Friday, March 17, 2017

"The lightweight" 1967 Penske Camaro  
This 1967 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) Trans-American Sedan Championship[p (Trans-Am) series race car displayed at the Sunoco Race Fuels booth at the 2016 Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show is another example of the famous Penske “Unfair Advantage” as well as a demonstration of how legends grow as facts get twisted over time.

The 1967 Trans-Am season saw the debut of the Chevrolet Camaro and the Mercury Cougar. After the Penske Racing team built the first Sunoco Blue car, according to Mark Donohue in his book The Unfair Advantage “someone” arranged for Fisher Body to stamp special bodywork out of lighter gauge steel. Unfortunately Donohue crashed the first lightened car twice in its first outing at Bryar Motorsports Park in New Hampshire.

Rather than repair the lightweight sheet metal, Penske contacted Canadian heavy equipment dealer Terry Godsall who purchased the first Penske Camaro which had subsequently been wrecked in a towing accident. The original Penske Camaro under the new partnership of Penske-Godsall Racing was re-bodied with panels dipped in an acid bath “at some aerospace company in Los Angeles” according to Donohue.

The acid-dipped body panels and associated bracketry reduced the weight of the Camaro even with a full roll cage to 2,550 pounds which led the team to nickname it “the lightweight.”  An urban legend has grown up that the Camaro was raced underweight, but Donohue in his book was clear that the “dipping” merely allowed the team to redistribute 250 pounds of weight required to meet the series minimum weight to improve handling.

Donohue and the “lightweight” Camaro debuted at the September ‘Gallo Trophy’ race held on the Crows Landing Naval Auxiliary Air Station near Modesto California which replaced the previously announced Vaca Valley Raceway venue.  The flat 3-mile temporary course set up on the concrete runways was very abrasive and all the competitors suffered tire problems during the 250-mile race.
Due to the wrong rear axle gearing Donohue struggled and placed third behind Jerry Titus’ Shelby Mustang and Peter Revson in Bud Moore’s Cougar. The Modesto track was not used again for professional racing, but even today the facility now owned by NASA still hosts annual amateur autocross events.

Donohue related in his book that SCCA officials were very unhappy with the acid-dipped body, and for the rest of the season Roger Penske and the SCCA battled over the car’s legitimacy, although the Ford teams were also acid-dipping their Mustang bodies according to Donohue.   Meanwhile Donohue and “the lightweight” Camaro won the final two rounds of the 1967 Trans-Am series at Stardust International Raceway in Las Vegas and at Pacific Raceway at Kent Washington.

Despite those wins, Chevrolet finished third in the 1967 SCCA Trans-Am championship, with three wins behind Ford which just edged out Mercury each with four wins.  After the season finale at Kent, the SCCA officials declared the Penske “lightweight” car banned forever.

The Camaro is powered by a 302-cubic inch Chevrolet cast-iron engine with cast iron cylinder heads fed through a four-barrel Holley 800 CFM (cubic feet per minute)  carburetor built by Traco Engines of Culver City California run by Frank Travers and Jim Coon the winning chief mechanics on Bill Vukovich’s 1953 and 1954 Indianapolis ‘500’ winning Kurtis roadster.

The engine produced “410 to 420 horsepower” per Donohue and fed through a four-speed transmission the “lightweight” Camaro accelerated from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds. Post-season testing at Chevrolet engineering revealed that use of a “seasoned” engine block fitted with new cylinder heads could yield up to 460 horsepower but Donohue stated that those engines were not reliable when used early in the 1968 season.     

At the 12 Hours of Endurance For The Alitalia Airlines Trophy race at Sebring Florida in March 1968, “the Lightweight” Camaro reappeared and through some “tricky stuff” described by Donohue that involved switching of numbers between the team’s 1968 Camaro and this car both cars passed technical inspection. The SCCA officials were apparently unaware that they inspected the legal 1968 Camaro twice despite the fact that the 1967 Camaro featured vent windows unlike the 1968 Camaro and the 1967 version lacked the 1968 Camaro’s side marker lights.   

Donohue qualified the lightweight #15 Camaro for the pole position in Class 12 (Trans-Am) class at a lap time of 3 minutes and 1.2 seconds around the 5.2 mile road course which  tied with the equally suspicious black and gold Camaro built by the infamous Smokey Yunick shared by Lloyd Ruby and Al Unser. At the conclusion of  the 12 hour race, Donohue and his co-driver Craig Fisher finished third overall and first in the Trans-Am class four laps ahead of the their teammates Joe Welch and Bob Johnson in the #16 Suncoco1968 Camaro.   

Godsall sold the “lightweight” Camaro which was re-bodied as a Firebird after the 1968 SCCA Trans-Am season in order to develop and build a series of Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am cars. The lightweight Camaro was raced for many years by a variety of owners in Canada until vintage racer Paul Ryan recognized its significance, purchased it and had it professionally restored in 1987.

This 1967 Camaro was not Penske Pacing’s last experience of pushing the “Unfair Advantge” envelope with acid-dipping of the Camaro body. During the 1969 season the team used a body with sheet metal so thin that the roof panel wrinkled. To disguise this problem, the Sunoco Camaro raced with a black vinyl roof which Donohue explained to SCCA was because the team “liked the look.”

The 1969 Camaro’s vinyl roof drove the SCCA officials crazy, and sent the racing press into an long series of suppositions with articles that included suggestions of hidden fiberglass panels and hidden air holes in the roof to reduce lift.  Near the end of the 1969 season Penske removed the vinyl top and Chevrolet Camaro claimed its second straight Trans-Am Touring Sedan championship.
Check out an interesting interactive history of Sunoco Race Fuels at
photos by the author

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