1980 Chevy Camaro Hugger Z28 - Race Inspired

In The Late '70s, Road Racer Tom Nehl Came Up With A Way To Fund His 24 Hours Of Daytona Race Team-Introducing The '80 Hugger Z28.

Patrick Hill Dec 1, 2010 0 Comment(s)

For racers trying to fund their pursuits, the need for money spurs some very creative thinking to open up the purse strings of potential sponsors. One of the more famous examples is Kenny Bernstein. In need of a sponsor for his nitro Funny Car, Bernstein hauled his racer to the Anheuser-Busch headquarters in St. Louis to put on a demo for AB execs. After firing the flopper up and doing a burnout in the parking lot, an enthusiastic Anheuser-Busch group signed on as a sponsor.

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Not quite as colorful a tale, in the spring of 1979, Tom Nehl was working on a way to fund his race team for the 1980 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race. Nehl had developed a formula for successfully competing in the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) 24 Hour Pepsi Challenge (now called the Rolex 24 At Daytona), using consistent lap times along with speed to win. To get funding, Nehl was inspired by the '69 Camaro Indy 500 pace cars and driveaway program. Since the Z28 was the perfect platform to base the race car on, a deal was worked out with the Jacksonville Zone Chevrolet Dealers to have the "24 Hours of Daytona Dealer Driveaway," where a special batch of Z28s would be uniquely modified using a "Hugger" theme to coincide with Chevy's current marketing, and match Nehl's No. 28 Camaro race car for the endurance contest.

Bill Mitchell (not to be confused with GM design guru/legend Bill Mitchell) and his company Special Vehicle Development (SVD) were recruited to handle the modifications. Unique equipment would consist of Minilite magnesium wheels wrapped in Dunlop Steelmax 205/70HR14 rubber, Koni shocks, SVD-developed rear sway bar, SVD front spoiler with fog lights, Racemark steering wheel, windshield clips, rear window strips, hood pins, and special Hugger badging and striping.

The involved 48 Jacksonville Zone dealerships would order a total of 90 '80 Z28s for use in the program. The cars were to be ordered in factory Red Orange paint, and outside of the Z28 package, dealers could add any options they wanted. When Mitchell showed up at Daytona International Speedway on January 1, he was surprised to see more than just Red Orange Camaros waiting for modification. A few dealers had gone maverick, wanting more color variety to help sales, by ordering one blue, six black, one white, and two yellow Z28s, along with the other 80 Red Orange cars. The sole blue car never received the special Hugger striping because the colors clashed with the factory hue. Another interesting fact is only one of the cars was four-speed-equipped, the rest being automatics.

Two assembly teams tackled the installation job, and after only a couple of weeks (Mitchell had envisioned it taking 3 to 4 weeks) the cars were ready. The night before the 24 hour race kicked off, reps from the dealerships arrived to finish the final paperwork, pick up the keys, and enjoy a pre-race celebration. On race day-at Mitchell's insistence-only the Red Orange cars were allowed to participate in the parade lap. During the race, Nehl's strategy was paying off with the No. 28 Hugger Camaro until a cracked header led to a warped valve, forcing the car to retire.

The Hugger Camaro continued its racing career for several more years, then vanished from the scene. One account had the car being wrecked and parted out, while another tale told of the car being repaired after said wreck and later sold. Eventually it resurfaced at a junkyard in Jacksonville, Florida. Steve Boyle, who was part of the build team for the cars in 1980, purchased the Camaro and is in the process of restoring it.

This particular Hugger (and its brother) is owned by Hugger Z28 historian Tim Davis. Back in '80, Tim's friend across the street in Miami ended up with a new Red Orange Hugger. Years later, Tim was back in Miami for family reasons, and happened across a yellow Hugger Camaro for sale in the local auto trader. Because of his friend's car, Tim knew this was something unusual. After finding out the car was genuine (knowledge of the non-Red Orange cars was scarce), he purchased the F-body and totally disassembled it for a complete and correct restoration. With some digging, he unearthed a lot of leftover parts and history on the cars from the various people involved, including Steve Boyle. Soon, Tim had acquired another Hugger (his current count is nine cars in various conditions). He's always scouring online auctions for any surplus Hugger-correct parts he can get his hands on. Tim now has an extensive archive of parts and data on the Hugger Camaros, and his website, www.huggerz28.com, will soon be completed so other Hugger owners can find out about their particular car's history.

We shot the yellow car and its Red Orange brother at the Las Vegas Super Chevy Show this past March. Tim had just finished the car's restoration, and was getting ready to start on the Red Orange one. While not a Yenko or Baldwin-Motion Camaro, the Hugger cars do have a pedigree of their own, and served as a bright spot in what was otherwise a dark time for factory performance.

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