son of famous Mustang driver Parnelli Jones:
“The Mustang is a car that you can hustle.”
son of famous Camaro driver Mark Donohue:
“There’s no replacement for displacement.”
“Uh-oh!” isn’t a phrase you want to hear coming from a driver’s mouth in the middle of a tricky corner during a hot lap on a racetrack, especially when you’re in a brand-new GT and you’ve got strict orders to bring it home sans dents or scratches, much less dangling from the hook of a wrecker.
At the moment, the tail of the Mustang is cocked at an outrageous angle as it slews past an apex at New Jersey Motorsports Park, and from my vantage point in the passenger seat, all I can see out the windshield is disaster. But driver PJ Jones has two decades of experience in everything from GTP prototypes to Indy cars. So he calmly–but expeditiously–slaps on some opposite lock to corral the wayward Mustang, and he keeps the car on the pavement with a good, oh, half millimeter to spare.
“That’s why you shouldn’t drive while you’re looking in your mirror,” Jones says, and I can imagine him grinning, even though I can’t see his face inside his helmet.
When I check the sideview mirror, I see that it’s filled, and I mean completely, with the sharklike snout of an equally new SS driven by David Donohue, who’d raced on this very track a few weeks earlier in his Daytona Prototype. We’d asked Donohue and Jones to give us a few brisk laps in close proximity so we could shoot some arresting photographs of the cars in action. Nothing too crazy, just a little bit of showboating for the camera. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
But now, riding shotgun as I watch the Camaro bomb past with the rear end twitching under hard braking, I realize that this is what we should have expected when we put two race car drivers in two of the hottest American performance cars on a single racetrack at the same time. And as we hurtle past the start/finish line, fender to fender at better than 120 mph, it strikes me that what I’m seeing here is nothing less than history repeating itself.
Forty years ago, during the heyday of the Trans-Am series, Parnelli Jones and Mark Donohue–the fathers of the drivers we’re lapping with today–raced previous editions of the Mustang and the Camaro against each other in one of the most contentious rivalries in motorsports history. Donohue was killed during practice for the Austrian Grand Prix in 1975, but Jones is still around, and he hasn’t forgotten or forgiven the hostilities of 1969. When PJ told him that he’d be testing a Mustang against a Camaro driven by Donohue’s son, Parnelli said, “Make sure you kick his ass.”
Mustang versus Camaro has been the most volcanic battle in the Ford-versus-Chevy war that’s defined the American automotive landscape for much of the past century. The Mustang arrived first, staking out the pony car high ground in 1964 and earning boatloads of easy money during the two and a half years it took General Motors to respond. When the Camaro finally debuted, it inevitably was cast as Avis to Mustang’s Hertz, and it’s tried harder ever since with hotter engines, snazzier styling, and a host of other touches.
Mustangs and Camaros have faced off in showrooms, at stoplights, and, most dramatically, on racetracks. The Trans-Am road-racing series, created by the SCCA in 1966 for production-based machinery, turned out to be the perfect showcase for the pony cars emerging not only from Ford and Chevy but also Mercury (Cougar), Pontiac (Firebird), Dodge (Challenger), Plymouth (Barracuda), and American Motors (Javelin). Mustangs won the first two manufacturer’s championships. Camaros took the third. The showdown came in 1969.
Ford threw its factory support behind stock-car legend Bud Moore and Parnelli Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner turned famously uncompromising road racer. Chevrolet opted for a different approach, entrusting its Camaro to a pair of graduates from the SCCA club-racing ranks – team owner Roger Penske and his driver/engineer/team manager Mark Donohue, who’d breezed to the Trans-Am championship the previous year.
Donohue and Jones were polar opposites as well as on-track rivals, and the friction between them and their equally antagonistic team owners touched off fireworks that enlivened a 1969 season full of protests, skullduggery, and rough driving. Jones won twice, but Donohue swept six of the last seven races to give Chevrolet a repeat title. The next year, Jones got his revenge, beating Donohue–driving a Javelin–by a single point after winning the last race of the season.
By 1972, both of them had quit Trans-Am, Jones heading off to dustier pastures in off-road racing (and winning the Baja 1000) and Donohue focusing on more sophisticated prototypes and open-wheel cars (winning the Indy 500 and then the Can-Am title the next year). The fuel crisis of 1973 gutted the pony car brigade, and while the Mustang and the Camaro soldiered on, their glory days were behind them. F-body sales eventually became so anemic that Chevrolet quit making the Camaro altogether in 2002.
But the old warhorse wasn’t quite ready for the glue factory. In 2006, a Camaro concept car reignited the faithful, and earlier this year, Chevy brought out an all-new, fifth-generation Camaro that’s bigger, bolder, and–at least judging by the numbers–better than any of its predecessors. To compete with it, Ford updated its fifth-generation Mustang for the 2010 model year with tauter exterior styling and an improved chassis.
We’d already tested both cars individually and came away impressed by each of them. But we wanted to see how they stacked up in a more competitive environment–on the racetrack. To wring them out, who better than the race-proven sons of the drivers who’d campaigned the cars so famously back in the day? So we lined up some track time at New Jersey Motorsports Park. And then we drove the cars east from Ann Arbor.
That was a long haul, admittedly, but there was method to our madness. Rather than tricking out the cars with aftermarket goodies, we decided to make this a run-what-you-brung affair. And to make sure we had an apples-to-apples comparison, we limited ourselves to go-fast parts available as factory-installed options.
For the Mustang, we started with the GT model, built around a 315-hp, 4.6-liter twin-cam V-8 mated to a five-speed manual transmission. To this, we added the $1495 Track Pack, which features a limited-slip differential with a 3.73:1 final-drive ratio, nineteen-inch wheels shod with Pirelli PZeros, more aggressive brake pads, carbon-fiber clutch plates, a strut tower brace, and upgraded suspension components.
For the Camaro, we opted for the SS. This is slightly more expensive than the Mustang GT, but it offers more bang–a 6.2-liter pushrod V-8 pumping out 426 hp, a six-speed transmission, a limited-slip diff, Brembo brakes, and a performance suspension. All Camaros have an independent rear suspension rather than the Mustang’s live axle. We also checked the box for the $1200 RS package, which added twenty-inch PZeros to the mix.
Both cars performed so admirably on the 600-mile slog to New Jersey that our racetrack prep consisted of nothing more than washing them, filling the fuel tanks, and airing up the tires (a few psi over the factory-recommended pressures to avoid chunking the tires’ outer tread ribs). Under threatening skies and braving lots of pesky little insects, Jones and Donohue met us at the so-called Thunderbolt Raceway with helmet bags in hand.
Gentlemen, start your engines!
Each driver gets one session to familiarize himself with the cars and the circuit, and being pros, they’re up to speed almost immediately. Then, they each do a series of timed hot laps. After Donohue finishes his session in the Camaro, his feedback begins with an eternal verity: a street car–even a really hot street car–isn’t a race car. Not even close. There’s just too much compliance in the Chevy’s suspension; otherwise, the car wouldn’t be livable in the real world.
But as he drills down to specifics, Donohue’s assessment is upbeat. “The engine’s a stump-puller,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what gear you’re in. And the brakes are excellent.” Almost too good, in fact. “Under hard braking,” he says, “it almost feels like axle hop. There’s so much weight on the nose that the rear lifts up and the ABS kicks in.”
The biggest flaw, though, is persistent understeer. “It wants to push just about everywhere,” Donohue says. “I even tried pitching it on the way into the corners to wag the rear end out, but that just caused the front end to wash out worse–and earlier. So it’s not nimble. But it’s not nervous, and it doesn’t want to bite you. It’s a friendly car that you can get out of shape without worrying about going off the road.”
Jones is up next, and I’m expecting him to be unhappy with the Mustang‘s old-school live axle. But he’s amped when he pulls off his helmet. “It’s very well balanced,” he says. “It doesn’t have a lot of push, and the longer I ran, the looser it seemed. I was getting some wheel spin off the slow corners, but it’s pretty good in the tight stuff. You can miss your mark and still make the corner and have a good lap.”
Jones’s major gripe is the brakes. Also, the gearing is such that he was caught between second and third in several corners–an annoying problem because the engine didn’t seem to come on the cam until about 4000 rpm. But the big picture looks awfully appealing. “The Mustang is very predictable and real forgiving,” he says. “It’s a car that you can hustle.”
Next, the drivers swap cars. When this session is over, Donohue is the guy wearing the big smile. “Just driving down pit lane, the Mustang seemed much lighter,” he says. “The low-speed grip is so much better, and you can toss it into the corner sideways.” Jones, on the other hand, looks worn out by the Camaro. “It’s a pig,” he says bluntly. “The brakes are much better, but it just won’t turn. The Mustang is a lot more fun to drive.”
Fun? We’re not here to have fun. This is a racetrack test, and the measure of success is speed. To our surprise, and based on the lap times posted in each car, the Camaro is 0.7 second quicker than the Mustang, which translates into an average speed of 80.9 versus 80.3 mph on the 2.25-mile Thunderbolt circuit. (Comparative lap times suggest that this isn’t too far off the speeds that Trans-Am racing cars would have posted back in 1969.) When Jones and Donohue return to the track for some wheel-to-wheel dicing, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the cars become painfully obvious.
The Mustang eats the Camaro alive in midcorner but never threatens to get by. “The only way I could pass him,” Jones acknowledges, “is if he makes a mistake–or I don’t mind bruising a door.” (Sounds like Parnelli’s son, all right.) But vastly superior torque (420 to 325 lb-ft) allows the Camaro to pull clear on acceleration. And on the fast corners in the last segment of the circuit and honking down the front straight, the Camaro runs away and hides.
“I was shocked by how quickly you could pull up to me,” Jones says afterward.
Donohue grins. “There’s no replacement for displacement.” Not for nothing did his father title his memoir The Unfair Advantage.
More power and better brakes mean the Camaro is consistently faster than the Mustang, while nearly 300 pounds less weight, higher grip, and more tossable handling make the Mustang more rewarding to drive. Sounds like a photo finish to us. The big news is how robust the cars prove to be despite clicking off lap after lap at seriously impressive speeds. “We took production cars and beat the crap out of them on a racetrack,” Donohue says, “and they’re still good to go.”
In fact, the cars made it back to Michigan, driving–and looking–no worse for the wear. That surely wouldn’t have been the case if we’d been testing the first-gen Mustang and Camaro back in 1969. Especially if Mark and Parnelli had been behind the wheel.
Mustang vs. Camaro: The Long History
by David Zenlea
The Mustang/Camaro rivalry is about as subtle as the cars themselves: what’s not to like about America’s big-volume, blue-collar brands slugging it out with affordable V-8 muscle? It all started in 1964, when the Mustang, a brainchild of Ford general manager Lee Iacocca, scored a record-breaking 418,812 first-year sales and caught Chevrolet decidedly off guard. Chevy had primarily counted on its Corvair and Nova to hold the line against the newcomer, but they were no match for the Mustang’s sex appeal and V-8 performance.
Chevrolet’s answer, the Camaro, arrived for 1967, aimed squarely at the Mustang but with a personality all its own. Whereas the Ford came off as pretty, even elegant, the menacing Chevy looked to be spoiling for a fight, and it was–behind those optional blacked-out headlights lurked as many as 396 cubic inches of V-8 brawn.
Their respective warriors cast, Ford and Chevrolet launched a fierce pony car war. The most heated battles took place on tracks across America, where Parnelli Jones’s Boss 302 Mustang traded paint with Mark Donohue’s Camaro Z28. Street racers, meanwhile, craved–and got–ever more power. In 1969, an enthusiast could order either a 427-cubic-inch V-8 in a Camaro or 429 cubic inches in the aptly named Boss 429 Mustang. It was, no doubt, a golden age.
What distinguishes this rivalry from other great muscle car stories, though, is that it didn’t end with the oil shortages of the 1970s. Although their performance declined, both cars survived, and when horsepower recovered in the 1980s and ’90s, these pony cars battled again. The Camaro bristled with fuel-injected Corvette engines, and Ford fired back with ever more brutal SVT Cobras. By the dawn of the new millennium, versions of each car left the factory with more than 300 hp.
And then, just like that, the game ended. In 2002, the Camaro and its venerable twin, the Pontiac Firebird, left the field. Declining sales had convinced GM executives that Americans no longer wanted coupes. But just as in 1964, the Mustang threw egg in their faces. The redesigned 2005 model racked up 160,412 sales, spurring Chevrolet back into action.
So here we are once more, trying to decide which pony car accelerates slightly faster, handles slightly better, and has a slightly more tasteful interior. One could argue that both companies have more important concerns these days than winning a performance-car grudge match. Their combined market share is two-thirds of what it was in the 1960s, and then there’s the matter of rising fuel-economy standards. But in this uncertain new world, we’re glad that we can at least cling to a simple rivalry, one all about the sound of V-8s in full fury and the smell of burning rubber.
NEW JERSEY MOTORSPORTS PARK
By Mike Ofiara
New Jersey Motorsports Park opened in July 2008 to serve racing enthusiasts on the Eastern Seaboard: Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York are all within a three-hour drive. Carved out of some 700 acres of forest, NJMP boasts two world-class road courses (Thunderbolt, which we used, and Lightning), a karting track, numerous garages, and a clubhouse equipped with locker rooms, a pool, a restaurant, and tennis courts.
“We really want to give guests the country-club lifestyle,” says business development head Steve Stander. “We want it to be fun for the entire family, not just the driver.”
The fourteen-turn Thunderbolt, the signature course, hosts events such as the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, the ARCA RE/MAX Series, the Ferrari Challenge, and the AMA Superbike Championship. Large, grassy runoff areas and a wide racing surface make Thunderbolt appealing to a wide range of drivers. “You really have to mess up in order to hit something here,” laughs Stander.
Thunderbolt was named for the World War II fighter planes that were stationed at the nearby Millville Airport. Future plans for the property include trackside villas that will be available to rent for race weekends, a three-quarter-mile tri-oval, an on-site hotel, and an off-road course.
- Camaro SS
- Mustang GT
- Base price/as tested
- OHV 16-valve V-8
- SOHC 24-valve V-8
- 6.2 liters (376 cu in)
- 4.6 liters (281 cu in)
- 426 hp @ 5900 rpm
- 315 hp @ 6000 rpm
- 420 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm
- 325 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
- Transmission type
- 6-speed manual
- 5-speed manual
- Suspension, front
- Strut-type, coil springs
- Strut-type, coil springs
- Suspension, rear
- Multilink, coil springs
- Live axle, coil springs
- Vented discs, ABS
- Vented discs, ABS
- Pirelli PZero
- Pirelli PZero
- Tire size f, r
- 245/45YR-20, 275/40YR-20
- 255/40WR-19, 255/40WR-19
- 3859 lb
- 3565 lb
- EPA MILEAGE
- 16/24 mpg
- 16/24 mpg
- 0-60 mph
- 4.8 sec
- 5.3 sec
- 0-100 mph
- 0-140 MPH
- 13.3 sec @ 111 mph
- 14.0 sec @ 103 mph
- 30-70 mph passing
- 6.3 sec
- 7.4 sec
- 70-0 MPH BRAKING
- 149 ft
- 157 ft
- SPEED IN GEARS 1)
- 52 mph
- 40 mph
- Maximum Speed
- 130 mph
- 127 mph
- 0.83 g
- 0.75 g
- 0.95 g
- 1.05 g
- 0.95 g
- 0.94 g
- 0.98 g
- 105 mph
- 97 mph
- 0.97 g
- 1.12 g
- 0.80 g
- 0.61 g
- Minimum speed
- 47 mph
- 48 mph
- Fastest Lap
- Average speed
- 80.9 mph
- 80.3 mph