A Camaro race car delivered via GM’s back door
“The program was so secret that the car didn’t have a formal name,” said motorsports journalist George Levy, owner of this rare 1989 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z 1LE.
Built by Chevrolet engineers to compete in showroom stock road racing, this out-the-backdoor factory hot rod now has a name that distinguishes it from an ordinary IROC-Z, but when first cobbled together from the GM parts bin in 1988, it was a nameless stepchild — a car that didn’t officially exist and could be purchased only by checking a combination of order-form options. That action would provoke a call from Chevrolet product engineering manager, John Heinricy, to make sure the buyer wanted a tautly-suspended minimally equipped car that would not serve well as a daily driver, a car engineered and equipped for a race track like Nelson Ledges.
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The Nelson Ledges showroom-stock 24-hour endurance races of the early ’80s were celebrated by buff-book magazines, which both participated in the popular Ohio road race events and covered them in detail. The automakers took note and scrambled to get their products in the spotlight. In 1984, with the popularity of showroom stock growing rapidly, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) created a manufacturers series. Camaros were successful, but not as overwhelmingly so as GM marketing might have desired
In 1986 GM Canada got on the road-racing bandwagon with its Player’s/GM Motorsport series — a full schedule of races populated solely with Firebirds and Camaros. Their emission-equipment-smothered engines were impotent, but on a road course the cars flew. With bulldog grip, they could brake late for corners and accelerate early. But in a lengthy race, they were often grounded by overheated brakes. The engineers were not happy, so they modified the 1988 race cars with big front rotors from Caprice and dual piston calipers from Corvette.
Camaro and Firebird were competing in the U.S. Firestone Firehawk series as well and had suffered similar brake problems. “We started a program to make the brake package available for Firehawk, but to comply with the rules, it had to be regular production,” said Heinricy.
Ray Canale, powertrain manager for Camaro/Firebird and head of racing engineering support, spearheaded an effort to assemble an option package that would make a factory modified IROC-Z available to U.S. racers. In addition to adapting the stout front brakes, the fuel tank was baffled to prevent starvation in braking, the 5-speed manual trans was fitted with close-ratio gears, the suspension tuning was modified, and an aluminum driveshaft was borrowed from Corvette. The air conditioning, power windows and fog lights were deleted. The powertrain in most 1LEs was the 305-cid 230-horsepower V-8 with the 5-speed manual trans. A 350 was offered with an automatic, but it was ill suited for racing.
Six 1LEs were built for 1988, and 111 were produced for 1989. Most were fitted with roll cages and safety equipment, then beat up on race tracks. Competition was the 1LE’s mission, and it succeeded: Heinricy drove it to the SCCA Escort Series and Firestone Firehawk driver championsips in 1989, and the cars dominated for several years. But at least three of the machines never saw a green flag.
“Sometime in mid ’88 as we were ordering our ’89 press cars, John Heinricy told me he could build three or four of the 1LE race cars for the press fleet if we wanted them,” said Ralph Kramer, a former director of Chevrolet public relations. “I put the blue one on the east coast where Jim Rooney took care of it. The white one stayed in Detroit, and the west coast press fleet got the red one.”
Kramer is a knowledgeable car guy who knew a special machine when he saw it, so he put a marker on the blue Camaro and asked Rooney to make sure it didn’t get beat up too bad. After it reached the mandatory retirement mileage of 7500, Kramer bought it from GM. It has spent most of its life in storage and shows approximately 23,000 miles on the odometer.
Enter George Levy, who is counted among journalists who were passionate about showroom stock racing. After years of being passed on race tracks by 1LE Camaros, he had a burning desire to put one in his garage. Considering how few were built, finding one was a tall order. Locating one that hadn’t been cut up to install a roll cage was even tougher, but he kept at it. Word got around that he was looking, and some car-biz pals told him Kramer had the blue press car in storage. It took a bit of work, but Levy talked him into a sale.
Digging deep to develop a provenance for the car he was about to purchase, Levy did some research. He had never met Heinricy but gave him a call. The former GM employee provided a load of information and volunteered to travel with Levy to Kramer’s Indiana residence and trailer the car back to Michigan. So Levy both went home with a car he had long coveted and met the guy who had created it.
Sometimes things fall perfectly in place.