27 August 2015

Showroom Stock Stealth

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.

[Related Video: 1969 Chevy Camaro Repair]

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.

16 Reader Comments

  • 1
    J Reed USA September 2, 2015 at 13:12
    bitchen car, just don't like 305 motor, but Government restrictions made GM restricted the high Z28 ,and the 2015 Z28 is pushing over 700hp , go figure 6.2 litter ?? Love it! USA#1
  • 2
    Ken Waller Novi, Michigan September 2, 2015 at 15:01
    Nice story and great pictures Paul - you must have a great camera ( : + >
  • 3
    MICHAEL COPP MICHIGAN September 2, 2015 at 15:10
    It seamed odd to hear of a rare hot rod from the 80's. We all know about the Grand Nationals and the Mustangs...but a rare Camaro? Seems that it was a cool car to drive and i have read about it here or there from the CHEVY mags. This was a great story and has great detail. Thanks for the write up on these cars.
  • 4
    Sal Esposito NJ September 2, 2015 at 16:32
    I had a 1990 Firebird Formula with the same drivetrain 5.0 TPI and 5 speed. I didn't have the 1LE pkg, but I had a lot of the options that were in it (3.42 posi rear, WC T5. dual cat exhaust, aluminum driveshaft, oil cooler, etc) That car flew and handled really well. My car weighed 3450. The 1LE cars were probably 150 lbs lighter with no AC and power options.
  • 5
    Cal Calgary September 2, 2015 at 12:22
    I have a 91 Firebird 1LE that raced in the Players Series, I used it as my introduction to road racing in Calgary, not real fast but cornered well for a heavy car, tough on tires! Also have a 92 Camaro cop car (1LE) that was my street car for a few summers. Alas we lost our track and have the cars stored and no current plans for them.
  • 6
    J. P. Spaid Fallbrook California September 3, 2015 at 01:01
    Interesting article. Very cool to know these sort of things can happen.
  • 7
    patsfan Boston September 4, 2015 at 16:17
    Wow, I worked the Chevy parts counter from 1985 - 1992 and never heard of these. Wish I had as I test drove a 305 automatic Camaro that was in my budget. Power output was such a let down that I passed.
  • 8
    bill murray toronto on.I September 5, 2015 at 12:51
    I have and love all camaro stories. My 95 Z28 roadster has been such a pleasure to drive and own. Cruise on
  • 9
    Don Lindsay Southeast, MI September 6, 2015 at 23:37
    I think this Blue IROC featured in this article is absolutely a beautiful car. Love it.
  • 10
    Eightyfour Berlinetta South Bend, IN September 8, 2015 at 22:11
    What happened to the red & white press cars?
  • 11
    Larry Parks Johnstown, Pa September 12, 2015 at 20:10
    I have a 1986 IROC-Z same color blue, T-top. has the boat anchor 305, beefed it up a little with a cam and some head work in intake change runs great now. Other than that its all stock. Would love to drive the the 1LE though. Thanks for the pictures.
  • 12
    john araneo walton,N.Y. 13856 November 15, 2015 at 04:34
    have an 88 camaro ragtop . Replaced the 305, with a crate 350 (89), and redid the stock auto trans. Love the car, although I put the throttle body 305 on the 350. Not much difference in performance, with original chip, injectors, etc.Where can I get more performance?
  • 13
    Dave Normandeau Goffstown , NH December 22, 2015 at 13:37
    I've always loved the third gen IROC Camaro, and when I couldn't find a 1LE I decided to make something similar with my '90. Upgraded the brakes and suspension, swapped out the automatic for a 5 speed and supercharged the 350. Not all that expensive and a tremendously capable car. The original 1LE is rightly a valuable collector piece.
  • 14
    Charles Tschaenn Aurora , Indiana December 30, 2015 at 16:27
    Great article on these awesome and rare factory race cars!! I own one of the 1989 1LE IROC's that's one of the twelve, Bright Red cars built and stored away in my small collection. These are an absolute blast to drive, and handles as well if not better than my corvette, but for sure more fun to drive with it's manual transmission, and quick steering ratio!!
  • 15
    bruce oklahoma city oklahoma April 5, 2016 at 12:40
    very interesting because i got a 88 IROC Z no ac rollup windows no power ops alum driveshaft rpo code 1sa t tops 5.7 auto B2L not a 7ru car no g82 op but has a 277 possi g80 is this car a 1le? evry one says they only made 4 in 88 but if there is 6 is this one of them?
  • 16
    Rob Oakland, Ca April 10, 2016 at 19:03
    Bruce, Aren't you on the third gen site, has to have the 1LE rpo code to be one of the 4 1988 1LE's. Lot's of mystery on these cars, there one gentleman that states he has two of the four???

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