Once upon a Camaro, the Pro Touring movement was made up of just a handful of cars that stood out from the street machine crowd. Their purposeful tires, large brakes, and apex-defying suspensions quickly elevated them to holy status as their owners/builders piloted them to insane speeds on closed public roads. The rest of the world watched with awe and envy. Suddenly, that Dobbertin-inspired Pro Streeter in the garage—pie cutters up front and a polished blower through the hood—seemed trite and tired.
In the ensuing two decades, the world caught up to the pioneers of Pro Touring, and the g-Machine style became de rigueur at the most prestigious car shows and cruises. Wheels grew. Billet proliferated. Functionality died. Owners who once had a need for speed now desired trophies. Enigmatically, the street rodification of muscle cars is at the same time accredited with and blamed for the success or failure of Pro Touring, depending on who you ask. But no matter what side of the Pro Touring argument you’re on—the big question has always been: How fast are they?
We aimed to answer just that when we created our Muscle Car of the Year (MCOTY) competition. Are the Pro Touring cars that are typically held up to the public as the best of the breed truly the best, or is it a charade? No sooner than you ask these questions and two more questions pop up. What cars do you test, and how do you test them?
In order to keep things fresh, we wanted to put the emphasis on new cars that had hit the scene in the last year. We had time and space enough to test just 10 cars, so picking the right ones would be tricky. Earlier this year, we put out the word that we were looking for the best new Pro Touring muscle cars, but got a cool response from readers. Apparently, it’s our magazine, so we gotta do the footwork. We then put out feelers to the top shops, manufacturers, and home-based privateer builders to see what was in the pipeline. Some of the teams you know—like The Roadster Shop and Detroit Speed (DSE)—while others are little guys like Jon Clark and Bob Bertelsen. Some cars are high-end show winners with five-figure paintjobs, and some are weekend warriors, like Kenny Edwards’ Mustang. Some shops that you’d expect to be represented aren’t, not because they didn’t want to be but because they didn’t have an appropriate car that was new enough for our competition. At least now we’re on the radar screen with those shops, and their future MCOTY contenders will be in line for an invite when they are ready.
The process of sniffing out cars for MCOTY was a revealing one. More times than we expected, we’d call a shop only to discover that the car owner was wary of inflicting damage on an expensive ride. Even more telling, in cases where the shop building the car even promised to repair any tweaks, the answer from the client was still “no dice.” Those guys and their cars shall remain anonymous—but those who braved our inaugural MCOTY event will not. Let it be known that our 10 MCOTY participants (and The Roadster Shop with their exhibition C10 truck) have absolutely no qualms about pounding their machines. Win or lose, these cars are all the real deal, and we would love any of them to be in our driveway or paddock.
To make things a bit easier for our possible competitors to say yes to the invite, we scheduled the MCOTY for the Monday following the Goodguys Street Machine of the Year competition in Columbus. We knew all of 2012’s new Pro Touring machines would need to get their dance card punched at the autocross in Columbus, so we made it extra easy with our selection of venue and date—rent National Trail Raceway just 30 miles east of Columbus for the following day. As it happened, this was a serendipitous litmus test—Goodguys Street Machine of the Year finalists would get the chance to accept or decline our invitation to test their machinery in a far more grueling set of tests than the 35-second Goodguys autocross. Would they compete, or go home? To that point, only one took up the challenge—the “Producer” ’66 Mustang built by the Ringbrothers, which also won Goodguys’ Street Machine of the Year.
Figuring out how fast a car is can mean a lot of things. Is it top speed? Is it a drag race? Is it doing donuts on a skidpad? Is it 0-to-100-to-0? Is it a low lap time on a road course? You can make a valid argument for any of these measures, but at the end of the day we had to choose just three tests in order to fit the competition into our venue, and into the time allotted. Additionally, we were limited by what kind of testing we could do at National Trail Raceway—clearly something along the lines of a standing-mile top-speed test or a road course circuit would be out of the question.
One benchmark test that we had no argument from anybody about was the quarter-mile drag race. Let’s face it, you can add a lot of junk to a car, you can customize it to death, you can do wheels, tires, paint, suspension, and chassis mods, but what makes it a hot rod is its powertrain. The engine is the mojo of any muscle car, and the way you test ’em is by dragging them out. We could probably have used a chassis dyno for a yardstick, but what kind of fun is that? It really defeats the purpose of having a fast car—and the bragging rights that go with it.
The stopping test wasn’t so clear-cut obvious. Pro Touring cars are hot rods that combine raw speed with stopping capability—the question is, what’s the best way to measure that? The stopping test we used—called the speed/stop challenge—starts cars from a dead stop at the dragstrip starting line using the standard Christmas Tree. Cars are timed over an eighth-mile distance like an eighth-mile drag race, but there’s a twist. You have to stop perfectly inside a 50-foot cone box just after the eighth-mile mark. The speed/stop challenge tests not only the acceleration and braking power of a car, it also tests skills like launching, threshold braking, speed shifting, car control, chassis tuning, and depth perception. There are a whole lot of faults that can bubble to the surface in the speed/stop challenge, some of them mechanical, others are driver related.
More than any other aspect, it is the handling ability that defines the Pro Touring car. Where it’s merely acceptable to be bitchin looking and have a big motor in other corners of the hot rod hobby, the g-Machine must grip like a race car. And while we would’ve loved to test our competitors on a full-blown road course, we had the next best thing—a high-speed autocross with lap times approaching a minute in length. As it turned out, the Ohio Valley Region of the SCCA has a regular course laid out inside National Trail’s vast pit area, and they graciously agreed to set up their cones and timing equipment for our test. The coolest part is that National Trail Raceway has an agreement with the SCCA to keep the circuit marked permanently, which means that with the Ohio Valley SCCA Region’s help, we’ll be able to compare this year’s MCOTY performances with those in future years.