In 1969, I was editor of Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine. SS&DI was the bible of East Coast drag racing, specializing in Stock, Super Stock, match race cars (which grew into Pro Stock cars), and the first generation of fliptop Funny Cars. Between 1967 and 1971, our telephones rang constantly with calls from Detroit about this new car, that new lightweight package, this new multi-carburetion setup, new cylinder heads, or the hot new tip for stock-body drag racing. Because we were well connected at Chevrolet, and in drag racing, we were offered the very first drive and drag test of the ‘69 ZL1.
Fred Gibb Chevrolet in La Harpe, Illinois, conspired with Chevrolet's clandestine internal racing group to purchase 50 of the special-order Camaros, and arranged for Kansas City drag racing star Dick Harrell to prep and drive one of the cars when it had been readied for AHRA and NHRA Super Stock competition. I sent the entire editorial staff to the Midwest in February, 1969, to do the story with legendary drag racer Dick Harrell and one of the earliest ZL1 Camaros ever delivered.
Chevrolet was already up to its hips in the Reynolds 390 aluminum-block engine program for the Can-Am road-racing series, with engines up to 509 ci and trick aluminum-silicon bores with no liners. The ZL1 427 grew out of the monster iron-block L-88, using a new steel-sleeved aluminum cylinder block, race-quality rods, solid-lifter cam and valvetrain, with aluminum cylinder heads featuring round exhaust ports and squish combustion chambers. The COPO 9560/ZL1 option was packaged with a raised hood, a big four-core radiator, electronic ignition system, and heavy-duty suspension package, which added the 12-bolt Positraction rear axle, stiffer leaf springs, and heavy-duty shocks.
The drag test of the plain-Jane LeMans Blue Camaro took place on a cold day at Kansas City International Raceway. It was delivered with a column-shifted Turbo 400, 4.10:1 axle ratio, F70x14 Firestone tires, manual steering, power brakes, and a heater. Period. The car was already nowhere near stock when we got there, having been fitted with M&H 8.00/8.50x14 Super Stock slicks, clipped leaf springs, and capped S&S headers. Harrell, alias Mr. Chevrolet, had already modified the Holley carburetor to run with manual secondaries, and modified the distributor to run without the vacuum spark advance.
After lots of dragstrip experimentation with carburetion, timing, and launch techniques, the ZL1's three best runs with our driver were 11.98/118.92, 11.90/118.92, and 11.85/119.06. With a few more tweaks and open headers, pro racer Harrell ran 11.78/120.84, 11.72/121.03, and a startling 11.64/122.15 mph. Because all of the modifications were well within the realm of existing Super Stock rules, the thing was going to be a terror at the races. But the net result of that testing long, long ago was that we have no idea how a completely stock '69 ZL1 would have performed on its crappy F70 street tires. High Performance Cars out of New York claimed a 13.16 at 110 mph from a completely stock ZL1 in its 1969 test, but we have no idea about the circumstances of that day.
Fast-forward to May 2012. We were at Lucas Oil Raceway Park, which was called Indianapolis Raceway Park back in '69 when those first ZL1 Camaros raced in Super Stock/C and Super Stock/C Automatic. There were eight brand new '12 ZL1 Camaros there for us to drag race, four six-speeds and four automatics. The new ZL1 is not the bare-bones thrill ride of yesteryear. Whereas the original car was a $2,700 coupe carrying a $4,100 package of options (!), the new car is full of power assists, air conditioning, luxurious appointments, and technologies that were unheard of (or not invented yet) on American muscle cars in '69.
Like, for instance, Magnetic Ride Control shock absorbers, independent rear suspension, a five-way Performance Traction Management chassis setup system, giant Goodyear F1 Supercar g:2 tires, and a supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 that makes 580 hp and 556 lb-ft of torque, that with digital fuel injection meets all of the federal requirements for emissions and drive-by noise. The price for all that power, technology, and meeting all the federal regulations heaped upon cars since 1969, has risen to just under $55,000. But at that price, there are very few cars that can do what the new ZL1 can.
The automatic was easier to launch, of course, walking it off the line and then mashing the throttle into the carpet. The manual, equipped with the Performance Traction Management system (set on Program 5), allowed us to mat the throttle up to 4,400 rpm, step off the clutch, and leave. We didn't miss any shifts, and our best effort on a day with 95-degree temperatures and 90-percent humidity, was a 12.82 at 112.10 mph in the more consistent automatic car, on the factory tires, inflated to street specs. Compare that to the '69, which had to be slicked, modified, and fiddled with all day long to get where it got. The Chevrolet guys who developed the car told us their best-ever pass was an 11.93 at a blazing 117 mph. Tuners are adding cold air kits, pulleys, computer tunes, and drag radials with the new ZL1s and running 10s--impressive for a two-ton modern muscle car on 93-octane unleaded.
This is the best piece of raw material Chevrolet has ever given the drag racing community, and there will be thousands built, unlike the '69 version, of which only 69 were made. It won't guzzle $8 gallon race fuel or foul the spark plugs in traffic, it won't overheat, it won't beat you to death on the open road with overly stiff suspension, but it will lap the Nurburgring Nordschleife in 7 minutes, 41 seconds. Nor will it triple the price of a base Camaro SS. What more do you want in a supercar?
Camaro ZL1 at Palm Beach International Raceway
While we loved having Our Man McCraw in Indy for the ZL1 press event--talk about coming full circle--in some ways it felt like little more than sending him to an automotive free-for-all. A bunch of journalists treating a couple of ZL1s like Chatsworth porn queens might make for a good time, but it is not a scientific experiment. We wanted to put a real test car through our usual drag strip/road course regimen, in an environment where we could control things and extract maximum performance from Chevy's latest and greatest.
We didn't end up with our Inferno Orange Metallic/six-speed manual coupe until the last week of June, the hottest part of the year in Florida, a time when the humidity is oppressive and rain is pretty much an everyday occurrence. Sure enough, this test--performed at the legendary Palm Beach International Raceway, home of the Super Chevy Show season opener--was conducted in 89- to 91-degree temps, 80-percent humidity, and repeated rain squalls. Not exactly ideal conditions, but the PBIR crew did an amazing job of prepping the strip surface, and the humidity dried the track no matter how much water Mother Nature dumped on it (or how often).
Chevy has claimed low 12s with the ZL1, and we were anxious to see if we could duplicate this, despite the soupy conditions. Remember, all that water in the air is displacing oxygen. Supercharged or not, the odds were against us. The first pass was an encouraging 12.434 at 118.82 (2.161 60-foot). We left at 3,500 rpm and cracked off three powershifts right around 5,900 rpm. For some reason, GM has the rev limiter set at 6,200. The horsepower is still climbing at this rpm (according to the seat of our pants and later borne out on our office Dynojet), but hitting the rev limiter on gear changes will kill e.t. and mph.
About a half hour later, we were back on the line. With the revs at 4,000, we carefully traded pedals and were rewarded with a 2.057 60-foot, and a best yet of 12.352 at 116.70. The heat was worsening, which was reflected in our mph, but we loved the e.t. Then the rain came. It didn't last more than 30 minutes, but it kept us off the dragstrip for quite a while. No problem. Once the precipitation stopped and while the quarter-mile was drying, we took the ZL1 for some hot laps on the 2.03-mile road course at Palm Beach International. The track has some great technical sections, and a super-long back straight (0.6-mile) that would really allow us to stretch the Camaro's legs. A road course can dry a lot faster than a VHT-prepped dragstrip, but it was still pretty damp, with standing water in some places when we hit it.
Did this bother the ZL1? Not in the least. I was almost uncomfortable going around a wet track for warm-up laps as quickly as we did (I rode shotgun to dial in our Racepak G2X test gear). I expected the Camaro to break loose at any time, sending our pretty new high-tech F-body into the track's Safe walls. But the ZL1 hung in there like it was dry. Finally, I got out to take photos and test driver Evan Smith hit the pavement in earnest. As his familiarity with the course grew, so did his confidence. Even on a damp track he clicked off a 1.36.25 and 1.34.04. As the track dried out, the ZL1 went even faster: 1.32.36, 1.32.21, a best of 1.31.19, followed by a 1.31.29 and a 1.31.58. On the back straight, the mighty LSA propelled our tester to a hair over 138 mph. To put these lap times in perspective, we know of a modified '10 SS that runs PBIR on sticky Nitto NT05 tires, and its best lap has been 1.40.40. To have the ZL1 run over 9 seconds a lap faster in 100-percent bone-stock trim puts it squarely in supercar territory.
Soon it was time to put eight gallons of fuel in the tank (the gas gauge was way below "E" and screaming "feed me!") and head back to the strip. After the road course adventure, we let it cool for 30 minutes before hitting the 1320. At 3:54 p.m., we boiled the stock tires, shut off all the electronic nannies--Launch Control? We don't need no stinkin' Launch Control--and revved it to 4,500. Again, we carefully traded clutch for throttle and were off with our best 60-foot yet, a stellar 1.950.
Three perfect powershifts later, we got an e.t. slip that said 12.243 at 116.19. Mission accomplished. We tried the Launch Control, different settings, and different drivers, but that was as good as it got. No doubt, we could have found 11s in good air, or with drag radials, but on this day we had neither. It was time to grab a steak and have a nice ride home.
We learned a lot about the ZL1 in our week with it. If you drive it like a cop is riding your tail, it'll get over 19 mpg on the highway at a steady 75-80 mph. At speeds over 160 mph--and it'll do that quicker than you can find your favorite satellite radio station on the factory stereo--it is remarkably stable, even on less-than-stellar pavement. Love the magneto rheological shocks. You'll also see your fuel economy drop to 14 mpg, but damn, it's worth it. With the suspension in the "Tour" mode, it rides just like a Cadillac CTS, but even in its most aggressive electronic suspension setting, it still rides comfortably. Firm, sure, but solid and sure-footed, not '84 Corvette Z51 harsh. The tradeoff is pretty much perfect.
With the faux suede interior trim (a must, in our opinion), unpainted carbon fiber Mohawk (hood insert) and blacked-out wheels, our test car came in at $57,120 (including $1,300 gas guzzler tax). That's a lot of coin, and while we would never call it a bargain, it is certainly money well spent. After all, it is the quickest, fastest, best handling Camaro ever built by Chevrolet.