The Golden Age

The good ol' days of high performance are right now

Barry Kluczyk - December 13, 2012 10:00 AM


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Organized drag racing is at a crossroads.

Spectator attendance and participation in the bracket racing programs has declined in recent years. You can argue the advent of delay boxes and other launch aids has diminished the visceral thrill of the sport, but then again cars like Livernois Motorsports’ new Camaro ZL1 are just plain ruining it.

Besides the track-only Bogart wheels and racing tires, this thing looks and drives like a showroom-fresh new car. This cannot be a racecar, but it has already gone 9.87 at 142 mph. In fact, Livernois’ Rick LeBlanc drove the car to the track, laid down that nine-second e.t. and drove the car home. Then he drove it to work the next day.

It’s hard to get excited about the full-on race cars in the staging lanes when a car that looks like it belongs in the spectator parking lot rolls up with the AC on and quietly annihilates the asphalt and slinks off of the track while the driver fumbles for the “hair band” station on the satellite radio. Off the showroom floor, the ZL1 will nail 60 mph in four seconds flat and run up to a top speed of 184 mph. This one will better those numbers by a longshot. The good old days were never this good.

“The ZL1 is an amazing piece,” says LeBlanc, who turned the nine-second blast during his first time at the track with the car. “We thought it would be quick, but to get so deeply into the 9s thrilled us. There’s a lot of potential here and we’re just getting started.”

Chevrolet’s official testing posted “only” an 11.93 with an automatic-equipped model and an 11.96 with the Tremec six-speed manual. Livernois’ car packs the Hydra-Matic 6L90 automatic. Shaving more than two seconds from the factory’s best performance required cracking into the ZL1’s supercharged “LSA” 6.2-liter engine, which was rated at 580 horsepower before Livernois got a hold of it.

They left the short block alone, which wasn’t a bad idea, because it already features a forged steel crankshaft and strong rods and pistons – although not the forged pistons found in the LSA’s higher-output brother, the 680hp LS9 of the Corvette ZR1. Nevertheless, the hypereutectic pistons have proven admirably strong and they’re cooled by integrated oil squirters that shoot oil at the bottoms of the pistons to enhance lubrication and keep them cooler under the heat-inducing load of maximum boost.

Livernois swapped the cylinder heads for their own CNC-ported versions, which open up the intake passages for greater airflow, resulting in a solid 20 to 30 horsepower gain at the rear wheels. A set of dual-coil valve springs with titanium retainers and stock, 1.7-ratio rocker arms complete the assemblies. The heads are matched with the company’s Stage 2C High Lift camshaft, too, with specs that include .646-inch lift on both the intake and exhaust sides, 224/236 degrees of duration and a comparatively wide lobe separation angle of 117 degrees.

The heads and cam are the primary drivers behind the engine’s stellar 707 rear-wheel horsepower output, which is nearly 850 horses at the crankshaft.

The engine features racing-spec head studs, hardened pushrods, 63 lb-hr fuel injectors, a GM 90mm throttle body, cold NGK TR6 spark plugs, a 160-degree thermostat and Stainless Works two-inch long-tube headers. Feeding the engine is a dual fuel pump upgrade that ensures the LSA won’t go begging for juice at wide-open throttle. There’s a custom Precision Industries torque converter with a 2,600 rpm stall speed – although it stalls more around 3,500 rpm at the track.

The Eaton-supplied 1.9-liter Roots-type blower for the LSA engine also received some attention, including the swap of the stock supercharger coupler for a solid one that eliminates the tendency for the stock one to rattle at low engine speed and wear on the supercharger shaft.

Also, the stock 3.1-inch blower pulley was replaced with a smaller, 2.7-inch diameter pulley that enables the pair of four-lobe, high-helix rotors to spin faster and generate about four additional pounds of boost. It is balanced with a larger diameter balancer from Innovators West and a Metco oversized crank pulley ring. Finally, the blower is fed a greater dose of fresh air via a Rotofab-based cold-air intake system and the pressurized air charge is fed through a larger-than-stock heat exchanger that cools it considerably before it is forced into the combustion chambers.

“We built the engine the way we develop packages for our customers,” says LeBlanc. “Since our experience has been so positive with it, we are now offering it as a package for $14,500.”

We pressed LeBlanc on the chassis and suspension mods – and how much weight they cut out of the car to nudge it into the 9s. He swore on a stack of vintage car magazines that the rest of the car was as stock as the proverbial rock, with a race weight (including the driver) of 4,295 pounds.

“Stock suspension, stock interior, stock everything,” he insisted. “We didn’t cut a pound out of the thing. Apart from the wheels and tires used at the track, it wore all the original equipment during the nine-second run.”

At more than 4,000 pounds, there’s a lot of metal to move – and getting it up and moving effectively falls to a unique suspension system that was designed for hard, high-rpm launches. Compared to a Camaro SS, the ZL1 comes from the factory with a slew of unique components, including a stronger driveshaft and rear axle system.

The rear axle has a large, 9.9-inch cast iron differential housing (the Camaro SS’s housing is aluminum), stronger axles and heavy-duty limited-slip differential. A rear differential cooler reduces temperatures in the differential by more than 100 degrees. Asymmetrical half-shafts – a 60mm hollow shaft on the right and a 33mm solid shaft on the left – offer different torsional stiffness rates, which work with the limited-slip differential to minimize the chance of wheel hop on hard launches. The rear stabilizer bar has drop links positioned outboard of the control arms, for more effective body roll control in turns, with crisp response to driver commands.

Ensuring the Camaro ZL1 hauls down from hyperspace safely is the job of a braking system developed in conjunction with Brembo. Large 14.6-inch two-piece front rotors have six-piston calipers and the 14.4-inch rear rotors have four-piston calipers. It works very well and Livernois Motorsports left it alone.

The ZL1 also benefits from the sophisticated Performance Traction Management (PTM) system. It integrates GM’s third-generation magnetic ride control – with driver-selectable Tour and Sport modes – with launch control, traction control, electronic stability control and electric power steering response to enhance performance.

“The chassis/suspension set-up on the ZL1 is a thing of beauty and the engineers need to be commended for it,” says LeBlanc. “I’ve driven other modified Gen-5 Camaro SSs that didn’t feel nearly as stable and controllable on the track as the ZL1. To be honest, I was a bit nervous about going that fast in the car, but after the first pass, I knew I could go faster with any qualms. It’s that good.”

It’s about this time in the average high-performance car feature that we discuss the other mods to the car, such as the interior upgrades. But again, there’s nothing to speak of. The leather/suede-like microfiber-trimmed cabin, with the flat-bottom steering wheel and boost gauge added to the “four pack” console gauges, is just as it was delivered from the dealership. Heck, we even had to ask LeBlanc to pull the factory plastic covers off the seats.

“We don’t want to put a roll cage in the car,” says LeBlanc. “But now the drag strip guys know we’re too quick without one and they won’t let us run again.”

The car’s very performance is making organized drag racing an endangered species. We love drag racing and know it won’t ever die, but as long daily-drivable strip killers like this one keep going quicker, we can’t help but wonder if the days of traditional bracket racing are numbered.