Horsepower 101

This month’s Race profile takes a look at a basic Nova drag car — the kind of understated monster that stands out to car crazies like us, bright as a neon sign, even from 100 paces. And at the same time, it’s the kind of car everyday people tend to ignore. It just goes to show that despite how big the car world seems to be, it’s still in fact a subculture — albeit a pretty cool one.

I couldn’t resist writing about that Nova, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t in Houston when it sold, or else it might be in my driveway right now. After all, the right car — the one that pushes all our buttons — can cause us to ignore logic, budgets and even our spouses. That car would have done all of the above for me. So it would likely be mine, and I’d likely be sleeping in it right about now. That’s a count-your-blessings moment — race seats aren’t that comfortable.

Fire it up

When I was 16 years old, an older kid in my neighborhood had a similar drag car to the one featured on p. 62. His name was Luke, and his dad owned the gas station just a few blocks from my house. Luke pumped gas in the shadow of his orange 1967 Chevelle 300 post. The car had the same purposeful stance as our subject Nova. It was a legit racer — 327 with dual Edelbrocks, shoe-polish numbers, slicks, and header-mounted glasspacks that echoed off the trees as he tore off to the high school drags on Wednesday afternoons. The thing was a flash of color and sound. In my world, a kid with a car like that was rare. Luke and his Chevelle were the coolest.

I remember taking my project Caprice to that station for its first fill-up. It was still missing its hood, so my shaking, cammed big block was hanging out in the open like a car-guy beacon. For weeks, every fuel stop had Luke strolling past all the Hondas and Toyotas waiting for fuel to talk cars with me, and to try to talk me into coming out to the track to see if my big block could beat his dual-quad Chevelle.

After about a month, I finally did, and I was blown away by just how many cars came to play, and how many young people were racing.

My world up to that moment was populated almost exclusively by kids in cheap, safe commuter cars. I was sure that the car world I knew from movies didn’t really exist anymore for people my age, and yet here it was — car culture at full tilt, hiding just under the surface of everyday life. And a bright orange Chevelle on slicks led me to it.

I remember racing being a lot tougher than it looked, and funnily enough, I can’t remember who won that race between Luke and me.

Flexing the new muscle

In the years since, car subculture has changed drastically. I got a really good taste of just how much it has this past week.

This month’s ACC test car was a brand-new 2016 Chevrolet Camaro SS. I was hot to get my hands on it, as I used to have a 2001 SS in the same shade of eye-searing red, and I have not been behind the wheel of a new-gen version since the last SS tester came to us back in 2010.

The new car came equipped with a torquey 6.2-L V8, 6-speed manual, and a dual-mode exhaust that barked like a 327 through header-mounted glasspacks. I spent the week educating my neighbors on the merits of GM’s direct-injected V8 through throttle wraps on my way to and from my house. Their kids seemed to love it.

The biggest surprise of the new Camaro was how people reacted to it. The Camaro is now technically in its sixth generation, and it looks pretty similar to its fifth-gen siblings, which are everywhere these days. And yet people constantly commented on the new Camaro, Mustang drivers revved their engines at me at least four times a day, and the mob of interested people at Cars & Coffee Portland, even in the rain, was substantial. Everyone wanted to sit in it.

My years of driving both my ’01 SS and my ’06 Charger SRT8 had me prepared for a certain kind of reaction to the ’16, but what I actually got was a whole lot bigger. Driving the car for a few days was an eye-opener into how good the world of modern muscle has become, even from just a few short years ago — bright as an orange paint job and loud as an echoing rev in a world full of soulless silent jellybean drivers.

The best part of that Camaro? It was nasty without being purpose-built. It’s a quiet driver and a monster all at once. It is a flash of color and sound. It’s the kind of car that brings out the car person in everyone, causing us to ignore logic, budgets and yes, maybe even our spouses. It’s the future of the car world, right in front of us, and maybe that’s the real count-your-blessings moment.