The idea of taking a classic Camaro to Pike’s Peak is a little horrifying to some, and not because it spawns the cringe-worthy image of a classic musclecar tumbling down a mountainside. Though some might feel more for the car than the driver in that situation, the man behind the wheel needs to concern himself with the challenge of driving a wide-wheeled Camaro, making somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 horsepower, on a narrow, cambered mountain road without any guardrails to prevent a long tumble down.
Far from an unruly old bull, the Big Red Camaro is an icon with decades of development and plenty of bread invested. The build began back in 1987, when, tired of square-bodied Mustangs and IROCs of the era, Dan Gottlieb committed to creating a monster that boasted a production chassis, a cage, and a 540 c.i. engine build by Lingenfelter. Though that was already a tall order which would make most men wilt, Gottleib and his son, R.J., were going to see it to fruition.
However, after a big accident in Ensenada in 1988, they wrote the chassis off. The production chassis provided enough to keep Gottlieb safe after a crash at 140 mph, but it became startlingly clear that, for the purposes of high-speed racing on the open road, they’d need something more robust and quite a lot stiffer. Wisely, they went with a tube frame, salvaged the rear, and threw on plenty of plexiglass to trim some of the weight. Lighter, stiffer, and still draped in the skin of a production car, they had a versatile racing machine which still oozed classic style.
Pursuing Pike’s Peak
As a fan of open road racing, R.J. competed in events like the Silver State Classic and La Carrera with some success, and so, naturally, Pike’s Peak piqued his interest. The blast up the Coloradoan peak was appealing not just for the driving ability required, but the technical challenge as well—getting a car to work there isn’t easy. Most opt for forced induction to battle the challenge of thin air as they charge towards the 14,115-foot summit, but not R.J.
Running a 598 c.i. Brodix block, Big Duke heads, and a Hogan intake, there’s plenty of volume to play with. To offset the negative effects of thinner air, he opted to use a Holley EFI system in the place of a carburetor.
At the top of the mountain, the car’s engine might lack some torque relative to the blown entries, but it compensates with tractability. Without any lag, the power can be administered smoothly and precisely. That grunt is sent through a G-Force four-speed and a 9-inch rear, and rarely does R.J. spin the wheels without provocation. Penske shocks at all four corners provide the body control needed and help administer that power to the ground cleanly, and 14-inch Baer brakes at each corner arrest that speed very effectively—just tune to 1:31 in the above footage to see how a musclecar ought to brake.
Though R.J. and Big Red, which evokes the same sensation that “Great White” does the more I repeat the name, were not competing with the turbocharged, aero-laden machines at the sharpest end of the pack, they did not embarrass themselves at the Race to the Clouds. With minimal aero bits, namely a well-integrated wing and a large front splitter, they managed a 11:08.857 at the end of the 12.4-mile course, R.J. added another notch to the belt of the world’s most capable Camaro, and proved that you don’t have to sacrifice style for speed.