Mecum: The IROC-Z Camaro was the Right Car for the Right Race
by Bill Stephens
What a concept!
When the International Race of Champions was launched in 1973, it was an idea which was aimed at settling a long-standing debate which had motorsports enthusiasts jawing and jabbing amongst themselves for decades. The crux of the debate was a simple one.
If you were to take drivers from all of the major racing series and let them loose in identically prepared race machines, which driver would prove to be superior? It seemed every racing fan had their own argument as to where you’d find the world’s best race drivers. Formula 1? NASCAR? IndyCar? Sports Car Endurance Racing? World of Outlaws? Off-Road Racing? NHRA Drag Racing?
The IROC series was played out mostly on high-speed ovals and thus, NASCAR drivers enjoyed an advantage which they didn’t pass up. Many of the IROC races were won by the Cup crowd, but open-wheel veterans such as Bobby Unser, A.J. Foyt, and Mario Andretti were IROC champions during its early years.
But what may be most memorable from the IROC series were the cars which the various drivers were belted into. In the first season, Porsche Carreras were the IROC weapons of choice, but they proved to be prone to mechanical issues, expensive to set up and repair, and unfamiliar to most of the drivers. In 1975, the switch was made to Chevrolet Camaros and that change was met with near-universal approval. Seeing a marketing opportunity just too good not to maximize, in 1985 Chevy debuted the IROC-Z, which was an upmarket option package available on the Z28.
It was an instant success.
When the IROC series switched to Camaros in 1975, fans were treated to wheel-to-wheel racing like this.
The mid-1980’s was a dreary period for Detroit horsepower and the IROC-Z wasn’t a thunderous Muscle Car by any measurement—at least by today’s standards. The 305 cubic-inch V8 was mounted with Corvette-sourced Tuned Port Injection but offered a power peak of a mere 215 horsepower. The IROC-Z was also trimmed out with an upgraded suspension, lowered ride height, specially valved Delco - Bilstein shocks, larger diameter sway bars, a steering/frame brace known as the "wonder bar", a special decal package, and Corvette's Goodyear "Gatorback" unidirectional tires mounted on aluminum 5-spoke wheels.
The IROC-Z was a very attractive performance car and immediately found a spot on Car & Driver magazine’s Ten Best List for 1985. Over the ensuing six years, the IROC-Z went through a steady parade of revisions, improvements, and enhancements and few performance models coming from Detroit during that stretch could match its combination of style and go-fast image.
As with many performance cars before and after it, the IROC-Z was given its most powerful drivertrain in its farewell model year. The 1990 version was equipped with a 5.7-liter TPI-fed V8, which became available in 1997, cooking up 245 horsepower and 345 pound-feet of torque. In 1991, the IROC race series switched to Dodge Daytonas and the IROC-Z Camaro was history. At the end of 2006, so was the International Race of Champions.
The IROC series may have been inconclusive in settling the age-old disagreement as to what professional motorsports series produces the best drivers, but the IROC-Z Camaro has attained cult status throughout the enthusiast world and will maintain the interest and affection of Camaro lovers for many years to come.
A black 1987 IROC-Z like this one makes it easy to see why these Camaros are still very popular. You can watch this “Z” cross the Mecum Auction block this weekend in Houston on Velocity’s live coverage beginning Friday.