Just pinch me. Hard! Even a week or so later I’m still as giddy as a pre-teen, wide-eyed and gawking at a Justin Bieber concert from my front row seat. And for what, you ask? Only being tossed the keys to one of my “bucket list” cars: the Speedway Motors-owned, Al Unser Jr. 1970 Camaro with instructions to drive it like I owned it at Goodguys’ premier event in Columbus, Ohio. Of this I think I can manage.
A rarity, I’m one of those that will eagerly answer my cell even if I don’t recognize the number as I’ve made an Olympic-proportioned game out of tormenting telemarketers. Aside from being buckets of fun, my goal is to put the hurt on those curs of society one by one. For the poor sod calling it is a fate worse than death, as being retired I have time on my hands. Tons of time, and keeping them engaged for what seems like decades can make my day. I salivate with anticipation seeing unknown digits on that screen so when I saw a number that was from Lincoln, Nebraska, I answered thinking my day was complete. A voice asked for me personally and when I truthfully admitted it was moi (usually I tell telemarketers I’ve died), Allison Schneider from A&P Productions got to the point. As Al Jr. was busy doing Indy Car stuff, would I be available to pilot Al Jr.’s 1970 “Johnny Lightning” Camaro for Team Speedway at the Goodguys Show autocross in Columbus, Ohio? My answer: Oh, hell yes! And I was so in for this.
I’d been to this same show six years previous with my own Camaro and competed in the Sponsor Shootout. Of Goodguys Shows, this is “the big one” and is appropriately named as in the three days of the show, there’s miles and miles of so much cool; good luck seeing it all. With several very long rows of vendors, foods that exceeded a daily caloric recommendations in one bite (those little micro-donuts are THE BOMB and I’m thanking my jeans that the line for homemade biscuits and gravy was a long one), car builds that give “perfect” a whole new definition, and acres upon acres of all things automotive. You’d better have comfy footwear and Walmart expand-o pants. The autocross at Columbus has also evolved from what used to be the standard peanut-shaped “in and around and out” to one that really tested drivers and made horses and handling a must.
The Unser Camaro had been driven the weekend before at Goodguys in Des Moines, Iowa, and as these events can take its toll on drivetrains and the like, I didn’t want to jinx it by telling a soul about this in case the car didn’t stay sound. I quietly followed the results that weekend and jumped with joy when the Speedway transporter loaded up, all tools and spares on board—and better yet, not needed—and began its trip east. It was only then the butterflies attacked my courage like a swarm of miffed hornets. Could I do well in the same car that two-time Indianapolis winner, Al Unser, Jr., regularly drove? Did I have the fortitude to get it done in a car I’d never driven before and the first time out would be on the course in front of, like, everyone? How different was this Camaro from what I normally drove and missed cones with by millimeters? We would quickly find out.
I’d met Team Speedway first through Goodguys and from there at SCCA events. What initially struck me was the unity as a team, their willingness to help other competitors, and that the Unsers—Al Jr. and Robby—are highly approachable, thus making them appear to be just one of us. Initially, I was shy and yes, I do have the “shy gene” when in the company of Incredibles, but both of those guys kicked that feeling to the curb and brought me into the fold. And as for the hospitality of help, I speak from personal experience as a couple of years ago my Camaro had a pesky rubbing issue with a tire and an inner framerail that had the Team Speedway guys frantically working and welding to fix it so I could compete in the SCCA Solo Championships even though they had two car/driver teams competing in the same CAM class as me.
For Goodguys, I’d be teammates with Robby Unser, who has a deep racing history and successes in the Indy Racing League (Rookie of the Year, 1998), monster success in Pikes Peak International Hillclimb (nine-time winner and record-setter), and ran the Indianapolis 500 in 1998 (he finished Fifth). He even had a go in Formula D (drifting) for a season, which if you’ve seen him autocross, was obviously spankingly good at it. Robby drives the other Speedway Camaro, a 1967 that resembles a giant, purple-flamed, uber-steroidal, Hot Wheels-lookin’ F-body that, to me, has no equal. Whether standing still or hauling its headlights through the cones, the Purple People Eater receives tons of attention. In fact, there were so many spectators wanting to meet Robby, stand and be photographed with him and both Camaros, commenting about watching him race professionally, and just wanting to say hello to someone they admired that raised my awareness of just what this team is about.
I was an outsider. Someone that Team Speedway had paid an airfare for, fed, and housed so I could drive a car built and prepared by them that regularly had an Unser behind the wheel. I had no say … or did I? Getting this story back on track, my first run was a “handshake with the car” run where we kinda got to know each other and after this inaugural foray, it was so far, so good. Over the day’s runs (we got about seven), I requested a few minor adjustments that I felt would benefit this type of course (a series of straights, offsets, and five 180s), all were able to be done. Times dropped like a stone and when we ended for the day, I got the car to within 1.5 seconds of Robby’s (he was leading overall), and after qualifications, was seeded Fifth in the Sponsor Shootout. “My” Team Speedway Camaro represented TREMEC, which was a double-dose of awesomeness as I run a TREMEC Magnum in my personal Camaro. It’s never given a hint of issue and if there’s one thing I never worry about, it’s that gearbox. The Speedway Camaros also have TREMEC boxes that are given extra love by Dederichs Motorsports in Fort Worth, Texas, and they were perfect throughout the weekend. We ended up Third overall in the Shootout, which I felt was pretty good for never having driven the car before that event, plus each run having adjustments done beforehand. This left me on cloud nine.
Want more? OK … here’s more. While it’s hard to supplant my orange ’73 as “the best car in the entire world,” this one comes pretty damned close. Comparing the two, Al’s Camaro kicks my car’s butt with the power and torque part. Both have LS7s, same FAST intakes and throttle bodies, and the same relative wheel horsepower, but holy God’s trousers, that blue rocket has its own zip code when it comes to pavement scorching. This may be due to the Speedway Racing Engines powerplant having 13.5:1 compression to my car’s lowly 10:1 and the ability to Hoover race fuel versus mine with pump gas, but comparing the two is like comparing a super-caffeinated Cuban coffee versus an overwatered mocha frappe. Yes, folks, it was THAT COOL!
Other comparisons were much greater as while both sport serious suspension upgrades, the BCitEW (say that fast) has an aftermarket front subframe and IRS underneath its butt while the Speedway Camaro offers up their handling packaged as the Speedway Unser Edition G-Comp front and G-Comp truck arm rear, with AFCO four-way shocks wrapped in coilovers all the way around. A Watt’s-link centers the Speedway Ford 9-inch rear axle, and the braking, which was really, really good by the way, was capably handled with Wilwood stoppers.
Other differences were placement and type of pedal assembly, as the Speedway Camaro offered this really cool raised plate for me (and others) to rest their heel against. My feet were happy with the accelerator and brake pedal as I didn’t have to find “home” for my foot each time I switched from one to the other, as no—contrary to popular belief—I do not left-foot brake. My Camaro also still sports the OEM factory pedal assembly while Speedway’s has a cool aftermarket Wilwood competition assembly for driver feeties.
So how did I fit? As Al Jr. and I are about the same height (don’t you dare ask about that other part), I fit the car really well. My Camaro has Corbeaus while Al’s sports Sparcos and both got my fanny seated nicely. The steering wheel that was in the Camaro when I arrived I found to be too small in diameter (I told them it was “icky,” and to whoever supplied the wheel, sorry) so the team changed it back to what it had previously, one in my preferred diameter, which is what you ask? Well, I’ll share a secret … my fave for a wheel diameter is 15-inch as it puts me in a better centered position in the seat, I don’t have to twist and collapse like a human pretzel and it allows me easier ability to shuffle-steer to get a car around an autocross course quicker. The car fit like a custom-made glove and in some ways was better than mine. The controls are where the center console would be and were easy to reach; there is no actual “key.” Note to self. Find a piece of steel, paint it orange, and get it friendly with a floor.
Another difference is tire sizing. While my Camaro and Speedway’s both wrap their wheels with the best tire on the market today, the BFGoodrich Rival S, the orange sled has 315s on the front while the blue missile gave me the opportunity to try out a 335 all-around platform. I’ve heard pros and cons for this particular setup and after some shock adjustments, what was formerly hip now became a BFG 335 square; braking was made much easier while turn-in and the roll-through areas were a piece of cake. I sometimes struggle with the dreaded “push like a dump truck” understeer with my Camaro, especially so with low-grip track surfaces. Even with a few runs being off-line in a few turns at Columbus, taming the Speedway tiger and getting claws exposed with push sheathed once more was pretty easy stuff with square.
My Camaro wins in a couple areas, one of them is launching off the line. While both clutches in the respective cars are multi-disc, the one in Al Jr.’s was basically an “on-off” switch and when I was notified my data times were about three-quarters of a second slower than Robby’s, from initial launch just to the first corner, I replied “Is that all?” Launching was a one-shot deal as while most autocross courses have the Start clocks positioned about 30 feet or more from where you stage, Goodguys gives you a whopping 18 inches. Add to this the engine having this pesky rise and fall of engine rpm at idle so I had to catch it on the upswing for getting off the line. Team Speedway lightly admonished me for being so gentle and basically said “Rev it to 3K and when it catches, feather it, and if you’ve got it then nail it!” So I did … and went faster yet. I hear said clutch may be replaced at some point, which brings me great joy as I took the record for number of engine stalls just getting from the transporter to the Start line.
So how did Team Speedway fare for the Goodguys Autocross? To offer up an easy answer would be … well, easy, and there’s more than easy to this story. To succeed at any sport takes a village, or in this instance a team. It starts back at the shop with preparation and from there, gets brought to the track. Success involves people and goals, knowledge and selection of quality parts and systems, capitalizing on strengths and eliminating weakness, and always seeking the positive to empower the team as one strong entity. For Team Speedway, this was evident as both cars were well prepared; the crew knew their jobs and was always willing to help no matter how difficult the tasks asked of them. We all pitched in to answer questions and talk with those that wanted a small slice of Unser and Team Speedway as a memento to their weekend, and embraced and enjoyed the success of the team.
Robby basically dominated the weekend as he completed the full sweep and as I posted in a Facebook thread, it was time to cue that broom as he won both the Sponsor Shootout representing Team Speedway and the Autocross Shootout of the Top 16 (he was seeded First and dispatched opponents with relative ease), plus traversed the course in the fastest overall time. He earned a big boy broom, too, as this particular Goodguys autocross brings with it the series heavy hitters: Danny Popp in a C3 Corvette, Chris Smith in the newly built Ridetech Camaro, Kyle Tucker and Ryan Matthews both behind the wheel of a DSE Camaro and Corvette respectively, and a host of other notables in this fun and competitive sport.
In 2011, it was much easier than it is today to win as the autocross a la Goodguys was in its fledgling state, both with depth of talent and events themselves. It was fun to compare the car that makes things easy (i.e., my BCitEW Camaro) with Speedway’s “Johnny Lightning” Camaro as they’re wonderful examples of two totally different builds of a second-gen Camaro with both obviously able to plant a smile on my face.
And lastly, it was a huge thanks from me to be allowed into the inner sanctum of Team Speedway and to be considered for behind-the-wheel duties for their wonderful Camaro. I predict many more victories for both cars in the Speedway Motors fleet and was glad to be able to represent Team Speedway in this event.