Secrets of the mysterious 1975–77 Camaro Racemark GT

Bob Bailey remembers a drizzly spring night in 1975, watching with his father as American hero racer Mark Donohue demonstrated a special Camaro on service roads circling New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Car and Driver scribe Patrick Bedard rode shotgun before later taking the wheel himself.

Bailey still has the Car and Driver issue that featured the Camaro. Much more impressively, he has the car, which his father bought and that he later inherited. A racer himself, the younger Bailey was involved from the start, having become business partners with Donohue, selling racing equipment and accessories through Racemark. The Camaro was about to become their flagship product.

“The name came from Mark and racing,” says Bailey, who still owns the company, which has become a major supplier of floormats for luxury car brands.

A racer himself, Bailey was driving a Porsche 911L lightweight in SCCA Trans-Am in the late 1960s when he met Donohue, who was then campaigning a Camaro for Roger Penske. In 1974, Donohue joined Penske to turn the Camaro into a race car for the International Race of Champions, better known as the IROC.

The series pitted a dozen top drivers from different motorsports against each other in identically prepared Camaros, and it became a fan favorite. It was too bad that, with the Z28 discontinued after 1974, Chevy offered nothing to bring IROC excitement to the showroom.

IROC_AD_GM.jpg

The production IROC Camaro was still more than a decade away when Bedard’s report called Donohue’s Camaro the “IROC GT.” But this was no Chevy prototype. By the time Hot Rod magazine published its report on Donohue’s Camaro the following year, it was called Racemark GT.

Donohue teamed with Bill Mitchell, a racer and former General Motors engineer, to infuse Chevy’s “Hugger” with some of the IROC character. That triggered the idea to build a small series of the cars. Donohue and Mitchell would extract more capability than perhaps even Chevy knew was lurking in the F-body platform.

The Camaro Z28 had been decent in the corners, but it lacked the kind of refinement in its responses, steering, and road feel that high-end European sports cars offered. Mitchell and Donohue’s work transformed the Camaro into a car that Bedard enthusiastically compared to Italian GTs, at least in handling.

They started with the highest-spec Camaro available in 1975, an LT with the Rally Sport Package and the 350-cubic-inch V-8 with four-barrel carburetor. All cars were ordered with the automatic transmission. The engine was rated at a measly 155 horsepower (165 hp in 1976), and that’s where it stayed.

“I was concerned about the legality of the emissions,” Mitchell recalls. “I didn’t want any trouble with that.” Individual customers, of course, were free to access the vast performance aftermarket if they wanted more power.

Camaro_103.jpg

With the handling, the goal for the Racemark GT was not to achieve an ultimate G number, but to increase grip, reduce understeer, and improve tire contact without a harsh ride. That last part was critical, as Detroit had a penchant for simply stiffening up the suspension to gain agility at the expense of comfort.

“We really worked at it,” Mitchell says today. “We worked on the springs and different rear stabilizer bar. We had Koni shocks that I had specially valved for these cars.”

The Car and Driver and Hot Rod reports provided more detail. The front end was lowered by an inch and alignment was set for more caster and negative camber. The Camaro’s front stabilizer bar and a 3/4-inch Racemark rear stabilizer bar were adjusted for zero pre-load. The aforementioned special shocks offered more control without a ride comfort penalty.

The Camaro’s stock FR78 radials were ditched for an expensive set of Michelin XWX radials, the same tires used on Ferraris and other premium Euro GTs. They were 205/70VR14 up front and 215/70VR14 in back, installed on 14x7-inch Minilite aluminum wheels. A 14-inch Racemark steering wheel and bolstered reclining bucket seats put the driver in the right position—and frame of mind—to read what the modified chassis could communicate.

All cars were ordered in white with a Firethorn red interior. A Racemark IROC-style front airdam was the most overt exterior modification, and the car was dressed up with a so-1970s red, orange, and maroon stripe treatment. Euro-type GT equipment included Hella quartz-iodine headlights and Hella fog lights and a Sky-Top EZ-Glide metal sunroof. If the exhaust didn't sound like an Italian GT, at least the Racemark triple air horns did. The $9500 price was a 50-percent premium over the fully optioned Camaro Racemark started with.

Camaro_101.jpg

The bumpy, rain-soaked course around J.F.K. Airport would have sent a stock Camaro flopping around. Instead, the Racemark GT had Bedard, also a racer, showering praise.

“The amazing thing is that the handling feels very much like the Ferraris and Maseratis that faithful enthusiasts hold in such untouchable esteem,” he wrote.

“It has the stiff-legged ride of an Italian GT car. No pitching. It hits the bumps, the suspension rebounds, then recovers immediately. The sensation befuddles one’s internal computer: there you are looking past a Camaro dashboard through a Camaro windshield over a Camaro hood… with Maserati motions filtering up through the seat. Can this be?”

Not long after that glowing review appeared, Donohue, who had come out of racing retirement to drive for Penske’s Formula One team, was killed in a crash during practice for the Austrian Grand Prix in August 1975.

“He was just about to sign with BMW to manage their racing team in the U.S.,” Bailey says. “That was never publicly announced.”

Camaro_102.jpg

Mitchell kept going with the Racemark GT project, though production ended at about nine cars, including some 1977s, Mitchell says. Bailey still owns and drives his. About 10 years ago, he and fellow car collector Jim Taylor drove it cross-country in the Cannonball Classic, which was the Brock Yates-Martin Swig revival of the original Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, but as more of a driving tour to various racing venues. (Bailey, Taylor, and Yates were founders of the Saratoga Automobile Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York.)

“The car performed perfectly,” Bailey says. Still, he wished it had more oomph. Some time after returning from the tour, he sent the car to Mitchell to install a modern Corvette LS crate motor and a four-speed stick.

“It’s much more fun now,” he says.

The Racemark GT Camaro’s legacy lives on in the new Camaro’s 1LE package, which has been lauded for delivering all those qualities that Donohue and Mitchell sought 43 years ago.

Emily Berry