When the Penske/Sunoco Trans Am Camaros were in action, no advantage was too small

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In 1966, the Sports Car Club of America introduced a new series—the Trans-American Sedan Championship. The name didn’t stick and was shortened to the Trans-American Championship in 1967—the same year Chevrolet brought the Camaro to market. The new car was a good match for the new series, but with some additional careful attention to detail it could be taken over the top.

That attention to detail came from Roger Penske and his Sunoco-sponsored team. The Z28 Camaros prepped by this wily crew were on the bleeding edge of both technology and the rulebook. They stretched the rules so far that they dubbed themselves “Team Unfair Advantage.”

We got a chance to see if we could spot a few of Penske’s tricks for ourselves at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance last weekend. Roger Penske was this year’s honoree, and event founder Bill Warner fully utilized every available connection to assemble an astonishing array of cars from Penske’s racing past.

Penske Trans AM Camaro

With a handful of the Sunoco Camaros on display, we could see that the rule book in the ’60s allowed significantly more room for interpretation and creativity than just about any modern series. For example, after the body shells were stripped of all street equipment, they were dipped in acid to etch away some of the steel and lower overall weight. The rulebook had a minimum weight, but the lighter body shells allowed Penske’s crew to use ballast to put the weight exactly where it would best serve the car.

The Traco-built 302-cu-in V-8s feature a quick-fill valve on the valve cover that allowed the team to fill the oil faster by using air pressure to spray the oil into the engine rather than just pour it in. It was a feature mainly used at endurance races, where the engines would consume small amounts of oil over the long high-rpm stints.

Another service-oriented piece was a vacuum system which pulled the pistons in the front brake calipers back, allowing for faster pad changes mid race. The Corvette-spec brakes were better than the Camaro units on the track but still required fresh pads roughly every-other fuel stop.  Mark Donohue, in Unfair Advantage, a book about his days racing Sunoco cars, wrote that the Penske team could fuel, change all four tires, and change the front brake pads in under two minutes. This was roughly half the time of the competing Ford team.

Penske Trans AM Camaro
Penske Trans AM Camaro

Another key was air management. Aerodynamics were still pretty rough, but the overall understanding of how airflow interacted with the cars was there. Select parts of the Camaro were “swiss-cheesed” to allow airflow and lower drag. This was mainly done on the #6 car and allowed air to pass through the rear of the front fenders, through the door, and into the rear wheel well. It was a game of marginal gains.

But all those clever marginal gains worked. In the 1968 race season, Donohue stood atop the podium after 10 of the 13 races. The livery and cars became iconic. They stand as testament to a golden era in racing, where finances didn’t win races—ingenuity and creativity separated the best from the rest.

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