Despite the heavily blinged-out '69 Camaros parked in a tidy row at Pro Touring events, you don't have to spend a gazillion dollars to build a track car. With the right combo of parts, you can do it for less.
You've heard of the spiky-haired, Japanese tofu delivery driver who invented drifting; consider Jason Lewis his bald-headed, USA counterpart. His brutal, 62-mile commute from his home in Santa Clarita, California, to his wrench-monkey job at a shop in not-so-nearby Lancaster is a ribbon of twisty, desert, mountain roads. If you're going to be a commuter drone, you might as well have some fun.
"I love road racing," Jason says. "I've been racing cheap stuff forever: bikes, Sportsman circle-track cars, anything that was low-buck." Jason's friends know he is the one to call when a junker is spotted for sale. "I love a car that doesn't run that has boxes of parts around it. I want to make it run." The car was an '82 Z28 that had been parked with a blown head gasket and disassembled for repairs, apparently never to see the light of day again. The score was $500.
Using a 2x4 with sandpaper wrapped around it for the cylinder hone, along with some other unmentionable build techniques, Jason got the car moving and registered. That's when the canyons called. "I really liked the chassis, the view from the windshield, everything. I see why people like these cars," Jason says.
The plan was to set it up for the track and dial it in on the way to work. Jason scored a T56 from a '95 LT1 Camaro and wheels from a C5 Corvette, and he traded a beater truck for a replacement 350. He knew he'd have to splurge on the suspension, brakes, and safety parts to make the car fast. "When it rains, I practice my drifting. The car is reliable and comfortable, and even in the high desert with 118-degree weather, the car is really nice."
On the track, he gets dismissed in the pits and respected on the course because the car has skills. "Whenever there is an opportunity for track time, I am doing it. Streets of Willow (Rosamond, California) is my favorite, but for pure fright factor, Buttonwillow (Buttonwillow, California) is great for super-fast long corners. A typical weekend of Time Attack is about $150 to $250. If you win, you get recognition and some cash off the next entry fee. "In the pits, I get condescending talk while I am removing the T-tops. The M5 guys pity me until I cross over behind them in every corner in the mirror. Then they drive off the track because they are watching me instead of the road."
Who: Jason Lewis
What: '82 Camaro Z28
Included: For $500, Jason got a clean dent-free body, all the parts to put the 305 back together, and a head gasket kit. Jason reassembled it all, fired it up, and it passed smog on the first try. He drove it that way for a while to get a feel for the chassis.
Used: Jason wanted a more reliable mill and something worth adding parts to later, so he traded his ex-Red Bull rolling-billboard Ford Sport Trac for a 290hp, 350-inch GM crate engine. Next, he found a complete '95 T56 and installed it, reusing all the junkyard parts, including the clutch that is still holding.
New: During the trans installation, the car was on jackstands, so Jason "ordered pretty much the entire Hotchkis catalog for around $1,500." The third-gen equipment included the springs, sway bars, lower control arms, frame connectors, and Panhard bar. Jason also added a set of Koni single-adjustable shocks. Mostly for safety and to further stiffen the chassis, he measured some bends for a six-point 'cage and welded them in after work. Also new are the OMP racing seat, Flaming River wheel, and five-point harness.
Tech tip: The car is most stable one click from the softest setting on the shocks.
Brakes: The factory stuff was abandoned for a Baer brakes Track 4 kit that included spindles, four-piston calipers, and 13-inch discs. He also used a Track 4 on the rear and even kept the parking brakes. "Out of the box, it bolted right on. You just change the spindle. I've never wanted for more brakes; the brakes are perfect."
Wheels/Tires: To fit the brakes you need at least a 16-inch rim, so he used the rollers from a C5 Corvette. Vette wheels have zero offset, so he had to use a 2-inch spacer in the front and a 1.5-inch spacer in the rear from Hawks Third-Gen parts. "With 275/40ZR17s on all four corners, if you push too hard on a track day, you can swap the fronts for the rears and keep going."
Exhaust: The headers are Edelbrock 50-state-legals that feed into a 2-into-1 Flowmaster American Thunder kit.
Kills: "I will hound very expensive cars in the twisties. I am all over tricked-out SRT8 Challengers, but when I get into the straightaways, I can barely get by them. Sometimes they have to lift to let me around. The T56 is a blast on the track. On a track day when it is legal to pass in the corners I can get it done. I can hang with all-wheel-drive stuff until the turbos get spooled. It's very frustrating, I need more power."
Estimated total investment: $9,500
Speed: Lapping guys in $30,000 imports
'82 Z28: $500
Crate engine: Traded for garbage Ford truck or $1,999
Complete junkyard trans swap: $800
Hotchkis suspension: $1,500
BAER brakes: $1,500 front, $950 rear
Safety stuff: seats: $500; harnesses: $120
Flaming River steering wheel: $250
C5 wheels: $400; spacers; $259
275 tires (discontinued General Exclaim UHP): $550