The idea of a tribute car is nothing new in hot rodding. Hell, how many General Lees, Bandit Trans Ams, or Starsky and Hutch Grand Tomatoes have been seen prowling the highways and show grounds around the country? The reason for this urge to copy something that's already been done is twofold. First, is economics; after all, buying the original is way more expensive than most of us could hope to afford. Second, is nostalgia; these cars invoke memories that make our right foot quiver in anticipation. Most likely, the best case for a tribute car, is that it's not worth a small (or large in some cases) fortune, so you can beat on it like you're Bo Duke running from Roscoe P. Coltrain. Is it the same as owning the real deal? Nope, but it's pretty damn close.
Besides cars made famous on film, the other category are cars made renowned by their exploits on the racetrack. Here, the added benefit is that the copy can be made to pass legal muster for the street. Race car style and street car manners, it's a perfect match. And when it comes to famous race car Camaros, few are as iconic as the Sunoco (referring to the Sun Oil Company) Camaro. Back in the '60s Sunoco/Penske was, for all purposes, the Chevrolet factory team in Trans Am racing. Backed by Rodger Penske with Mark Donohue behind the wheel, they crushed the competition in 1968 (in a '68) winning 10 of the 13 races that year. In 1969 they switched to the new body style and again won the championship by placing first six out of 12 times. The reason they didn't dominate as decisively in 1969 compared to 1968 was that Ford caught up a bit in the performance department with the introduction of their '69 Boss 302 Mustang. Still, we're happy to point out again; the Camaro came out on top.
All that history wasn't lost on owner Fred Martinez and the builders at G-Force Design Concepts. Fred became hopelessly hooked on fast cars early in life back in Brooklyn, New York. Fred recalls, "When I was 15, this guy named Jose had a black '69 Z/28 with silver stripes, a 400ci small-block, and a four-speed. He was well known as a street racer. One day I saw him prepping his car for the races and asked if I could help. At the end of the day I was getting ready to go home and Jose asked me if I wanted to come with him to the races. For a kid with no car, getting to ride in a very fast '69 Camaro was like hitting the lotto!"
That was that. Fred was now hopelessly addicted to muscle cars, especially early Camaros. Three years later, a buddy of Fred's picked up a '69 with a 396 big-block underhood. Turned out the ride was fast-too fast, in fact, for his friend to handle, so racing duties were handed over to Fred. Eventually Fred ran into Jose again, but by now Jose's '69 was a full-on 9-second race car. Smack was talked and before long the two were lined up against one another. Fred was spotted three cars but his 11-second Camaro still came up four car lengths short at the end of the race. Fred remarks, "I still felt like I won! That had to be the best night of my life."
Fast forward 21 years and Fred was dying for a 1969 Chevy Camaro. Being a working guy, he also needed to adhere to a reasonable budget. He met with G-Force Design Concepts owner Jason Huber and the two started hashing out a plan. Originally, Fred leaned towards more of a restoration vibe, but once he spied a drawing Jason had of a Sunoco-themed '69, Fred pulled the trigger on having the blue tribute car built. The idea evolved with the G-Force team going for more of a loose interpretation rather than a nut-and-bolt recreation of the famous Penske ride. They would also try to get great performance without shelling out for the best parts money could buy. "Maximum bang for minimum buck" became the mantra of the build.
Back in '69, the real Sunoco warrior had a hopped-up 302 underhood, but this time power comes from a LS2 GM Performance Parts crate engine. Affordable, reliable, and lightweight were the reasons behind the engine choice, and the 400-plus horsepower would be sufficient for smile-inducing romps around town. For the rest of the driveline, G-Force assembled a rock-solid T-56 six-speed and a 12-bolt posi.
When it came time for the suspension, the crew knew that it would be easy to blow the entire budget in this area, so they stepped back and went with what they needed rather than what they wanted. The stock subframe is still there, but now it's fitted out with Detroit Speed Inc. tubular control arms and Koni shocks. To help nail that race car vibe, they dropped in some DSE mini-tubs, and to save cash they stuck with leaf springs. After all, they seemed to be fine back in the '60s when Donahue was kickin' butt. For maximum stopping performance, they bolted on Wilwood binders and rolling stock consists of Boze Alloy 18x8 and 18x12 High-Octane wheels wrapped in Michelin PS2 rubber. Jason knows the wheels can make the car, so a little splurging in this area paid off big time.
The rest is as simple as it is cool. The interior is stock GM except for the Momo steering wheel, Momo seats, and Auto Meter Sport Comp II gauges nestled in a DSE dash. Like the race car, there's no audio system, but in a nod to practicality there is a Vintage Air system.
The most striking aspect of the Camaro, however, is the exterior. G-Force's Brad Decker and Jayme Rhone tag-teamed the bodywork until the '69 was laser straight. Brad then laid down the proper Penske Sonoco hue of blue paint and Jayme nailed the graphics from the rendering; again, not an exact copy of the '60s icon, but close enough to get the point across.
The best part is that, unlike some tribute cars that idle their way though existence, this one is beat on just like the original. And while Fred's tribute '69 has seen some track time, it's managed to pull off a feat that the real Sunoco Camaro never could-cruising around town and down the highway. In some ways that makes it just a tad bit cooler in our book.
Rodger Penske and Mark Donahue were always looking for ways to gain an edge on the track. During their experiments, they found that dipping the car's frame in an acid bath would erode away small amounts of metal. This had the result of incrementally making their Camaro lighter. One of their Camaros won its last race by lapping the entire field! Needless to say this feat had everyone in the pits talking. At the post-race inspection, it was found that the Camaro was 250 pounds lighter than the 2,800 pound minimum-weight requirement. Mark was about to have his win stripped away, but the story is that Rodger might have hinted that a disqualification could cause Chevrolet to pull its support for the Trans Am series. As a result, Donohue kept the win, but for 1968 the rules were changed to state that all cars would be weighed before the race.
The lightweight Camaro was again used in the 1968 season. The '67 was made over to look like a '68 and then another '68 was built and painted exactly the same. As the story goes, the legal-weight Camaro was put through inspection twice, once wearing the number 15 and again with the number 16. Needless to say, they did well in that race. It's also been said they acid-dipped the body and had to keep people from leaning on the panels as they would have caved in. In fact, they wore vinyl roofs to help hide the waviness from the acid-dipped sheetmetal.
Ahh, the good old days of racing!