A pony car with no roof is seldom the logical choice; especially one with a big 6.2-liter V8 sitting under the hood gulping very expensive gasoline. One doesn't choose a car like the Chevrolet Camaro Convertible SS based on rational thought processes. It's about emotion. It's about nostalgia. Which is why it's wholly appropriate that it will pace the centennial Indy 500 this month.
For drivers of a certain age who longed to have one of the original muscle cars, the Camaro inspires the raw emotion and fond memories to pry open wallets. Like its current pony car rivals, the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger, it's a very calculated design. Car companies know nothing makes cash change hands faster than an opportunity to fulfill the aspirations of lost youth.
At 23 years of age, JR Hildebrand doesn't have teenage years filled with memories of late '60s or early '70s muscle cars gleaming on showroom floors. What he does have is a 1995 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am with a 396 and a bunch of go-fast goodies. While his driving experience ranges from average to exotics to his National Guard Panther Racing Dallara-Honda IndyCar, muscle cars are his thing.
“I'm certainly a little bit biased,” he admits. “I've always been a fan of the General Motors muscle car genre. But in some sense that makes me a little more critical. I've driven some cool muscle cars back in the day. I've got a muscle car of my own. My initial impression is: one thing they really got right with the new Camaro, relative to the Mustang and the Challenger, is I think it's the most aggressive-looking car. That's a big piece of the muscle car picture.”
The other piece is a big honkin' engine with lots of power that comes with a big, nasty roar. In this case, it's an aluminum 426hp LS3.
“That's a pretty big number, but you can see just looking at it that it's a big car, and it's got extra weight because it's a convertible. My initial impression was a little disappointment in what I was getting from the loud pedal. The initial throttle response was fairly tame. It doesn't have that immediate “whoomph!” you know, getting the car moving from the stoplight,” says Hildebrand.
“As a car guy, what I like about a muscle car, the reason that it's what I've always aspired to have in my garage rather than a true sports car, is that they're kind of raw. That's the base of what muscle cars are really all about. They're loud, they're obnoxious, they're fast. ”
This, however, is 2011, not 1969. The new reality is that while cars get ever more capable, they also must get a bit tamer. Nobody could pretend the Porsche 911 is slower than it was 20 years ago; but there are a lot fewer spinning backward into guardrails these days. There's also the fact that most people who once aspired to big-block Chevelles and Camaros aren't 23 anymore, they're 63. Creature comforts are necessary to sell any car that goes beyond basic transportation.
“This car has the same look, it has the same sound…it's got all that stuff. But the true feel of the car is different. I guess it's designed to be more drivable and a bit easier to get around. In my mind, it's a little bit dumbed down from the true sort of brute-force raw power that I feel a muscle car should have,” says Hildebrand, readily noting the clouds of perspective that might obscure objective vision about this car. It's the lover of muscle cars from another era judging the muscle car of today, lamenting (as many do) the electronic nannies that cars must include. If JR wants to jump on the throttle and have it get up and go, have all 426hp at his disposal right now, well, he should have that option. “There should be some setting where it's all yours,” he notes.
But Hildebrand in no way suggests the Camaro SS is a bad car. Cruising Los Angeles's twisty Mulholland Drive the day after racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series race at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, he found out just what the car's capabilities are.
“I had all the systems off, and as soon as I got on the power and got it going in second or third gear, as seemingly tame as the car is, once you got up to 5000rpm, this thing picks up and goes like crazy,” he enthuses. “It sort of caught me off guard; I was thinking, ‘Man, this thing is going way faster than I expected.' It hit me in the back getting on the gas. I was in a twisty section, a little bit of camber both right and left where you can sort of make a semi-straight line through it. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the car tracked; the transition was really smooth. That suggests Chevy has done a really good job with the convertible Camaro's chassis stiffness.” For the record, GM claims better torsional stiffness than a BMW 3-series convertible.
Even when things got a little hairy thanks to a rise in the road followed by a big dip and a sharp left-hand turn, the car didn't get out of shape, although Hildebrand quickly felt all of the car's two tons as he fought to slow the beast down and maintain control.
“As crazy as it sounds, that's really the heart of a muscle car,” he says. “It's not supposed to do all these things well. It's just supposed to get up and go. It got my heart racing, which is what it should do.”
Hildebrand's next experience with a Camaro Convertible SS will be following it at Indy, hopefully with no one in front of him as he impatiently waits for the Camaro to get out of his way for the 500's final restart. Of course, there are 32 or so other drivers hoping for the same thing.
As it has been for the past two years, the Camaro will pace the 2011 Indianapolis 500, only this time it will be without a top, as it should be at the Brickyard. As usual, replicas of the orange-on-white car will be available to the public. Chevrolets have paced the 500 22 times, starting with the Fleetmaster Six in 1948. The Camaro, beginning in 1967, has fulfilled that role seven times, counting this year's 100th anniversary of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The Indy pace car is an iconic role, being filled this year by an iconic car.
Says Hildebrand: “The Indy pace car is a symbol. It's there to lead the field, to represent Americana in some sense. When I think of the 500, it's so much about the history of the race. This car, based on the nostalgia of the muscle car days of the '60s, is so much of what IndyCar racing and the Indy 500 is about. I feel like this Camaro embodies that same feel. While it may not be the kick in the pants that a '69 Camaro was, it's the perfect symbol to be pacing the field for Indy's 100th anniversary.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the June 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.