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Pushing the Livernois 2012 Camaro ZL1 into the 9s

Making It Look Easy - A top-end revamp of the LSA adds nearly 270 hp and helps push Livernois Motorsports’ ZL1 into the 9s

Barry Kluczyk May 6, 2014
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Additional photos courtesy of Livernois Motorsports

Even in this age of 1,000-horsepower streetcars and tuning on the razor’s edge, running 9s in a full-on streetcar – not a tube-frame outlaw with a license plate – is a rare and noteworthy feat. It’s quick, no matter how you look at it and Livernois Motorsports has made it look very easy in its 2012 Camaro ZL1.

With basically a head-and-cam package and blower pulley revisions, the Dearborn Heights, Michigan-based tuning shop’s refrigerator-white Gen 5 went 9.87 at 142 mph. No spray, either. And when we say the engine upgrades are the only mods to the car, we mean it. The chassis and suspension were untouched, apart from the swap to Bogart racing wheels and Hoosier slicks for the track session, and nothing was done to lighten the admittedly portly Camaro.

“Stock suspension, stock interior, stock everything,” insists Livernois’ Rick LeBlanc, who turned the 9-second blast during his first time at the track with the car. “We didn’t cut a pound out of the thing. Apart from the wheels and tires used at the track, it wore all the original equipment during the 9-second run.”

The race weight (with driver) was 4,295 pounds. Svelte, the ZL1 was not at Milan Dragway, but it dove solidly into the 9s.

“The ZL1 is an amazing piece,” says LeBlanc. “We thought it would be quick, but to get so deeply into the 9s thrilled us. There’s a lot of potential here and we’re just getting started.”

Interestingly, the engine wasn’t even removed from the car to give it the 9-second capability. Livernois left the short-block in place, which wasn’t a bad idea because it already features a forged steel crankshaft and forged rods, although it does not use the forged pistons found in the LSA’s higher-output brother, the 638-hp LS9 of the Corvette ZR1. Nevertheless, the hypereutectic pistons have proven admirably strong and they’re cooled by integrated oil squirters that shoot oil at the bottoms of the pistons to enhance lubrication and keep them cooler under the heat-inducing load of maximum boost.

Livernois swapped the cylinder heads for their own CNC-ported versions, which open up the intake passages for greater airflow. A set of dual-coil valve springs with titanium retainers and stock, 1.7-ratio rocker arms complete the assemblies. The heads are matched with the company’s Stage 2C High Lift camshaft, too, with specs that include .646-inch lift on the intake and exhaust sides, 224/236 degrees of duration and a comparatively wide lobe separation angle of 117 degrees. The heads and cam are the primary drivers behind the engine’s stellar 707-rear-wheel-horsepower output. That’s nearly 850 horses at the crankshaft.

There are other contributors to and supporters of the higher-output LSA, too, including racing-spec head studs, hardened pushrods, 63-lb/hr fuel injectors, a GM 90mm throttle body, cold NGK TR6 spark plugs, a 160-degree thermostat and Stainless Works two-inch long-tube headers.

The Eaton-supplied 1.9-liter Roots-type blower for the LSA engine also received some attention, including the swap of the stock supercharger coupler for a solid one that eliminates the tendency to rattle at low engine speed and wear on the supercharger shaft. Also, the stock 3.1-inch blower pulley was replaced with a smaller, 2.7-inch-diameter pulley that enables the pair of four-lobe, high-helix rotors to spin faster and generate about four additional pounds of boost. It is balanced with a new balancer from Innovators West and a Metco oversized crank pulley ring. Finally, the blower is feed a greater dose of fresh air via a Rotofab-based cold-air intake system and the pressurized air charge is fed through a larger-than-stock heat exchanger that cools it considerably before it is forced into the combustion chambers.

A quick glance under the hood, however, reveals nothing but a stock-appearing engine that wears the factory beauty cover. Even the exhaust note is mild. It sounds like a cat-back has been fitted, but nothing about its tone or idle quality would suggest there’s nine-second potential lurking at the exhaust’s underhood origins. And while the comprehensive engine upgrades for the ZL1 were done in the name of science and a boast-worthy time slip, they were also developed for commercial consumption.

“We built the engine the way we develop packages for our customers,” says LeBlanc. “Since our experience has been so positive with it, we are now offering it as a package for $14,500.”

Of course, horsepower alone does not a 9-second time slip make, and LeBlanc is quick to point out the ZL1’s drivetrain is the complementing contributor to the performance capability, even if it’s more than a little bit heavy. The drag radials and skinnies certainly helped in the traction department, while the Bogart wheels shave a few pounds, but that hardly made the ZL1 a featherweight. At more than 4,000 pounds, there’s a lot of metal to move – and getting it up and moving effectively falls to a unique suspension system that was designed for hard, high-RPM launches. Compared to a Camaro SS, the ZL1 comes from the factory with a slew of unique components, including a stronger driveshaft, rear axle system and suspension.

“The chassis/suspension setup on the ZL1 is a thing of beauty and the engineers need to be commended for it,” says LeBlanc. “I’ve driven other modified Gen-5 Camaro SSs in the 10s and 11s that didn’t feel nearly as stable and controllable on the track as the ZL1 was going into the 9s. To be honest, I was a bit nervous about going that fast in the car, because of the experience in other Camaros, but after the first pass, I knew I could go faster without any qualms. It’s that good.”

In fact, LeBlanc simply drove the stock-chassis car to the track on the Bogarts, laid down the 9-second e.t. and drove the car home. It may have been the last time the car sees the drag strip for quite a while, too.

“It’s a street car and we don’t want to put a roll cage in it,” says LeBlanc. “But now the drag strip guys know we’re too quick without one and they won’t let us run again.”

That’s the risk of running so quick. Only a few years ago, a 9-second car wouldn’t have been confused for anything but a race car – with the tin interior, Lexan windows and parachute to prove the point. Livernois’ ZL1 is a 9-second car you can use to drop off the kids at school, while listening to your favorite retro heavy metal station on satellite radio. That’s our kind of 9-second screamer. Check out the accompanying photos for a closer look at the engine upgrades performed on this sleeper ZL1.


1. To break the 10-second barrier, Livernois Motorsports added only a set of track-appropriate wheels, leaving the chassis untouched for a race weight of nearly 4,300 pounds.


2. Because the engine upgrades don’t change the external appearance of the LSA engine, you’ll notice no difference between the before and after shot. With some much stock-appearing equipment on the car – especially when it wears the original wheels and tires on the street – this ZL1 could be considered a sleeper.


3. The modifications began by removing the Camaro’s front fascia. This would facilitate the camshaft swap with the engine still in the car, as well as a heat exchanger upgrade. That provided the necessary access to the stock heat exchanger and allowed for easier removal of the radiator.


4. With fascia, heat exchanger and radiator removed, the coolant was drained and the disassembly of the top of the engine commenced. It’s a pretty straightforward process and it’s easier to remove the intercooler “hat” from the blower assembly, instead of trying to remove the blower/intercooler as a single component.


5. The exhaust also had to be removed, but that involved more than simply unbolting the manifolds from the engine. The ZL1 has an aerodynamics-optimizing belly pan under the engine compartment – it even wraps around the transmission – and it must be removed prior to the exhaust system.


6. Here’s one of the stock stainless exhaust manifolds and converters. The stock exhaust flows reasonably well, given the necessary emissions and sound targets Chevrolet had to work with. Nevertheless, high-flow long-tube headers will add some mid- and upper-range power.


7. With the exhaust removed, the stock heads were popped off and the front of the engine torn down far enough to facilitate removal of the camshaft. If done carefully, the cam can be changed without the removal of the oil pump – although the stock timing chain must be retained. This car only had a couple hundred miles on it before the swap, so it was fine.


8. In goes the new camshaft. It’s Livernois’ Stage 2C High Lift cam, with .646-inch lift on both the intake and exhaust sides, 224/236 degrees of duration and a lobe separation angle of 117 degrees. That compares with the stock cam’s .480/.480 lift, 198/216-deg. duration and a lobe separation angle of 115 degrees.


9. The aftermarket camshaft necessitated the swap to a three-bolt cam gear from an earlier style LS engine. The stock camshaft/cam gear uses a single, large bolt. The three-bolt style matches the design of early LS engines.


10. With the front cover on the engine, a new balancer from Innovators West is installed, along with a Metco oversized crank pulley ring. The new balancer is required to bolt on the pulley ring, which won’t attach to the stock balancer. The ring expands the crank pulley diameter to 9.55 inches, enabling the blower to make about 4 pounds of additional boost when used with a smaller-diameter supercharger pulley.


11. Livernois’ own ported cylinder heads are featured on the engine. They’re CNC-ported versions of the stock L92-style lungs, which are good for up to 30 additional horsepower – and probably more with the higher-boost airflow from the LSA’s supercharger.


12. The new heads’ intake ports are cut to boost airflow by about 30 cfm. The benefit is felt more at the top end on a naturally aspirated engine, but with the forced induction of the LSA, the extra air contributes to greater horsepower and torque even at low RPM. Nice.


13. The heads retain the stock 2.16-inch intake and 1.59-inch exhaust valves and the combustion chambers are left alone to ensure the stock 9.1:1 compression ratio is retained for pump-gas compatibility, which the car consumed during its 9-second run.


14. Livernois Motorsports installs the new heads over ARP head studs instead of the stock-type head bolts. They also use new, hardened pushrods. The springs are Livernois’ double-coil types, but the stock, stamped-steel, non-roller rocker arms (1.7-ratio) are retained.


15. At this stage, the new, larger heat exchanger is added and tucked away behind the reinstalled fascia. It delivers an approximately 25-percent increase in capacity to help keep the boosted air charge cooler, particularly after a few full-throttle passes that can heat-soak the blower. Those Eaton blowers aren’t nicknamed “Heatin’” for no reason.


16. The supercharger assembly is reinstalled with a number of upgrades, including a set of 63 lb/hr fuel injectors, an LS7 90mm throttle body (vs. the stock 87mm unit) and a smaller supercharger pulley. The 2.7-inch-diameter pulley is 15 percent smaller than the stock 3.1-inch pulley and works with the larger crank pulley to produce an extra 4 pounds of boost.


17. Along with the smaller blower pulley, Livernois Motorsports swaps out the stock, spring-loaded supercharger coupler for a wear-resistant solid unit and replaces the stock idler pulley with a heavy-duty, double-bearing pulley (shown here). These parts will help preserve the longevity of the faster-spinning supercharger.


18. Stainless Works supplies the full-length, two-inch headers. Livernois uses them with aftermarket, high-flow catalytic converters to keep the engine package emissions compliant – at least outside of California. The two-inch primary tubes merge at the collector, which has a three-inch outlet.


19. Installing headers on a Gen-5 Camaro is pretty easy. They go up from the bottom of the car and there is plenty of access for the fasteners. The long-tube headers, however, interfere with the stock belly pan. The two options are trimming the plastic pan or leaving it off altogether. Livernois opted for the latter, because it would be a street/strip car, so the advantage those aero panels provide wouldn’t be missed too much. Sometimes, you just have to compromise.


20. The stock converter was removed and replaced with a higher-stall unit from Precision Industries. It was ordered with a 2,600 stall speed, but Livernois’ driver Rick LeBlanc says it stalls more around 3,500 rpm at the track.


21. Apart from the common cold-air intake, it’s basically impossible to tell his LSA’s output has jumped from 580 to nearly 850 horsepower. On Livernois’ DynoJet chassis dyno, it put down 707 horsepower to the tires.


22. Of course, non of the mods would be possible without proper tuning and, here, Livernois Motorsports’ head honcho Dan Millen adjusts the controller’s parameters before uploading the tune to the car. The tuning and dyno testing are part of the $14,500 engine package – which includes the complete tear-down of the stock engine and installation of the new parts. It’s not exactly chump change, but considering it’s a turn-key package with 9-second capability, it ain’t bad.


23. With the engine package installed and tuned, Livernois took the car to Milan dragway for its formal shakedown. It ran 9.87/142 mph on its first outing – and with the stock suspension – before the track officials kindly showed them the exit gate, requesting they not return with the car until a roll cage was installed.


24. Here’s the official time slip, showing the 9.87 e.t. and 142-mph trap speed, along with a respectable 1.54-second short time. Hoosier slicks and Bogart wheels helped in the traction compartment, but the run was made with a heavy race weight of 4,295 pounds.


Livernois Motorsports
Dearborn Heights, MI 48125



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