The Assistant Editor is let loose with Stuart Graham’s all-conquering Camaro
The needle kisses the red sector on the rev. counter in top gear at Knicker Brook approaches at the best part of 140 m.p.h. Off the throttle, on to the brakes and at least some of the 400 brake horsepower is stilled temporarily before the Holley carburetter’s four chokes open with a thump to power the big Camaro across to the concrete verge on the exit and thence rapidly towards the rise into Druids. Can this really be what Group 1 cars are all about?’ They talk about “production saloon car racing” but, really, this animal feels little removed in performance from full-house Group 2 cars of two-or-three years ago.
Stuart Graham, who has emerged apparently from nowhere to become the leading exponent of big Group 1 saloon car driving, has loaned me what must be the ultimate Group 1 saloon in the country, his Fabergé-Brut 33 sponsored Camaro Z28, and the experience is enlightening, not to say exhilarating and exhausting. He can lap this daunting 2.761-mile Oulton Park circuit in 1 min. 47.4 seconds, an average speed of 92.55 m.p.h. and the outright Group 1 record, but that sort of performance comes with long experience of the circuit and the demanding car and a much greater natural talent than this writer can aspire to, so I refrain from even trying to emulate him. It is a salutary thought that just over two years ago Frank Gardner set the fastest lap in a race here with the immensely powerful Group 2 SCA Camaro only just over 6 seconds quicker than Stuart’s Group 1 record. Such is progress and such is the deceptive performance of the Group “1-1/2” cars which have been contesting the Castrol Anniversary Touring Car Championship this season.
Stuart Graham is—or at least was a matter of months ago—practically a novice in the world of car racing, but his outlook towards motor racing together with the mechanical perfection and pristine condition of his car, in spite of a hard season which has seen it win outright eight Championship rounds and the Tourist Trophy, mark this man as a pure professional, in attitude if not in terms of full employment. Such proves to be the case: this 32-year-old Broomhall, Cheshire, garage owner is following in that well-worn rut which takes top-flight motorcycle racers to four wheels and like many of his predecessors he is doing it successfully. Not that he has the same Formula 1 ambitions of his most recent successful predecessors, Surtees and Hailwood (“My immediate ambition is Group 2 saloon car racing, though I would like to try Formula 5000—I like big-engined cars”), but this season’s performances have shown that he does have their natural affinity with four wheels, the same sensitivity and smoothness which two-wheeled racing taught them.
He is the son of the late Les Graham, who won the 1949 500 c.c. World Championship on a works AJS Porcupine and lost his life in the 1953 Senior TT on an MV-Agusta, by which Italian firm he was employed as development engineer and number one rider. After apprenticeship at Rolls-Royce Motors Ltd. Stuart set out to follow the tracks of his father, with similar success.
Initial experience with his own 125 c.c. Honda led to the loan of a 125 Aermacchi, on which he won first time out, for 1962 and 1963, followed by nearly three seasons of national and international racing on a privately-entered 350 AJS and a 500 Matchless. He lost his chance at repeating his father’s 500 c.c. World Championship when lying second to Agostini in the Championship in 1966 when Honda enticed him away to ride their superb six-cylinder, 250 c.c. bikes with Mike Hailwood, to whom he finished second in the Manx TT and in the Finnish GP. Then followed a highly successful season riding 50 c.c. and 125 c.c. works Suzukis, finishing third in both World Championships and winning the 50 c.c. Manx TT. When Suzuki withdrew from racing early in 1965 they presented him with a 125 c.c. bike which he ran privately and successfully for the next couple of seasons before retiring in 1970. Stuart Graham Motors, Broomhall, specialists in performance cars, particularly American V8s, has kept him busy since then, interspersed with six-months’ fun with a 250 Suzuki-engined kart, a disappointing part season in Group 1 production saloon car racing with a too legal 3-litre Capri in 1972 (enough to learn the ropes and gain his licence signature) and now the Camaro, which has rapidly pushed him back into the situation of being a full-time professional.
Graham has been a Camaro addict since 1971 when he bought a new automatic Z28, which he continues to run as a highly modified road car, with much more power than his racer. In May 1973 he won and set a new lap record first time out at OuIton Park in the Camaro he was preparing for Les Leston, borrowed the car again the following weekend and led the Group 1 race at the Silverstone Martini meeting until a tyre punctured. Flushed with the obvious merits of a Graham/ Camaro partnership, he bought his current racer, then an immaculate 21,000-mile-old road car, decoked it and on the mandatory road tyres and with just a few minor adjustments won eight races for the only unscheduled cost of one burnt piston.
Having decided to contest this year’s British Touring Car Championship, Stuart and his brother Chris, another ex-Rolls-Royce.apprentice who helps run the garage and prepares the Camaro engine, stripped the car, bought a new engine which they blueprinted, and took advantage of these more liberal Group 1 regulations, which allow road springs to be changed, amongst other considerations, to develop the chassis. By dint of hard work through the winter the car was in a far better state of preparation than any of the opposition at the beginning of the season, and Stuart took four consecutive outright wins. Four other wins were interspersed with failures: Richard Lloyd beat him fair and square into second place at Thruxton, at which circuit he retired with a broken wheel-bearing in another round ; a fuel-leak on the grid forced a non-start at Brands Hatch; gear-selection problems at Silverstone enabled Vince Woodman to beat him into second place, from which subsequently he was disqualified because of a non-regulation thermostat ; and he stayed away from the Ingliston race. But his race of the year was the RAC Tourist Trophy, the winning of which puts his name alongside the legendary Freddie Dixon and Charles Dobson as only the third man to win both a motorcycle and a car TT.
Practically all Camaros racing today, including this one, are to 1970 Z28 specification, in which guise this best handling of American muscle cars reached its zenith of power before emission regulations strangled it. Stuart Graham feels that a few lost brake horsepower from an engine with 5.7-litres in a racing car which weighs no less than 32 cwt. are of far less consequence than they would be in the case of, for instance, the small-engine, class-winning Dolomite Sprints and Avenger GTs, when every b.h.p. which can be rung-out of an engine is essential. “We can make up the odd 5 or 10 b.h.p. by driving them a bit harder.” Because of this he has not gone to the extremes which he might have done; more power could have been gained by fitting an improved camshaft, which the regulations allow to be modified within certain parameters. The porting has been cleaned up fractionally and standard GM pistons are used to give the standard 11.5-to-1 compression ratio. Squish clearances are the most important details to watch when blueprinting one of these engines, says Stuart, along with balancing, which is done for him by Trevor Wilkinson, of Lye, near Stourbridge. He adds that these Z28 engines are exceptionally well balanced to start with. Attention to detail is the only secret to this Camaro engine’s success, therefore, and Stuart doubts whether this engine is more powerful than any of the other Camaros engines: “Our suspension work has made it come out of corners faster than other people’s Camaros, so we’re faster down the straight.”
He sees this car as probably the best sorted, best compromise Group 1 car around, “good on some circuits but not on others”, acknowledging that there remains a mass of development potential, but adding that, “Once I’ve got the car to a reasonable pitch it’s up to me to drive it more quickly. I’ve got to become quicker before the car does and when I’m satisfied with myself, I can develop the car further”. This philosophy of putting the onus on himself rather than the car ties in with another telling comment: “Compared with racing motorcyclists, the car-racing drivers are the biggest set of excuse makers I’ve ever come across—they always blame their cars!”
Hardly surprisingly he will only generalise on a description of the development put into the suspension; there’s no sense in giving too many secrets away to the opposition. In fact there aren’t all that many secrets to give away: the basis of the car’s good handling is finding the correct damper and spring combinations to cut out the dreadful wallow this big, heavy car might suffer from. On this occasion at Oulton Park, Bilstein shock-absorbers were fitted to the front, Konis to the rear, though sometimes Konis have been fitted all round. “Koni have given excellent service, building special dampers to suit different circuits.” Springs were the biggest bugbear in sorting out the handling. A choice of three rates of front coil-springs varying from 900 lb. to an incredible 1,400 lb. is available, at a cost of £30 per spring, while a cost of £50 per rear leaf-spring put an end to further experiments after two sets had been made, only one of which is now used, as the best compromise. At the least, suspension bushes made legally out of special rubber, or at worst, illegal spherical joints camouflaged in rubber, have been rife in the smaller capacity Group 1 classes; this Camaro uses the standard rubber items. Anti-roll bars may be changed within the regulations, yet the Graham car uses the standard front and rear bars.
He is full of the praises of Dunlop, who’ve: “Leaned over backwards to help and deserved the almost complete domination they’ve achieved in the Championship.” The Camaro’s 15-in, diameter, D15 construction, Dunlop slicks are of 215 section and 970 compound at the front and 230 section, using the later 484 compound at the rear, while the handgrooved wet tyres are of 970 compound.
Preventive renewals have paid off in reliability, particularly in the TT. Since two half-shafts broke in practice these shot-peened and Magnaflux crack-tested (at Rolls-Royce) items have been changed every two races; the ventilated front discs and rear drums have been changed every four meetings (“Even though the old ones look OK, you’d be surprised how much new or micro-re-ground ones improve braking.”); front uprights have been changed once; and rear hub bearings are changed every two meetings. This contracted Team Castrol driver makes the point that the Camaro has suffered no further broken wheel-bearings since Castrol provided a special grease. A special oil for the live rear axle, which includes a very carefully assembled limited slip differential, has kept trouble at bay in that quarter. Under the bonnet common-or-garden Castrol GTX is held in the wet sump and no engine trouble has been suffered throughout the season.
A drainpipe each side of the Brut 33 bedecked monster let forth a ferocious and most un-production-car-like bellow as Stuart Graham headed towards Old Hall on the first of several warm-up laps. That 400 b.h.p. escapes through standard exhaust manifolds— sorry, headers—into unsilenced pipes which are joined by a Graham-designed balance pipe, found to have improved the engine’s power.
With the car back in the pits I found time to glance round the immaculate, all-black interior as Stuart strapped me tight into the left-hand Terry Hunter seat with the reassuring Willans full-harness belts. Other reassurances were the control for the Fire-eater extinguisher and the massive John Aley full roll-cage. Everything else was much as standard except for black paint on the floor in lieu of carpets, and I even had to pull the knob to release the l.h.d. Mercedes-type, foot-operated “handbrake” before easing home the expensive Hays-GM clutch. “The best we can get hold of” clutch plates, made of an organic material and glassfibre, cost £40 each and are changed regularly as a precaution because the clutch has to be slipped from 3,500 r.p.m. to coax the 32 cwt. off the grid without almost setting the tyres on fire.
The four-speed, standard ratio, Muncey Rockcrusher gearbox felt notchy as I eased the long lever through the gate; the one fitted was a spare though the car’s original gearbox remained serviceable after being used for most of the season. But the strangest feeling came as I turned the Motolita wheel for Old Hall and was almost caught out by the response and lightness of the steering: GM-Saginaw power steering is retained because of its beneficial 2.3 turns lock-to-lock compared with four-point-something for the manual option. In the past I’ve been used to climbing into all sorts of strange racing cars and driving them tolerably quickly, but the combination of a seat of pants which had become noticeably less sensitive in just one month of passengering since the totting-up loss of my licence, only vague knowledge of Oulton, which Rex Foster had so kindly let us use at very short notice, and the power steering, left me Iacking in confidence and prevented heroics. There was also the thought that this must be one of the few Group “I-1/2” cars not to have been damaged this season, and that if Stuart Graham’s Group 2 plans with SCA’s Adrian Chambers for next year go as planned, this winning Car will be for sale at £6,000.
After a couple of laps I dared to use more throttle as some sort of contact grew between me and the road, but I reckoned it would have taken thirty or forty laps instead of less than ten to gain a confident feel of what this Camaro was doing. Even Stuart admits that, “It can be driven very quickly up to a point, but that last second takes some achieving”.
Slightly unnerving was the instant throttle reaction created by modifying the vacuum control to bring in the secondary chokes almost instantaneously. The Grahams have gone for wild timing and this rapid secondary choke response “so that everything is dumped in the cylinders at once”. Some early braking had to be indulged in to allow for Ferodo DS11 pads which were on their last limits, objecting particularly for that high-speed dab into Knicker Brook.
Old Hall was a piece of cake, coupled with a change down to 2nd for better control and then up to top and down to 3rd for Cascades, where both Stuart and I were forced to be cautious because of a huge slick of cement covered oil on the exit line. Island was best taken in 3rd, letting the Dunlops run wide to the outside on the exit before pulling the car over to the left for the entrance to the 2nd-gear Esso, which felt incredibly narrow for this massive car as I came off the feathered throttle and coped with the sudden power influx from the secondary chokes whilst I looked at the big hole in the Armco, right in the line of fire, sculpted at the last race meeting. Full throttle in 2nd, full throttle in 3rd, the tachometer needle leaping astonishingly-quickly, for an almost standard big V8, to the red line at 6,500 round the gentle right-hander after Esso, into top and then all 1 ton 12 cwt. feeling to leap skywards as the torque and power thrust that long bonnet over the crest for that fast run down to Knicker Brook. Hard on the brakes from 140 m.p.h. and 6,500 rp.m. (where Stuart usually pulls 6,600 r.p.m.), down into 3rd and then into top for the rise towards the brick building and the lefthander, flat in top for Stuart, but not for me, and into 3rd gear at Druids, through which sequence the too-soft, Brands Hatch-set suspension created some wallow. From there flat in top under the Bailey Bridge and very hard on the brakes for Lodge with an eye on the poor run-off area, and down into 2nd, powering round, just missing another pile of oily cement, the tail flicking round suddenly as the soft rear suspension created roll oversteer and the power steering responding quickly, but unfeelingly, so untidily, to correction. Into 3rd, flat over Deer’s Leap, and top as the pits straight approached, with time to see the temperature staying well below the advised 210 on this cold day and oil pressure safe on the right side of 60 p.s.i.
Group 1 or not, this is far from an easy, forgiving car. I’ve driven more powerful, even faster cars which were less daunting, but they hadn’t 32 cwt. of metal around them, with wheels so far removed from the driver’s seat. Yet in spite of the wrong, soft suspension this day, the weight and the faintly deceptive size: this Camaro is far from the wallowing barge I’d expected, being taut, rolling only moderately, and remaining usually neutral. The power steering took the physical effort out of manoeuvring the slicks, but with not being used to it, I used up more nervous energy. Stuart Graham holds lap records with the car at Oulton Park, Brands Hatch GP circuit, Mallory Park, Silverstone GP circuit, Thruxton, shares the Brands short circuit record with Richard Lloyd and has achieved sufficient international race wins in this country to win him the £2,000 Tarmac Championship Award. I think I’d be wise to let his performance and not mine prove the car’s ability.—C.R.