580 HP and 1,320 Feet: We Drag Test the New Camaro ZL1

No doubt about it, the ZL1 is exceptionally well-armed for battle on the drag strip. It’s got the power, the grip and the technology to make it a dangerous weapon on the two lane black top, even though the drag strip was never meant to be the ZL1’s ideal arena of competition. It was designed by Chevrolet’s engineers to split it’s time between the twists and turns of road courses, and the streets of America.

We know it, you know it, and GM knows it - ZL1s will be seeing plenty of time at the drag strip.

Now, the ZL1 may be a handler at heart, but the engineering team behind the car was wise enough to know that the new Camaros would see more than their fair share of quarter-mile passes. Drag racing is just an inseparable part of an American gearhead’s DNA. We may be impressed by super car-like road course times, but let’s be honest – the quarter-mile time is what we really want to know. The very first thing we’ll do when we read an article on a new car is scan the page looking for how well it did at the drag strip. If new ZL1 owners don’t instantly start hitting the drag strip for regular competition, then they are at least going to want to make a few passes at a Friday night Test-N-Tune just to experience the full capability of the 580 horsepower LSA.

Being fully aware of those facts, the ZL1’s engineering team took the time to implement some very cool features to help ZL1 owners make the most of their car at the drag strip. A few weeks ago, we were again fortunate enough to be invited by General Motors to participate in a media event at the Lucas Oil Raceway, in Indianapolis, where we got a chance to sample the ZL1’s drag strip capabilities for ourselves.

Takin’ It to the Streets

When we pulled up to Lucas Oil Raceway, we laid eyes on a truly beautiful site. There, gleaming in the early summer sun were no less than ten Camaro ZL1’s, ready and willing for some serious drag strip abuse. But before we got down to business on the drag strip, the guys from Chevrolet were cool enough to let us take the ZL1s out for a little street cruise through the winding back-roads of southern Indiana.

The guys from Chevrolet already had the ZL1s ready to rumble when we got to Indy.

The car explodes with instant and gratifying power in any gear, an obvious benefit of the supercharged LSA’s 556 pound feet of torque.

We picked out an Inferno Orange ZL1 with a manual trans, and the first thing we noticed once behind the wheel was how beefy the car feels, just like every other 5thGen Camaro. It’s large and in charge – both by weight and physical dimensions. But the more time you spend behind the wheel, the more you get to know the car’s characteristics, the lighter and more nimble the ZL1 starts to feel; very unlike the SS which can really starts to show it’s flaws the more time you spend behind the wheel. Now, is the ZL1 a Miata? Absolutely not. But it is proficient, sure footed, and can trick you into thinking it’s a lot smaller than it really is.

The ZL1 has perfect street manners, and can really make you forget that you're driving a 580 horsepower supercar crusher.

The car explodes with instant and gratifying power in any gear, an obvious benefit of the supercharged LSA’s 556 pound feet of torque. The ZL1’s exclusive shifter is smooth with just the right amount of throw. It’s got minimal notchiness and no slop, and it really is head-and-shoulders above the stock SS’s shifter. The gates are clearly defined and as long as you don’t get lazy, you shouldn’t miss a shift.

The ZL1 is an incredibly balanced and powerful modern muscle car, and an absolute blast to drive on the street.

On the chassis side of things, the suspension is superb. The magnetic ride control plants the grippy Goodyears just as firmly as it needs to in a given situation, and never showed any signs of being too harsh or twitchy. Also, the brakes are firm and confidence inspiring with a nice initial bite that gets progressively more aggressive as you ride the car down from speed.

One of the upgrades from previous 5th Gens that is a personal favorite is the ZL1’s variable ratio electric power steering. At low speeds it’s nice and light, and lets you maneuver those big 285 front tires around with ease, but really tightens up at speed and offers great feedback.

From the Road Course to the Drag Strip

Beefed Up and Better for Drag Racing:

  • Bigger 9.9-inch differential with an iron case
  • Differential cooler
  • Higher durometer rubber bushings for increased stiffness
  • Axle half-shafts of different sizes to help eliminate wheel hop
  • No-Lift-Shift programming in manual trans ZL1
  • GM designed short-throw-shifter
  • Lightweight forged wheels
  • Sticky Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 tires
  • PTM Mode 5 with Launch Control
The ZL1 is a car of “crossovers”. Many of the same features and technologies that make the ZL1 a road course performer can also translate directly to success at the drag strip, and we’re not just talking about the grin-inducing 580 horsepower and 556 pound feet of torque from the LSA. For starters, the ZL1’s manual transmission has a beefed up input shaft and a twin-disc clutch. You can also rip through the gears on the GM designed short-throw shifter all the way down the strip and never let off the gas thanks to the ZL1’s “No-Lift-Shift” programing. ZL1s equipped with auto transmissions get a specially designed 6L90E slush-box with a full-manual shift mode, and tougher guts on the inside.

Moving to the back of the car, the ZL1’s all around “beefed up and better for drag racing” theme continues with its bigger 9.9-inch rear differential with an iron case that can take the LSA’s abuse launch after launch. The differential’s fluid is also plumbed into a loop with the transmission, and runs through the same cooler to drop temps by about 100 degrees; that translates to better durability and a much longer service life.

Keen eyed Camaro buffs will also notice that the ZL1 has mismatched rear half-shafts transferring the power to the rear wheels. The right one is 60mm in diameter and hollow, while the one on the left is just 30mm and solid. Lead engineer Tony Roma told us, “Don’t worry, we did that on purpose. We found that this sizing combination worked best with the rear differential in eliminating wheel hop.” To also help eliminate wheel hop during a hard launch, the 5th Gen’s big pliable rear IRS cradle bushings were swapped out for stiffer ones made of a high durometer rubber to really stiffen things up.

Of course, what good is any of this if the rolling stock isn’t up to the challenge? The ZL1’s standard wheels are 20×11 in the rear, and made of light-weight forged aluminum, with some nice wide 305/30/20 Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 tires that actually hook pretty well considering their rubber band-sized sidewall. There’s also plenty of room around the rear suspension if a weekend drag racer was inclined to bolt up a set of 18-inch drag radials for some serious traction.

It’s All in the Launch

All the features we’ve discussed so far point to the ZL1 being a real contender a the drag strip, but the car’s 1320 success still hinges on how well the car can launch. That is the exact reason the ZL1’s engineering team included some drag race specific features in the PTM’s programing. More specifically, PTM Mode 5 is set up to help you get just the right launch on a VHT prepped surface.

NHRA pro Frank Hawley was on hand to give us a few tips on how to properly launch the ZL1.

Both the manual trans and automatic equipped ZL1s have the drag strip launch control programed in Mode 5, but they each require a very different technique. At the drag strip, we were privileged enough to be able to test both a manual and automatic, and got a taste of what it takes to launch each of these very different beasts. NHRA drag racing legend, Frank Hawley was on hand at Indy, and gave us some tips on how to achieve the best launch with each car before they turned us loose with the ZL1’s.

Launching the automatic and manual ZL1 require very different techniques, but in both cars the PTM's Launch Control works to calculate just the right amount of torque and light wheel spin to get you out of the hole as quick as possible.

In the automatic car, you set PTM in Mode 5 and stage like normal. As the light hits green, the best technique is to quickly roll into the throttle until you’ve got it wide open before the 60-foot mark. Just punching the pedal to the floor will just result in a tail-wagging, tire-squealing launch that isn’t exactly optimal for your E.T.s (…even if it is pretty fun). Also, with the automatic ZL1 you’ve still got to keep your wits about you, and monitor how well the car is gripping. Before we took off in the automatic ZL1 the first time, Camaro Engineer, Mark Dickinson told us, “Remember, you still have to do ‘all the driver stuff.’ If you realize that you’re getting excessive wheel spin, you’ll have to be the one to modulate the throttle enough to get the tires hooked back up and keep it out of the wall.” However, once you’re out of the hole, the car will take over, and make some very impressive, smooth, and incredibly quick upshifts all the way down the track.

Turn the traction control off, and the ZL1 will gladly produce a wall of tire smoke on command.

The ZL1 team insists that the automatic car will be quicker down the quarter mile if you nail the launch. However, as strange as this might sound, we found the ZL1 with the manual trans significantly to easier launch.

Launch control in the manual car is a different affair. Once you’ve lit the second bulb, you keep the clutch depressed, and floor the gas pedal. Just hammer it to the ground and keep it there. The PTM will actually calculate the optimal launch RPM for you, and hold the engine there until you let off the clutch. When the green light drops, it’s just a matter of letting off the clutch with a nice quick and fluid motion, (not a side-step), and PTM will take it from there and calculate just the right amount of tire-spin to get you out of the hole as quick as possible. Unlike the automatic ZL1, it is all up to you to hit your shifts at just the right points. The tach climbs incredibly quick, and shifts come up faster than you would expect. The torquey LSA will keep you on your toes and rowing through the gears, and the only real issue is a the very top of the track where you’re faced with the dilemma of shifting into 4th right before the finish line, or riding out 3rdover the redline. This is one small spot where the gearing optimized for road racing causes just a bit of a compromise at the drag strip.

The ZL1 engineering team insists that the automatic car will be quicker down the quarter mile if you nail the launch just right. However, as strange as this might sound, we found the ZL1 with the manual trans significantly to easier launch. It was just simpler to let off the clutch and let the PTM do all the work for you to quell excessive tire spin. The auto ZL1 just seemed to want to blow the tires off when you launched. However, we just had a few passes and like most things, launching the auto would just take more practice.

So, how did we do?

Most of you have probably skipped ahead to this point to see just what kind of time we ran in the ZL1, and that’s fine because we would’ve too. The best we managed was a 12.745 at 112.6 MPH with a crummy 2.219 60-foot time in a manual ZL1. Not that good….yeah, yeah, yeah. We know. But, we don’t have anything to hide, and we aren’t about to lie just to try and impress you. You’ll be happy to know that our time was the second fastest E.T. of all the journalists in attendance (best was a 12.5 on the very first run), and it came late in the day, in 90 degree heat and with the superchargers pretty well heat-soaked from essentially hot-lapping Indy for more than an hour. We’ll also be the first to admit that it’s tough to launch this thing perfectly without a lot of practice. Oh, and we forgot to mention that the  European journalists had been smoking the clutches all the way down the track that morning while us Americans were out doing our street tests. There – now feel even better about ourselves.

The very best time that was produced the entire event was by Mr. Frank Hawley himself, who ran a 12.1 earlier that morning when the air was cooler, and with a fresh test mule that hadn’t already been abused. Hawley’s time was obviously much closer to Chevy’s reported best of 11.96, and way better than any of us lowly journalists could do.

One thing we found out for sure from our drag test? The ZL1 is one damn tough car. The test mules that Chevrolet brought out stood up to hours of essentially hot-lapping the drag strip at Lucas Oil Raceway, and never once even flinched.

Final Gear

The ZL1 is a fantastic car that we can tell you from first-hand experience really does do everything well. You could drive it to work during the week, drag race it on Saturday, road race it on Sunday, be plenty competitive at both and still have no problems getting back to work on Monday morning. The only real negative about the car is that now we would have a really hard time buying a run of the mill 5th Gen SS just knowing that the ZL1 is out there.

About the author

Clifton Klaverweiden

Clifton has been a car fanatic since his late teens, when he started the restoration of his '67 Camaro. He considers himself a student of automotive science and technology, and particularly loves all things LSX. And, although he has an appreciation for everything, from imports to exotics, his true passion will always be for GM musclecars.
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