F for Fast: Maximizing the GM F-Body

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Big wheels, big power, big thrills: Rear-drive, V8-powered domestics have become huge at today’s autocross events, and they’re welcomed by many different programs, including the Optima Invitational, Good Guys and SCCA CAM classes.

The rules place few restrictions on car type or prep, so the fields vary from one extreme to another: old-school rods and vintage muscle cars to the greatest hits of the ’80s and today’s latest pony cars.

A lot of these vehicles take more than a few bucks to build, prep and run, though. And then there’s the reality that most older cars were just not designed to accept today’s 11-inch-wide wheels.

One chassis seems to drive up the middle. It’s common, quick, inexpensive and served by a huge aftermarket. Yep, we’re talking about GM’s fourth-generation F-body platform, basis for the 1993–2002 Chevy Camaro Z28 and Pontiac Trans-Am.

At the time of their debut, the specs for these cars were quite impressive: 275 horsepower out of a Corvette-style LT1 fuel-injected V8 and the availability of a six-speed manual transmission. Automotive publications, as well as the enthusiast market, were driven into frenzies.

A new Camry might make more than 300 horsepower, but back then 275 out of a production V8 in a relatively affordable car was a big deal. Even the crew from Ford didn’t achieve that kind of power until a few years later.

Weekend track warriors and showroom stock racers were happy to find the fabled 1LE option still listed on the Camaro and Trans Am order sheets. For these cars, this mainly consisted of a suspension package offering heavy-duty springs, specially valved dampers, and thicker anti-roll bars. Cars so optioned were also devoid of creature comforts like leather, air conditioning and T-tops.

The fourth-generation F-body evolved a bit over its production cycle, with the now legendary LS1 arriving for the 1998 model year. Depending on the flavor of F-body ordered, output ranged from 305 to 325 horsepower–again, strong numbers for the day–and the LS1 could be paired with the excellent T56 six-speed manual.

Today there are many different ways to prep one of these F-body cars for autocross. Two great examples are Tony Povletich’s 1994 Camaro Z28 1LE and John and Rhonda Fehring’s 2000 Firebird Trans Am. Both regularly run with the SCCA in the CAM-C class.

Cool Camaro

Tony Povletich’s Camaro is exceedingly rare. It’s one of only 135 1LE-equipped cars built for the 1994 model year, and has a scant 26,000 miles on the odometer. Even more rare: His car was used from day one as a racer. In a time when limited production performance cars are often viewed as garage queens or collection centerpieces, here’s one that has been regularly flogged around the track. The prior owners of this car, Brian and Bea Reggaine, campaigned it to a national championship for Bea at the 2010 SCCA Solo Nationals.

Tony has owned more than his share of cool F-body cars over the years, including a 25th Anniversary Trans Am and a number of earlier cars. “This is definitely one of my favorites,” he reports. “The 1994 25th Anniversary TA I had before this one would be a very close second to it.”

While the newer LS engines get most of today’s glory, the slightly older LT1 can still make plenty of power when built properly. Tony’s LT1 has been upgraded to the more powerful LT4 specs by famed racer/builder Danny Popp and now makes 420 horsepower.

The Cherry Bomb muffler found out back was sourced from a Farm and Fleet. “Don’t laugh,” Tony says, “there’s a long story behind that one, but, hey, it works and puts me at the decibel limit for SCCA!”

The brakes came from a C5 Corvette, while a 3.42:1 final drive and six-speed manual box originally fitted to a 1993 Camaro Z28 have been installed. “It will do about 72 mph in second gear before hitting the rev limiter,” he says, “which is perfect for most autocross courses.”

Potent Pontiac

John and Rhonda Fehring’s 2000 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, on the other hand, is not an ultra-rare 1LE-equipped model. It doesn’t even have the flared nostrils the WS6 Ram Air package would add.

This one started out as a base model, pedestrian Trans Am, but, like Tony’s, it’s been beefed up as well. The Fehrings own a company called Hoosier Performance Engineering. They cater to the track day crowd and offer all sorts of upgrades for late-model GM performance cars like the Corvette as well as the fourth-generation F-body. Their Trans Am serves as a test bed for new products.

Since the Fehrings’ Trans Am is a 2000 model, it came from the factory with the Gen III LSI, but that has since been replaced with a 6.2-liter LS3–proving that not even cars that came with LS engines are immune to LS swaps.

The Trans Am has served as the shop’s own skunkworks test lab for products like their own heavy-duty hubs. These hubs replace the original ball bearings with stronger Timken tapered bearings. The spindle and flange are custom forged units from Strange. “The hub is completely rebuildable, re-packable, and it retains the ABS wheel speed sensor function,” John explains.

The shop also totally re-engineered the suspension, although they followed GM’s lead. “I’m a big believer of separate load paths for shock and spring inputs, like the factory designed,” John explains. “Coil-overs drive all that loading through a single mount, and I feel it negatively impacts vehicle ride quality.”

Actually, the car does have coil-over springs at the rear–kind of. “I could not get the desired rear spring rate high enough and still have a spring that wouldn’t fall out at full droop,” he explains, “so I used a small coil-over spring on the shock and a 5-inch Afco spring on the axle mount. So the car has six springs in it.”

Pick a Platform

In SCCA CAM autocross action, these fourth-generation F-bodies face off against newer machines–cars featuring more technology, more stock power and more advanced suspensions.

Still, the older cars hold their own. At this spring’s SCCA CAM Invitational, J.J. Mallrich had the top-placing fourth-generation F-body after wheeling his 1999 Camaro Z28 to a fifth-place finish–just about a second and a half behind the winner, 2015 Mustang GT driver Dennis Healy.

Now, though, with fourth-generation F-body prices about as low as they can ever possibly go, our two feature cars show the potential for making one of these into a true world-class racing machine.

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View comments on the GRM forums
Will UltraDork
2/6/18 5:47 p.m.

Just my opinion, and I'm not unbiased, but I think the 4th-gen is a good balance compared to other cars it typically competes against. In ESP trim, mine is 3,240 pounds and has 344 RWHP. All other things being equal, anything with more power is probably going to be heavier. Anything lighter is probably going to have less power.


Mark_42 New Reader
2/7/18 2:26 p.m.

Just an FYI on a finer point...  It'd be Psalm 100:1 (not Psalms 100:1)
The entire book is a book of Psalms, each chapter being an individual Psalm.

If you substitute the word Song for Psalm, it's easier to see the proper use.

Sorry for being a "Grammar Nazi", but it's something I think is worth knowing.

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