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This or That – Season Two: 1970 Chevrolet Camaro or 1971 Pontiac Firebird

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1970 Chevrolet Camaro (top); 1971 Pontiac Firebird (bottom). Images by the author.

This or That is not a comparison report between two vehicles, but rather a feature that enables us, in an idyllic world, to add a collectible vehicle into our dream garage on a weekly basis, but with a catch: We can only pick one vehicle from this pairing and it has to be for enjoyment purposes rather than as an investment.

Featured in this edition of This or That are a pair of pony cars: a 1970 Chevrolet Camaro and a 1971 Pontiac Firebird. Until now, we’ve asked you to chose among street-legal steeds; however this week we thought it was time to turn dream ownership up a notch. While both F-bodies were purpose-built for track time, the Camaro initially competed in the SCCA’s Trans-Am Series, while the Firebird first saw battle in NASCAR’s little-known Grand American Series. Ultimately, their on-track resumes went beyond their humble intent. Let’s take a closer, albeit brief, look at each (if you’d like to read more than we provide here, both were featured in our Hemmings Muscle Machines magazine; just click on the provided links above).

If ever there was a monumental moment during the glory days of the SCCA’s Trans-Am Series, it had to come at the conclusion of the 1969 season when Roger Penske announced that his team would be switching manufactures for the upcoming ’70 season. The perennial on-track favorite was wooed by American Motors. Chevy was quick to react, selecting Laurel Racing as the factory representative for their forthcoming redesigned Camaros.

If you’ve never heard of Laurel Racing, it was founded by Larry Drover in 1968. Since the team’s inception, the Midwest-based organization prepared and raced Camaros–with drivers Larry Bock and Larry Dent–in various SCCA Trans-Am and regional A/Sedan races, as well as several endurance campaigns, such as the 24 Hours of Daytona. Although the team never claimed an overall victory, they were competitive enough to attract the attention of Chevrolet Product Performance after Penske’s departure.

The pairing eventually resulted in the build of this mid-1970 Camaro that was completed in May of 1971 with additional corporate support from Goodyear. Having retained Larry Bock as the driver, the new Camaro debuted at the season opener at Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park. Plagued by rain, Bock qualified 14th, but pushrod failure on lap 64 relegated the Chevy to a disappointing 23rd-place finish. Accomplished Japanese driver Hiroshi Fushida was hired in time for the next race at Bryar Motorsport Park (now New Hampshire Motor Speedway), where he qualified 11th; however, overheating led to a DNF in 27th. As outlined in the original feature,

Fushida’s next start came at Road America in Wisconsin, which was a memorable event for all the wrong reasons. After starting 16th, he lost control of the Camaro on lap 26, penetrated the facility’s guardrail, and hit a tree. It took rescue workers two hours to extract Fushida from the Chevy; he was later diagnosed at Sheboygan Memorial Hospital as having broken his collarbone, ankle, and four ribs, though he was released within a week. Trans-Am’s first Japanese driver would not start in the series again, although he continued participating in various forms of motorsports in the decades that followed, even after retiring as a driver. Amazingly, the Laurel Racing Camaro was repaired and returned to competition in 1972. Larry Bock returned and drove the car in two Trans-Am events–its best finish was a 14th at Road America–while owner Drover piloted the car in SCCA A/Sedan races; they even competed in the ’72 running of the Six Hours of Daytona (reduced from 24 that year). Virtually unchanged, the Camaro continued to run in A/Sedan events and several IMSA races during 1973, after which it was retired and then sold to fellow Midwestern racer Carmon Solomone.

Solomone would go on to race the Camaro in both Trans-Am and IMSA competition from 1974-’85–further details of which were also outlined in the original story–at which point the car was retired from racing. The Chevy remained in storage until 1998, when it was purchased from Solomone and restored to its 1971-’72 Trans-Am livery.

It wasn’t too hard for other racing organizations to miss the growing fan following that the SCCA’s Trans-Am Series attained. By 1968, NASCAR boss Bill France recognized an opportunity to broaden stock car racing by creating his own small sedan series under the Grand Touring banner. Dubbed “Baby Grands” by the media, the series was open to the same makes as those found in Trans-Am: everything from Javelins, Camaros, and Mustangs to import equivalents such as Porsche and Alfa Romeo. In 1970, the series name was changed to Grand American (GA), and it was not unusual to see several NASCAR Grand National (GN) “regulars” enter GA events, including Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Buck Baker, and part-time competitor Herring Burl “H. B.” Bailey. As told in the original story,

Operating out of his Houston, Texas, home, H.B. began his NASCAR career in 1962 at the tender age of 25. Having made no more than six starts per season, before the start of the 1971 season he obtained chassis serial number one from the famed Holman Moody shop. According to current car owner and Ukiah, California, resident Mark Mountanos, “It was the first car built by them for the pony car series, and in spite of their strong Ford background, somehow the chassis ended up with a Pontiac body on it.” Part of that might have to do with the fact that H.B. drove Pontiacs almost exclusively; of his 85 career starts at NASCAR’s top level, only five were in another make.

Behind the wheel of his new car, which was painted in his familiar red/white number 36 scheme, H.B.’s first start in the Grand American series was race one of the 1971 season on Daytona’s road course. Although his starting position was unknown as of this writing, H.B. managed to finish 17th in the field of 44. His next start was race three of the year, held at the original Nashville Motor Speedway. Although eventual series champion Tiny Lund won the pole, H.B. won the race after rain shortened the 100-lap contest; it would prove to be his only NASCAR victory.

Documents retained by witnesses to GA events, or that have escaped NASCAR’s archives, indicated that H.B. started at least four more GA races, with a best finish of fifth on Daytona’s road course. In addition, three of those starts were in combined GN/GA contests, which bolstered  collective car counts when GN entries were low. To help make the GA cars competitive, teams were allowed to swap out their mandated small-block engines for big-blocks.

Like the Laurel Racing Camaro, H.B. Bailey’s Pontiac wasn’t limited to NASCAR races. In 1972, IMSA kicked off its season at Texas World Speedway; a night race held on December 4, 1971, on the track’s road course. H.B. entered his Firebird and when the checkers waved he was credited with 15th overall–second in GA–after completing 66 of the 100 laps.

Changes in NASCAR’s various series happened fast for 1972. Winston became the title sponsor of the GN ranks, while the GA season was quickly cut to just five contests in its final year. To counteract the schedule reduction, NASCAR allowed GA cars to race in the newly formed Grand National East series. Like any true competitor, H.B. opted to race in both with a varying degree of success.

The GNE series would continue for just one more season. However, H.B. opted to park his Firebird in ’72, though he would continue to make the occasional start in NASCAR’s top tier. His last came in 1993, and he was the first driver to qualify at the inaugural Brickyard 400 in ’94, but failed to make the field. Sadly, H.B. passed away in early 2003.

“We suspect the car was just put away; it wasn’t beat up and it has the original as-raced patina inside,” said current owner Mark. “The previous owner painted the exterior, but that’s it. To make it safe for vintage racing with the Historic Grand Nationals, we checked the mechanicals/electrics and built a NASCAR-style Pontiac engine for it–I also have a engine ready to go, just as H.B. would have.”

If given the opportunity to add a purpose-built racing pony to your stable, which of these two would you add and why?