1967 - 1969 Camaro Parts - Racing Indy 500 legends in a '69 Camaro Z/28 at the Brickyard - Steve's Camaro Parts - 650-873-1890

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 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.

My goal: keep the yellow and blue 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 I’m driving shiny side up, and challenge Al Unser Jr. for the win in his near-800 hp ’69 Corvette. One of those two goals would prove difficult.
The inaugural SVRA Brickyard Invitational earlier this summer at the Indianapolis Speedway played host to 700 vintage race cars. It was the largest gathering of vehicles for competition this nation has ever seen, with vehicles ranging from pre-war F1 racers to iconic Indy 500 winners to old NASCAR Winston Cup machines.

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. 

I received my invite to compete in the Indy Legends Pro/Am, the weekend’s featured event, back in late winter – thanks to finishing fourth in the 2010 Indy 500. At the time I knew nothing except that I’d be paired with an amateur driver and given a vintage Camaro, Mustang or Corvette with a 350 cubic-inch displacement or less, dating between 1962 and 1972. Other drivers include two-time Indy 500 champion Al Unser Jr., Willy T. Ribbs, Lyn St. James, Scott Goodyear, Eliseo Salazar, Mark Dismore and many more. The man leading the field in the pace car was to be none other than Parnelli Jones.

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. 

My first experience as to how different arrives the following morning, with a 30-minute practice session for the pros. I expect to discover a tremendous amount of wallowing, and I’m ready to be humbled as I try to acclimatize. Instead I find a machine with a lovely balance and a feeling reminiscent of a modern race car  — only with less grip and a bit more pitch and roll. It’s easy to push, though, and it’s not intimidating. It is, in fact, incredibly rewarding, and the sound is truly fabulous.

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.

For Dave Roberts, running a billion-dollar corporation is his life, but it’s the racetrack where he feels most at home. He’s a regular competitor at vintage races, and in June ran his 1978 Budweiser Lightning Indy car up the iconic Goodwood hill.
Dave’s an unassuming guy with a big heart. He’s constantly inviting kids to sit in the race cars, taking the time to talk to the families and allowing them to feel as if they’re a part of the team. He employs CRP Racing to take care of all his toys, but Dave’s not one to sit back while others slave away. He’s the kind of person that grabs a wrench and digs in. In many ways, he’s not as you’d imagine a successful CEO – he’s a car guy. And perhaps it’s this attitude that has helped him get to where he is today.

That work ethic ensures he’s a sharp racer, too, and he proves it by qualifying for Sunday’s race in tenth. But before we get to that, I was offered a rather special opportunity to drive Mark Donohue’s 1972 Indy 500-winning McLaren around the Speedway.
I’d be following Bobby Unser in his ’81 winner, and to reach the pedals we stuffed Parnelli Jones’s race suit behind my back. Needless to say, the entire episode requires its own story, and you canread what happened here and watch the video below. It was one of the most memorable moments of my racing career.

Back to the job at hand and the format was simple: The event was 45 minutes with Dave starting first before handing over the car for me to finish up. At the start, Dave proved his racing credentials even further by leaping past a few cars to slot into eighth. As he continued to make ground on the leaders, he pitted just as a yellow came out due to Indy 500 champion Buddy Lazier T-boning another driver. (Buddy’s poor Camaro joins the body-shop waiting room.)

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.

source: Motoramic
by Alex Lloyd


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