1967 Sunoco Camaro “The Lightweight”

 

In 1967, Roger Penske had recently retired as a driver and was just beginning his long and remarkable career as a businessman and racing team owner.  One of his first business ventures was Roger Penske Chevrolet near Philadelphia.  Roger teamed with driver Mark Donohue and in 1967 they began a dual assault on two SCCA Professional Series; the US Road Racing Championship and the TransAm using Chevy powered Lolas and the brand new Chevy Camaros.  Mark’s background as an engineer gave him a unique perspective and during this period he changed forever the way racing cars are developed.  Roger meanwhile brought the art of sponsorship to a new level.

 

When they began to prepare the first ’67 Camaro Mark had no experience in developing a race car from a production sedan.  Roger Penske secured the 13th Z-28 built and trusted Mark to turn it into a race car.  Mark had successfully raced a Shelby GT-350 but the development work on that car had already been done for him.  Mark’s first Camaro efforts yielded a highly unstable car and no wins.  Finally with lots of back-door help from Chevrolet, that first car won a TransAm at Bryar, half way through the 1967 series.  The secret was a special set of body panels that Chevrolet had produced by stopping the Camaro production stamping presses and making one set with very thin steel.

 

This was a very expensive process but very effective.  Unfortunately in practice for the next race, he crashed heavily and destroyed all the light bodywork.  Mark immediately set out to make the second Sunoco Camaro with an acid dipped body using Craig Fisher’s Camaro.  After the Marlborough race, which Mark co-drove with Canadian Craig Fisher, both Craig and his 1967 Camaro joined the team.  That particular Camaro (the 14th Z-28 built) had been purchased by Terry Godsall for Craig and was raced at the 1967 Daytona TransAm, finishing second and becoming the first Camaro to score points.  It also ran the 24 hour race and the 12 hours of Sebring.  Godsall contracted with Lockheed to acid dip all the removable panels and the resulting car made its debut on the west coast with just 4 races left in the 1967 season.  This car, forever known as “The Lightweight”, now with sponsorship from Sunoco and engines by Traco Engineering, won two of those last four TransAms (Las Vegas and Seattle) with Mark Donohue at the wheel.  It lapped the field in the final race of the year.  Tipped off to the unfair advantage, organizers weighed the car post-race only to find it 250 lbs. shy of the minimum weight.  Only Roger’s not-so-veiled threat that Chevy might leave the series convinced the organizers to let the win stand.  SCCA stewards told Roger that the car would never be allowed to race again and in 1968 all cars would be weighed during pre-race technical inspection.

 

For 1968 Roger and Mark had a “body-in-white” acid dipped and prepared an all new 1968 car, adding the weight back in choice areas to balance the car and make the minimum weight.  In its debut at Daytona it suffered cracked cylinder heads and lost to a Mustang. Vince Piggins, Mr. Camaro at Chevrolet, strongly suggested that Penske enter two cars at Sebring, the second TransAm of the year, which would be a 12-hour event within an event.  Not having time to prepare a second car, Mark retrieved “The Lightweight” which had gone back to Godsall, for a one-race partnership.  Roger and Mark fooled the tech inspectors by putting 1968 grille and taillights on the 1967 car and painting both cars identically.  Then they sent the legal 1968 car to tech twice, once with Number 15 and once with Number 16, this worked so well that they repeated the process in qualifying and “The Lightweight” actually qualified them both.  We know this because Mark put it into his book, “The Unfair Advantage”.

 

“The Lightweight” went on to win the TransAm and finish 3rd overall in the Sebring 12 Hour against a strong international prototype field, finishing behind a pair of factory Porsche 907’s.  The team went on to win 10 of 13 events in 1968 and claimed the TransAm championship for Chevrolet, repeating the feat in 1969. The team built two Camaro racers each of the three years for a total of six.  Four of these cars survive and all were present at the 2010 Kohler International Challenge at Road America where there was a reunion of Mark’s team and many of his cars.  They will also be at the Monterey Motorsports Reunion in August (Formerly Monterey Historics)

 

Today the car has been restored to its 1968 Sebring appearance by Rick Parent who along with owner-driver Pat Ryan and son Sean Ryan comprise “Unfair Advantage Racing”, a name taken from the title of Mark’s book.  The team also campaigns the Frank Search TransAm 1971 Camaro for Sean.  The Sunoco Camaro remains remarkably close to its 1968 specifications with the 302 V-8 still built by Tra-co Engineering and sporting a prototype cross-ram manifold first used at Sebring in 1968.  SVRA rules require all TransAm cars to have original period engine blocks, intake manifolds, cylinder heads, brakes, and transmissions.   They are limited to the original engine displacement and must weigh no less than 3000 lbs.

 

This lightweight 1967 Sunoco Camaro was raced by independent Canadian racers from 1969 through 1972 and was then stored until discovered by Jack Boxstrom in a Sanair warehouse in 1985.  Unfair Advantage Racing has entered it at SVRA Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen events each year since 1989.  It has also been a regular at the Monterey Historic Races and has been in more than 125 SVRA events, including the TransAm reunion at Watkins Glen in 1995, where it finished first overall. 

 

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