Ford and Chevy have always strained to outdo each other when it comes to developing pony cars, and their devoted enthusiasts have long built up that tension by trying to settle which car company is king at the drag strip. This mix of dedication and animosity led Ford to birth a 662-hp Shelby GT500 and prompted Chevy to resurrect the ZL1 moniker for their most powerful production Camaro ever, and we spent a day at Milan Dragway in Michigan running them against each other. And, yes, one was quicker than the other.
Before revealing which car went the length in less time, let's set three things straight. One, drag racing isn't all about quarter-mile times. It's as much about car control as it is your time slip. Going faster isn't worth much if a car can't do it safely. Two, "your results may vary," due to track conditions or temperature, or your driving skill that enhances or dulls them. Three, manufacturer loyalties be damned: you're looking at a five-figure, 200-mph Mustang and its Mega Camaro nemesis. Love only one if you must, but respect them both. With that said, let's see what these cars can do once they're staged, starting with the Camaro.
The 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 coupe
The original 1969 Camaro ZL1 would run low-13s on stock rubber when other pony cars of the same generation wouldn't get close to that even on a pair of slicks. More than four decades later, the new ZL1 has a lot to live up to. The fact that this is the most potent production Camaro ever, powered by a 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 with 580 hp and 556 lb-ft of torque, is a good start, but you need more than grunt to move a car down the strip. Not relying solely on displacement, Chevy enhanced its Camaro with go-fast electronics including a launch control system.
Chevy created five modes that enhance launch control, the highest mode tuned specifically for the VHT-prepped surfaces at the strip. Hit the ZL1's stability control button twice and toggle through the gauge cluster menu to traction management "mode five," which shuts off stability control, and sets traction control to "race," and the magnetorheological dampers to "track." Then all you have to do is stage, put the clutch and accelerator pedals to the floor, and slot the gear lever into first. The system modulates launch rpm to maximize available traction. When the green light comes on, lift your left foot and the ZL1 goes from predicting perfect launch rpm to managing how much assistance is needed to stop the rear 305-section tires from smoking and start moving the Camaro out of the hole. Launch control isn't available on cars equipped with the automatic transmission, but that's OK because we think the manual is a must in any ZL1.
The six-speed Tremec TR6060 feels meaty and well built, and there's never a moment's doubt that the trans can handle engine output. For the ZL1, Chevy designed the shifter in-house, and it feels just as good on the strip as the available Hurst short-throw unit in the SS does, but much more fluid in street driving. The best feature of this gearbox, however, is no-lift shift, which means you can keep the accelerator pinned down while changing ratios. The key to perfecting the no-lift shift, according to Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser, is short-shifting. Not way before redline but just enough that the 1.9-liter supercharger has time to produce boost between gears.
Taking the ZL1 the length isn't very dramatic. The exhaust isn't earsplitting, and the front tires stay true and straight. The car's head-up display is unneeded, because there's plenty of time to glance down at the standard tachometer between shifts. The car is extremely predictable, easy to control, and it doesn't try to put you into the outside wall every time you lift off the throttle. It's not a frightening experience at all, which isn't what you'd expect from something packing 580 hp. We loved hot-lapping the Chevy. After each pass, we'd roll the windows down and crank the air conditioning, forcing the car's electric fan to come on, helping lower temperatures in both the engine and the supercharger's intercooler. Then we would drive through the staging lanes, back to the tree, roll up the windows, and turn off the air conditioning, ready for another run. The car never hiccupped or showed any signs of fatigue, which made us do even more consecutive passes. We weren't once let down by the ZL1's performance.
The car is both a lion and a pussycat. It's extremely powerful and very satisfying to drive in a straight line. That said there's not a lot of theater in doing so. There are no heroic saves or mid-strip slides. For that stunning spectacle, we turn to the car we ran against the Chevy.