What looks like a ’69 Camaro Z/28 RS and runs 253 mph in Mojave Mile trim? Big Red, of course; the fastest, full steel body Camaro on the planet.
Words by Cam Benty; Photos by Scott Killeen
The shape is unmistakable — bright red with white stripes, like a classic Z/28. But, the roar of the 555c.i. engine belies the exterior. Sporting the aerodynamics of a brick, this is blunt force trauma. It’s Big Red, or affectionately, just RED!
Whether it’s El Mirage, The Texas Mile, the Mojave Mile, Bonneville, The Silver State Classic, or assorted other competitions and road racing events, RED makes a statement: excessive use of horsepower.
The man responsible for creating the outlaw Camaro is Bill Osborne, who originally brainstormed the car with Chris Kaufmann and Dean Dodge. Osborne, who passed away in 2009, was charged with building the car for Dan and RJ Gottlieb. Today, Team Manager Dave Ward, who has been the caretaker of Dan Gottlieb’s vehicles since 1990, Crew Chief Tim Fleenor, and Mark Ewing (a man of many race car talents), work together as a well-oiled machine to handle RED’s metamorphous from straight line bullet to road race monster. Osborne trained all three men.
Since its inception, RED has gone through an array of modifications, massaging the car like a lump of clay for the racing target at hand. Their success rate is quite impressive.
“I miss Bill a great deal,” Fleenor says regarding Osborne’s passing. “He was a mentor for me, and Dave, as well. I think that 50 percent or more of the stuff I know today, I can credit to Bill. That is especially true of my suspension and handling knowledge. He was a great friend, the best man at my wedding, and an amazing race car builder.”
A constant throughout the 30 years of competition has been driver RJ Gottlieb, who slid behind RED’s wheel when he was only 18. But, that was not his first experience with ultra high-speed vehicles. At 16, JR raced competitively in NHRA Pro Stock competition. By the time he reached 18, he was well experienced to handle RED — and over 200-mph speeds.
JR’s first run in the car at the La Carrera Classica in 1987 was less than remarkable, unfortunately; the learning curve on this one was quite severe. Powered by a 540c.i. engine with more than 800 hp, the car overtaxed the suspension, taking JR off road at 150 mph, inflicting some serious damage, and delivering some valuable lessons to the team.
A year later, running the same engine and driver, but this time sporting a full NASCAR Cup Car chassis, RED set the record at La Carrera and set the stage for future high-speed development.
If there was a high point in RED’s early career, it had to be at the 1988 running of the Silver State Classic in Nevada. This legal street-racing event was staged over a 90-mile section of Nevada highway; the road is blocked one day a year so speed addicts can get their fix. It was this event that launched RED into the public eye. JR’s average speed for the race an amazing 197.99 mph, though he reached estimated straight-line speeds of nearly 220 mph. RED’s brutish badass legacy was born.
Through the years, when RED showed for an event, everyone knew it. After all, when an “outlaw” shows up, folks take notice. RED has always been a square peg in a round hole — never designed for class competition. Instead, RED is a steel-bodied Camaro with tons of power and race suspension underpinnings. RED is an iron fist with no glove. Nothing subtle here.
RED took a rest in the early 1990s. No races or action, just sitting in a museum in Laughlin, Nevada — “hot storage” so to speak. Around 2004, Dave Ward, who is also owner of Precision Welding, asked Fleenor if he would help bring RED back to fighting form. The two worked tirelessly since that time to make the car race ready again. Their success, with the aid of a hand-picked staff of mechanics, painters, and strategists, has been amazing, despite a few setbacks along the way.
So the question comes down to, “Why Pikes Peak?”
“Well, we have taken on just about every other challenge; this one just seemed like a natural,” Fleenor says. “Pikes Peak is very different from the events we have entered in the past. For years, it was half dirt and half paved and really did not fit our plans. But, when they finished paving the entire course in 2012, it became a prime target for our style of racing.”
Continues Fleenor, “It is important to know that this team really works together well. As opposed to the reality show style of conflict you often see in TV these days, we have great respect for each other. When we have an issue, we come together to tackle the problem. We know how to solve just about any challenge that can arise. That’s just how we do stuff and why the video we offer is a documentary rather than a TV show.”
For those unfamiliar with Pikes Peak, the 14,000-foot mountain that provides shade for Colorado Spring, Colorado, serves as the setting for one of the most challenging races of all time and the second oldest race in America. With 1,000-foot sheer drop-offs and no guardrails to keep you from certain death, the Peak is not for those who question their driving talents. With 156 turns covering 12.42 miles, the starting line is 9,390 feet above sea level, the finish at 14,115 feet — breathtaking for both man and machine.
Power for the machine
“For this race, we have swapped out the carburetor in place of a Holley EFI unit, so that it will adjust for the altitude during the competition, along with an Edelbrock Super Victor EFI intake manifold and Victor Series water pump,” states Fleenor. “We also added an oxygen system for the driver made from a two-pound compressed air bottle that is mounted on the transmission tunnel. This ensures that RJ will have a clear head at high altitude.”
The engine, as has been the case since RED began racing, was built by Larry Malaconi of Pomona, California. To keep power up against the altitude challenges, the 555c.i. fuel-injected engine is putting out in excess of 900 hp. With 15:1 compression (at the time of publication), the team was still determining whether to run the engine on E85, as has become customary with many racers running at high attitude. Featuring Brodix aluminum block and heads, the beastly engine is light and extremely reliable.
The clutch is a three-disc Tilton system linked to a four-speed, G-Force NASCAR-style transmission (a three-speed automatic with Rossler overdrive is used for straight line, top-end racing). In previous high-speed events, both components have run perfectly, without a hint of problems. The Ford nine-inch rear end uses 4.30:1 gearing. As has been the case since the beginning of RED’s life, Baer Brakes are used at all four corners.
Baer has worked closely with the team since the beginning. Back in 2005, 14-inch diameter rotors and six-piston calipers were installed on RED, the first application of this braking system. Baer’s original design six-piston calipers were used up until 2016, testament to the durability of this brake package. New Baer six-piston calipers were installed last year (a design upgrade).
BBS wheels and Hoosier tires will be used at Pikes Peak, either the soft A compound or harder R compound, depending on track condition and ambient temps. If the weather is bad, the team carries a tire “groover” and will cut treads in the tires, if needed, right there at the track.
“We have a full assortment of different rear ends for the various events we run,” says Mark Ewing, RED’s mechanic/truck driver/comedic color commentator. “We have three rear ends in all, most of them running the 4.30:1 gearing. Each rear end features unique upgrades designed specifically for the application.”
To prepare for the event, Fleenor and Ward visited Pikes Peak several times to study the course, the tech procedure, and the competition — a simple R & D mission. Most helpful was what they learned about dealing with extreme high altitude racing challenges. First, they determined they needed to rethink the cooling system, which in the past had really worked just fine. But, in light of what they noticed at the event, they added a mist system that will spray water on the radiator as triggered by the computer relative to engine demands and altitude. To hold the water, they took a dry sump tank, removed the guts, and created a four-gallon reservoir just for this purpose.
“We also changed the chassis, making it a little softer and compliant due to the bumps we know are present in the course,” says Fleenor. “Aside from the fact that this car uses shorter A-arms than a NASCAR suspension to keep the tires inside the Camaro bodywork, this is a competition-style racing suspension. We use Penske shocks at all four corners, adjusting the spring rates and swapping the bar sizing. The goal is to get more vertical grip.”
“The original 540c.i. engine that was used to set the record at the Silver State Classic is affectionately called ‘Peanut,’ despite its massive power output,” Fleenor says. “We give all the engines names. The two 555c.i. engines were nicknamed, one called ‘Toast,’ due to the fire it experienced, and the other one was called ‘Where are you’ — linked to the TV show Car 54, Where Are You?”
In addition to these power plants, other engines have sported nicknames like “The Elephant” and “The Monster.” These two 598c.i. engines were equipped with superchargers and ran the Mojave Mile events, generating up to 1,900 hp, dependent on boost level. Both of those engines have been de-stroked, making all RED engines displace 555c.i., with the exception of the original 540c.i. engine. Two of these 555c.i. engines will be supercharged, two will not.
For a full listing of all of the engines, complete with detailed descriptions and sound clips, go to: bigredcamaro.com for some solid entertainment.
“Our objective is to make a really strong run, keep everyone safe, and be able to tell everyone at the end that we have raced Big Red at Pikes Peak,” Fleenor says of the final race prep. “We don’t fit any of their classes, as I mentioned before, but we can make a statement to our efforts to run strong and add to the ever-expanding history of Big Red. I am incredibly excited to see what we can do at Pikes Peak.”
By Jeff Smith
There ought to be a Big Red postage stamp. Why not? Elvis has one, so does Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, and Lydia Mendoza (who?). So, why not Big Red?
How does a Camaro burn up the road to becoming a cultural icon? The answer appears simple enough. Thousands of big-block Camaros have made their splash and just as quickly vanished into obscurity. One remains. But forget Camaros, no other car has attempted to summit as many different performance pinnacles as Big Red.
In the early days of racing, cars were not specialized. They had to do it all. In Zora Arkus-Duntov’s biography, author Jerry Burton describes how Zora drove a retired 1922 racer on the streets of Berlin as his first car. Times have changed and racecars have become ridiculously specialized. Then, Dan and RJ Gottlieb decided to change the rules.
In 2011, the team bolted a license plate and turn signals on Big Red in order to compete in the Spectre 341 Challenge. Since the car had to drive down the hill on state roads, it had to be street legal with all lights functioning to pass tech. The Challenge lives up to its name as a daunting hill climb, an abbreviated version of Pikes Peak, if you will. While not as famous, it is no less intimidating. Having personal experience racing there, it’s a silver mountain racetrack without guardrails where you can’t afford to make a mistake.
But, the 341 Challenge was just one of several venues that read like a racer’s bucket list of avant-garde races that are purely participant driven. Big Red has taken on the LaCarrera Classic in Mexico, the Silver State open road race in Nevada, V.A.R.A.’s Big Bore Bash at Willow Springs Raceway, the dirt of SCTA’s El Mirage dry lake adventure, and, of course, Bonneville’s corrosive brine. Who does that?
With R. J. behind the wheel, Big Red has muscled its way into the record books with a combination of boyish charm and brute horsepower. There are people who will tell you that ’69 Camaros have no business running 220-plus mph — like the bumble bee that flies despite its handicaps. But, perhaps a better way to look at this comes straight out of wretched excess. Throw enough horsepower at a brick, and you can make it fly. That’s one thing Big Red brings to the table: an overindulgence of horsepower with a couple of Elvis’ pelvic thrusts thrown in for good measure.
At least to car people, an emphasis on horsepower is one path to everlasting automotive status. But Big Red transcends that simplistic view. RJ and his team have taken their share of risks and not always been successful. That’s what makes them real and separates their adventures from the crushingly boring meanderings of reality world television wannabes. The TV people create a fictitious deadline, fabricate drama, and then “succeed” after the obligatory carburetor backfire. Big Red takes on the world and is unapologetic with its performance, whether they meet their stated goals or go up in flames. That’s automotive reality — taking on trials that no one else would dare to contest while sitting behind the wheel of near 50-year-old sheet metal.
I’d buy a whole sheet of Big Red stamps.