The reaction is the same whether you see Bob Owen's '69 Camaro for the first time on the internet, the street or on the race track: complete awe. Even in the paddock area at Laguna Seca Raceway, the normally insular clique of Porsche and Ferrari racers is dumbfounded. A car which they had earlier written off as a cute oddity now has a growing crowd gathered around it. The Zinfandel and Camembert crowd has--on track--been unsuccessful in chasing the Camaro's taillights all day. Now, they take the opportunity to examine it up close, and they are begrudgingly impressed.
We know how they feel. We've been chasing Bob Owen's Camaro since last September, when we first stumbled upon it online. An unattributed photo of Bob's Camaro chewing up a high-speed sweeper made us as giddy as a 12-year-old with a stack of Playboys. We wanted this car--no, we had to have this car for PHR. Our persistence paid off handsomely, to the extent that the author even managed to cajole a 20-minute ride-along during a recent time-trial session at Laguna Seca Raceway.
In a nutshell, Owen's Camaro is a NASCAR-spec racer jacked-up on steroids and licensed for the street. Although technically street-legal, it's about as likely to be found on the street as Cameron Dias waiting in line at Wal-Mart. A steady diet of high-octane race fuel makes it just as unlikely to fill up at the local Exxon. The up side is the adrenaline rush you get as 697hp rockets this 2,800-lb. car up the straight-away at a buck fifty. Put into perspective, a Nextel Cup car with 750hp and 3,400 lbs. has a weight-to-power ratio of 4.53 lb./hp., Bob's '69 Camaro is around 4 lbs./hp.
So how did a successful San Francisco Bay area contractor find himself behind the wheel of a car that would make Emerson Fittipaldi green with envy? Owen, who has owned many exotic cars including Vipers and Ferraris, attended an open-wheeled driving school at Sears Point Raceway several years ago and got hooked. "I hit the wall and flipped it," says Owen, "so I figured it was time to get my own car. That's when I started thinking nostalgia."
A call to a knowledgeable brother-in-law (isn't that an oxymoron?) uncovered a '69 Camaro in the Allentown, Pennsylvania area. Owen made the deal for the car and contacted Busby Motorsports (Martinez, CA) to orchestrate the transformation from ordinary to outrageous. Busby, which specializes in building Winston West and Southwest Tour race cars, also fills its down time helping local road racers, making Busby Motorsports the perfect candidate for the job. Busby employee Gary Michelson told PHR: "We're dirt track racers here, so most of our customers don't go for all the quality pieces like Bob. Most racers are budget minded, but Bob wanted the best. From a builder's standpoint, this is a really special car. It's the one you would want to build as a builder."
That kind of spare-no-expense attitude buys a lot of car, and in this case that means full-on Southwest Tour underpinnings comprised of a complete Port City Chassis front end mounted to a custom tube frame race car chassis using .095-inch wall 1-3/4-inch tubing.
Gone is the flimsy GM unibody construction, and as we shall see, most of the other flimsy GM factory parts. Key pieces include Afco double-adjustable coil-over shocks, Speedway Engineering swaybars, an Appelton power-assisted rack and pinion attached to a custom Ididit column, a custom Watts linkage mounted to a Winters quick-change 9-inch rear with 4.11 gears, Wilwood brakes all around (8-piston calipers in front, 6-piston calipers in back) and a 22-gallon Fuel Safe fuel cell.
Busby Motorsports introduced Owen to the good folks at Ron Gross Race Engines in Lodi, California. Gross builds plenty of dirt track motors for Busby, but his main claim to fame is his experience with Top Alcohol drag boat engines.
Gross based the 358 cubic-inch small-block Chevy on an aluminum Dart block, loaded it full of Sonny Bryant billet crank, Manley H-beam rods, J&E forged pistons, a custom Crower solid roller cam with a Cloyes double roller timing chain and topped the nugget with ported Brodix 18-degree heads and a high-rise spread-port intake. "Huffaker out in Sonoma built the [1 3/4 to 1 7/8-inch step] headers," says Gary Michelson, "Nothing fits in it, so we had them built. A lot of the stuff on that car is like that. It's just a one-of-a-kind car."
Other engine goodies include 2.05/2.02-inch stainless valves actuated by a Crower rollerized valvetrain, a NASCAR-spec Holley 830-cfm carb, a custom four-gallon dry-sump oil system, MSD distributor, ignition and coil, Taylor 8mm wires, a Griffin radiator with oil cooler, 145-amp Power Master alternator, and Peterson water pump and pulleys.
Conflicting reports put compression at either 9:1 or 13.5:1. At 9:1--even on high octane--we feel the 697hp reported is a tad optimistic, but at 13.5:1 the mill is giving up around 40 hp with good swill in the tank. At any rate, that difference in compression on a motor like this would normally be a 70- to 80-hp swing. We'll let you decide, but trust us when we say there's enough snot under the hood--even on a bad day--to run away and hide from Ferraris.
This ocean of power twists its way through a Tilton flywheel and three-disc clutch (in a Tilton magnesium bellhousing) to a Jerico four-speed trans with straight-cut gears. Dog tooth engagement means Owen can upshift and downshift without the clutch, just as the Trans Am boys do. A custom driveshaft (Driveline Service, Concord, California) passes the grunt to the Winters quick-change nine-inch.
The final and perhaps most striking part of Bob Owen's Camaro is the exterior, which was crafted by Automotive Enterprise of San Carlos, California. The steel Camaro body was treated to custom wheel flares which started out as FIA flares for a '69 Corvette. Automotive Enterprise mocked-up the front spoiler and front wheel flares to merge using a clay form, then built custom molds for the fiberglass parts which were laid in-house. The rear wing actually started out as "ricer" fare; the side panels were fabbed in-house and then the wing was raised, "to get the wing into clean air," say Owen, adding, "From the open wheel cars I drove, I knew I needed some downforce in back."
After prep work, the body was then sprayed with Ferrari metallic gray; the long patch front-to-back is a pigment called "Grigio Quartz," but we're more inclined to call it silver.
The rolling stock is NASCAR-inspired, but where Nextel Cup cars use 15 x 10-inch steel rims, Owen's Camaro rolls on 16 x 10s up front and 16 x 12s in the rear. The steelie Circle Race Wheels are wrapped by Goodyear racing slicks all around. The look is intimidating, but the braking and turning power of this combination is the real knock-out punch felt by most Z06s and Vipers. Don't look for creature comforts inside the office of this Camaro. The only concession to entertainment is the passenger-side seat, which exists for the sole purpose of plastering a smile on some lucky schmoe's face. In the event said schmoe elects to blow chunks of lunch instead, the all-metal interior can simply be hosed out. On those occasions when Owen has time to peek, Autometer gauges tell the tale. A Hurst H-pattern shifter changes the gears while a set of Wilwood pedals control Wilwood master cylinders for brake and clutch. Kirkey road race seats and Pyrotech 5-point harnesses round out the interior.
The only open item on the to-do list is to get the 2-1/2-inch Spin Tech side-exiting exhaust to comply with noise regulations at some tracks. On the day we met Owen at Laguna Seca, the Camaro was black flagged several times for noise. Owen explains: "The decibel meter is between corners five and six, so I have to lift a little there. They stopped me because it was 92 dBs! I'm still working on that." A quieter exhaust would likely cost power, and that makes Owen somewhat reluctant to change it, especially when Sears Point--another favorite of his--has no such restriction.
Other than pesky decibel meters run by little old ladies, the whole thing works marvelously on track, as your author can attest to. The combination provides for dizzying levels of acceleration, lateral g-force, and deceleration. Despite the expense of constructing such a car, it fits into no specific class and was strictly meant for lapping days and driving schools. It is a dream car in the purest sense, with no concessions to any rulebook or sanctioning body, and we applaud Bob Owen for having the guts to build it!