One undeniably awesome aspect of working for Power Automedia is that every so often, we get invited to play with other people’s cars. Here at LSXMag, we’ve had the chance to try out the Camaro ZL1 on a road course and at the dragstrip, borrow a Z51 Stingray for a week, and even ride along with GM’s development drivers in the Z/28 at the Milford Proving Grounds.
Our latest adventure as the guest of Chevrolet was a trip to Gingerman Raceway in Michigan, and a chance to put the Z/28 through its paces, except this time we’d be behind the wheel ourselves. Most readers will need no introduction to the Z/28, but for the benefit of those who have been out of the loop, this car can be best described as what happens when the Camaro team gets free reign to build the ultimate track toy. Sure, there are some concessions to pesky things like regulations and practicality, but the Z/28 represents the Camaro distilled down to the essentials.
Power comes from the naturally-aspirated 7 liter LS7, sourced from the 6th generation Corvette line and found in the Z06 and 427 Convertible models. Hand-built just like it was in its Corvette days, the engine retains the 505 hp rating it had previously, but detail changes to the intake and exhaust broaden the already expansive torque range. Enormous carbon ceramic brakes, spool-valve dampers, and steamroller tires are all part of the package as well, and the Z/28 has several hundred fewer pounds to haul around than the previous top-dog Camaro, the supercharged ZL1.
Stripped to the Essentials
Back in the 1960’s when the US Air Force was just beginning to develop what would become one of the greatest fighter planes of the 20th century, the F-15 Eagle, the designers intentionally bucked the trend towards multirole aircraft that paid the penalty for flexibility with greater complexity, size, and cost. The guiding philosophy was, “Not a pound for air-to-ground” – the Eagle would be a pure air superiority weapon. Of course, once the aircraft entered service, the pressure to do more than just sling missiles at MiGs meant that the F-15 got heavier, more expensive, and eventually morphed into the two-seat E-model Strike Eagle, an excellent attack aircraft that is more than capable of escorting itself to targets inside contested airspace.
In a way, the Z/28 Camaro is the F-15 script run in reverse. When the 5th Gen Camaro debuted in the 2010 model year, it was an immediate hit, and interestingly enough, the V8 outsold the V6 – usually the situation is the other way around, with buyers drawn into the showroom with SS dreams but an RS budget.
While the 5th Gen was more powerful, more comfortable, and safer than the previous F-body cars that had bowed out in 2002, it was also a lot heavier thanks to the burden of additional safety and luxury features that became the norm in the intervening eight years.
With the Z/28, Camaro chief Al Oppenheiser explains that the mandate was to strip away anything that didn’t make the car lap a race course quicker. The only major available option is a package that adds air conditioning and stereo speakers, and we’re told that the debate over whether to offer it was intense; “not a pound for air and sound,” so to speak. The end result is a car that is as uncompromised for the mission as a major automotive manufacturer can offer.
When it Rains, it Pours
Having previously experienced the Z/28’s prowess from the passenger seat with a professional driver at the helm, we were both excited and anxious (in several senses of the word) to get behind the wheel on a racetrack ourselves. How would this 10/10ths Camaro perform in the hands of a 6/10ths (being generous) driver?
One of the reasons Gingerman Raceway in southwestern Michigan was selected as the venue for this press event is that it’s a forgiving track, designed by a racing enthusiast with safety in mind. It’s easier to explore a car’s limits (or in this case, your limits as a driver) in an environment where going past the edge isn’t punished with crumpled sheetmetal and profuse apologies to the hosts for wadding up their $75,000 car.
Unfortunately, one aspect of the experience that Chevrolet couldn’t control was the weather; specifically, the on-and-off torrential rainfall that plagued us throughout the day. While the Z/28’s Pirelli Trofeo tires grip dry pavement tenaciously, standing water in the corner apexes and general conditions that ranged from “moist” to “start gathering pairs of animals” were pretty far out of their design specs. Trying to find the ragged edge of the Camaro’s true performance under those circumstances would have been foolhardy even at what is arguably the country’s safest racetrack.
The good news, though, is that we did learn just how competent the Z/28 is even when you throw it a curve, like a wet track or a mediocre driver. While the majority of these cars that do get tracked (as opposed to sealed in bubble wrap by speculators) will be driven by owners who are already skilled enough to make full use of its extremely high potential, the Z/28 makes an excellent learning platform.
Doesn’t Bite When Cornered
In a way, the lack of traction was a blessing, because it let us see a side of the Z/28 that we probably wouldn’t have in the dry – how it handles as you approach the limit of adhesion. On a dry track, things would have happened very, very quickly (and possibly with bad consequences), but in the 60-percent conditions, every imperfection in the driving line, each lift of the throttle in mid-corner, all the over and under-driving that wouldn’t be obvious even at a 9/10ths pace in perfect weather provided clear feedback at a pace that was possible to absorb and learn from. Even as the track went from damp to full wet, we kept going faster and smoother, with the PTM and ABS safety net catching us every so often in a “teachable moment.”
The Z/28 is so capable, well-sorted, and forgiving of nonsense that if you replaced those Trofeos with some rock-hard all season rubber to keep the car in that 60-percent zone on a dry track, it would be the perfect way to gain experience managing the car at full boogie without having to drive at full boogie speeds. Like we said before, most owners won’t need “training wheels” to learn how to wring all the sweet, sweet juice from this Camaro, but in the end we were glad we got to try it the way we did because we got more out of it than we probably would have in perfect weather.
So how about it, Chevrolet? Lend us a Z/28 to play with here at our sunny SoCal headquarters so we can use what we learned on that wet Michigan pavement…