ZR-1/Z06 Shootout

Chevrolet’s Deadliest Gunslingers Duke It Out at the Dragstrip

Greg Aleck Oct 1, 2001 0 Comment(s)

Step By Step

Growing up watching old westerns, most of us remember the two toughest gunfighters in town having to rumble to see who was the best. Then we grew up and bought Corvettes. First there was the ZR-1 (’90-’95), and in 2001 the hottest new number, the Z06, came along. The two big boys.

OK, folks, here’s what the Corvette world has been waiting for: a shootout between the ZR-1 and Z06, the two toughest hombres Chevrolet ever produced.

The outcome may surprise you as much as it surprised us.

First, a little background. The ZR-1, known as the “King of the Hill,” was a very limited-edition, very expensive C4-based Corvette, available from 1990 to 1995. A total of 6,939 ZR-1s were manufactured over the six-year production run. The last ZR-1, a red one, was built on April 28, 1995.

Built by GM to be the world’s fastest production car, the ZR-1 was the ultimate Corvette. The V-8 engine that powered this beast, the LT5, featured 4 overhead camshafts and 32 valves, an aluminum block with the same bore as the standard (L98) 350ci displacement unit, but with over 400 hp (at the flywheel). To this day, it holds some of its world and international speed records.

While the ZR-1 was billed as King of the Hill or a “beast,” the Z06 is a much more refined world-class road car and, at more than $20,000 less than a new ZR-1, well worth the money. The Z06 incorporates many small changes that add up to a big difference between the stock C5 coupe and the Z06. Starting with the engine and drivetrain, the new LS6 motor pumps out an additional 40 hp over the stock LS1, and the special Tremec six-speed M12 transmission and trick titanium mufflers and tailpipes reduce weight. The Z06 matches the FE4 suspension package to new 10-spoke aluminum wheels, 9.5-17 fronts and 10.5-17 rears, with Goodyear’s Eagle F1 tires putting the power to the pavement. Improvements to the rear brakes and its Second-Generation Active Handling System all add up to better traction, handling, and more power to the ground.

We set out months ago to find an unmodified Z06 and ZR-1 to use for this shootout and, honestly, it wasn’t that easy. First trying to find a Z06 from the Chevrolet media fleet, we got our hands on one for a weekend last November, but with two days’ notice there wasn’t enough time to come up with a ZR-1. Then, over the last couple of months we found our two owners and we were finally ready to go. The players were Harry Mortner, a schoolteacher and the owner of the Red ZR-1, and Buzz Nielsen, a retired business owner with his Millennium Yellow Z06. Regular guys just like you and me.

Harry’s ZR-1, like almost everyone else’s, had some mild aftermarket enhancements such as a custom Rippie chip, a Borla Challenger Cat-Back Exhaust, and dual K&N air filters.

Buzz’s Z06 was blessed with the prototype for Corsa’s titanium after-cat exhaust and Vinci Hi-Performance’s LS1 PWRFLO Air Filter.

Roger Vinci, our resident Corvette genius, was the independent test driver for both cars. Roger has owned and raced two ZR-1s and C5s, and is currently working his magic on his own Z06 (a “big-block”—stay tuned for that), so he knows the cars well.

“Buzz and Harry brought the cars in and we dyno-tested them both and optimized everything, so we knew we had a good baseline,” said Roger. “Harry’s ZR-1 did have a horsepower and rpm advantage over Buzz’s Z06, but that’s an overhead cam (ZR-1/LT5) engine verses a pushrod motor (LS6/Z06), so no surprises there.”

The horsepower figures worked out to 347.8 hp with 336.3 lb-ft torque for Harry’s ZR-1, and 340.2 hp with 337.7 lb-ft torque for Buzz’s Z06 (at the rear wheels); so close you could tell the difference only on the dyno. Score one small point for the ZR-1. The setting was Bradenton, Florida’s DeSoto Memorial Dragway on a warm, sunny Saturday morning in April.

We kept this “shootout” simple, trying to duplicate the conditions you’d find in your everyday street driving. Roger performed no “water” burnouts, and we ran on the track’s regular test-and-tune Saturday with other cars, just like you’d find on the street.

The first out was Harry’s ZR-1. As with Buzz’s Z06, Roger made several runs trying to get the best out of each car and finding their strengths and weakness. “What surprised me the most was how bad the ZR-1 ‘hooked up,’” commented Vinci. “On each run I made, the rear end would break loose and pull to the right off the line. I got no weight transfer on the launch. But on the plus side, the LT5 motor gave me an rpm advantage at the top end (not having to shift from Third to Fourth gear) that saved me a couple of tenths.”

Roger’s best time in the ZR-1 after three passes: 13.131 seconds in the quarter-mile at 110.33 mph.

“On the other hand, the Z06, ‘hooked up’ so hard that the front end jumped straight up in the air. The weight transfer on the launch was vastly superior to the ZR-1. Correspondingly, the Z06 was quicker in the eighth- and quarter-mile times and speeds.” The times on Buzz’s Z06 show the advancement Chevrolet has made in 10 years of development of the Corvette. The yellow beauty topped the charts with the best quarter-mile time of 12.891 seconds at 113.26 mph.

“In the ’90s the ZR-1 was the best there was—nothing could come close to it—but after 10 years of development, it’s the Z06’s time to shine,” joked Roger. “ZR-1 owners, don’t get me wrong—I’ve owned and raced two of them, and I still love the way the LT5 motor makes horsepower up to its 7,000-rpm redline. But the many refinements that Chevy has made to this Corvette is just amazing. The Z06 rides better, has more traction, handles better, is quieter, and generally kicks more ass—more than anything on the street today. What I’d love to see is someone stuff an LT5 motor in a Z06. Boy, that would be a car!”

We had the expert’s opinion and results. It was time for the car owners to go head-to-head for the big shootout. The final run for both cars was just like in the old westerns when the two gunfighters met at high noon—the crowds gathered for the big shootout on Main Street.

Harry Mortner in his Red ZR-1, was cheered on by wife Kathy and his local Corvette club (Corvette Cruisers of New Port Richey, Florida), and Buzz Nielsen in his Millennium Yellow Z06, was cheered on by wife Jackie.

The “gunslingers” pull into the lights. One pre-stages, then the other, and both glide into the final staging lights and the Christmas tree counts down. They’re off! Harry in his ZR-1 gets a 1.111-second R/T and the holeshot on Buzz’s Z06, which trips the lights with a 1.331-second R/T. At the eighth-mile, Harry’s still ahead with a 9.237-second segment time at 79.09 mph, but comin’ on strong is Buzz turning a 9.380-second time (only 0.143 second behind) at an amazing 83.69 mph!

And at the quarter-mile, it’s Harry in his ’91 ZR-1 with a 13.904-second e.t. at 106.59 mph. But wait—Buzz crosses the line a scant .220 second behind with an identical 13.904-second e.t. at 107.16 mph. Remember the rpm advantage Roger Vinci spoke of earlier? That’s what won the race for Harry. By saving the time to shift from Third to Fourth he held off the Z06’s late charge.

On the win lights at DeSoto dragstrip, Harry’s ZR-1 was the winner—but was he really? We all realize both cars have their strong points, and certainly owners of ZR-1s and Z06s will interpret the results differently. But, folks, lets face it—the ZR-1 isn’t a spring chicken anymore, and you can’t overlook the comfort and quickness of the Z06 in today’s market where the consumer wants it all “speed with style,” something it does so well.

The past 10 years of refinements and advances in automotive technology that make the Z06 such an incredible package can hardly be topped. Unless—maybe a Z06 with an LT5 in it…

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