JUST SAYIN

Chevy High Performance - - Contents - BY: Ro McGone­gal

Ro McGone­gal looks back on his test of a COPO ’69 Ca­maro ZL1, then gets taken for a ride in COPO #1

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 four­speed 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.

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.

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.

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-of­factly “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.

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.

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