Sure, outsourcing sucks for consumers, but it's not like the poor tech support reps in Calcutta actually enjoy talking to disgruntled Windows Vista users. When it comes to communication barriers, it seems like everyone ends up a loser, but that's only true if you've never met Jerry Balko. As the tale goes, the former owner of his '68 Camaro wanted to paint the car in Porsche Red. Unfortunately, his painter didn't speak much English, and the parts guy at the Porsche dealership didn't speak much Spanish. Not knowing that Porsche offered several different shades of red, he painted the car the wrong color. Consequently, the owner lost interest in the Camaro, and that's when Jerry showed up and purchased it for $3,500. Pretty sweet deal, eh?
Not to be overlooked by such bizarre circumstances is the fact that Jerry has built a machine that truly does it all on a working stiff's budget. Boasting a nitrous-injected Rat motor, the Camaro runs high 9s at the track, rips through the speed traps at open road race events, humbles vermin on the street, and even wows judges at the fairgrounds. The total expenditure of $25,000 is a wee bit more than other grass roots street/strip vehicles we've featured in recent months, but that's because it's way more polished. No corners were cut, and for Jerry, secondhand parts wouldn't suffice. The man went all out, rotisserie style, and by doing all the work in his driveway instead of dropping it off at a big-buck shop, he pulled off a six-figure-caliber restoration at a fraction of the cost.
Jerry's fascination with Camaros dates back to his high school days. After suffering a leg injury in a motorcycle wreck, he gave up two-wheeling and traded his street bike for a '69 Camaro. Knowing that he wanted to get his hands dirty, Jerry enrolled in a welding class and took a summer job at a machine shop. He immediately put his engine-building skills to use by assembling a 450hp 355 that enabled the Camaro to fare quite well on the street circuit for its day. Interestingly, Jerry has always been one of the few Chevy fans out there who actually prefers the look of the '68 over a '69. "I just think the '68 has sleeker and sexier lines," he opines. "Even when I had my '69 in high school, what I really wanted was a '68."
With his high school ride long gone and the kids out of the house, Jerry finally got the chance to build that '68 in 1997. The goal from the very beginning was to assemble a multi-dimensional car that could do a little bit of everything. "I wanted something that I could take from a drag-race setup to road-race setup in a day and a half, while still retaining show-quality aesthetics," he explains. "I love drag racing, but I enjoy open road racing an awful lot, as well. Variety is the spice of life."
The first step in accomplishing those goals was dropping in a GM Performance Parts ZZ502 crate motor and a four-speed trans. Although the big-block torque and 250-shot of spray sheared through several trannies, Jerry beat on it several times a week for nearly seven years. The 502 still pulled hard, but he decided it was time to freshen it up with some new rings and bearings. Immediately after the rebuild, a botched hone job required pulling the motor once again, so Jerry figured that it would only be worth his trouble if he amp'd up the performance quotient at the same time.
To that end, the block was bored .030 over, bumping up displacement to 509 ci, and fitted with JE 9.3:1 pistons. In went a larger Crane 236/244-at-.050 hydraulic roller cam, and the production oval-port aluminum heads got a mild rubdown. Since the four-speed would no longer cut the cheese, it was replaced by a TH400 (built by Jerry's brother) and mated to an ATI 3,200-stall converter. Jerry doesn't care too much about dyno numbers, so he doesn't have any, but the Camaro has run a best of 6.26 at 114 mph in the eighth-mile on a 275-shot of spray, which translates to high 9s in the quarter. Next up is a set of 350hp pills in the nitrous plate.
About a year after the new motor was installed, Jerry realized that his $3,500 score of a car wasn't as good of a deal as he originally thought. The bodywork wasn't performed correctly by the previous owner, and the body filler holding the rusty sheetmetal together was starting to fall off. Now here's where it gets crazy. Not only did Jerry decide to perform all the bodywork himself, he also determined that a full rotisserie restoration was in order. After completely stripping down and gutting the car, he started hackin'. "At first, I thought there's no way this is going to work, but I just clamped the quarter-panel in place, tweaked it here and there, and welded it up," Jerry recollects. In all, every panel except the doors and trunk lid was replaced. While the car was gutted, Jerry installed a Detroit Speed & Engineering mini-tub kit, and sent the car over to Mark Artis at Texas Thunder Racing for a 12-point rollcage. "Some of my training from high school helped, but since that was my first time doing bodywork, most of it was just diving into it hands first and getting my feet wet. I'm a carpenter by trade, and also install granite and marble. There are more similarities between my line of work and bodywork than I thought, so that helped me out a lot as well."
With one tremendous challenge out of the way, it was time to embark on a new adventure: open road racing. Getting the Camaro ready for nearly 120 miles of flat-out driving at the Big Bend event required almost two days of prep work, but Jerry says it was well worth it. One of the very few automatics in the field, he installed a tighter 2,200-stall converter and swapped out the 4.11:1 ring-and-pinion for a set of 2.47s. Likewise, the QA1 shocks were stiffened up, an Addco front sway bar was installed, and the drag race rolling stock was replaced with 17-inch wheels and tires. As a first-timer, Jerry was limited to a 140-mph tech speed, but that was still plenty to get him hooked. "After slowing down to dodge a deer, flying through blind turns, squeezing the steering wheel until my hands got numb, and driving so fast in the rain that my windshield wipers blew off the glass, I still managed a Third-place finish in my class," he says. "You get disqualified if you go over your tech speed, but I hit 150 mph a few times and the car had plenty of steam left. The runs were 25 minutes in each direction, but there was so much adrenaline in my system, it felt more like five minutes." For obvious reasons, Jerry calls his car Camtender (Camaro/contender). Granted, it's not the most creative play on words, but we can't think of a more appropriate title since wherever it goes, it's contending for something. "Whether it's at a drag race, open road race, car show, or cruise night, my Camaro can hold its own against just about anything," he proclaims. Just in case it can't, Jerry has a few more tricks up his sleeve. "I'd love to do a 632 or drop in an LS7, but my priority right now is putting the car on a diet. It weighs 3,600 pounds, and I'd like to get it down to 3,000 pounds to make it more competitive." One contest that may never be settled, however, is the one between the man and the machine. While the Camaro is irrefutably badass and well-decorated in its accomplishments, so is the guy who built it.