What is Pro Touring?

Pro Touring. Many have tried to define it, and I’m sure many will continue to do so…whether you are new to the genre of car building or a grizzled veteran. Follow me down the rabbit hole and let’s see if we can make a dent. One of the first places many go to answer such questions is, of course, Google. Wikipedia is one of the first results to pop up, which states:

Credit for coining the term ‘Pro-Touring’ itself to define the emerging genre is widely attributed to Mark Stielow, GM Program Engineering Manager, and Car Craft magazine’s Tech Editor Jeff Smith, who was heading up Chevy High Performance magazine at the time. Mark Stielow can also take credit for helping grow the new concept through his own projects such as the white 1969 Chevrolet Camaro known as Tri-Tip that competed in the One Lap of America in 1993. The Camaro was widely covered and created a surge in interest, and once the term was put in print, it stuck.[2] Since that time, Stielow has built a number of trailblazing Chevrolet Camaros with names like “The Mule,” “Red Devil” and “Mayhem,” many of which have graced the covers of some of the industry’s most beloved publications, including Hot Rod magazine, Car Craft magazine, and Popular Hot Rodding magazine, further fueling the pro-touring trend.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that legendary automotive scribe Jeff Smith was involved in coining the term. Never the less, it was it was a bit of a thrill to see Jeff’s name on Wikipedia. Not only did I grow up reading Jeff’s stories in Hot Rod and Car Craft, but I’m honored to call Jeff a colleague. For those who didn’t know, Jeff is still active in the Pro Touring scene as a long-time consultant to the Street Machine Nationals – helping to organize the multiple autocross courses and the stop box – dating back to his time at Car Craft.

The other usual suspect mentioned in the Wikipedia article should be familiar to any fans of Pro Touring. Even if you are not familiar with the car that started the craze, Mark Stielow went on to build many unbelievable first-gen Camaros while also playing a pivotal role in his day job to build the fastest factory Camaro to date.

After reading this article, I decided to email Jeff to see if he could shed some light on the etymology of “Pro Touring.” It’s rare that you have such accessibility to the person that created a term like this and thankfully he was able to go into full detail on how the term was coined:

Mark and I were together during a portion of Hot Rod’s Power Tour. I had just recently left Hot Rod and taken over as editor of Chevy High Performance in 1998. Mark and I were discussing the idea of his style of car that combined high performance with the concept that the car could be driven anywhere over long distances – doing exactly what he was doing with his Camaro. I was already a true believer, having done handling stories when I was tech editor at Car Craft in the early 1980s.

I totally agreed with him, but in order for this movement to gather any momentum it needed a term – like “Pro Street.”  That way when the term was mentioned the people in the discussion would instantly know what you were talking about. I mentioned [it], but we didn’t spend very much time on it and then we went on to other topics.

A week or so later, Mark called me at our office on Wilshire Blvd. and when I answered the phone he said, “Jeff, it’s Mark. I have the term – the name.”

I responded, “What are we talking about? What name?” I had, by this time, moved on to the demands of getting my next issue of Chevy High Performance magazine out the door, having recently lost both of my current staff members. 

“Pro Touring – that’s the term. It combines professional car building with more like European road touring cars. It’s perfect – Pro Touring…” He went on to more fully describe it, but I was already planning my next magazine cover with that as my major tag line.

Mark was right. It was perfect. I proposed a cover theme for the April issue and got nothing but kickback from management that this wasn’t going to work. In the past it never worked for us to “invent” a new movement. But what Mark and I knew, and management did not, was that this was already off and running. That Pro Touring issue mentioned Mark’s Camaro plus a Camaro that Kyle and Stacy Tucker, another pair of GM engineers and Mark’s friends, were building. They eventually started Detroit Speed and we know how well that worked.  

I had to fight hard to get that cover through the system and it really didn’t sell all that well. That made roughly a year or so later, the second cover even harder to push through – but we did and by that time it sold much better and the Pro Touring movement took off. 

Popular Hot Rodding was a competitive title back then – we were separate publishing companies. They wanted to cover this but couldn’t bring themselves to call it Pro Touring. So they came up with “G Machines,” which was also popular for awhile, but eventually the original was still the best and you just don’t hear about G Machines anymore – even though it is a catchy term. I think Cameron Evans was the editor back then for PHR. 

So as Paul Harvey used to say: “That’s the rest of the story…”

Now that we know where the term was created, let’s talk about how it is used today and what cars should be called Pro Touring. In my opinion, in present day there is no greater influencer in the Pro Touring genre than the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational where cars are judged not just on the ability to click off some fast lap times, but in their design and streetability as well. There is no greater honor for an enthusiast, than to be crowned the champion in Las Vegas and have your car front and center in Optima’s booth at the SEMA Show the following year. The cars and former winners range from first-gen Camaros to C5 Corvettes and late model imports. Clearly all of these don’t fit the definition of “Pro Touring.” Or do they?

I tend to agree with Tim King (see video above), Pro Touring means taking a classic car that, in OEM form, would not be considered to have outstanding performance by modern standards. A C5 Z06 that ran 11.90s and pulled over .9 g’s on the skidpad, does not qualify. Those would still be stout times in 2020. Neither does an all-wheel drive Evo (sorry Ken). That said, I think many mistake Pro Touring and “restomod.” You can absolutely have a Pro Touring build with a stroker Pontiac, big-block Chevy, Poly, Rocket, Cammer, etc. In addition, I don’t even think we have to limit Pro Touring to domestic pony cars and muscle cars. I welcome 240Zs, TVRs, Triumphs, etc as well as passenger cars and even classic sports cars like Corvettes and Panteras.

To Dale Schwartz’s point, Pro Touring is also a look, feel, and measure of the the type of modifications you do. And this is another area that separates Pro Touring from restomod. You’ll know a Pro Touring car or truck by its low-slung stance, extensive suspension mods, big brakes, large wheels, and sticky tires. But that’s not all. It has to perform. Otherwise, there is little to separate a bagged Biscayne built for Sunday cruises – not the autocross course. I love these style builds, too, but they are not Pro Touring.

Some believe, as Nick Licata pointed out, that Pro Touring isn’t even the right term. If Pro Touring is all about “professional car building,” then what do you call a home-built car or truck that looks identical? Here’s the thing: in the ’90s when Stielow built Tri-Tip, there weren’t out-of-the-box parts that you could bolt on to your ’69 Camaro and run lap after lap pulling over 1 g. Stielow is literally an engineer, which is why he was able to do things that others couldn’t. Twenty years later, you don’t need to be a professional engineer or fabricator to build such a capable vehicle because you literally can have every part you need shipped to your door (including an entire rolling chassis). In 2020, I think home builders absolutely have a place in Pro Touring. Even a ’69 F-100 with patina (*wink).

Bring me your tired, poor, rusty classics yearning to breathe free of the purpose-less field they lie…and let’s put big wheels, big brakes, a new chassis, and a powerful engine under the hood. Then let’s hit the street and the autocross.

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About the author

Scott Parker

Scott dreamed of being in the automotive media in high school, growing up around car shows and just down the street from Atco Raceway. The technology, performance capability, and craftsmanship that goes into builds fuels his passion.
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