The Legendary Big Red Camaro – The Whole Story

Big Red is a name that brings respect and awe from muscle car fans of every generation, and one that has struck fear in those exotic tuner types for the last twenty plus years. Covered and praised by practically every muscle car, Chevy, pro-touring and hot rod magazine in the country, Big Red is the epitome of a legend- boisterous, unruly and straight up bad right down to the very bolts that hold it together.

The original Big Red had both the body and chassis of a stock '69 Camaro. This changed for Big Red's rebuild. Images: Big Red Facebook Page

In honor of this legendary ‘69 Camaro, filmmaker and long time fan, Josh Oliver, has created a documentary following Big Red’s story as the legend embraces another chapter of its life. But before the film is released later this year, we wanted to go back to where the legend of Big Red began, recap it for those of you who have watched the famous red Camaro slaughter its competition since the 80s, and bring to light the legend that is Big Red. For any of you who’ve been lacking on your automotive history lessons, this is Big Red’s story.

The Legend Begins

The legend of Big Red started back in 1987 when Dan Gottlieb and his son RJ set out to create the baddest muscle car alive; one that would beat any road-worthy production car in existence. According to RJ, the project wasn’t just about creating an extraordinary car. It was also about him and his father getting into racing together. With those goals in mind, a red ‘69 Camaro Z/28 with production chassis, rollcage and 540ci big-block built by the late John Lingenfelter was born.

The original Big Red is seen here prepping for an event. While Big Red has been rebuilt since, it still resembles much of what the original looked like.

“The ‘69 Camaro was always my favorite American muscle car,” RJ Gottlieb told us in a recent phone interview. “So that’s why we picked that model.”

The car very quickly made a name for itself in flat-out open road racing, hitting speeds upwards of 200mph in its day and being the car to beat. However, Big Red’s life was short lived.

In early 1988, at the car’s La Carrera Road Race debut in Ensenada, Mexico, Big Red had a nasty accident with RJ driving.

After starting third in the race, Big Red quickly caught up to the first and second place vehicles, which each started a minute apart to prevent any kind of accidents caused by passing on the course. Eventually, the slower motorcycles, which also started a half hour before the car race began, came into Big Red’s grasp.

The End Of An Era?

Unfortunately, the stock Camaro chassis couldn’t handle the high speeds Big Red was reaching, and less than desirable handling qualities of the car made things even more difficult while maintaining blistering race speeds. Holding onto the lead at over 140mph, something went wrong and the car swerved off the road and crashed, ending in a heap of twisted metal.

The damage obtained by Big Red in the 1988 accident was tragic, but both RJ Gottlieb and Chris Kaufmann were lucky enough to walk away unscathed.

While RJ and copilot Chris Kaufmann walked away from the accident, Big Red was mostly  totaled, with only the engine and rearend able to be salvaged. However, the Gottliebs’ big dreams and  know-how persevered, and before the pair were home, they had already located the body of another ‘69 Camaro to rebuild the potent racer.

The second build of Big Red used a sturdier stock car tube chassis rather than a stock Camaro chassis.

Big Red Part Duex

The second Big Red Camaro was put together immediately by Bill Osborne, receiving a full stock car tube chassis this time. Lessons from the La Carerra race made it clear that dropping race parts into a stock ‘69 Camaro would not make for a reliable race car.

So a full race setup clothed in a ‘69 Camaro body, complete with a glass windshield, dashboard and working windows, was decided upon. It is this detail that has also become a defining characteristic in Big Red’s history.

“That’s the magic of the car,” RJ said about making Big Red look as much like a factory Camaro as possible. “It’s a car they [enthusiasts] own, a car they’ve worked on, a car they are working on. It captures the middle ground.” While it was imperative that the Camaro maintain a factory look the car also had to be reliable at speeds in excess of 200mph for long stretches of time. That’s where the full race digs came in.

Big Red 2 made its glorious return to racing just months after the accident, showing race enthusiasts what the rebuilt car could do with three consecutive wins at the La Carrera Road Race.

In addition to the tube chassis, Big Red was fitted with its original all-aluminum, dry-sump 540ci Donavan engine that was overhauled by Larry Mollicone. Dyno tests of this engine showed 800hp and 750ft-lbs of torque were capable of being produced without the need of any forced induction. Big Red also received Koni coilovers and shocks, a 9-inch Detroit Locker rearend, fuel cell, Jerrico four-speed transmission and twin-caliper vented disc brakes. With a few tweaks along the way, the second Big Red Camaro went on to make history.

At the next La Carrera Road Race, Big Red took the win, as well as at the two that followed in 1989. The legendary red Camaro also proved to be the talk of the town at the second Silver State Classic Challenge in 1989.

On a 94-mile stretch of highway running between Lund and Hiko, Nevada, Big Red caused a stir that year. With a 27-minute 54-second race time, an average speed of 197.99mph and a top speed of 222mph, Big Red blew even its exotic-born competition out of the water. At just 19 years old, RJ Gottlieb set the record for Silver State that competitors still try to top today. The following year, Big Red took the title at the Silver State Classic again, this time averaging 189.9mph with a top speed of 208mph due to intake valve issues.

“The car is more well known than I am, and I’m ok with that- I don’t mind. I wasn’t looking to make a name for myself in racing, it was just something that I was passionate about – RJ Gottlieb”

By this time, many American magazines had taken notice of Big Red. After the La Carrera race turned into a road rally in 1990, Road & Track invited Big Red to compete in their top-speed challenge at the Nissan test track.

Paired up against highly modified production cars like a big-block Iroc-Z, boosted 20th Anniversary Trans Am, 308 twin-turbo Testarossa and an AC Cobra, Big Red did what it does best, slaughtering the competition with a 203mph trap speed. The other competitors of the day didn’t stand a chance, with none of them even breaking the 200mph mark.

In 1990, Big Red blew away its competition at the Road & Track top-speed challenge. Big Red posted up an amazing 203mph top speed.

Big Red was officially a legend and everyone could recognize it. “We were really surprised at where the car took us, and how many people recognized it,” RJ said. Large displacement, big brake, wide tire-wielding copycats started showing up left and right and the pro-touring movement began.

Unfortunately, Big Red didn’t get to enjoy the movement it had started for very long. After RJ got more involved in Super Production racing, Big Red was sent to the Laughlin, Nevada car museum in 1996, where it sat on display for eight years.

However, in 2004, the Gottliebs decided it was time for Big Red to shine again and they started a full rebuild of the car. With a fresh new red and white paint job from Mike Face Auto Paint, Big Red was ready to take on another generation of hot rods, supercars and pro-touring beasts.

Packing A Punch

Since its second rebirth, Big Red has seen many engine and suspension upgrades, ultimately equipping the car with upwards of 1,000hp for some races. While Big Red still sports its reworked 540ci Donovan “Peanut Motor,” capable of producing around 850hp and 720ft-lbs of torque, under the stock-looking 2-inch fiberglass hood for events like the Spectre Highway 341 Challenge, the legendary Camaro also comes packing heat with two different 598ci big-blocks for specific events.

For eight years, Big Red sat in a museum but no amount of time could make anyone forget about this legendary Camaro.

The car’s single-quad, 598ci “Bullet Motor,” producing around 975hp and 810ft-lbs of torque, fits under a 6-inch cowl hood for events like the Silver State Challenge, while the more potent dual-quad 598ci “Monster Motor,” capable of producing around 1,050hp and 875ft-lbs of torque, is reserved for flying-mile competitions.

In full dress, Big Red sports the Monster Motor-a Brodix-based 598ci engine complete with Big Duke 11 heads, Carillo rods, a dual-quad intake with two 850cfm Brasswell carburetors, and a COMP Roller Camshaft.

Inside, the block was stuffed with 13.5:1 pistons, a billet crankshaft, MSD crank trigger, and a dry-sump oiling system complete with a Dan Olsen pan and an SCP pump. With components like this, Big Red is equipped for even the toughest abuse. While spitting out 1,050hp is jaw-dropping, the Monster Motor also has an optional 150hp shot of nitrous hooked up to it.

Big Red now makes use of three different engines, depending on what type of competition RJ is driving in.

“It’s about classic American muscle competing against modern technology – RJ Gottlieb”

With this engaged, the Monster produces upwards of 1,300hp and 1,050ft-lbs of torque. This amount of power is supported by a Fuel Safe fuel cell with two Aeromotive fuel pumps delivering VP Racing Fuel’s Q-16 fuel at the tune of 2.5 to 3mpg.

The dual quad engine is backed by a Liberty Road Race style four-speed transmission with long shifter, a McLeod 10.5-inch twin-disc clutch and hydraulic throw-out bearing. Because of the high horsepower potential, a Lakewood scatter shield is used to insure RJ and the rest of the car’s safety in case of transmission failure.

Also, six and four-piston Baer calipers are used in the front and rear respectively, and 14-inch rotors used all the way around for adequate stopping power. For the suspension, Big Red currently sports QA1 double-adjustable coilover shocks with 800-pound springs in the front, as well as SCP lower and upper control arms, a Speedway Engineering tubular swaybar, SCP spindles, aluminum hubs and Stilleto Rack & Pinion steering.

Here, Big Red goes through its extensive checklist before any competition.

In the rear, Big Red also sports QA1 double-adjustable coilovers but with 275-pound springs and a Panard bar-backed three-link suspension system.

A Ford 9-inch floater 31 spline spool rearend and a custom 2:64 ring and pinion setup make sure that every pony possible is directed toward Big Red’s 18-inch BBS Racing 5 on 5 bolt wheels wrapped in Hoosier rubber. While RJ is the only person who really knows what it’s like to drive Big Red, he gave us some insight on what it’s like to be behind the wheel of the legendary car.

“Big Red has more power than most race cars, and as much power as most dragsters,” RJ told us. “It has way too much power, way too much torque and we try to make it handle as best as possible. It’s a balance of getting good times and also not trying to drive off a cliff. At any movement, if you give the car too much gas, you’ll be in a spin.”

Since 2004, RJ and Big Red have competed in many big-name races, such as the Mojave Mile, Texas Mile, Vintage Auto’s Big Bore Bash, Spectre Challenge and of course, the Silver Spring Classic Challenge. At every event, Big Red continues to be the car to beat. To prove it, Big Red recently laid down a speed of 218.3mph at the May 2012 Mojave Mile. There is just no limit to what the legendary Camaro is capable of.

Future Plans

In the future, RJ hopes to continue racing at events he’s already competed in but also take the car to Bonneville and maybe even start a weekend warrior event based around Big Red. Of all the races RJ and Big Red have entered, RJ told us his favorites are the long, flat out road race competitions.

In addition to its racing, Big Red has also seen some Hollywood action since its rebirth, appearing in the fourth film of the Fast and the Furious franchise in 2009.

Since no remakes of the Camaro were made for the movie, Big Red’s stunt and speed use was limited but the car did act as the “voice” for many of the feature film cars. You can find Big Red in the movie at minute marker 34:47, the beginning of the driver tryouts, and at minute marker 45:28, parked at character Dwight’s apartment during the fake meth raid.

From a goal of turning a stock ‘69 Camaro into a supercar-eating beast back in 1987, to an amazing automotive legend and the ultimate Camaro race car today, Big Red has paved the way for so many in the automotive world.

Be sure to keep an eye out for Oliver’s in-depth documentary on Big Red coming later this year to get a glimpse at the legendary car like you’ve never seen before, including exclusive shop footage, interviews with Team Big Red crew members and unique racing footage. If you’re like us and can’t stand the wait, you can also subscribe to the Big Red Camaro YouTube channel for special sneak peaks of all the footage Oliver and his crew have captured over the last 18 months.

About the author

Lindsey Fisher

Lindsey is a freelance writer and lover of anything with a rumble. Hot rods, muscle cars, motorcycles - she's owned and driven it all. When she's not busy writing about them, she's out in her garage wrenching away. Who doesn't love a tech-savy gal that knows her way around a garage?
Read My Articles

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