KEVIN BARTLETT has piloted some truly remarkable machinery, including Formula 5000s, Indy Cars and Paul Halstead’s diabolical De Tomaso Pantera, so it should be quite a ride! But for now, let’s revisit the car that is most often associated with him, the mighty Channel 9 Camaro.
OF ALL the cars I’ve raced, none was as painful to get on the track and running competitively as the Channel Nine Camaro. The project started in early-to-mid 1979. I was visiting Kerry Packer on other business, probably something to do with one of the performance road cars that he’s asked me to look after for him. He knew that I was about to call it a day in Formula 5000, which had run its course by then, and he suggested that we do some racing with touring cars for a few years.
At the time the Group C rules were being revised, so we did a bit of research into what car would be in with a shout of winning. The Camaro was our choice for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that the current model had been homologated with some good bits under international Group 1 rules.
The 350ci V8 was well proven in racing. It also helped that the engine was basically a long-stroke version of our F5000 Chev, so we were familiar it. The only real difference was that the heads weren’t ported. As far as the chassis went, the stress figures from Chevrolet’s racing division, where I had good connections, looked okay for Group C.
I bought the car, a new 1978 Z28 model, through Unser Chevrolet in New Mexico. Bringing the car to Australia was the easy bit. After that it was a series of dramas, and not just with the mechanicals!
Bringing the weight down from the stock 1630kg to the 1442kg Group C limit was a big job. We used Kevlar for the front and rear spoilers, as well as the guard flares. A lot of kilos were saved by replacing the standard steel leaf springs with fibreglass ones that were only about 4.5kg each. I’d heard about them from a bloke in the States. He told me the speedway guys used them because they had to run leaf springs but they didn’t need anything like the load-carrying capacity of steel ones.
We finally got the car down to about 15kg over the minimum, which was pretty amazing considering the starting weight.
CAMS unwittingly did us a favour by insisting at the last minute that we run the car with ’74-’77 model bodywork. Why? A total mystery, like a lot of what CAMS does! We had to buy a complete earlier model car because the front clip was totally different. Changing everything over was a lot of work but not a total waste of time as the bumpers were aluminium instead of the later model’s heavier steel ones.
What we didn’t allow for was the bureaucratic stubbornness at CAMS. Fair dinkum, it had me up in arms more times than I can remember while I had the car. It wasn’t the first time I’d raced a touring car but I’d never run a Group C team before. F5000 was a doddle compared to the nightmares we went through with the Camaro!
One of the biggest fights we had with CAMS was over brakes. The Camaro came standard with rear drums, which were fairly useless in anything longer than a five-lap sprint. Rear discs were available as a factory option. CAMS tried to tell us that that the homologation papers were suspect and consequently we had to use drums. It took us ages to convince them that we were right but until then I had to nurse the brakes throughout most races just to get to the finish with any pedal at all.
The car was ready for the ’79 Bathurst 1000 but I didn’t get to drive it. A big crash in what was planned to be my last F5000 race at the Sandown round of the Australian Driver’s Championship put me out of action, so John McCormack was drafted in to join Bob Forbes for the 1000. They DNF’d with clutch and gearbox problems.
I had recovered by the 1980 season and we scored some race wins that season and the next. Pole positions at Bathurst in 1980 and ’81 were the highlights, though. I could give those drums hell over a single flying lap in ’80 but I was a little more comfortable in ’81 with the rear discs!
We went into the 1982 James Hardie with a lot of confidence. Testing had gone well, the budget was healthy, and I had a proven co-driver in Colin Bond. But during practice Lady Luck took a holiday.
The ball-joint nut stripped on the front left bottom wishbone as Colin was turning into Reid Park. The suspension pulled away from the ball-joint, pitching the car left into the concrete wall. The left front corner was pretty severely bent and it was a miracle that my crew and the TAFE smash repair team had it back together in time for qualifying. It wasn’t perfect, though, and we missed out on a third straight pole, but during the race it was going well enough to make a podium a possibility.
Then, on lap 27 — incredibly at the turn-in point for Reid Park again — the left rear corner of the car suddenly dropped. My first thought was that the fibreglass leaf spring had broken but in fact the wheel had split and the tyre went flat instantly. The wheel was one of a dozen I’d just bought after the regulations were changed to allow up to 14-inch rims, providing they fitted under the standard mudguards and flares. I couldn’t believe that a brand new wheel could fail like that but as they say, that’s motor racing.
CAMS was giving more and more performance improvements to our opposition on what seemed like a weekly basis so I kept lobbying for more improvements for the Camaro. We were finally granted a better brake package, which made the car a pleasure to drive, but it was all too late. The Nine sponsorship ended a short while afterwards, and with the new international Group A regulations coming in from 1985 the Camaro was pensioned off.
The Channel Nine Camaro was a challenge to get on the track and make competitive. It was probably the most famous car I raced, even if it was for all the wrong reasons!