Jimmy Vasser’s King Kong COPO Camaro: Circle Car Champ Goes Straight

Drag Racing

Two American racing legends, Indy Car champ Jimmy Vasser and Chevy’s COPO Camaro, have united to create a racing program which is showing tremendous potential.

Jimmy Vasser was the last American to win the Indy Car World Series Driver’s Championship, doing so in 1996. His illustrious Indy Car career includes 10 wins, one of which was CART’s Michigan 500, run on top of the IRL-sanctioned Indy 500 in ’96 during the acrimonious CART/IRL feud.

He’s now co-owner of the Indy Car team, KV Racing Technology, with partner Kevin Kalkhoven. KV relies on Chevrolet power for their three-car operation.

In addition to KV Racing, Jimmy’s the owner of several new car dealerships in Napa, California, including Jimmy Vasser Chevrolet. This is where the story really picks up steam. When Jimmy learned the wildly anticipated COPO program was a reality, he immediately called his contacts at GM and ordered one; this was not to be the crown jewel in his dealership showroom, or to fatten his investment portfolio, this was to race.

Jimmy has a drag racing/hot rodding heritage. His dad Jim was very active in the Northwest drag racing scene. He turned wrenches with Top Fuel hero Jerry Ruth and owned the first 409 Chevy in that neck of the woods when they debuted in ’62. In ’74 he captured The Most Beautiful Roadster title at the prestigious Oakland Roadster Show. Jim was also involved with the legendary Amos Saterlee on a Pro Stock Maverick. But most notably, he partnered with Ed Kohler on the fearsome AA/GS King Kong Anglia, hence the COPO’s name!

After moving to SoCal, Jimmy accompanied his dad to strips throughout the area. At age 6 he started racing quarter midgets and his handle was Jimmy “The Snake” Vasser, a salute to early hero Don Prudhomme.

From the onset, the elder Vasser, who serves as president of Jimmy’s car dealerships, was heavily involved in the COPO project, including recruiting the driver, Eric Reyes.

Reyes is an extremely talented motorsports artist whose work has adorned the race cars and helmets of many of the biggest names in auto racing. He’d worked with Jim Vasser on earlier graphics projects, so when it came time to design a paint scheme for the King Kong COPO, Eric got the nod. When Jim discovered Reyes was also an accomplished drag racer, in addition to doing the paint, he’d also be the new shoe.

Like Jimmy, Eric comes from drag racing blood. His dad Bobby, a native of Hawaii, successfully competed at strips throughout Northern California. Eric took up the torch as a 15-year-old, competing at legendary Fremont. He has three national event Wallys to his credit: two in Super Gas and one in Super Comp. He’s also scored two Division 7 championships and five E.T. Finals Bracket Championship wins.

The ambitious plan early on was debut the Camaro on the biggest stage of the year, the U.S. Nationals. There was a small glitch, though, Vasser’s #4 COPO out of a miniscule run of 69 (the original run of ZL1 COPO Camaros and the year of inception) would be available a mere two short weeks prior to Indy. Eric, wheeling a new pickup and triple-axle trailer, hustled to Detroit to pick up the “newborn.”

Shortly after taking possession, Eric, with members of KV Racing based in Indy, were off to the Ubly Dragstrip in Ubly, Michigan, for shakedown runs. The COPO offers engine options like naturally aspirated 427-ci V-8, a 327-ci V-8 with a 2.9L supercharger, and a 327-ci V-8 with a 4.0L supercharger. The Vassers opted for the 327/2.9 blower. It was immediately obvious that the Chevy engine wizards had done their job, because there were copious amounts of horsepower. At each pass Eric lit the tires up like a Funny Car.

It was now off to the KV shop and the frantic thrash began. The Indy Car boys welcomed the Camaro with open arms; it was quite a departure from what they normally work on. The first order of business was to swap out the two-speed ATI trans for a three-speed model. Eric also applied the graphics he’d designed.

More track time was imperative. After consulting with good friend T/F ace Larry Dixon, Eric and the boys headed to Edgewater Motorsports Park outside of Cincinnati. The track officials were very cooperative and the Camaro was entered into Sunday’s bracket race program. Several more passes were made, but the results were the same, blazing slicks. It was back to Indy for more sciencing. Please keep in mind, these Camaros, and whichever heavily computerized engine you choose, are brand-new commodities, so tuning these beasts is pretty much like starting with a blank slate. You’re creating your tuning manual as you go.

Only days prior to taking center stage at Indy, King Kong headed to Muncie (Indiana) Dragway. The boys got a much better deal on track rental if the clocks weren’t functioning, but at least they’d be able to see if the latest tweaks were going in the right direction; they were, the car hooked up for the first time.

Curtain time at Indy, the first competition for King Kong. The race team consisted of Jim Vasser, Jim DeFrank Sr. and Jr., Kyle Seipel, Mark Lelchook and four KV Racing crew members, Eric Stewart, Jon Anderson, Darren McMahon and Dan Rosenau, and of course, Eric Reyes.

The race went extremely well, not a Hollywood ending—rookie race car takes it all—but King Kong left his mark, carding a very respectable 9.33/144.36. Running in BB/SA, which was composed of fellow COPOs and Ford Cobra Jets, Reyes runnered-up in class. In Stock Eliminator first round action, he lost traction shortly off the line and the curtain closed. Weighing in all of the factors: brand-new car; all-new technology; extremely limited track time; no tuning history to go on; hard-working, energetic Indy Car crew (but with no drag racing experience), it was a howling success.

Several weeks later at the JEGS Pacific SPORTSnationals in Vegas, the reviews were not nearly as rosy. The lack of tuning history combined with new technology really took its toll. Several days of thrashing produced E.T.s only in the 9.60 range. Nothing on the motor or computer had been touched since Indy. Looser struts had been installed for better weight transfer, but that was the only change. In spite of the tuning issues, Eric using his driving expertise, made it through several rounds of eliminations. The level of frustration was palpable.

Immediately following the race, Jimmy stuffed King Kong in the trailer and smoked it to Art Whipple’s (Whipple Superchargers) facility in Fresno, California, for some serious dyno time. Art’s son Dustin, a computer/tuning whiz, immediately jumped into the project. During 10 straight hours on the dyno, it was discovered the fuel system was 25% too rich. One hundred horsepower was gained by taking out fuel and smiles returned. It was determined that at Indy, they started heading the wrong direction with fuel delivery and the situation was made worse in Vegas—all part of the learning process.

The following week at the NHRA national event in Vegas, it was evident that all the dyno time had paid off. Though still very much a “work in progress,” the team felt they were back on track. Each run provided more info and that translated into wringing more power from the blown 327. Eric again runnered-up in BB/SA. The best figures for the Vegas adventure were 9.53/143.75.

At the season-ending NHRA Finals in Pomona, it was evident the increasing amount of track time and a fatter tuning book were paying dividends—E.T.s plunged into the 9.20s. Unfortunately, for the first round of eliminations, the weather was the coldest King Kong had experienced. The computer didn’t like what it was reading and Eric’s day was done.

Evaluating the extremely hectic two-month “season”: new, untested car; working with new technology; no tuning data; the Vassers and Reyes are pretty darned pleased. Lessons learned are being implemented and plans for an ambitious 12-race 2013 season are well underway. So Chevy fans, come the new season, you’ll be hearing this Big Ape roar even louder!

One final note: For all of you who missed out on the 2012 COPO run, good news! Chevrolet Performance has elected to continue the COPO Camaro program for 2013.

Drag Racing
At the U.S. Nationals, King Kong roars for the first time in competition.

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King Kong’s “handlers” (Left to Right): Eric Reyes, father and son Jim and Jimmy Vasser.

Drag Racing
The blown 327 and its surroundings look deceptively stock, though I wouldn’t suggest relying on your local Chevy service advisor for tuning recommendations.

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Aeromotive supplied the fuel cell/pump components.

Drag Racing
The fabled Kohler & Vasser King Kong AA/GS Anglia, quite a departure from the newly reincarnated beast which bears its name.

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The rearview pretty much sums things up: COPO Camaro—Jimmy Vasser Chevrolet of Napa, CA, and KV Racing, the Indy Car team.

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Reyes and his computer, the greatest tuning device for racing in this century. Note the “plush” factory race car interior.

Drag Racing
Now you see ’em, now you don’t. The King Kong graphic made his appearance at Indy (ape head), disappeared at the Vegas JEGS race, and then reappeared in its new form at the Vegas NHRA national event (big hairy ape). Stay tuned for further modifications.

Drag Racing
Eric Reyes’ “day job,” this ’65 Chevy front fascia—bumper, grille, emblem, headlights, chrome trim—are all hand-painted. The dude’s an artist!

A year or so ago, we presented a feature on the “new” Ramchargers Challenger built and campaigned by Mike Pustelny who ramrods MPR in Almont, Michigan. We’ve known Mike for a long time. And many others either know him or know of him too, but one thing you might not know is there is one common denominator when you examine the modern Stock Eliminator Cars from Ford, Dodge and Chevrolet: In varying degrees, Pustelny had a hand in all of them. He consulted on the original Cobra Jets and provided a number of pieces for the original prototype, performed almost all of the fab work on the original Mopar Drag Pak prototype and did exactly the same thing on the COPO Camaro proof-of-concept.

Working with the Chevrolet Racing Powertrain team, the first COPO Camaro was fabricated on a surface plate at the MPR shop in Almont, an hour or so northeast of Wixom. As defined by the Chevrolet Performance engineering team, Mike developed a way to eliminate the independent rear suspension on the Camaro. The suspension system was tied into the roll cage, which in turn was heavily tied into the Camaro rocker boxes. Pustelny sewed in box-section tubing to provide a frame of sorts under the unibody Camaro. Additionally, the front roll cage bars run almost seamlessly alongside the A-posts. Ditto with the main hoop; it tucks in behind the Camaro B-post. The idea here was to make the car look as “stock” as possible. As Chevrolet Performance and Pustelny are quick to note, the NHRA team of Danny Gracia (national tech director) and Bruce Bachhelder (technical services) were onboard with the prototype’s construction every step of the way. The NHRA folks understood that the new Chevys would prove incredibly fast and safety was of the utmost importance, hence the considerable surgery that went into transforming a production line platform into an eight-second-capable ride.

At the rear, the team developed a 9-inch housing that’s filled with Strange Engineering components. Pustelny’s relationship with Jeff Stange of Strange Engineering also led to the use of Strange brakes on the package as well as double adjustable Strange shocks and struts on both ends of the car. Chevrolet Performance’s rear suspension design is an unequal length 4-link of sorts that ingeniously satisfies the Stock Eliminator rules along with the reality of the COPO Camaro’s performance potential. Up front, you’ll find that the car has been converted to manual rack-and-pinion steering, had the braking system revised to accept a Strange master cylinder (complete with bracing to stop firewall flex), and of course, is set up to accept the Strange strut suspension arrangement. The front K-member was reworked so that engine swaps were a piece of cake, and simultaneously, provided for plenty of oil pan and header room.

Mike mounted a complete Aeromotive fuel cell/pump setup, plumbed the car, installed a battery box, added a mandatory kill switch and added a firewall between the passenger compartment and the trunk. There were all sorts of other details that had to be handled: paint, wiring, more plumbing, fitting headers (which were fabricated by American Racing Headers) and so on. Pustelny and the Chevy Performance team accomplished the work. And when the engine was finished by the Chevy Racing team, it was delivered to MPR and installed along with the ATI-built Powerglide and torque converter.

Mike, who is a long-time NHRA Super Stock and now Stock Eliminator racer, was also involved with testing the prototype. FYI, Pustelny is the guy behind the helmet doing all of the drag strip testing for Chevrolet Performance (including many of the hero shots seen in Chevy PR material). The bottom line is Mike knows his way around these cars and has a comprehensive bag of tricks ready to go when it comes to sorting them out (and yes, all of them: Cobra Jet, Drag Pak and COPO require a bit of sorting from a knowledgeable drag racer). The driving force? Pustelny probably is when it comes to the new breed of NHRA Stocker.

Drag Racing
Here’s the guy who is the driving force behind the new breed of drag race Stockers and Super Stockers from Detroit.

No disrespect to the NHRA Pro Stock ranks, but the real factory hot rods are in the NHRA Stock and Super Stock categories. You’ve just taken a look at the Chevrolet COPO Camaro. The 2012 COPO is new to the NHRA scene, but it isn’t the only OEM race car in NHRA competition; both Ford and Chrysler have been building and selling race ready cars for nearly five years. Sportsman drag racing is important to all three automakers for marketing reasons and also—perhaps more importantly—bragging rights. So it’s no surprise to see the influx of effort on their part.

We spoke with Ford Racing’s Jesse Kershaw and his Mopar counterpart, Dale Aldo, regarding these modern day factory racing programs. Both companies reached back 50 years to a time when the factory was very much involved in sportsman drag racing. These modern drag strip warriors carry on that tradition of pride and performance from the ‘60s-era. Both began designing and testing cars for an entry back into NHRA Sportsman drag racing between 2007 and 2008. Ford Racing pulled the trigger first, releasing the Cobra Jet in 2008. The first model included a six-point roll bar, a 5.4L modular engine featuring a 2.3L Eaton TVS Roots-style supercharger, and a Tremec six-speed transmission. There is no denying the 2008 Cobra Jet is legitimate race car from the factory. The package is nine-second capable in the right hands. The quickest 2008 Cobra Jet has eclipsed the eight-second zone.

As Ford rolled out its NHRA Stock Cobra Jet program, Mopar was secretly putting the final touches on its factory Stocker—the Drag Pack Challenger. Mopar released its Drag Pack in 2009 in sort of a pseudo kit form. It didn’t come with components like safety equipment, wiring harness, brakes, wheels/tires, etc. Mopar supplied the essentials that included a competitive engine, suspension fore and aft, a body and graphics.

There were three different engines in Drag Pack’s first year: 5.9L Magnum, 5.7L Hemi and a 6.1L Hemi. Most of the 100 2009 models sold featured the 6.1L Hemi. The following year the program continued with the same concept of a half-built car, but a 6.4L (392 ci) Hemi was added to the options list.

Back to the Ford Racing side of the Stocker world, the predominant Cobra Jet engine package is the supercharged 5.4L engine. There are two supercharger offerings for this engine combo: a 2.3L Eaton TVS supercharger and the larger 4.0L twin-screw unit. The Whipple/Ford Racing 4.0L blower is restricted to Super Stock class racing only. There are eight other combinations available for the 2010-13 models (Ford did not produce a 2009 Cobra Jet). Ford released four naturally aspirated small-block engines (pushrod, non-modular), including a 352-ci and 363-ci engine package based in an 8.2-inch deck engine block. The other two engines are 9.5-inch deck block, 427-ci and 428-ci power plants.

The remaining four engine packages are modular based. The most affordable Cobra Jet engine package is the 4.6L three-valve engine. According to Kershaw, this entire vehicle package can be replicated for $35,000 or so and is competitive with high 10-second runs. The final three engines are based on the modern 5.0L TiVCT, most know it best by the engineering nickname “Coyote 5.0L.” Two are naturally aspirated versions of the 5.0L, while the other is a 650-hp supercharged bullet using a Whipple/Ford Racing 2.9L blower.

Mopar shook things up in 2011 by releasing a turnkey race car that had different options, including roll cage, body color and graphics. A safety gear omission was due to requests from racers who fit better in custom-built roll cage designs. It comes standard but can be deleted. The biggest news was the availability of a V-10 engine that has roots in the Viper program! A two-speed or three-speed automatic transmission are also available. The Drag Pack is so cool that Don Garlits owns and races one. The quickest V-10 car has gone 9.18, and Ray Barton is working on an engine program that will run in the eight-second zone.

To say the Cobra Jet and Drag Pack are popular would be a gross understatement. Despite the popularity, each manufacturer offers just a limited run of each model. Ford Racing has sold 50 cars in each of the four years of Cobra Jet (2008, 2010, 2011, and 2012). They have sold another 60 packages for clone cars. Most of these packages (body in white/crate packages) are used in Super Stock where racers didn’t want to cut up original Cobra Jet cars to fit the big tires and 4-link rear suspension systems. On the Mopar front, 2009 was a banner year with 100 vehicles sold. They followed the year after with 51 official Drag Pack vehicles and the 2011/2012 program is ongoing. We know there are collectors trying to preserve history, but a majority of the cars do see drag-racing action.

The old mantra of “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” is holding true in the NHRA Sportsman ranks, and the Big Three have something for you to buy off a dealership floor. But act fast; there are limited quantities of each model.

Drag Racing
Mopar first offered the Drag Pack as an incomplete package and let owners finish the vehicle as they saw fit. That changed for the 2011 models when Mopar began selling turnkey cars.

 Drag Racing
Kevin Helms and his team in the winner’s circle at the U.S. Nationals after they’d won the SS/DA class. On the right is Dale Aldo, program manager at Mopar.

Drag Racing
Bo Butner took the class win of the Factory Stock Showdown at this year’s U.S. Nationals.

Text by Pete Ward and Photos by Richard Brady, James Drew, Chris Haverly and Pete Ward

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