It is one of the most iconic racecars in pony car history: the deep blue, yellow-lettered Penske/Sunoco '69 Camaro driven in the Trans Am series by Mark Donohue.
Donohue won six of 12 Trans Am races in '69-certainly a commendable feat-but he won 10 of 13 races the year before. Nonetheless, taking the checker flag for half of the season's races was impressive, and Donohue's outspoken opinions about the science of racing made him a favorite with reporters. Coupling those accomplishments with the can't-miss-it color scheme of Penske's '69 Z28 was the recipe for a legend. (Donohue died in 1975 from injuries sustained in a crash during practice for the Austrian Grand Prix.)
Forever linked to the legacy of Mark Donohue, the blue '69 Camaro built by Penske Racing is one of the most readily identifiable racecars of the last 35 years. It was for this reason that, when deciding to build a standout calling card, GM's recently formed Performance Division mimicked the Penske/Sunoco car with its Camaro project vehicle.
"You paint a car blue with those yellow accent stripes and everybody makes the connection to the Donohue car," says Kip Wasenko, the Performance Division's chief designer.
Formed in 2002, the GM Performance Division is a group of dedicated car nuts whose mission is helping other GM divisions turn their performance ideas into production reality. For example, the new Silverado SS pickup, with its Escalade-derived 345-horse 6.0L engine, is their handiwork.
To announce the Performance Division's creation, as well as demonstrate its capabilities, executive director Mark Reuss commissioned a pair of F-body project cars. Wasenko was the designer for both. (The second vehicle created was a neo-traditional Trans Am.)
"With the F-cars going away, we wanted to send them out with a salute," he says. "Doing the Camaro as a racecar with the Donohue colors seemed like a great way to honor the Camaro's performance heritage."
From concepts to drivable vehicles, both F-car projects were completed in just over six weeks.
"Everybody wanted to get them done in time for the Woodward Dream Cruise," says Wasenko. "For a while it didn't look like we'd make it, but it all came together."
Giving the Camaro its racecar appearance included much more than a paint job and hanging a net in the window. Look closer and you'll notice almost every body panel, save the roof and doors, was modified. The fenders flare 4 inches in front and 4.5 inches in the rear. A deeper front air dam was created and a tall rear spoiler was added. (Don't bother asking where to get similar part. All the body pieces were custom to this car.) And though the Camaro wears the same number "6" as Donohue's '69, the yellow graphics on the Performance Division's car are unique.
Under the blue skin is a 427ci Gen. III engine, which sounds marvelously like a NASCAR Monte Carlo idling in an aluminum shed.
C5-R Heart The ear-splitting cackle from the Camaro's NASCAR-inspired exhaust system sends a shiver up the spine of all but the most jaded (and hearing impaired) racing enthusiast. It's an LS1-based engine under the fiberglass hood, but it's far from the 5.7L lump that was slipped into the F-cars when Ste. Therese was sending them off the assembly line. Instead, a 7.0L version of the engine used in the Corvette C5-R racecar is fitted.
Though based on the production LS1, the C5-R engine has a heavy-duty, siamese-bore cylinder block. In the production aluminum engine block, cast-iron cylinder liners have integrated water jackets for coolant flow. The C5-R block's siamesed iron cylinder liners don't have water passages, which allow the bores to be stretched to 4.160 inches.
Much of the rest of the block is the same as regular production versions, including the deep skirted crankcase and cross-bolted main caps (6 bolts apiece). Contributing to the engine's 427ci displacement, a 4.00-inch billet steel stroker crank is used. Interestingly, both the deck height (9.24 inches) and the cylinder bore spacing (4.40 inches) remains the same as production engines.
The C5-R cylinder heads are another deviation from the production-spec LS1. Besides being completely CNC-carved from a chunk of aluminum, the valve angle is lowered from 15 to 11 degrees, with combustion chambers reconfigured to optimize the engine's increased displacement. Compression is about 11.0:1.
Because the C5-R competes in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), it must conform to specific rules governing the induction and fuel injection system. This includes a NASCAR-type restrictor which, for the C5-R Corvettes, means drawing air through a pair of orifices about the size of 50-cent pieces.
Since the Performance Division Camaro wouldn't see competition, or have to follow any ALMS rules, the engineers used a marine-style intake and large, billet throttle body to draw air and fuel into the engine. Of course, headers carry away the exhaust gases-into the un-muffled exhaust system.
Transferring the engine's approximately 700 horses to the Tarmac is a bulletproof 12-bolt rearend built by DTS. And though the Camaro doesn't need much assistance in creating momentum, the rearend is filled with 4.56 gears.
Surprisingly, the car's suspension is mostly stock (it is mostly a street-driven show car, after all). A set of subframe connectors lessens the tendency of the 700-horse engine to twist the Camaro's fragile framework, while the lowering springs and a set of low-profile rubber provides the right stance. Appropriately, a set of Penske Racing shocks, including their requisite fluid reservoirs, is assigned to pothole patrol. These racing shocks don't exactly absorb bumps like an old set of Monroe-matics-you can just about determine heads or tails when driving over a quarter.
Inside, the Camaro continues its all-business appearance. Auto Meter Ultra-Lite gauges replace the standard instruments, and the stock HVAC stack has been converted into a carbon fiber-covered control panel filled with safety-covered toggle switches and indicator lights (even the power window switches were moved to the control panel and are operated with toggles). A Sparco racing steering wheel and racing seats, as well as a yellow-padded roll cage, complete the ready-for-Sears Point look.
From what we understand, this car cooks as hard as its looks suggest. Our seat time was limited to putting around the GM Tech Center's grounds for the photo shoot, but we've heard that more than a few GM employees have had their hands slapped by the General for "overly indulging" the Camaro's capabilities on company grounds and on the street.
These people work for an entity called the Performance Division, for crying out loud. We'd be disappointed if they didn't make some noise with their Donohue-inspired Camaro.