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?