Back on August 3, I posted a blog that "Papa" John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John's Pizza, was looking for his old '72 Camaro. Schnatter was offering a cool quarter million dollar bounty for anyone who could turn over the title to his old hot rod. Schnatter had sold the Camaro back in 1983 to fund his first pizza joint, which he established in the back of his dad's tavern. Now a millionaire several times over, Papa John hit the road in a highly publicized nationwide search, making TV appearances and pleading to millions to keep an eye out for his car. As fate would have it, word got out to one PHR reader, Jeff Robinson of Flatwoods, Kentucky--who's '71 Camaro we featured in our November 2006 issue. It turns out that Papa John's Camaro was indeed a '71 model, not a '72 model as Schnatter originally thought. It also turned out that Jeff Robinson was the owner of John Schnatter's original Camaro. Our congratulations go out to Jeff for holding the winning "lottery ticket," so to speak. But beyond that, it bears repeating how incredible Jeff's Camaro is, and how far it's come since Papa John owned it. Bearing absolutely no resemblance mechanically to the pizza delivery car it started out as, Jeff has transformed the Camaro into a true Street Fighter.
I remember the first time I saw Jeff's Camaro, and how impressed I was. During the summer of 2006, I traveled to Bristol Dragway for the NMCA race, and while cruising the pit area for cars to feature in PHR, I locked on to Jeff's Camaro. The car was absolutely immaculate inside and out. It stood out from the other cars in the pit area because it was actually still a street car, and hadn't yet succumbed to the trappings of being an all-out racecar. It was licensed and insured, it had a full interior, and it hadn't deteriorated visually like most drag-only cars with dents, scoops, or decals festooned all over the body. In fact, Jeff had spent a great deal of time fixing some bad body work that had been done previous to his ownership. With a fresh coat of gold paint, it gleamed like a showcar, but ran like a thoroughbred. That weekend, I witnessed Jeff's Camaro lift the wheels effortlessly several times on its way to 10-second timeslips. I personally photographed Jeff's Camaro, capturing many of the cool details that I mentally filed away for use on future magazine project cars. One thing is for sure: Papa John has bought himself one awesome Camaro that doesn't need a thing to make it a true player.
Digging deeper into the story, Popular Hot Rodding readers will also appreciate that the engine in Jeff Robinson's Camaro was built by none other than Engine Masters Challenge alumnus and winner, Tony Bischoff of BES. Bischoff is the engine builder of choice for many top NMCA competitors, and the 540-inch big-block in the Camaro may, or may not, be part of the deal--we'll have to get back to you on that. If it is, Papa John will have a super fun time getting reacquainted with his old ride!
We thought we'd re-post Ro McGonegal's story of Jeff Robinson's '71 Camaro from our November 2006 issue once again, to give you (and Papa John, if he's reading) an idea of how cool this car really is. For more information on Papa John's search, and how he and Jeff Robinson hooked up, log on to www.papasroadtrip.com
"Perhaps the best litmus test...
"Perhaps the best litmus test is to goose this potent big-block at the supermarket and count the car alarms and cryin' kids."
So we've had Pro Street, Pro-Touring, and lately a serious rethinking of the Pro Street ethic. We've always had street-and-strip cars, though. Stuff's been around since bacon and eggs. It appears to have a mind of its own and remains an extremely popular niche, only today, it's called Street Fighter. We like it because it brews the car down to its essence-no frills and few if any creature comforts. The motor and mechanical substance is the street-and-strip car's charter and its legacy. Though it's primarily a drag strip driver, it is able to absorb the vagaries of the street. You just gotta be ready for them, that's all.
Either it's a growing trend or it's adherence to the original tenets, take your pick, but the popular-rendition street fighter still eschews comfort and accentuates metal-to-metal and requires a gritty constiituon. You'll have a heater but you certainly won't have an AM radio or working windshield wipers? Maybe. Would "All Motor" be a better term for these cars? Perhaps the best litmus test is to goose this potent big-block at the supermarket and count the car alarms and cryin' kids. We bet there would be too many to count.
When we spoke with Jeff Robinson, owner of our feature car, and gushed into our fetish for the big GM B-bodies, he fell right into it. "I had two of 'em-a '65 and a '67 Impala. The '65 had the motor that's in my Camaro now. In the tub o' guts body, it ran 10.59 through the mufflers on ET Street tires. I owned that car for 13 years. I enjoyed it because it was different and it was unexpected." Maybe he just got fed up with the lack of interest the hard parts aftermarket seems to have for these classic sedans. These days, you can find stuff for any Camaro on a matchbook cover.
Jeff became the recipient of this Camaro the time-honored way. The Flatwoods, Ky. resident got a line on a '71 Z28 RS that a cousin of a friend had bought with totally respectable intentions. Sure enough, cuz wanted himself a house and decided to off the Camaro to help him get it. Jeff was right there with a wheelbarrow. He sold his beloved Impala and never looked back.
"The Camaro had lots of new sheet metal, but it had been poorly installed," Jeff told us. Eventually, he handed that part of the buildup to JAS Street Rods, but before it went to paint, Randy and Tim Boggs, and Mike Van Hoose helped Jeff piece the rest of it together. Since the motor was already built and tested, they concentrated on the chassis, suspension, and bed springs. No brain surgery here. After the car returned from Carl Wilson (for an 8-point rollcage) in Ashland, Ky., thence from Bodley Chassis (for frame connectors) in Cincinnati, the lads assembled the rear suspension around a Moser 12-bolt axle fitted with 4.10:1 gears and a limited-slip differential. They located it with Cal Tracs leaf springs, Cal Tracs bars, and Lakewood shock absorbers.
At the front, the job was a little easier. The OE control arms got new bushings, Moroso springs, and Carrera shocks. They put Wilwood Dynalite Pro Series discs all the way around and capped them with the wheels and tires of the day: Mickey Thompson ET Fronts measure 26x5 and ride on 15x4 Weld Alumastar forgings; the rear combination comprises ET Street 28x12.50 slicks on wide 15x10 Alumastars. Since Jeff won't ever be slinging this dude into a hard right-hander anytime soon, he deemed the front and rear anti-sway bars superfluous.
In 1997, BES Racing in West Harrison, Ind., well-known engine builders on the NMCA circuit and in the Jeg's Engine Masters Challenge, built the 540 with a 4.500x4.250-inch bore and stroke. They fit the Wiseco pistons to Eagle 3D connecting rods, which ride on a Shafiroff Race Engines crankshaft. A Moroso oil pan seals the bottom of the engine; a Crane double-roller timing chain links cam with crank. The cylinder heads are heavy breathers-Dart Pro 1 CNC-ported aluminum (335cc intake ports) that hold 2.30/1.88-inch valves. Rows of Harland Sharp rocker arms are jiggled by Manley pushrods goosed by COMP Cams roller lifters. COMP Cams also provided the guide plates, retainers, and locks.
The Dart heads and intake manifold were virtually made for one another, an integrated induction package right from the factory, so to speak. Combustion chambers with 119cc volume craft that 12.5:1 compression ratio. A DaVinci-prepped Holley 1050-cfm carburetor lives on the single-plane manifold along with a Super Sucker spacer and a complete MSD ignition system that provides 36 degrees of total timing. An aluminum core, electric fan, and Summit electric water pump keep the match head damp. Hooker Super Comps scavenge the exhaust gases and propel them down the Torque Tech exhaust system, such as it is. No fool for extra weight, Robinson ended things at the mufflers, which is all the local racing authorities require. How much mucho does it make? Not a clue, according to Jeff, but perhaps the potency of the engine can be quantified by its performance in another life.
Jeff's 4,030-pound Impala went a 10.59 running through the mufflers and on 30x13.50 slicks. The 3,300-pound Camaro is still teething, has suspension issues, and (at this writing) has posted a best of 10.80 at 128 with the same engine that BES built way back in '97. So let's see: if every hundred pounds gone is worth a .08-second reduction in elapsed time, that would represent about a half-second improvement overall. Theoretically, the RS should be able to clip high 9s and still peel it back home on its own wheels.
In the primitive 1950s, race cars were really driven on the street and rarely trailered to the track. Fifty years later, the same phenomenon occurs regularly. As such, the car can't be sick extreme. Fragile ring packs, loose clearances, 1,500-rpm-idle camshafts, astronomical spring rates, and serious race-only stuff are usually not part of the Street Fighter street-and-strip car. The engine's terrible torque jab must be blunted but it also must be exploited. For just plain folks, the custom-built automatic transmission is still the most effective way to do that.
Coan Racing builds some beautiful pieces, complete with Stef's pans, and did a three-speed Turbo 350 with stock gear ratios for Robinson's Camaro. The Coan TH350 uses a 350 case, but replaces the entire rotating assembly with one that is .75-inch smaller than stock. The use of CNC-machined billet clutch drums reduces rotating mass and minimizes parasitic loss. The three-speed's unique valve body circuitry eliminates the need for an intermediate sprag, thus whittling down rotational mass. Robinson put it in the car along with a race-like Coan 4,500-rpm stall speed converter and hooked it to a Perma-Cool core. Jeff changes up gears with a B&M Quarter Stick. Torque passes through a three-inch diameter by .083-inch wall driveshaft made by Huntington Driveline in Huntington, W.V.
When all the thrashing and cursing and banging was done, Robinson bundled his joy over to JAS Street Rods in Williamsburg, Ohio, for resurrection. It only needed a few things: new quarters, rocker panels, door skins, a taillight panel, and, oh yeah, a front fender. Lots and lots of rubbing later, the JAS men squirted the car with PPG base clear and 1971 GM RPO Placer Gold. Thick, black complementary Z28 stripes are where they should be.On the other side of this, Jeff upholstered the buckets in vinyl, wired the car with Painless, and built the interior focal point around the Covan instrument panel and Auto Meter gauges. He's snugged tight by an RJS Racing Equipment harness and watched over by that ever-lovin' rollcage. He's following convention, though. Radio delete. Radio delete. Radio delete. No radio.