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Testing the First ZL1 Camaro with Dick Harrell Back in 1969

Just Sayin: COPO Camaro Number 1

Ro McGonegal Jul 3, 2018
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I’d gone to Dick Harrell’s Performance Center, his shop in Kansas City, Missouri, to do the first reveal and a big drag test on a Camaro equipped with the COPO 9560 option. I think that Dusk Blue one I tested was the fifth such car produced. I was stunned by the $4,160.15 ticket for the ZL1 option—about $1,000 shy of what I made in a year! As remarkable as this option was, the envelope it had been stuffed in was just as unremarkable—six-cylinder sleepy, dog dish hubcap dreary. It was that ZL2 cold-air hood that gave it away. And none of it would have become history without angels: Chevrolet’s Vince Piggins and La Harpe, Illinois, dealer Fred Gibb. None of this information is new.

There was another COPO there, too. It was the first one built on that total order of 69 units. When I was there in February 1969, Harrell’s crew was sticking Build #1 together to go to the dragstrip and make its debut at the AHRA Winter Nationals three weeks later at Phoenix. As per AHRA dictum, it didn’t need inner fender panels or front brakes. It grew a crop of fiberglass: fenders, gravel pan, and hood. All the seats were stripped but one and they put up a rollcage behind it. They put a Dana 60 and ladder bar suspension underneath. Rather than a four-speed or an automatic, they’d put a Clutchflite transmission behind the aluminum engine.

Although equipment and configuration were modified as per experience, what’s here was the initial single-carburetor setup I saw at Harrell’s. As I coaxed the 2 1/4 format negatives from their fragile glassine sleeves, stuff that I’d shot 50 years ago with a very upright Mamiya C3, some of it came back in a drizzle. The importance of it was lost on me then. I was an out-of-breath neophyte without a single point of reference, having the time of my life in a wonderful waking dream. I was just doing what was expected of me.

002 1969 Zl1 Camaro Drag Test Dick Harrell 2/4

At Kansas City International Raceway, it turned 10.41 at 128.10 with a single Holley 850. The weather should have been inhospitable, but instead was in the balmy low 40s and air slightly damp. A test I did not witness featured 660 Holleys on a Weiand tunnel-ram that went 10.29. Gibb Chevrolet employee Herb Fox took it from there. He was good. His first race, he beat the two top qualifiers before losing in the semifinal to eventual winner Arlen Vanke. The polarizing moment for the Mopar contingent came when Herb Fox embarrassed bad arse Ronnie Sox.

Later, sporting twin 4500 carburetors, the Gibb-Harrell ZL1 Camaro fairly disturbed competitors in the AHRA and the NHRA. In 1971, the car was converted to the revised AHRA rules for Pro Stock. Gibbs’ driver Jim Hayter set that AHRA record of 9.63 at 143 mph and won the AHRA Championship in Super Stock and Pro Stock. As the drag race car was ancillary to the story, I can’t remember if I asked what was inside the motor.

You can probably guess what happened next; ZL1 Build #1 was turned out, like a disgraced cop who had to become a mall cop, usefulness no longer current or viable. So #1 became a bracket racer. In 1983, Oldsmobile engineer, ZL1 admirer (and steward-in-waiting) Bill Porterfield came across an advert for it in National Dragster. But that was just the beginning of a 5-year education. He tracked it through two owners and by 1988 it was his. He began the laborious task of returning the quintessential ZL1 to its origin.

Porterfield was adamant about authenticity and went to great pains to ensure that. After stripping the car to its shell, Porterfield literally attended every square inch to ensure the correctness of the restoration, rebuilding or replacing dozens of components. So thorough was Porterfield’s attention to detail that he combed five states to find the correct pattern of lace to duplicate the original paint scheme (which was Candy Apple Red and gold lace). The giant hoodscoop was clear plexiglass. His search included a correctly equipped Winters foundry ME-code aluminum 427. Chuck Wright at Batten Engineering machined authentic 1969 castings, coddled the hard parts, and put the piece together.

003 1969 Zl1 Camaro Drag Test Dick Harrell 3/4

The beautiful part of this story is that 50 years ago there was no such backward thing as political correctness. There was no other winner save for the one that actually did the winning. There was no clamor to save anyone from the inherently dangerous sport of drag racing. You gave yourself as much protection as the rules allowed. You stood up and did it and didn’t complain very much; there was nobody outside of your circle who’d listen if you did. And that was the extent of the so-called “social media.” Drag racers were drawn by risk, the inherent terror, basically the unknown from which there was no real protection at all and that’s one of the qualities that made drag racers special.

So, I had gone to Missouri to test a “stock” ZL1 that was equipped with a Turbo 400 transmission (I believe it was campaigned by Shay Nichols). I can still hear the boss’ prophetic words prior to takeoff: “Here’s your plane ticket. Have fun, heh, heh … and keep it off the guardrail.” Yeah, right. I couldn’t fathom it. I forgot about what he said.

The track had been dormant for months so the starting line surface was mossy and slick. It would be like trying to find traction on a slab of butter. And I was stunned by what Dick told me: “I want you to leave the transmission in Neutral, then mat the throttle, and pull the lever into Low.” My squirrel brain schizzed; this was Rent-A-Wreck behavior, not for something as exclusive as this Dusk Blue Camaro. I did two of these “launches” that blew the tires to kingdom come and abruptly steered the car right for the fence. Harrell, the professional, finally reeled off a best of 11.64/122.15 on those pitiful M&H 8.00/8.50 tires, but not with any kind of Neutral-start bull gravy.

The episode had raised my hackles. It was unprecedented. I soon discovered an even greater bent. I hadn’t heard of the AHRA racer prior to my trip and had focused more attention on the stock rendition. After nearly obliterating the thing on the Armco, I was adrenalized, not quite in my right mind, so when Harrell suggested that I take a ride with him in the race car I jumped to it like an addict with a big jones.

004 1969 Zl1 Camaro Drag Test Dick Harrell 4/4

Remember that inherently dangerous part? There was nothing in the Camaro that I could hold onto, not a door handle, not so much as a piece of string that would secure me. Harrell had a seat. He said matter-of-factly “just hang on to the rollcage. It’ll be over pretty quick.” What could go wrong? Oh, jeez.

He shoved the Clutchflite in gear, stepped the motor to 6,000, and popped the pedal. The M&H 10.50s bit down hard, pulled the wheels and the car flat left. I was weightless more than once, tethered by bone and sinew and nothing else. What a life! An old story of what was … and can never be again.

About the Author: Ro McGonegal began in this business back in 1968. He’s been editor of Car Craft, Hot Rod, and Chevy High Performance. He’s a wealth of old-school knowledge and his stories from “back in the day” are epic.

Photos by Ro McGonegal

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