When MacGyver Raced a Camaro

Courtesy Michael Zbarsky

On a Friday night in December of 1988, families all across Canada and the U.S. gathered in front of the television to see what scrapes everyone’s favorite gadget-building action star was going to get into this week. MacGyver! He of the feathered mullet, selection of vests, and ever-present Swiss Army Knife, always able to jury-rig a clever solution to any problem, and despite the danger, never using a gun.

This particular week, in an episode called “Collision Course,” MacGyver would find himself taking over driving duties in a race-prepped Pontiac Firebird after shadowy saboteurs hamstring an old friend who was supposed to drive it. But behind the TV make-believe, the backdrop was a real race track with real race cars—and one of them was raced by the real MacGyver.

Westwood Motorsport Park Canadas First Track
Westwood Motorsport Park circa 1959, its first year.Flickr/Mark Faviell

The track was British Columbia’s Westwood Motorsport Park, the actor who played MacGyver was, of course, Richard Dean Anderson, and the racing machine he competed in was a third-generation Chevrolet Camaro. Specifically, it was a special road-legal, road-registered, factory-supported machine with a bunch of improvements to make it better suited for track use. He raced in the Player’s LTD/GM Motorsport Series, which featured Camaros and Firebirds battling it out in fields that averaged fifty cars, with occasionally as many as seventy.

“The sound alone was worth the price of admission,” says Michael Zbarsky, who owns a special one of these factory-prepped Camaros and remembers watching the series at Westwood as a kid. “Those guys didn’t hold back at all.”

Before diving into the racing, a little thumbnail sketch of 1980s television history is in order. A cultural icon right out of the gate, the MacGyver series regularly drew close to ten million viewers at the height of its popularity—for modern context, that’s about what HBO’s Game of Thrones did in its original run. In contrast with the more shoot-’em-up feel of 1980s action movies and television, MacGyver bordered on the cerebral, with the big hook being what kind of contraption made of household items the star was going to slap together this week. In terms of lasting effects, the show spawned reboots and parodies, and even entered the lexicon: found in the Oxford English Dictionary since 1992, MacGyver is a verb meaning, “to construct, fix, or modify (something) in an improvised or inventive way, typically by making use of whatever items are at hand.” Sounds like the kind of thing the owner of a British car would naturally be good at.

Coincidentally, Zbarsky comes from MG-owning stock, with his father Ralph owning and racing several interesting MGs, including an MGB GT campaigned by Paddy Hopkirk at Sebring and the Targa Florio. Initially, the apple did not fall far from the tree, with the younger Zbarsky campaigning a 1953 MGA racing machine on the west coast. But he never forgot the thunder of small-block Chevy V-8s hurtling in a pack around Westwood.

MacGyver Camaro race car rear three quarter cornering action
Courtesy Michael Zbarsky/Karl Noakes

Long supplanted by housing developments on Eagle Mountain in Coquitlam, Westwood Motorsport Park is a much-missed piece of grassroots motorsport history. It was built in the late 1950s by the Sports Car Club of British Columbia, created through the sale of debentures to members and through the work of volunteers who cleared brush and carved a challenging 1.8 mile course into the landscape. At its inaugural race, it bore the distinction of being Canada’s first purpose-built tarmac racetrack.

Over the years, Westwood saw plenty of stars compete there—names like Rosberg, Villeneuve, Andretti, and McLaren. But it was at heart a place where an ordinary enthusiast could square off against others driving modestly-powered British sportscars, taking part for the sheer delight of speed. Then, a ground-pounding V-8 series showed up. Always looking for a way to promote its brand, GM Canada soon hit on the idea of a one-make series (fine, two-make if you’re a Pontiac purist) that would provide plenty of excitement with cars within financial reach of the fans.

Third-generation Camaros first competed in several places in the US and Canada in showroom stock form in the mid-1980s, but repeated hot laps soon showed some deficiencies in the platform. GM developed the now well-known 1LE package, which solved most of the problems by adding baffles in the fuel tanks, tweaks to the suspension, an engine oil cooler, Corvette-style brakes, and a higher-flow exhaust.

MacGyver Camaro racing action front
Courtesy Michael Zbarsky

GM Canada went even further, building on the 1LE platform with the A4Q, A4U, and R7U order codes. There are some variations, but the additional options included features like power windows (actually a mild weight savings), racing-specific power-steering, and retuned rear dampers. Perhaps most impressively, each car received a hand-built, blueprinted V-8, complete with tamper markings. Power for this generation of Camaro wasn’t huge—it was factory-rated around 220 hp, probably more in the racing-prepped machines—but the V-8s sounded great and the level playing field made for intense racing. If you’re thinking this sounds like Spec Miata with a mullet, you’re not far off. GM built roughly 100 Player’s LTD-spec cars per year over the seasons, for a total of just under 500.

MacGyver Camaro race car front three quarter racing action
Courtesy Michael Zbarsky

Terry Craig, who operated Airborne Racing, ordered two racing Camaros and one Firebird through local BC dealer Dueck GM for the 1988 season. Craig’s brother Murray drove the Firebird, and Richard Dean Anderson drove one of the two Camaros that season.

Anderson appears to have fit right in as a racer. In a tv interview, he humbly walks through one of his laps at the race circuit in Calgary (his name appears on the car’s dash as “Rick Anderson” in the in-car footage), joking when he had trouble with the monitor, “Sure, MacGyver can’t get this thing to work.”

The Firebird of the trio ended up playing the hero car in the Collision Course episode, with one of the Camaros (driven by Terry) standing in for long shots of the villain car. GM fans will have a field day noting when the interior shots between the two cars are conflated.

Back in the real world, a fresh R7U car was ordered for the 1989 season, but Anderson ended up sitting out that year. Meanwhile, the two Camaros and the Firebird from the ’88 season found their way into the used car market. The rules of the series dictated that these machines be insurable, street-legal cars, and as a result many of the Player’s race cars were consigned to road use once their competitive days were done.

MacGyver Camaro racing action front three quarter
Courtesy Michael Zbarsky

Zbarsky found himself half-seriously looking for a replacement for his MGA about ten years ago, and stumbled across this example listed locally. Tipped off by some clues, he identified it as one of the fairly rare Player’s cars, and with a little more research—thanks to some help from Craig himself, he was able to determine that it was one of the two cars run during the season when MacGyver was racing. Even with logbooks, it’s hard to determine which of the twin cars it is, so Zbarsky is careful to make an absolute claim. But, with the way racing works, it’s likely that Anderson at least ran this car around a circuit or two for warmup or qualifying laps.

Today, Zbarsky races his Camaro at Mission Raceway Park in British Columbia, and down in Washington State. And as it’s a street-legal car, he’ll often take it out for a spin on the roads around his home on Vancouver Island. He’ll freely admit that at the vintage races, the built 500-600 hp V-8s will run away from him. But it’s still a joy to pilot, and the power level is just right for street cruising.

And, of course, should he ever find himself stranded on the side of the road on one of these drives, then there’s only one hero to turn to for inspiration. It’s the lesson many a gearhead learned long ago: all you need to keep going is a Swiss Army Knife, maybe some duct tape, and a bit of ingenuity.

MacGyver Camaro racing action front three quarter
Courtesy Michael Zbarsky


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    The Z did well in showroom stock racing replacing the Corvette after it was banned.

    The 24 of Nelson Ledges was a prime event. Porsche would show up witht he coming 944 Turbo and Chevy would drive down from Detroit in the new coming Z/28 and they would race in Ohio.

    The Z never lost to Porsche here and to stick it to them more they would put on new tires and brakes and drive the car back to Detroit.

    This era was epic,

    In ’86? I didn’t really get into the Toyota Celebrity stuff as I was keeping it focused on just the GM series.

    But as an aside, you know who turned out to be a real hot shoe in that series (later)? Carlton from Fresh Prince.

    Brendan – as a local Vancouver reader, I always enjoy your perspective. I grew up in Coquitlam and had a friend who lived on a dead-end street up the mountain and we could walk to Westwood Race Track after it was closed permanently. Mostly overgrown, but the surface was still there – must have been a wonderful place to watch a race.

    Cool story.
    I have the ’89 car that was ordered for RDA. It has been restored back to it’s as raced condition and is currently on Vancouver Island.

    I know – I tried reaching out to you via fb, but it didn’t go through. Nice to know both cars are still in BC!

    When my son was a little boy back then it was his favorite show. He couldn’t pronounce MacGyver and called it Gagyver. Another one was the Inspector Gadget cartoon. Oddly enough as hard as I tried he never acquired any mechanical ability at all. He became a great salesman with honesty and integrity. We still laugh at gagyver after all these years.

    I was in my 30s when that show hit! always found the show entertaining; I was not aware he was a driver of the only generation of Camaro. I have not owned. The MacGyver fixes are epic. I am a member of a blue-collar yacht club in the greater Sacramento, San Joaquin River Delta & I performed many of these types of fixes on my friends boats on runs and cruise outs. Another MacGyver repair was a constant refrain, which I considered a compliment!

    I remember them running at the Vancouver Indy and our local track in Calgary. It was fun to watch. Also remember waking up in the morning in Kamloops on the way to Vancouver and one of the cars had stopped at the same motel for the night.

    My son and I watched the series race at the Halifax, Nova Scotia Moosehead Grand Prix. I really enjoyed the amazing street racing with red-hot brakes and very close racing. I now own a 1986 Firebird, but it just has a V6 engine in it.

    If you’re old enough to remember the players in the infamous Watergate scandal in the 1970s, you’ll probably recognize G. Gordon Liddy playing the part of Carl Strickland, rival car owner (and still “the bad guy”) in the MacGyver episode “Collision Course.”

    Being an owner of 2 3rd gens and an avid fan of MacGyver since the ripe old age of 4yo when it first aired, I would love to have this car.

    Lots of memories here. As a very young person I lived in Port Coquitlam at the base of Burke and Eagle mountain. In the summer one could here the racing at Westwood. The track was and is famous and did bring in big names in racing as well as spectators. I have a photo on my laptop of Nancy Sinatra and Tommy Sands getting out of their sports car at Westwood. As for the Players cars I recall when we often saw them plying the streets of Vancouver and area. It was pretty cool in the 80s to see a factory V8 race car at the light next to you. Many drove these often and to the track. At the same time I worked in a local vintage auto parts store and the MacGyver folks bought many, many parts from us to keep Mac’s Chevy truck going. When Mac inherited is Granddad’s “57 Nomad we at the shop gave them the lead to track down the first Nomad and later another restorable car and all of the parts to be a #2 car on the show. It was a blast to be part of that effort and to see the results on screen. Today I live a stone’s throw from Mission raceway and I am pretty sure it must be Zbarsky’s Camaro I hear often drowning out the 4 bangers on race day. I guess I’ll have to take a walk over there this season. I haven’t seen a Players car in years.

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