500for500

“Man, that’s kind of a long stint,” I thought.

Looking at the invite from Chevrolet and its five days of hustle from start to finish, I must confess, I was on the fence about the idea out of the gate. But a few key factors lingered at the forefront of my deliberation: First, the new, 650-horsepower Camaro ZL1 I’d be piloting from Charlotte, North Carolina to Daytona Beach, Florida, and all the wonderful trouble I could get into with it along the way.

Secondly, Daytona International Speedway. Since 1959 it’s been the home of one of America’s most prestigious events in motorsport, the Daytona 500 – an event I’d also potentially be attending, with GM’s on-track access and facilities at my disposal. While I’ll be first to admit that NASCAR is normally positioned pretty low on my internal totem pole of motorsport interests, this was a special event and at a legitimately awe-inspiring racing venue.

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When Chevrolet asks you to pilot a 650 horsepower Camaro to Daytona International Speedway in hasty fashion, you heed the call.

I started imagining my potential regret seeing other journalists’ coverage of the epic adventure, and that possibility sealed the deal – I signed on the virtual dotted line, hopped on a plane to the east coast, and began a multi-day adventure that would culminate with “The Great American Race.”

Wednesday

Once I’d been given a proper groping by the TSA at the airport, I jumped on an early flight from Los Angeles to Charlotte. After a few hours of downtime at the hotel to regroup, the entire posse of General Motors folks and journalists made our way to the Hendricks Museum and their adjacent race shop.

With media photography strictly forbidden at both the Hendrick museum as well as the race shop, these stock photos and a screen cap from a CBS morning news video will have to suffice. Images: Hendrick Motorsports, CBS

The great tragedy here is that photography was strictly verboten – they went to the extent of putting stickers on the camera lens of our phones. It’s understandable in the race shop – there’s no shortage of engineering secrets to be gleaned by individuals capable of dissecting the stuff they’re up to in this world-class motorsport tuning facility, but the fact that we could not capture any of the majesty of the museum was a bummer.

Those who don’t follow NASCAR but have spent any time watching Barrett Jackson auctions might recognize the Hendrick name anyway – Rick Hendrick, a retired racer and the owner of Hendrick Motorsports, has an absolutely stunning collection of rare and awesome GM vehicles from the past century, many of which he personally snagged at those auctions.

An original Camaro ZL1 sits beside an original COPO Camaro, and somewhere in the distance, one of the five Corvette Grand Sports ever produced hangs out among the first ’57 Fuelie ever produced, while more pristine ’67 Corvettes than you’ve ever seen in one place and a laundry list of other incredibly rare production and racing cars (not to mention a fairly extensive guitar collection) represent part of a collection that’s truly mind-blowing to gaze upon in person.

Trust me, dear reader – if I could have snuck in a photo or two, you bet your ass I would have. Sadly this particular part of the adventure would have to be relegated to memory.

Thursday – Drive Day

After a mad dash out to the hotel parking lot, we selected our steed for the journey to Daytona – a Camaro ZL1 coupe equipped with the six-speed manual transmission. For those unfamiliar, this is the latest high performance model to join the sixth-generation Camaro lineup, and the ZL1 borrows its supercharged power plant from the likes of the C7 Corvette Z06 and third-generation Cadillac CTS-V in the form of the 650 horsepower, 6.2-liter LT4 V8. “You’re on your own when it comes to speeding tickets,” our GM handlers warned. Well, with a corrected top speed of 198 mph, they’d have to catch us first, wouldn’t they?

Serving as Chevrolet's top-spec Camaro (currently - more on that later), the ZL1 boasts the supercharged 6.2-liter LT4 power plant from the Corvette Z06, which dishes out 650 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque. It's mated to either a six-speed Tremec manual gearbox or a new 10-speed automatic, the latter a product of a joint engineering venture between GM and Ford. The same FE4 performance suspension package found on the SS 1LE is standard here, which includes specially tuned magnetic ride dampers.

As is often the format for press programs, they paired each of us up with another journalist for the drive – a welcome strategy given that we had roughly 500 miles to cover that day. Fortunately my co-driver was none other than Roadkill Magazine editor-in-chief Elana Scherr. Not only is Elana good people, she always has a habit of finding the weirdest and most interesting stuff to check out along the way on drives like these.

Even taking the long way (which we most certainly did), the lion’s share of the route from Charlotte to Daytona consists of arrow-straight highway, and that’s no way to familiarize ourselves with a car that’s capable of getting to 60 mph from a standstill in 3.5 seconds on its way to a 11.4 second quarter mile while also delivering a decidedly impressive 1.02 lateral G rating on the skidpad.

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While the ZL1 is photogenic in most situations, it’s particularly striking with a crazy topiary garden backdrop, don’t you think?

We quickly deviated from the de-assigned route programed into the navigation system, heading southeast toward Bishopville, SC to our first potential photo location – the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden. Aside from serving as an interesting backdrop for car photos, Pearl’s garden has a cool backstory.

With no previous topiary experience, Pearl Fryar started work on his garden creations in the early 1980s. Over the years, the former factory engineer’s plant sculptures have served as an example of what can result from patience, tenacity, and perseverance – particularly given the adversity and stereotypes faced by African American community both then and now. Fryar’s garden was also the subject of the 2006 documentary A Man Named Pearl, and has been featured in the New York Times, PBS, and other national outlets. Serendipitously, it turns out that Pearl is also fan of domestic high performance.

Along with being a generally awesome person, it turns out that not only is Fryar a muscle car guy, he's a Camaro guy specifically. Though his '85 Z28 is need of some TLC, it's a project that Pearl says he's been toying with getting underway soon. Hopefully his time with the ZL1 will inspire him to get the third-gen back on the road. As for this big-block-powered Fairlane we found in the yard, it's going to need a little more than the Z28.

But at this point we were only about 85 miles into a 500 mile drive, so we needed to get back on the road and hit our next stop – a spot called South of the Border in Dillon, SC. Founded as a small watering hole just outside of the dry counties of North Carolina, the business quickly took off, expanding into a hotel, fireworks depot, restaurant, and a generally wild-looking roadside attraction.

When they say "you can't miss it", they're not kidding. South of the Border has something for everyone, whether you're hungry, thirsty, or in need of explosives.

We couldn’t spend much time at South of the Border due to itinerary constraints, so after snapping some shots and determining that there was no way I was going to be able to stuff my suitcase full of fireworks without gaining the attention of the glove-wearing members of the TSA on my way back to California, we headed back out on the highway. That’s where we realized we were about three hours and 180 miles behind the rest of the group, so it was a good thing we had 650 horsepower underfoot.

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Two tires were in fact harmed during the making of this photo.

Making a beeline down Interstate 95, we rolled into Daytona Beach just in time for beers and victory calzones at the hotel. I was no worse for wear, but another early AM wake time was in order to get some hours with the ZL1 convertible as well as GM’s new 10-speed, paddle-shifted automatic gearbox, a unit they tout as shifting faster than a dual-clutch gearbox.

While the Camaro ZL1 convertible is a potent machine in its own right, there are some important differences between the drop top and the coupe. Along with added mass to the tune of around 200 pounds due to additional structural bracing (the coupe weighs in at about 3900 pounds), due to packaging constraints the convertible uses a traditional mechanical differential rather than the trick E-diff found in the coupe as well as the C7 Corvette.

Spoiler alert: The new transmission is pretty damn good. If the ZF 8-speed is the standard bearer for modern, torque converter-style automatics, this new gearbox – a joint venture between GM and Ford that’s already seen use in the new F-150 Raptor – deserves a spot right next to it.

Friday

After procuring our press credentials, our group descended upon Daytona International Speedway. Still a few days away from the big game, the emptiness of the venue made it seem even more vast. The 2.5-mile speedway seats more than 100,000 spectators in the bleachers, and that’s to say nothing of the numerous sky boxes, media centers, and other buildings found throughout the infield.

Here we got a chance to attend the reveal of the Daytona 500 pace car – a Camaro ZL1, naturally, as well as who would be driving the pace car: Recently-retired NASCAR luminary and three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon. “This thing will keep up with the field,” Gordon quipped, “But we’re just here to keep pace this weekend.”

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The ZL1 on the left would pace the Daytona 500, while the SS on the right would see pace car duty in the PowerShares 300.

But as it turns out, these weren’t the only reveals that Chevrolet had in store for us. Shortly thereafter, Camaro chief designer Al Oppenheiser and his team unveiled the Camaro ZL1 1LE package. Spotted last year in full camouflage lapping the famed Nurburgring course in Germany, many thought this car would be the next Z/28. While the ZL1 1LE retains the same supercharged 6.2-liter V8 in the standard ZL1, the 1LE package looks to comprehensively turn the ZL1 into a road course terror.

Jeff Gordon and Camaro chief designer Al Oppenheiser introduce GM's most potent road-going Camaro to date - the ZL1 1LE. The package is, for all intents and purposes, a modern-day Z/28. However, Oppenheiser says that the Z/28 moniker has been traditionally applied to Camaros powered by naturally aspirated V8s, so with the supercharged LT4 under the hood, the ZL1 1LE represents something slightly different. Either way, this one looks like it's going to be one hell of a performer on the road course.

Said to be a whole three seconds faster per lap around GM’s 2.9-mile Milford Proving Ground road course, the ZL1 1LE ditches the standard car’s adaptive magnetic ride control suspension for an ultra-trick, ride height-adjustable Multimatic DSSV setup with monotube dampers, much like those seen on the fifth-generation Camaro Z/28.

This, along with a more aggressive aero package and specially designed Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3R tires – a compound that spent three years in development and is said to be “more Cup 2 than Pilot Super Sport”, amounts to a Camaro with some serious track weaponry right out the factory while retaining all the creature comforts of a standard production car.

We’ll have to see for ourselves when the ZL1 1LE package goes into production later this year, we’re told.

Saturday

Race weekend was in full swing at this point, and the teams were busy at work fine-tuning their cars in the pits and garages. We started the day with a tour of this area of the track, along with Chevrolet’s command center at the track in an infield trailer, where the team can analyze incoming telemetry data and make tweaks to their cars based on that information.

While the 500 was still a day away, not only were tuning refinements being made for qualifying for that race, teams were also hard at work getting cars ready for the PowerShares QQQ 300 Race later on Saturday as well. That race, as it turns out, would be held in part under the lights – a unique experience in and of itself.

By Saturday morning the bays of the various garages at Daytona were full of activity as teams made last-minute tweaks in preparation for qualifying sessions.

Part of the reason the 300 went into nightfall was due to the carnage we watched unfold during the race. Pivotal changes have been made to the NASCAR series this year, including a reduction in downforce from 3000 pounds at speed (just under 200 mph) to just 1200 pounds, along with a mandatory caution period every 30 laps or so. The latter of which is particularly crucial, as they not only give teams the opportunity to do quick pit stops with no penalty to their position on the grid but also because it forces the field to bunch together again, eliminating any sizable gap that might’ve been created in the previous laps and greatly enhancing the chances for car-to-car contact.

Some highlights from the PowerShares QQQ 300 race.

Still, two massive crashes occurred well before the first mandatory caution could take effect, both resulting in red flags, and by the start of the second segment 12 cars had already been taken out of the race entirely. But it did make for entertaining racing while under green flag conditions, and the delays pushed the race past dusk, giving us a chance to check out Daytona International Speedway in all of its night time splendor.

Sunday

If you’ve ever wanted a false sense of importance, I recommend starting your day off with a police escort. That’s exactly what we did, heading to the speedway under the protection of a rolling road block set up by Daytona Beach’s finest. With more than 100,000 race fans pouring into the facility it certainly hastened our progress into the venue, which otherwise might’ve taken hours.

After our police escort to the track our important journalistic endeavors got underway, which included drawing dongs on the start/finish line.

After putting our marks on the start/finish line we posted up in GM’s infield oasis known as the Chevrolet Experience Center. Here we not only had a direct line of sight to the speedway’s main straight, but all-important shelter from the mid-day Florida sun, which will take its toll after hours on end.

Like the race the night before, the 500 now featured mandatory caution periods, and in similar fashion, there was no shortage of crashes, one of which took heavily favored racers like Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Danica Patrick out of contention when Kyle Busch’s right rear tire blew entering Turn 3.

As fans poured into the venue, teams put their cars through the various tech inspection stations.

“Fantastic. Right rear went down entering Turn 3,” Busch said on his car radio as he headed to the garage. “I feel horrible for those guys,” he later told the press. “But nothing we did wrong – Goodyear just can’t build tires that hold air. That’s so disappointing.”

The final moments of the race would see some interesting racecraft help determine the outcome. With just three laps to go, more than half a dozen cars could have potentially taken home the win. After leading the 500 for 22 of the final laps, Chase Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet ran out of gas just before the white flag was flown.

With crashes taking out a sizable portion of the field over the course of the race, we got to see Jeff Gordon and the ZL1 pace car at work more often than we had anticipated.

Then on lap 199 (of 200), then-leader Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet suffered the same fate (much to the dismay of fans as well as our hosts), leaving the door open for Kurt Busch in the No. 41 Ford Fusion to bring home the top spot. He barely had enough fuel to do a victory burnout afterward.

With the 2017 Daytona 500 in the history books I made my way to Daytona International Airport – literally a fence a and service road away from the track – and hopped aboard a bird back to the west coast.

It might be early in the year, but it’s going to take a lot to dethrone the 500 to the 500 as the most epic road trip/race adventure of 2017.