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Published 9/11/23

Inside the 2023 COPO Camaro Shootout

WORDS: DAN HODGDON

PHOTOS: THE BLOCK

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The COPO Camaro can change lives. Of course, the purpose-built race car from Chevrolet Performance allows racers to experience speeds upwards of 140 mph in the quarter-mile. That in itself is life-changing. But the COPO also creates a sense of family and community, and forges relationships that never would have been possible were it not for the race car. 

Each August, the COPO Camaro Shootout celebrates all the car stands for during the NMCA All-American Nationals at the pristine Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.

The COPO family comes together each year for the COPO Camaro Shootout at Summit Motorsports Park.

“These people are extremely passionate,” said Mike Lawrence, operations director at COPO Parts Direct and the COPO Build Center in Oxford, Michigan. COPO Parts Direct has served as a presenting sponsor of the COPO Camaro Shootout since the event’s inception for the 50th anniversary of the original COPO in 2019.

“They’re Camaro enthusiasts and they're Chevrolet enthusiasts,” he continued. “You look at all the tow vehicles; they’re GMCs and Chevrolets and [the people are] just good stewards of the Chevrolet name. It's important for us to help take care of that and make sure they understand that they're appreciated. We're honored to be able to be involved in something like this.”

Nearly 50 COPO Camaros participated in this year’s event, representing close to 10 percent of the cars built since the program was resurrected for 2012, shortly after the Gen V Camaro debuted.

COPO Parts Direct owner Rich Rinke won the COPO N/A Heads-up class at this year’s event.

In addition to luncheons and giveaways, two classes make up each year’s COPO Camaro Shootout program: COPO Battle and COPO N/A Heads Up. COPO Battle is an index class open to all engine combinations and uses a .500 Full tree. Meanwhile, COPO N/A Heads-up is designed for naturally aspirated cars, utilizes a .500 Pro tree, and the first to the finish line wins.

Many participants in the classes also take part in Stock Eliminator or Super Stock over the weekend. Other COPOs on the property compete in the NMCA Factory Muscle Cars category, made up of supercharged power from the Big Three.

This year, the COPO Battle win went to Clarence Harding in a 2014 COPO, while Rich Rinke drove his 2022 COPO Camaro to the COPO N/A Heads-up victory.

In addition to being a member of the racing side of the COPO family, Rinke also owns COPO Parts Direct, meaning he helps others obtain and start their cars for the first time. When an owner picks up his or her new car at the company it is a celebratory event with much of the staff involved.

“The people love seeing each other at these events and that culture is quite large now,” Rinke said. “From the very outset we set out to build the highest standard of vehicle we could and year after year we just strive for continuous improvement.”

The COPO Camaro traces its roots to 1969.

While the current crop of COPO racers has been growing for more than a decade, the car traces its roots back more than 50 years to 1969. That was when clever dealers used Chevrolet’s central office production order (COPO) system – often used for fleet vehicles – to order special engine packages.

The most famous are the 69 COPO Camaros built with the all-aluminum 427 cu.in. ZL1 engine. Today, those cars built for the drag strip are often seen as the holy grail of the muscle-car era. However, a variety of Camaros and other Chevrolet models were ordered through the COPO system.

One such vehicle, a 1969 COPO Camaro featuring an iron-block, 427 cu.-in. L72 Corvette engine was on display in the Scoggin-Dickey Parts Center booth at this year’s Norwalk event. It was on loan from Lafontaine Classic Cars in Milford Charter Township, Michigan; the company was looking to sell the classic.

The car was built and raced in Canada and is conservatively estimated as making 425 horsepower. It ran 11.96 seconds in the quarter-mile – a very quick time for its day. It also utilizes a TH400 automatic transmission, making it just one of 193 factory automatic COPOs produced. The Cortez Silver car has all documentation and features an all-original body, which has been repainted and restored to factory specs.

Bill Martens saw both the original COPO and helped revive the modern version in his long career.

Bill Martens, recently retired as Chevrolet Performance’s Associate Marketing Manager, was among the staff working the Scoggin-Dickey booth. During Martens’ long career he saw the introduction of the original COPO and was instrumental in reviving the name in recent years.

According to Martens, the 1969 COPO developed into a classic over time.

“In ’69, you have to appreciate that our communication was much more limited; the population did not know about COPO cars until after the fact,” he said. “There was no Internet, there was no Facebook, so correspondingly, the word got out through word of mouth, but also magazines and they lagged the market considerably. By the time the model year was over, the word had started to get out, there were some people in the know, but it was not widely known.

“When there were usually 200 and 300,000 of a model, this ultra-limited special edition didn’t get a lot of press.”

That changed when the 2012 COPO Camaro was introduced at the 2011 SEMA Show to much fanfare. Martens was instrumental in the idea for General Motors to bring back the purpose-built race car made famous – seemingly by accident – close to 50 years prior. Plus, it supported the reintroduction of the Camaro at the same time. 

“The car is being relaunched as a Gen V with a big gap in the production years, so we thought, here's something to really draw broad attention to the brand and give more attention to the Camaro,” Martens explained. “And oh, by the way, it's a cool race car.”

COPO Camaros were built to race but have also become popular collectors’ items.

For many years, the Chevrolet team capped the run at 69 cars to honor the original number of ZL1-equipped COPOs and keep the program exclusive and feasible.

The plan was originally for there to be 69 race cars, but then COPOs also became hot collectors’ items as well. Those collectors are also important to Rinke and the team at COPO Parts Direct. Many of them choose a graphics package to highlight the car’s power plant.

“The collectors help make the program,” Rinke said. “We always thought the opportunity was there to provide a very special graphics package if somebody wanted it, and lo and behold, it ends up being 40 and sometimes 70% of the volume. That tells you how passionate these people are for that craftsmanship. Some of these cars go in people's collections and they go from show, to show, to show, and that’s fantastic. That’s what you want. If they're not driving them, they’re showing them off.”

The COPO Camaro features naturally aspirated and supercharged engine choices, however, all are built to perform.

Over the years, many modern COPO Camaros have been at the forefront of drivetrain technology with cutting-edge LSX and LT engine combinations. Others have honored the program’s past. For instance, in 2019 Chevrolet Performance offered a naturally aspirated 427 cu.-in. engine option in honor of the 50 years since the first 427 was dropped in a COPO engine bay.

Other Big-Block models, including both 572 cu.-in. and 632 cu-in. versions have been part of the lineup in recent years as well. Many times, options include a graphics package highlighting the engine.

Collectors are an integral part of the festivities at the COPO Camaro Shootout, where Mike Lawrence sees new customers every year. While some diehards return each season, others attend for the first time to race or show off their cars, or both.

The competition paired with the camaraderie of the COPO family is at the heart of each event.

“They’re very serious at the starting line, but then they get to the end of it and they shake hands and they go have a beverage and enjoy themselves,” Lawrence said. 

Along each 1,320-foot stretch, lives are changed.

Be sure to keep watching The BLOCK for more stories from this year’s edition of the COPO Camaro Shootout.

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