TRACK DAYS ARE SHOWCASES FOR automotive extremism. Want to see a Mercedes-AMG GT with its front end safeguarded with miles of painter's tape? Look no further. How about a clapped-out minivan driven by the most demonically frustrated soccer dad on the planet? Ditto.
The strangest sight at this particular track day, hosted by the Alfa Romeo Owners of Southern California, at Willow Springs International Raceway, is a factory-fresh Chevrolet Camaro 1LE. Not because it's parked in front of a bevy of lovely, race-prepped, 50-year-old Alfa GTAs. Not because it's powered by a V-6, that longtime staple of rental-car fleets, rather than a small-block V-8. Not even because it's a radioactive shade of green—Krypton, in GM parlance—vivid enough to be spotted from the International Space Station.
No, what's most bizarre about the 1LE V-6 is that it's actually designed to be here. It's a throwback to the dual-purpose MGs and Austin-Healeys that were driven on race circuits on Sunday and then to work on Monday. An affordable, livable sports car that's equally good on road and track.
The Camaro has always wanted to be this kind of car, but it has rarely made the grade. The model debuted in 1966 as a relatively lithe two--two to challenge the Ford Mustang, but muscle-car pretensions soon got in the way. By the time it was reintroduced in 2009, after a long hiatus, the car had morphed into a big, heavy, slavishly retro coupe.
The sixth-generation Camaro, launched in 2015, doesn't look much different from the one it replaced. But it sits on a different platform, shared with the Cadillac ATS and CTS, and it's better in every way. We've already seen the potential of this new Camaro with the fire-breathing ZL1. But that's a pricey time-trial weapon, a Corvette Z06 masquerading as a pony car.
To appeal to a wider audience, Chevy has created a 1LE track package for the V-6-powered Camaro, available even on the base trim (although our test car is a more h trim level). The package brings an upgraded suspension, 20-inch wheels, meaty Goodyear Eagle F1 tires, Brembo front brakes, a front splitter, a rear spoiler, suede trim, and coolers for the engine oil, differential, and transmission. All-in price, before niceties like a nifty performance data recorder, is less than $33,000. That's barely half the price of a ZL1 and $10,000 cheaper than the V-8-powered Camaro SS 1LE.
Even before we hit the track, the new car's improvements and the appeal of this package are obvious. The driving position is perfect, thanks in part to optional Recaro seats, and although visibility isn't great, you no longer feel like you're trapped in the bottom of a doomed Civil War submersible. Suedelike microfiber on the small-diameter, flat-bottom steering wheel is a nice touch. The same material on the shifter, however, may be over-kill. But the lever is attached to the right kind of transmission, a six-speed manual. The Tremec gearbox is a bit notchy, and it doesn't incorporate any rev-matching magic. It doesn't need it, since the pedals are placed optimally for heel-and-toe down-shifting. The V-6, which breathes through dual-mode exhaust, makes a pleasant rasp when blipped.
Whether on city streets, freeways, or Angeles Crest Highway, the car feels smaller than it is, and it corners, brakes, and accelerates with the aplomb of a car twice its price. The chassis is commendably stiff, and the 1LE's dampers, borrowed from the Camaro SS, are more responsive than expected. Yes, the ride is harsh, the gearbox is heavy, and the back seat is more vestigial appendage than useful real estate. But this is a sports car, not a sport-utility vehicle. Sacrifices come with the territory.
Still, no matter what their pedigree or how many high-performance tweaks they feature, most production cars disappoint on racetracks. They plow in slow corners and feel spooky in fast ones. Brakes fade. Engines overheat. On the track, where honest and immediate feedback equals motoring satisfaction, even the most mundane race car tends to be more rewarding than a supercar. As I pull into Willow Springs, I'm not sure where the Camaro falls on that spectrum.
THERE WAS A TIME WHEN street cars and race cars were one and the same. Study photos from Le Mans in the early 1950s. Ignore the roundels and the helmets, and you could be looking at production sports cars on public roads. When James Dean crashed fatally in a Porsche 550 Spyder, he was en route to drive it in a race in Salinas, California. Well into the Sixties, it wasn't uncommon for drivers to enter Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events in the small-bore Triumphs and Alfas they used as everyday drivers when they weren't playing Stirling Moss on the weekend.
Over the years, the exigencies of competition—beefier safety gear, more temperamental engines, stiffer suspensions, and so on—widened the gulf between street cars and racing thoroughbreds. But then in 1972, the SCCA created the Showroom Stock class, where the rules regarding modifications were so restrictive that you couldn't even change out the radio knobs. Chevrolet developed the original 1LE Camaro in 1988 with such competition in mind. It was only natural that owners would drive these bare-bones but street-legal cars to the track and back home. The same went for entries in cheap one-make series like the Alliance Cup for Renaults and Bilstein Cup for VW Rabbits in the Seventies and Eighties.
By the Nineties, race cars had become so expensive and finicky, they were hauled around almost exclusively on trailers. At the same time, sports cars were becoming too fast to drive flat out on the street. Besides getting you in a world of hurt with local police, these cars could be tricky at the limit. Taking them to the racetrack was the only way to safely unlock their full potential.
Decades ago, marque-specific car clubs began staging their own track days as a way for enthusiast members to get seat time. The Alfa Romeo Owners of Southern California got into the game back in 1972, when the SCCA canceled the class of racing in which their Alfas competed. "We decided that the Alfa club ought to have some sort of competition program," says Hector Vazquez, who's running a GTA at Willow Springs this afternoon.
Although the earliest such track days were open only to club members, other marques were soon welcomed, to help cover track fees. But you pretty much had to know the secret handshake to get involved. Jerry Kunzman belonged to a California car club in the Eighties and was invited to a few events before going on to start his own organization.
"When I first heard that the Alfa club was holding a track day for street cars at Riverside, I said, 'That sounds frigging awesome, but I just don't believe it,'" Kunzman says. Later, he and fellow enthusiast Ali Arsham promoted a track day at Sears Point. More than 100 cars showed up and, as he says, "We kind of went nuts from there."
In 1991, Kunzman and Arsham founded the National Auto Sport Association, which emerged as a rival to the SCCA. Although NASA now has a robust wheel-to-wheel racing program, track days remain its bread and butter.
THE ONCE-CONTROVERSIAL NOTION OF running a street car on a racetrack is now a popular subculture. But few street cars are equipped for the challenge right out of the box. The holy grail is a car that's as comfortable hot lapping lapping as it is on a morning commute.
Our preparation for the track consists of flushing the Camaro's brake system and refilling it with high-temp fluid. Period. Before the first session, I slap a number on the doors and air down the tires, because during lapping, air inside the tires heats up and expands. For track use, I configure the 1LE's optional head-up display to conveniently show shift lights.
I select Track mode, disengage traction control, and put stability control into Competition mode. In Competition mode, you enjoy an increased degree of latitude, but there are still some electronic nannies working at the limit. They aren't very intrusive, and lap-time-wise, I suspect they're a minor benefit. (To release your inner Ken Block and fully disable stability control, you'll have to hold down the button long enough for GM's lawyers to prove incontrovertibly that you're doing it on purpose.)
When I lean on the suspension, the 1LE starts to show it isn't merely a muscle car tricked out with road-racing bling. It feels, from the first lap, like a sports car that's at home out here. It's confident, composed, and up for anything. Even with street rubber, the Camaro has plenty of stick through Willow's three fast corners, each taken at close to 90 mph. The 1LE-specific front splitter and rear spoiler look subtle, but Camaro engineers say they spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel ensuring these devices actually aid high-speed balance.
This track, which bills itself as "the Fastest Road in the West," is a hospitable circuit for big, powerful, front-engine cars. That said, the 3514-pound Camaro is also surprisingly nimble in the slow stuff. The engine produces enough grunt to generate power-down oversteer almost at will. I'm able to make it around the entire circuit using only third and fourth gears, topping out at 125 mph through Turn 8 and just before the brake zone for Turn 1. The tires eventually get skatey when they overheat toward the end of the session, but the Camaro does exactly what it's asked to do, and I rarely have to make allowances for it being a street car.
I do, admittedly, make allowances for the fact that I have to drive it home. I don't brake as late, corner as hard, or use as much rack as I would during a race. Although I'm not bold enough to follow the Mario Andretti dictum—"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough"—I seldom make it through a race weekend without a few oh-shit moments. During four half-hour sessions at Willow Springs, I didn't experience a single one. That's not to say I didn't have fun.
A track day isn't a race, and the Camaro 1LE isn't a race car; that's what makes each so appealing. When I'm finished at Willow Springs, I don't have to manhandle race boxes into my pickup, load my car onto a trailer, tow it to a storage yard, unpack all my junk, and crawl into bed with skinned knuckles, a sore back, and a bruised ego. I just toss my helmet in the trunk and high-tail it home, enveloped in a heated seat, secure in the knowledge that I'm going to park the Camaro in my driveway and eat dinner at a civilized hour.
The Camaro is too familiar to seem special. Even with its ostentatious paint, the car didn't attract much attention at the track (or on the street either, for that matter). Track drivers who consider sports cars to be playthings, like the Mazda MX-5 Miata, or perennial track-day faves, such as the Subaru WRX, generally don't give the Camaro much thought. They should think again. In V-6 1LE form, the Camaro will hang with these lightweights in the twisties and gobble them up on the straights. The styling may point to the past, but this is a sports car for a modern age.