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Mark Stielow’s trend-setting ‘Tri-Tip’ Camaro heads to SEMA

Published in blog.hemmings.com

When considering various forms of motorsport, a practical approach would lead most people to select the vehicle best-suited for that particular form of competition, and to prepare that vehicle accordingly from there. But then there are those hard-core gearheads who look at such challenges a little differently, taking the type of car their passion was built around and then figuring out how to make it competitive, even if it’s not the best choice.

That’s essentially what a young Mark Stielow did back in the early 1990s when he built his 1969 Camaro to run the One Lap of America competition, an event that involves road courses, drag strips, autocrosses, and lots of grueling highway miles in between. In doing so, Stielow somewhat inadvertently kicked off a movement among muscle car fans that came to be known as “Pro Touring,” (a term he also coined). That Camaro wound up getting a fair amount of magazine coverage, inspiring legions of classic muscle car owners who also wanted to use their classics for more than just boulevard cruising and straight-line speed contests. Next week, that very car will be on display at the SEMA show in Las Vegas, and it will also be offered for sale on Hemmings Auctions at the same time. So how did that car come to be, and why was it so influential at that time?

The story’s origins should sound familiar to anyone who ever fell in love with an old car and set out to make it better. A young guy gets his hands on an older car, viewed through a lens that shows what it could be, rather than just what it is. In the case of Mark Stielow, horsepower was always just one facet of the appeal a proper car project can offer, and the pursuit of a career in automotive engineering was the path to learning how to make a vehicle do everything better.

To truly start at the beginning of this story, we have reach back before Mark owned the now-familiar “white car,” which was actually the third ’69 Camaro he’d purchased.

“I went to work for General Motors as a summer intern in 1988 with my ’66 Mustang fastback, and thought maybe I should have a Chevy instead. I looked over pictures of different Chevys [from that period] and the one I liked best was the ’69 Camaro RS. I actually found one in Hemmings Motor News located in Van Nuys, California, where I was going to work at the GM factory for the production launch of the Camaro 1LE during my summer internship. I bought the car and had my parents come out and drive it back home to Kansas City, Missouri.”

Mark started to improve that car and took it back to college, but unfortunately, he crashed it. He’d repeat this process with another ’69. Young car guys wrecking their hot rods is an all-too-familiar tale, but in this case, it planted a seed: Mark had learned of the first-gen F-body’s somewhat poor road-handling manners the hard way, but rather than give up and move to a different model with better suspension characteristics, he wanted to know how to make a ’69 Camaro work better.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro

By this time, Mark was working for GM in Detroit, and was involved with a showroom stock racing support program, again related to the Camaro 1LE. While at Watkins Glen International in upstate New York for that effort, Mark was able to witness part of that year’s One Lap of America, and upon learning about the competition, the hook was set.

“I decided that I wanted to compete, and I wanted to do it in a ’69 Camaro. From there, I started thinking, ‘What do I need to do to this old muscle car to make it competitive?”

Mark held onto that vision as he finished college and went to work for GM full time, finding himself on assignment at the GM Desert Proving Grounds in Mesa, Arizona, for a spell.

“What does a young guy do who isn’t into the bar scene? I spent my time looking for cars,” said Mark, recounting his routines of arriving strategically at certain retailers at the crack of dawn on delivery days to be among the first to peruse the latest classifieds. It paid off when he spotted a ’69 Camaro for sale on a nearby Indian reservation.

“It had a 427 and a Turbo 400, and it didn’t run. I had it flat-bedded to the Embassy Suites and had them drop it in a spot right under one of the light poles. I’d go to work during the day, then come home and head out to the parking lot to work on the car.” Mark fixed its ailments with some assistance from a couple of the security guards he’d befriended, and made plans to drive the Camaro back to Detroit… except for one thing.

“The car had 4.56 gears, and after I drove it to work, I realized that wasn’t going to work for a cross-country trip,” he said. But a chance meeting at the Proving Grounds with a Reliable Carriers truck driver provided an opportunity to have the car hauled back home at a reasonable rate instead.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro

Mark was living in Royal Oak, Michigan at the time, and he worked on the car at home with help from some friends. After removing the big-block, TH400, and the 12-bolt rear and selling them all to help fund the project, a roll cage was fabricated for the Camaro, and then it was time for paint. As the story goes, the famous white finish wasn’t actually part of the original plan.

“I had a friend who was a car painter at the time, and he asked me, ‘What color?’ When I told him red, he said, ‘Ugh, this will be the third first-gen Camaro in a row that I’ve painted red!’ To help his friend maintain his sanity, and some enthusiasm, Mark just told him, “Then paint it white—bright white, straight out of the can.” And so it was.

Mark had been captain of his college Formula SAE team at the University of Missouri, Rolla (now Missouri University of Science & Technology), and he used lessons learned there to approach the Camaro’s suspension. Being a GM engineer, he was also able to pull the factory blueprints for the first-gen F-body to see exactly what he was working with. Through this process, he was able to identify the aspects of the Camaro’s front suspension geometry that were unfavorable, and set out to correct them.

“I built my own spindles that were taller than stock; I also relocated the upper control arm mounting points down and back.” Mark was dipping into the GM parts bins too, looking for then-modern technology that could be applied to the Camaro, like the Corvette ZR1 brakes, as well as a Corvette ZF-produced six-speed gearbox.

To be competitive on a road course, the Camaro would have to have serious rubber, but in the early ‘90s, 17-inch wheels and tires were still fairly exotic. Mark had met some of the people involved with the Pontiac Firehawk program—specially upgraded Firebirds produced by SLP and marketed by Pontiac—and was able to purchase, at cost, a set of the Ronal five-spoke wheels being used on the first very limited run of Firehawks for 1992.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro

“The fronts were 17 x 8.5 and the rears were 17 x 9.5; I ran 255 tires in front at 275s in the rear,” Mark recalled. Despite the then-massive rollers in the rear, he points out that the Camaro’s wheelhouses were not altered. “We just built the axle [a Ford 9-inch] to fit the wheels and rolled the [quarter panel] lips.”

The Camaro was powered by a 400-cu.in. small-block Chevy engine with GM aluminum “Phase 3” cylinder heads developed for NASCAR. Mark related that he spent some time trying to get a good carburetor dialed in for it, but ultimately decided to step up to more modern technology.

“I kept trying to get a carburetor to work, but I really didn’t understand them as well as I understood fuel injection, so I installed an early Edelbrock/Magneti Marelli fuel-injection system instead. We got it dialed in well enough to run 12.8 seconds at 118 mph—the engine was probably making around 425 hp.”

One of Mark’s co-conspirators in those days was another young GM engineer named Kyle Tucker. If that name sounds familiar, it’s likely because Kyle is today the owner of Detroit Speed & Engineering, a company dedicated to developing and producing a variety of upgrade components and systems for muscle-era and later American performance cars. Kyle would join Mark, along with Mark’s high-school friend Tom Baker, for the team’s first One Lap in 1993. The car performed well, but the effort would come to an abrupt halt when one of the Camaro’s high-pressure fuel lines disconnected itself on the track at Michigan International Speedway while Kyle was driving. Before the car could be brought back to the pits, the leaking, pressurized fuel ignited, doing extensive damage to the Camaro.

Making the misfortune more of a crisis was the fact that Mark had been invited to compete in Car Craft magazine’s Real Street Eliminator event that was just weeks away. With help from Kyle and other friends, the Camaro was repaired, repainted, and present for the Real Street event in St. Louis, with Kyle again joining Mark. The pair drove the Camaro to St. Louis from Detroit, ran the event, nabbing first place, and then left directly from the award presentation to drive back home. “We pulled into Detroit around 6 am. I dropped Kyle off, went home, put the Camaro in the garage, took a shower and got dressed, and went to work,” recalled Mark with a chuckle.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro

The impetus for building the Camaro had yet to be satisfied, however, so for 1994, Mark made plans to further improve the car and run the One Lap again. His time with the magazine editors resulted in some new friendships, and while chatting with Hot Rod and Car Craft editor Jeff Smith at the SEMA show that year, Mark was introduced to noted engine builder and drag racer John Lingenfelter. Before long, Lingenfelter was offering to build the all-aluminum small-block Mark was dreaming about as part of the “diet” he wanted to put the Camaro on for ’94.

“I had all the parts shipped to Lingenfelter Engineering in Indiana,” Mark recounted, “And then when it was ready, John called me to come out for the dyno test. I drove out, we ran the engine and made 520 hp, then we put it in my truck and I was on the way home by 4 pm that day.”

Mark would run One Lap again, but Kyle couldn’t join the team for 1994. The aluminum engine, along with a fiberglass hood and a new set of lighter Fikse wheels, resulted in more power and less weight, and the Camaro took first place in the Vintage American class, with an impressive sixth-place finish overall. Mark would enter the One Lap once more with the white car, which had picked up the nickname “Tri-Tip” from its Hot Rod magazine feature. This time he enlisted pro driver Stu Hayner to handle the more critical driving events, leading to another Vintage American class win and a third-place overall finish.

The combination of a competitive nature and an ever-expanding base of knowledge and experience motivated Mark to continue improving his approach to building capable first-gen Camaros, but rather than re-rebuilding the white car, he opted to sell it and start fresh with a clean slate. Tri-Tip would change hands a couple more times over the years, with subsequent owners adding their own alterations and upgrades (the car even got a makeover by Kyle Tucker’s crew at Detroit Speed at one point).

1969 Chevrolet Camaro

Today the Camaro maintains its Lingenfelter-built aluminum small-block, though now backed by a T-56 six-speed. There’s a fuel cell in the trunk and an elaborate stereo system that wasn’t there during Mark’s tenure, and the wheels have again been swapped, but the core of Mark’s efforts remain, as does the trademark all-white finish. If you’re going to the SEMA show next week, make a point to stop at the Lingenfelter Engineering booth (25075 in the Central Hall) to see this slice of Pro Touring history up close. And if you feel like it should come home with you, go over to Hemmings Auctions to place your bid.