We’re told the Indy Legends Pro/Am is more of a demonstration than a full-bore race, but the destroyed front end on Buddy Lazier’s '70s Camaro proves otherwise. When you throw 24 former Indy 500 drivers into the ring after, in some cases, more than two decades, that competitive spirit reignites and what is supposed to be an exhibition of vintage muscle cars driven by some of Indy’s greatest shoes morphs into a demolition derby of vehicles worth as much as a decent-sized house.
The Indy 500 today is still the greatest race in the world. Witnessing machines from an era that’s long gone is more than just exciting – it’s strangely moving. Hearing a big block V-8 thunder down the front straight, for example, or the rumble of a 1,000-hp Offy churning at near 200 mph, just as it did in the early ‘80s.
It wasn’t until a couple of days before the event I learned that my drive partner would be Dave Roberts, chairman and CEO of Carlisle Companies (a business that provides all kinds of products including Hawk Performance brake pads). The car we’d be racing is his 1969 Camaro Z/28, a machine built to the exact specification Penske Racing used in that season’s Trans-Am championship with Mark Donohue (with the exception of power steering, something Penske was evaluating but not racing at the time, and of course Hawk pads).
When I arrived at the track Friday evening, I was blown away – it’s a proper race car, meticulously maintained and with a cabin that looks as pristine as Penske’s original. Dave tells me I can upshift without the clutch, and that to drive the car quickly, I’ll need to turn it with the throttle. With a heavy 302 motor under the hood pushing 500 hp, the theory makes sense, but given my background racing lightweight open wheel cars, it’s bound to be pretty different.
Dave’s right: you need to get back to power aggressively to get the thing turned, but I’m shocked at the rotation that arrives when doing so. And on vintage Hoosier bias-ply tires, the thing slides constantly; Dave has never been tempted to throw a modern set of tires on the car in search of extra speed, something I’m eternally grateful for as the tail drifts effortlessly coming out of turn 3.
I ended the session in fifth, which seems pretty reasonable given we’re down on power compared to some. But we’re a whopping five seconds off Unser Jr. in his Corvette. Peter Klutt, Unser’s co-driver and owner of the car, is known throughout the paddock for pushing the boundaries of possibility, and it’s pretty clear that barring disaster they’ve got this in the bag.
But hey, SVRA races are about having fun, and I was having an absolute blast. Some drivers had a bit too much fun, and were in need of a new car after they wadded up theirs. The fact that I was not one of them means I deemed the day a triumphant success. Dave agrees.
As the mandatory five-minute driver change occurred and I got belted in, we filtered out in fifth position. The race went back to green with roughly 30 minutes to go, and I was immediately left with an unnerving predicament: The car in front was roughly 10 mph faster down the straight, but I've got them covered in the turns. The only way I can pass is to brake perilously late and dive-bomb down the inside.
With Lazier’s wreck etched into my mind, I sized up the safest place to make the move, and eventually, coming into the tight final few bends, threw the Camaro down the inside to make the pass. Unser, who somehow got cycled to the back during the pit stops, flies by me on the next straight as if I’m challenging Usain Bolt to a 100-meter dash. I guess even disaster can’t stop him now.
Just a few short laps later, disaster, however, befell me as smoke billowed into the cockpit. Initially I fear the engine’s dying, but as I slow the smoke subsides. Pulling into the pits, we found a bolt had come loose on the right rear suspension, and the smoke was from tire rub. It was enough to end our race, but not enough to spoil our enthusiasm.
As anticipated, “Little Al” won the race with ease. I think I speak for everyone competing, though, when I say that in this rare case, it wasn’t about the winning – it was about taking part. Dave has since told me that if we race again next year we may try to eke out a bit more power to take the fight to Al’s Corvette. But one thing’s for sure: we’ll still be running Hoosiers, back home in Indiana.