This race-ready, LS1-powered,...
This race-ready, LS1-powered, electronically controlled, fuel-injected Camaro cost John Rippamonti less than $2,000 to get on the track.
There is a brewing problem in the Street Stock ranks in the great state of Texas-and, in actuality, the problem is not just reserved to Texas. It's a phenomenon that is occurring all over the country with some geographic regions getting hit harder than others. It's simply a supply issue.
From 1978 through late 1987 (really the 1988 model year) General Motors produced cars on the G-body platform. For a decade, Chevy's Monte Carlo, the Buick Regal, Pontiac's Grand Prix, and the Oldsmobile Cutlass slid through the doors of dealer showrooms. As time marched on and these cars completed their daily transportation services many were relegated to spend their remaining days rusting away in junkyards.
With low cost and plenty of availability, oval track racers quickly recognized the G-body cars, also known as the metric chassis, to be excellent platforms for Street Stock/Hobby Stock racing. For years, these cars terrorized both pavement and dirt ovals around the country. But more than two decades of racing has tapped out the supply of these cars and the metric chassis-and the 350 Chevy engine has become more rare than a sold-out NASCAR race these days.
GM's LS1 came in two configurations,...
GM's LS1 came in two configurations, a 4.8-liter truck engine, which is what you see here, and a larger 5.3-liter version.
"Go try to find a metric chassis or a 350 Chevy in a junkyard around here," says Dan Hamilton of Tyler, Texas-based Day Motorsports. "You can't. [The] cars that do exist are getting hauled outta here on carriers to sell in Mexico as basic transportation. It's a real problem because racers simply can't find these cars or motors anymore."
So what is the aspiring Street Stock guy to do?
The answer could very well be found in a little town two hours southeast of San Antonio named Victoria. A trio of local, self-described drag racers/road racers-John Rippamonti, Kurt Decker, and Patrick Guerra-deal a lot with LS-style engines in performance cars and trucks for both street and strip applications in Decker and Guerra's shop, LSX Performance Dyno Tuning.
They were having a little bench racing session one day when they asked themselves, "What would it be like if we put one of these LS motors in a dirt track car?" Since LSX Performance is a specialist in tuning GM's series of LS engines (LS1, LS2, LS3, LS6, and LS7), sourcing and adapting the motor would be a no-brainer, almost.
In order to use the stock...
In order to use the stock passenger-side manifold, they would have had to notch the frame. The solution was to turn a second driver-side manifold upside down and run the exhaust up, over, and down where the A/C unit would have been. You can clearly see it in the top lefthand corner of this picture.
Fortunately, Rippamonti had already bought a '78 Camaro from an acquaintance. "The car was pretty much a wreck, there was not much to it. There was no motor, no transmission nothing like that." That Camaro became the foundation for their experiment.
They outlined a couple of requirements, the first and most important was that they would try to build a future generation Street Stock on a budget. "The idea was to make a cheap, competitive car that is an alternative to what we have now," explained Rippamonti. "The Street Stock class is supposed to be a cheap, entry-level form of racing; cheaper than a Late Model or a Modified. That's what we were going for: Keep it cheap, keep it competitive, keep it fun."
After refining the plan for the technical side of the car, they knew they had to have a place to race it when they were done. So, they went to their local track owner, Jim Scribellito of Shady Oaks Speedway in Goliad, Texas.
Scribellito was receptive and said that it sounded like a decent idea. "He asked us if we wanted to race for points and purse, and we said no we're not worried about that," said Rippamonti. It was agreed upon that the car would run as a specialty entry with the track's Street Stock division.
From this angle you can see...
From this angle you can see the serpentine pulley system typical on the LS1.
Rippamonti swapped in valvesprings...
Rippamonti swapped in valvesprings from a blown 5.3-liter engine to bump the rpms up a little bit.
The LS1 uses a stock truck...
The LS1 uses a stock truck intake with a massive conical filter element attached to it.
The LS1 Camaro uses a bone...
The LS1 Camaro uses a bone stock 4L60E automatic transmission that has been computer tuned to shift into Second gear, and stay there, when the car reaches 12 mph.
Work began on the car and one of the first areas the group addressed was safety. One argument against electronic fuel injection that is often brought up is the fact that in the event of an accident, the motor will keep pumping fuel because of the electric fuel pump. In a properly designed engine, this is a fallacy and Rippamonti and his crew designed it properly.
The car's fuel system has a rollover switch, which shuts off the fuel flow in the event the car gets upside down. It also has an inertia switch, which will cut the fuel flow based on a pre-determined g-force in the event of a hard impact. Many of these switches can be adjusted to a setting that suits the particular application.
Finally, there is a fuel cutoff switch that is linked to the engine's oil pressure. In the event that the oil pressure drops below a certain psi, the switch will cut the fuel to the engine, shutting the whole thing off. This is not only an excellent safety measure but it can save vital internal engine components and prevent a blown motor. Apart from those three switches, the car has all the standard safety equipment you'd come to expect-a full 'cage, a racing seat, a fuel cell, and so on.
Here, you can see part of...
Here, you can see part of the wiring harness. It's a stock unit that was gutted down to the bare bones. Only those wires needed to make the engine and transmission run were kept.
Using an LS1 in a dirt Street Stock is actually a pretty logical step, if you can get your local track to approve it, which these guys did for one simple reason: cost.
"We were trying to make something as inexpensive as possible, a cheap alternative to something that is becoming harder and harder to find-the small-block Chevrolet," said Rippamonti. "We've got less than $2,000 in the whole car; that's the car, safety equipment, the motor, and the transmission."
A race-ready Street Stock for less than $2,000? Awesome.
As we mentioned, the car sits on a '78 Camaro chassis. It has Performance Bodies skins, but the bumper and the hood are straight off of an '02 Camaro. "It looks interesting to say the least," jokes Rippamonti.
Rippamonti kept the stock...
Rippamonti kept the stock instrument cluster. The only thing that doesn't work is the fuel gauge. Racers who have driven the car reportedly got a kick out of looking at the speedometer as they made laps.
The engine is the 4.8-liter LS1 that found its way into many a GM truck throughout the '90s. At 293 cubic inches the guys are giving up a lot of cubes, 57 to be exact, to racers running the 350 Chevy, but this exercise was about more than just making raw power. The boys mated that LS1 to a 4L60E automatic transmission with overdrive and a stock converter! Rippamonti proudly reports that they picked up the motor and the transmission for $200.
To get everything running, they basically gutted a stock LS1 wiring harness to the bare bones. If they didn't need it to run the engine and trans, they didn't keep it. With the engine running, they began the tweaking process. "We robbed some valvesprings off of a 5.3-liter LS1 motor that was blown up just so we could get the rpms up a little bit," says Rippamonti. Then they set the rev limiter at 7,000 rpm.
Early testing revealed that the engine would run hot, but after a little investigating the team found that water in the water pump would cavitate above 5,500 rpm. Their solution was to put a 25-percent underdrive pulley on the engine. The underdrive pulley essentially moves the pump slower than the motor, down in the range of 5,200 rpm so that the water in the pump would behave and flow smoothly, thus eliminating the overheating issue. With the addition of the underdrive pulley at $200, they doubled the cost of their engine, but $400 for a little Saturday night power is still a bargain.
Now that's a beefy Street...
Now that's a beefy Street Stock bumper. When we saw this all we could think is these Texans must be serious Seinfeld fans.
Rippamonti says that in his area of the country, you can even source the bigger, more powerful stock 5.3-liter LS1 for about $350. While you will need a new flywheel and a small adapter kit, you could bolt up pretty much any transmission and you're off to the races. "You can't find a Chevy 350 for that...at least I can't," he says.
It turned out that the biggest challenge of all was tuning the automatic transmission to behave in an oval track environment. Using the dyno at Performance LSX and a program called EFI Live, they tuned the trans so that it wouldn't shift. "We just stick it in Drive and once it shifts into Second at 12 mph, it won't come out of Second gear. It'll never come out of Second gear," explained Rippamonti.
Tuning it on the dyno was a necessity to ensure that they would not have any issues with the trans down shifting or doing something crazy while the car was on the track. Rippamonti reports that it has worked out great.
An inertia switch and a rollover...
An inertia switch and a rollover switch will activate and shut off the fuel flow in the event of a serious accident.
Surprisingly, fitting an LS1 motor and automatic trans into a '78 chassis presented just a couple of challenges. First off they had to fabricate motor mounts. Beyond that, the only other change they had to make was using two driver-side exhaust manifolds on the motor. In order to use the stock passenger-side manifold, they would have had to notch the frame. Their solution was to turn a second driver-side manifold upside down and run the exhaust up, over, and down where the A/C unit would have been.
"We thought it looked pretty cool," Rippamonti said.
The team also swapped in a Corvette oil pan. It's a shallower pan that has kick outs on both sides plus a built-in baffle and windage tray, all that good stuff you'd find in a race pan, but out of a junked Vette means it was a fraction of the cost. It's not a necessity but the boys decided to do it anyway.
They did decide to leave the stock truck intake manifold on the motor. They could have chosen the Camaro-style intake from a 5.3-liter, which would have netted more horsepower at the expense of torque, but Rippamonti knows that torque is the all important number in oval track racing, so they decided that the torque loss wasn't worth the horsepower gain, and left the truck intake on, even though it eats up some hood clearance.
On to the Track
The hood is reminiscent of...
The hood is reminiscent of the NASCAR stockers of the '60s, when teams painted sponsor or cubic inches horizontally on the car. It's also not hard to guess where these guys went to school.
Since the car was a completely different animal than his would-be competitors had ever seen before, Rippamonti went to the front-runners to explain the project and offer testdrives to anybody who wanted one.
While he was initially met with skepticism, that would soon change. "I told them that this thing was really, really stock. They asked what kind of power it made and since it was tuned on the dyno at LSX I could show them the numbers-275 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. That's nothing; these guys are making close to 300 hp and 300 torque.
"I went on to tell them that the only advantage is that my torque curve carries a lot further than theirs. If we were running in a straight line, by the time we got to the 1/2-mile mark, I'd suck you up and leave you in the dust. But we're not running in a straight line. Shady Oaks is a 3/8-mile oval. Unless I take a high line, there's no way I can keep up with them. Ultimately, it came down to them saying so long as you don't rub my car I don't care."
Dynos don't lie, the LS1 Camaro...
Dynos don't lie, the LS1 Camaro made 275 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. Note the nice flat torque curve.
But something funny happened after Rippamonti's peers let the LS1 Camaro slide onto the starting grid. "Once we got it out there and ran it a couple of times, and showed the guys what it was about, a couple of the front runners came up to me and said, 'If anything ever happens to [my] car, do you think I can get some seat time in that?'
"I said, 'Sure, go ahead. I'm not racing for points or purse.' We just want to go out there and have fun and prove a concept. If anybody who has any type of driving experience whatsoever wants to take it around the track, I tell them feel free. That's what we want to do, expose more people to a newer style of engine because like I said, 350s are getting harder and harder to find and they are getting more and more expensive."
Rippamonti, his team, and even track owner Scribellito are of the opinion (correctly so) that most of the kids who come to the track these days don't recognize an old Buick Regal or a Monte Carlo. The newer look of the LS1 Street Stock is one thing that attracted Scribellito to the project. "He thought that this was a newer-style car that kids could identify with and look out there and say, 'Hey, that's a Camaro,'" says Rippamonti.
"In fact, last time we were out, I had a buddy of mine who blew his engine in an old Camaro. I asked him to drive the car for me, feel it out, and give us an opinion on our setup. So, afterwards two kids came over from the spectator side-we open the pits after the races-and these kids came over to the pits with two Frisbees that were thrown out prior to the race. They wanted my buddy's autograph simply because they recognized the car, which I thought was pretty cool."
Why It Makes Sense
The LS1 Camaro sits at Shady...
The LS1 Camaro sits at Shady Oaks Speedway in Goliad, Texas, ready for action.
Knowing that the spectator side is (or should be) how any given track makes money, the theory behind the LS1 Camaro is that the more kids who can identify with cars on the track, the more they are going to want to see them run. They'll go to their friends in school or the neighborhood and talk about what they saw last Saturday night. Your fans become a marketing mechanism for the track.
Right now the Camaro runs about middle of the pack. Shady Oaks' Street Stock class has between 20 to 25 cars, and is reportedly a strong class for the track. Rippamonti reports that there are about five to seven racers who routinely compete for the top three positions on any given race night. Still, running in the middle of the pack with a motor that is handicapped by 25-plus-hp and even more torque for less than $2,000 is an impressive accomplishment.
A final point that Rippamonti made was that the costing of cheating up an LS series motor is going to hit the pocketbook pretty hard. Theoretically that makes it a natural deterrent. "A cam, pushrods, and springs for this motor will run upwards of $700," he says. "An intake is $1,000; anything you do to it is very costly compared with what you payed for the motor, which is good. The idea is we're trying to keep costs down and keep everybody as close to legally stock as possible."
LS1's are cheap, they're plentiful, and they can be used as a basis for an entry-level division. So far, Rippamonti says that it has worked out pretty well. "We're not going out there looking to blow the competition away. That wasn't our goal. Our goal was to be inexpensive and at least be competitive and I think we've pretty well achieved that."