There are a lot of people who think that the best years of American muscle cars are behind us. Those are probably the same people that think fuel injection is stupid and like to say things like “four on the floor” and “three-quarter-race cam.” This author thinks they couldn’t be more wrong, because today if you walk into a Chevrolet, Ford, or Dodge dealership with enough money, you can put your name on the list to purchase one of their factory-built race cars. The COPO Camaro, Cobra Jet Mustang, and Drag Pak Challengers are no secret option at only a handful of privileged in the know dealers as they were in the first iteration of the muscle car era—today they are a fully supported concept by the Big Three. What’s more, there are cars like the Camaro ZL1, Mustang GT500, and Dodge Demon that simply put the old muscle cars to shame. The best years might very well be right now.
It’s hard to imagine, but the American muscle car wars have been waged for over 50 years. Last year, the NMCA paid tribute to the 50th milestone anniversary of the Cobra Jet Mustang at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio. This event was highly publicized, as it was the largest collection of CJs the world had ever seen in one place, with over 200 vintage and modern Cobra Jet-powered Fords taking part in the festivities: a grandiose car show, and snazzy dinner banquet at the host hotel, Sawmill Creek.
This year, however, it was time to put on the bowties as we shift gears to discuss the infamous Central Office Production Order Camaros of 1969. Following the success of the limited-run Cobra Jet program in Stock Eliminator the year before, Chevy dealer Fred Gibb realized there was a way to order stripped-down Camaros with the all-aluminum 427 cubic-inch ZL1 engine.
This engine not only made incredible power but also weighed more than 100 pounds less than the readily available iron big-block 396 cubic-inch engine offered to the public. On paper, this took the Camaro’s performance a step further and increased the potency of the Chevy platform in NHRA competition. The corporate bigwigs ultimately approved the limited production run of 50 cars to satisfy the contingency for the class rules. Gibb agreed to purchase these pricey machines and sell them through his Illinois dealership and also distribute them to other interested parties.
In total, Chevrolet manufactured just 69 of these cars that year; today the ones that remain have become showstoppers at the Barrett-Jackson auction for their incredible rarity, prestige, and inconceivable resale value. For those lucky enough to pick one up new, they have become timeless pieces of a bygone era of the Pony Wars. Now that the COPOs have joined the Cobra Jets in line for their senior discount cards at the local AARP office, it was time to recognize their contribution to the muscle car lineage. The NMCA and Chevrolet worked together to track down past and present COPO owners and extend an invitation to attend the festivities at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, OH for the NMCA’s All-American Nationals for the Chevrolet Performance 50th Anniversary COPO Camaro Shootout, presented by COPO Parts Direct.
The racers engaged in a bit of friendly rivalry in a bracket-style race that saw 1200-horse Factory Super Cars against original, naturally aspirated 427 COPOs as well as late models rocking the 427 LSX. After six rounds of eliminations, Aaron Allison took home the shootout trophy and a trip to the Aerospace Components Winner’s Circle in his 2015 COPO Camaro, which he has only been racing for a short time.
After the tire smoke cleared, over 80 COPO Camaros made their way down the track between the Shootout, Factory Appearing Stock Tire, and Factory Super Car classes. Additionally, the Cobra Jet Shootout continued for its eighth consecutive year. After the success of last year’s all-Ford bracket, it was no surprise to see more than 50 cars return to compete against each other in this massive display of American-made horsepower. If I’m being honest, I think we need to see a COPO versus CJ race at next year’s All-American Nationals. Perhaps the winner of the respective classes can get one final race, Stock Eliminator-style?
The NMCA All-American Nationals presented by Whipple Superchargers was one of the largest races in the 31-year history of the series. When the numbers were finally in, 509 individual cars signed up to race in Norwalk across all classes, and the event had a vibe unlike any other I’ve attended. As we look ahead to next year, I’ve been told that there has already been consideration given to what’s next for the shootout series. Hopefully, we see the COPO Shootout make its return for a second season to begin a tradition like the Cobra Jets have at this event. I would love to see these two brands duke it out for ultimate bragging rights. Let’s get the smack talk going!