23 September 2016

IROC-Z: When Camaro got its mojo back

Mooching racetrack glory as a sales gimmick was nothing new. Pontiac had already lifted Grand Prix, Trans Am and Can Am as showroom nameplates. But labeling the 1985 Camaro as the IROC-Z, after the International Race of Champions, was on another level altogether.

Think of IROC as the asphalt equivalent of baseball’s All Star game. Rather than part of a season-long championship quest, the series was contrived as a crowd-pleasing sideshow in which top-level drivers like Mario Andretti, Dale Earnhardt and A.J. Foyt competed in identically prepared cars. When IROC’s initial choice of steed, the Porsche 911, proved expensive to maintain, Camaro rode to the rescue.

Despite the promotional value this made-for-TV series held for Chevy – the drivers were drawn from Nascar, IndyCar and even Formula One – the IROC name didn’t land on a Camaro until a decade after car’s debut in the series. Still, the timing wasn’t bad: The IROC Sport Equipment Package, an option for the Z28 model, arrived as the gloom of the Malaise Era began to lift, overcoming an era during which gas lines, pollution regulations and insurance surcharges for performance cars conspired to strip all the fun out of driving.

Understating the third-generation (1982-92) Camaro’s role, and more specifically the 1985 IROC-Z version, in ending the Malaise Era is easy. But while this edition of the venerable Pony car may not have brought world peace, for gearheads it did something nearly as important. Along with the 5.0-liter Fox-body Mustang, it brought affordable V-8 performance back to the masses.

The all-new 1982 Camaro had been a considerable leap forward. Its looks were fresh, not derivative, and today only its lengthy front and rear overhangs mark it as a product of several decades in the past. The car’s initial reviews were positive, but most testers were left wanting more. Road & Track commented that the car lacked “a Sunday punch.” Indeed the very attractive silver, blue and red Indianapolis Pace Car could muster only 165 hp.

Big changes arrived for the 1985 model year, though. For the first time since the early 1970s, a Camaro producing over 200 hp could be ordered. Chevy’s 305 cid V-8 was offered with Tuned Port Injection, producing 215 hp. The only buzz-kill was the fact that in order to get a manual transmission, you had to settle for the 190 hp L69 version of the 305.

The IROC option brought 16-inch wheels, special springs, Bilstein rear shocks, rocker extensions, a deeper front air dam with fog lamps and a thicker rear antiroll bar. As a $659 addition to the tab for a Z28, the IROC package was an instant hit. The IROC-Z also took Camaro handling to a new level. Torsional stiffness started to enter the lexicon of Camaro engineers at this time, just as tire technology was performing miracles for adhesion. One of the tricks employed by the car was a fairly simple steering brace known as the “wonder bar.” It helped maintain proper steering geometry at the cornering loads that the car’s 16-inch Goodyear Eagle VR50 Gatorback tires could generate.

For 1988, the Z28 disappeared as a model and the IROC-Z coupe and convertible were the top performance Camaros. By 1990, the last year for the IROC-Z, the 350-cid V-8 was making a healthy 245 hp. Chevy’s relationship with the racing series ended that year, and for 1991 the Z28 model returned.

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