Car companies can go on about their “heritage”. Though we know it’s at least partly hype, some of that heritage is verifiable history and as car enthusiasts it can tug at our automotive heartstrings. Still, it’s very easy to get cynical when you see how casually companies can be with history when it comes to promoting their products.
Chevy has announced that a stock ZL1 Camaro has joined the “11 second club”, with a quarter-mile run of 11.96 seconds and a trap speed of 117 MPH. That’s with stock Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 tires. You’ll have to consider that NHRA sanctioned tracks require a substantial roll cage for sub 11.5 sec runs if you’re thinking of running the ZL1 with drag radials. If you do, the ZL1’s already been modified to accept today’s large rims fitted with drag radials, which have a taller sidewall than the G-2s do. Though the new ZL1’s suspension has also been engineered to make it a credible track car with handling tuned for road courses, lapping VIR in under 3 minutes, the ZL1’s muscle car era namesake was a factory built drag racer with a racing all aluminum big block engine. Chevy knows that some new ZL1 owners will be more concerned with ETs and reaction times than with g forces and how well the car can cope with Laguna’s Corkscrew, so attention was made to the car’s drag strip capabilities. The contemporary ZL1’s dual personality shows up in marketing as well, with Chevy currently running two ZL1 commercials, one about the car’s cornering abilities on the track and one about developing the ZL1’s launch control for the strip.
Part of that development, it turns out, was using something Chevy engineers tabbed the “Woodward Avenue Schedule”. The testing schedule was named after the Detroit area’s famous cruising strip that hosted legendary speed competitions back when factory massaged street racers like the Mopar “Silver Bullet” or one of Jim Wanger’s GTO buff book test ringers ruled Woodward.
To test the chassis and suspension components to ensure they were up to repeated hard-start launches typical at the drag strip, engineers subjected the ZL1 to the grueling “Woodward Avenue Schedule” at the GM Milford Proving Ground.
Named for the famous cruising route that cuts north through Detroit’s suburbs and has been the venue for untold thousands of unofficial launch capability demonstrations since the 1960s, each test cycle is a hard-launch, standing-start drag race up to 100 mph. The ZL1 was subjected to 1,000 test cycles before its driveline was stamped “approved”.
“The Woodward Avenue Schedule was a really brutal test, but it told us the Camaro ZL1 would live up to the way we knew our customers would drive it on the track.”
I’m okay with appealing to hot rodder’s sense of history and I’m an unashamed Detroit booster, so I have nothing against naming their test schedule for Woodward. The implicit reference to street racing also shows that a hint of the outlaw mentality that bred the Silver Bullet and it’s competitors may still be alive at the major automakers. The problem is that the “Woodward Avenue Schedule” is historically inaccurate. While street racing in most of America usually has involved a “hard-launch, standing-start drag race” using a traffic light or an arm-drop to replace a drag strip’s “Christmas tree” lights, Woodward’s contribution to street racing culture back in the day wasn’t the standing-start – it was the rolling start.
Robert Genet, in his book Woodward Avenue: Cruising the Legendary Strip, points out that most of the hard racing on Woodward took place in Oakland County, north of Maple, where Woodward gets less congested and police patrols were (and are) less frequent. With Woodward’s synchronized traffic lights, you could be assured of a number of opportunities to race against the same opponent. The racing on North Woodward was so serious that some wag had decals made up that said North Woodward Timing Association which looked a lot like the NHRA logo, only instead of silhouettes of a dragster rail and a hot rod, the NWTA stickers had images of a police car chasing, oddly enough, a Studebaker Avanti. Actually, not that oddly because an Avanti with the factory supercharged R3 engine set a record for production car speed in the early 1960s.
Another point that Genet stresses is that unlike in other parts of the country or even elsewhere in the Detroit area (as on Gratiot on the east side) where street racers used a standing start, either with an arm drop or a green light, racing on Woodward meant a rolling start. That was easier on the cars’ drivetrains. Remember, while California hot rodders preferred old roadsters, bucket Model Ts and 1930s Fords, in the early day Detroit’s contribution to ’60s car culture, the muscle car, was usually some kind of hardtop sedan with a big motor. Also, street racing is usually a pursuit of the young, and let’s face it, most kids who drive are driving Mom or Dad’s car. If you’re going to race your their family’s car you don’t want to tell Dad that you broke an axle on Mom’s station wagon. Those wagons and sedans could be fast, Dad may have ordered the big V8 and a quad carb or two, but getting that mass moving could be hard on the drivetrain, so Woodward racers did it with rolling starts. At a red light, two drivers would agree to drag race and then negotiate a 30 mph roll, a 40 mph roll etc. They’d get to the agreed speed, someone would yell go, and the race would be on. They’d stop at the next light, and start all over.
Last summer, a couple of days before the Woodward Dream Cruise, I saw something that reminded me of how Genet described street racing and cruising on north Woodward. It was a beautiful summer night and I had just dropped my mom off at my aunt’s house because the two of them were leaving for a family wedding early in the morning. My aunt lives up in Bloomfield Hills and the shortest route meant taking Woodward.
I dropped my mom off. While driving south on Woodward, I could hear some serious exhaust notes up ahead of me. When I got closer I could see that the two cars were a heavily tuned Acura Integra, with a fartcan exhaust and gauges up and down the A-pillar, and a mid ’60s Ford Fairlane with some serious rubber, maybe 10″ slicks, in the back. They were about a hundred feet in front of me, one in the lane to my right, the other in the lane to my left and as we all drove south they kept surging forward, first one, then the other, as if they were saying “You wanna go? You wanna go?” After reading Genet’s account of rolling starts along the same general stretch of Woodward, I had to laugh about it. There were no Acuras when that Fairlane first prowled north Woodward looking for a race but the more things change…
So it’s cool that Chevy is paying tribute to Woodward, but back in the day, if Detroit area street racers wanted to subject their cars to standing-start drag races, they’d either head east to Gratiot or south to Motor City Dragway at Sibley & Dix.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS