is the body shop manager at Precision and coordinated the whole scheme. Dennis Neihaus and Kurt Blackgrove made the body panels really coincide compared to how they were originally "fit" in Van Nuys 40 years ago. The color is Velocity Mandarin Orange and all paint products were supplied by DuPont Hot Hues. The craftsmen at Precision refrained from attaching a spoiler and they left the hood flat and original, reason being those metal-colored stripes are indeed bare-metal original, not paint. In fact, the entire body could have been clearcoat naked. To disrupt Camaro purists further, Precision bobbed the bumpers, metal finished 'em, and did them up in clearcoat, too. They hand-formed the aluminum air diffuser at the rear of the car as well as the in-your-face front splitter. Precision could not stop. They built custom LED taillights, front valance screens, and radiator support/fender braces. Some components will likely be reproduced for sale in 'glass and/or carbon fiber. Since our insect pals, especially the flying variety, outnumber humans by the megabillions, Shields in Martinsville, Indiana, produced a hard-coated Lexan windshield (nice Technicolor splat?) and backlight from the same material.
Props first: Bret Vaal is the master TIG guy at Air Ride and welded up numerous special pieces at various times of the day and night. Rodney Mason built the first ever TigerCage ... in the finished car! John Hochegsang does the prototype CNC work and made dozens of the special trim pieces, many of which will soon see production. Brit Marolf, also an Air Ride crony, spent just a few hundred hours doing all the vehicle, EFI, transmission, and stereo wiring chores via an American Autowire Highway 22 system. He included Electric Life power window lifts and couldn't help but build a custom switch panel to direct the entire composition. Kurt Blackgrove built the instrument panel, the center section of the dash, and the console cover. A symbiotic aura was essential to the cockpit. The Air Ride crew created it around a RacePak IQ3 dash that includes on-track data logging. Marquez Design is building a complete set of interior panels that the company will soon release for production. To mitigate some of the bug litter, Detroit Speed's seven-speed wiper system makes short work of what's left of the gook. Bret is a sentient being and of the idea that a comfortable driver tends to be an alert driver. Hence, a Vintage Air Gen IV HVAC system (vents are from a John Deere tractor, which they got plenty of where Bret comes from), Kicker Stereo/Sirius satellite with a five-channel amp and eight speakers, and a blanket of Dynamat underneath it all. Atop the Flaming River steering column Bret lays hands on a Corsa wheel and instantaneously manipulates the transmission via one of Steve Chryssos' Twist Machine paddle shifters. The Cerullo Sport GT buckets are imbued with the ridetech.com logo and custom billet bezels installed to complement the mesh headrests. Bret alternately produces velocity and burns it off through Modo Innovation pedals, and when the g's begin to build, Fred Crow's five-point belts keep Bret's torso right where it ought to be.
Bret: "I think the overriding theme of the Camaro is 'necessary improvement.' If something needed to be improved, it was upgraded to the required performance level-and then some. If an item did not need to be changed, it was left alone. I am pretty much over changing things just for the sake of changing them. I've built cars like that before ... that is why I don't any more. This thing is a driver. I drove it home in the rain from the Year One event [last May] at 80-plus. It drives like a new BMW-tight, fast, and smooth ... which is quite a feat for a small car. It ran the autocross at Year One a full three-tenths quicker than the same driver in an '08 Corvette and ran the Road Atlanta track at speeds over 125 mph. A little EFI tuning, a little transmission tuning, a little brake tuning, a little shock tuning, and this thing will be vicious!" Sounds like a name for a new project, Bret.
Special rollers for a special fighter: Three-piece CCW Classic rims are staged with 18x8 dimensions (5.75-inch backspace) and BFG 245/40ZR KDW skins. The back wheels are a bit hairier: 18x11 CCW rims (7.25-inch backspace) handling 335/30/ZR KDWs. The dudes don't shriek. The only sound they make is pulverizing tarmac into dust. Wilwood came up with 13-inch diameter rotors and six-piston calipers at front and 12-inch rotors and four-piston calipers (along with internal parking brakes) on da butt end.