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Bold Predictions For The Muscle Car Market

From OEMs to aftermarket parts and service suppliers, stakeholders become prognosticators for PRI’s exclusive forecast of this powerful segment.


By Drew Hardin


IN 1963, John DeLorean and a close circle of Pontiac engineers figured out that a 389-cubic-inch V8 would fit in the engine bay of the then-new Tempest. In that skunkworks garage they gave birth to the GTO and, essentially, the 1960s muscle car movement. Some five decades later, that 389’s 325-horsepower output is matched by four-cylinder engines a third of its size. The V8s in today’s factory muscle cars put out double—or more—horsepower than that GTO mill. And on the drag strip, muscle car horsepower is measured in the thousands.

Muscle car evolution has followed a remarkable trajectory in the last 50 years, and enjoyed a fresh renaissance when the Dodge Challenger and fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro joined the stalwart Ford Mustang in the late 2000s. Competition fuels progress, and these cars now benefit from technological advances that push performance to levels unheard of just a few years ago. Dodge threw down the latest gauntlet with the wheels-up launch of the SRT Demon, a halo version of the Challenger that makes up to 840 horsepower, can turn 9-second ETs off the showroom floor, and pulls the front tires when the tree goes green.

Likewise, the aftermarket continues to push muscle car performance, even during the dark days when there were fears that the government would “seal our hoods.” Instead, aftermarket companies learned to work with emissions regulations when necessary, and repurposed some of the OE’s fuel-saving technology—fuel injection, turbocharging, variable valve timing—into power adders of their own. When once you had to go to drag racing’s top nitromethane-fueled classes to find horsepower in the four figures, now muscle car racers had better be packing that kind of power or face being trailered on a regular basis.

We are living in glory days, to be sure. But if history is any indication, we ain’t seen nothing yet. What’s next in this vibrant market segment? To find the answers, we polled a number of OE reps, engine builders, retailers and race sanctioning bodies, who provided their best—and, at times, boldest—predictions for the muscle segment’s future.

PREDICTION: THE FACTORY HORSEPOWER WARS WILL CONTINUE

The slugfest between Mustang, Challenger and Camaro shows no signs of abating. Every year the bar goes up, though now the fight isn’t purely over power output.

Chevrolet’s Camaro ZL1, for example, is no slouch underhood, with 650 horsepower coming from its supercharged LT4 engine. But Chevrolet is promoting the handling prowess of the ZL1’s 1LE package and its proven performance on Germany’s twisting Nürburgring road course.

Likewise, Ford offers high-powered versions of its Mustang, up to the 500-horsepower Shelby GT350R, but its latest innovation is to improve the drag race (and burnout) capabilities of EcoBoost-powered Mustangs by equipping 2018 models with launch control.

Dodge’s Challenger SRT Demon is a purpose-built, yet street-legal, drag race car. The Demon comes equipped with drag radials, launch control, and just a driver’s seat (though the passenger and back seats are $1 options). The Demon is so quick, in fact, that the NHRA has both certified its 9.650/140.09-mph quarter-mile performance and also banned the car (in that state of tune) for not having the safety equipment required of cars running that quick and fast.

PREDICTION: TOO MUCH WILL NEVER BE ENOUGH

“With the Demon, Chrysler is going to dictate what the other two [Chevrolet and Ford] do,” said Dave Weber, whose Modern Muscle Performance in Martinsville, Virginia, specializes in high-po Mopars. “That Demon is going to keep the adrenaline rush going.” Weber admitted, though, that the Demon, and the Challenger Hellcat before it, “did slow down our business a bit, as you could buy all that performance from the factory with a warranty.”

But he also found that there’s a certain segment of muscle car owners who are never satisfied with factory performance. “No matter what, they always need 500 more horsepower.” Some of his customers “will put $60,000 in a car, but they can’t bring themselves to pay that as a window sticker price. Some guys like the chase. When it’s done, it’s their car. They enjoyed the build, and it has their signature on it.”

PREDICTION: THE FACTORY HP WARS WILL CONTINUE ON THE DRAG STRIP, TOO

Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford have all produced limited-edition, race-only versions of their street-going muscle cars for Stock and Super Stock drag racing, and their popularity means the makers will continue to support racers with the COPO Camaro, Challenger Drag Pak, and Cobra Jet Mustang.

“The NHRA Factory Stock Showdown Series has been a great addition in recent years, and we foresee it continuing to grow in popularity,” said Ed Hessell, Mopar Performance Parts Manager in Auburn Hills, Michigan. “It provides the perfect stage for modern-day muscle from the major manufacturers to battle it out, and our Mopar Dodge Challenger Drag Pak is right there in the mix. We continue to work on and enhance our Drag Pak program to give our dedicated Sportsman racers what they need to succeed at the strip.”

Chevrolet has also enjoyed success with its COPO Camaro. According to the maker, in 2016 the COPO Camaro posted seven class wins out of eight NHRA Stock classes, and a Super Stock class win at the 2016 Chevrolet Performance US Nationals in Indianapolis, Indiana. COPO Camaro racer Jeff Lopez was the Stock Eliminator champion.

“The COPO Camaro dominates the car counts of the factory cars,” said Curt Collins of Chevrolet Performance in Grand Blanc, Michigan. “Predominantly in the grassroots racing environment, Chevrolet is the vehicle of choice, and Chevrolet engines are the engines of choice. People relate to Chevrolet, and you see that in the COPO cars.”

The COPO Camaro is also on the leading edge of induction technology, as one of its engine options is an LT1- based, 6.2-liter, naturally aspirated V8 with direct fuel injection, said to be the first direct-injection drag race powerplant. Robin Lawrence, who works on EFI development for Holley in Bowling Green, Kentucky, won the FS/C class at the 2017 Gainesville NHRA Nationals in a direct injected COPO Camaro, running 9.08 seconds at 146 mph.

PREDICTION: THE YOUTH MARKET FOR MUSCLE CARS WILL REMAIN VIABLE

Young people today are often stereotyped as tech-crazed snowflakes who would rather play video games and text with their friends than participate in the physical world. Statistics about the falling numbers of teen drivers would seem to bear that out.

But as with most stereotypes, the reality can be quite different. Weber, for example, counts a strong contingent of younger customers. “There are a lot of young gearheads,” he said. “It’s amazing the interest that’s out there. They aren’t the ones dropping $85,000 for a Demon; that car’s appealing to the guys who wanted a Hemi back then. But I have two guys in my shop, one’s 19, the other 20, and both are building Magnum station wagons. One added an Edelbrock supercharger and a six-speed manual to his; the other swapped in a newer engine and is doing all his own tuning.”

“There’s still a segment that wants to go fast,” said Chevrolet’s Collins, “but they’re more of a do-it-for-me segment. Generation X and Gen Y are more inclined to all of the modern conveniences and electronics. They don’t necessarily know what a carburetor is, or don’t want to.”

What helps the younger enthusiast, said Bill Martens, Special Programs Manager at Chevrolet Performance, is that today’s muscle cars “are much more affordable on the secondary—used car—market. These high-performance Camaros, Mustangs and Challengers provide a great base for the enthusiast to build his hot rod from. They have many more amenities than the original muscle cars, and they start, stop and handle much better than the originals. Even a V6 Camaro is quicker than big block muscle cars of the ’60s and ’70s, and that’s with cruise control and the A/C on!”

PREDICTION: DO-IT-FOR-ME WILL OUTPACE DO-IT-YOURSELF

Martens agreed with Collins’ point about the do-it-for-me enthusiasts. “There are no gas stations anymore,” he observed. “When I was younger we used to change cylinder heads and clutches in the middle of the night at the gas station. That doesn’t happen anymore. So the opportunity for younger people to see and do that is going away.”

But the trend isn’t limited to younger enthusiasts, he added. “The (baby) boomers just aren’t inclined to spend their time doing that. Not that many guys want to screw an engine together anymore. They’d rather take a crate engine and bolt it in. We’re hearing that from working at car shows, street rod events—anywhere there’s that kind of activity. More and more the answer is an LS crate engine. They just want to get in and drive and not worry about it.”

The trend to do-it-for-me is also at work on the more serious end of the enthusiast segment, and with outright racing engines. “Lots of people are leaning toward building LS motors with turbos,” said Terry Hagedorn of Hagedorn Racing Engines, Thompson, Missouri. “They’re not exactly cheap, but they’ll make quite a bit of horsepower. But Joe Blow down the street doesn’t know how to put it together and make it run right.”

Based on Hagedorn’s experience, a “straight-up LS motor with decent heads will make 750–800 horsepower. Put on a single turbo with 10 psi and you’re looking at 1100. With twin turbos and 25 psi you’re at 1800–1900 horsepower. But you’d better know what kinds of parts to put in the motor when you’re upping boost levels or you’re going to have a bad weekend. You need to find the people who know what they’re doing. Anyone can sell you turbos, but not everyone can calculate atmospheres, and how much fuel to put in with the high boost pressures,” he explained.

“It’s such an expensive hobby anymore,” added Weber. “At the power levels we’re at, things become catastrophic when we have a failure. In the old days, if you have an engine miss, you change the plugs. Now if you have a miss you have a hole in a piston. There’s no room for error or you’ll destroy things.” The day we spoke, Weber had just shipped out a Hemi that made 765 horsepower at the wheels. “It wasn’t a mild build, but it wasn’t crazy. It was a normal street engine build for us, upwards of 800 at the wheels, 900 to 1000 at the crank, on 93-octane pump gas. But there is no room for error. Get the timing wrong by one or two degrees and you can have a meltdown.”

PREDICTION: VALUE WILL TRUMP PRICE

This may seem contradictory in today’s economic marketplace, where Internet sellers drive a rush-to-the-bottom mentality when it comes to price. But two of the engine builders we spoke with— Hagedorn and Weber—talked about how important value is to their businesses, rather than simply being the cheapest shop in town.

“What you’re going to get in my shop, versus the bigger shops, is one-on-one service,” Hagedorn said. “I’m going to treat your engine like I’m paying for it and I’m driving it. On my website is a 25-point questionnaire we ask the customers to fill out about what they want before we start building the motor, so we don’t waste your money or my time. I spend a lot of time personally talking to customers about gear ratios, car weight, fuel type, your budget, what you’re going to do with it, and what sort of maintenance level you’re comfortable with.”

That approach is paying off. “Business is booming,” he said, “better now than it’s ever been.”

“There’s a sector of the market out there that’s realizing more and more the importance of how it’s done and not just of how cheap it’s done,” added Weber. “They’re looking for people to give them a fair price, deliver good products and good service.”

PREDICTION: LEGACY ENGINE ARCHITECTURE WILL REMAIN POPULAR

Hagedorn was spot-on about the popularity of GM’s LS-based V8 as the foundation for a wide range of race (and street) engine buildups. But Chevrolet’s Collins said it would be premature to say goodbye to the traditional big and small block engines. “With the growth of the LS- and LT-based crate engines we expected a drop off for the big and small block engines, but they continue to grow for us as well. Most of the big blocks are going into old-school muscle cars being renovated, or they’re becoming all-out race motors. The small blocks are going into everything: muscle cars, rat rods, pickup trucks. That market is very healthy.”

Mopar, too, continues to enjoy robust sales of the Hemi in several variations. That market expanded even further late last year with the addition of the crate engine kits for 345 (5.7-liter) and 392 (6.4-liter) Hemis. The kits simplify the installation of newer crate Hemis into 1975-and-earlier vehicles. “Lovers of vintage muscle now have the option of injecting modern Hemi power into classic muscle-era rides,” said Mopar’s Hessell.

Weber also pointed to Mopar’s Scat Pack engine packages as “the best thing to happen to the market. They made the 6.4 Hemi engine available to guys who couldn’t have it, and allowed that guy with the R/T to take the extra step to get a better engine package. We base a lot of our business on the 6.4, so when Mopar decided to increase their numbers and create another platform, it was fantastic for us.”

Weber’s Modern Muscle Performance does very well with its own drop-in piston and connecting rod kits for 6.1 and 6.4 Hemis. “The factory pistons are not boost friendly,” he explained. “We sell a package with forged pistons and forged rods that are balanced to match factory weights. They can drop right in. If a guy has engine building experience, he can do this in his own garage.”

Edelbrock of Torrance, California, is another aftermarket company that continues to develop parts for the Hemi. “We’re working on an intake manifold for the Gen III Hemi that will be emissions legal for the street enthusiast, but will also have features that will appeal to the race consumer looking to add forced induction or nitrous,” said Eric Blakely. “Since ours is cast from aluminum, it will be stronger than a composite intake and will offer a solution for high-boost applications.”

Edelbrock also recently released a new Hemi cylinder head “that’s aimed at the emission-legal vehicle, but features improved flow with CNC machined chambers for improved performance over stock,” said Blakely. He noted that this head features extra material in the casting for porting when used in racing applications, along with a thicker deck and reinforced combustion chambers for increased cylinder pressures.

PREDICTION: OLD MUSCLE WILL KEEP GOING FASTER, TOO

With multiple turbos, high boost, fuel injection, aerodynamic bodies and sticky slicks, cutting-edge muscle drag cars are impossibly quick. The champion of Hot Rod magazine’s 2016 Drag Week, Jeff Lutz, averaged 6.1918-second passes while winning the event’s Unlimited class in his 1969 Camaro. He also holds what the magazine calls “the quickest time slip ever for a street-legal vehicle: 5.852 at 250.27 mph.” Street legal because, per the magazine’s rules, Drag Week participants have to drive their race cars on public roads between tracks.

There is a group of enthusiastic racers who are working to keep old-school muscle cars going faster, too. Events such as the Pure Stock Muscle Car Drags and the Factory Appearing Stock Tire (FAST) Racing Series have rules in place to keep these 50-some-year-old cars looking like they did back when they were new—right down to the bias-ply tires— but turning quarter-mile times factory engineers in the day could only dream of. The quickest cars at last year’s Pure Stock Drags were running mid-11-second times, while FAST cars can even dip into the 9-second range (largely because that sanctioning body has different rules regarding engine modifications).

“Our rules are strict,” admitted Dan Jensen, founder of the Pure Stock Drags, based in Tecumseh, Michigan. “We don’t allow modifications that alter the car’s looks, or alter performance beyond factory limits. But I’m all for breakthroughs in those areas where we allow some liberties, like the exhaust system, ignition, points conversions, spark plugs, plug wires and tires.”

One such innovation Jensen mentioned was the new Firestone Wide Oval radial tire made by Coker Tire. It looks very much like a 1960’s bias-ply tire, but has radial construction, and all the performance enhancements that go with it. “I’d like to see Kelsey Tire do the same thing with its Goodyear Polyglas tires,” Jensen commented. “It’s the best of both worlds: a stock looking tire with radial construction.”

PREDICTION: ROAD RACING WILL GROW MORE POPULAR

Traditional muscle cars were built to go fast in a straight line. Today’s muscle can do that and go fast around corners, too (like the Camaro ZL1 1LE mentioned earlier). Pair today’s well-handling cars with the growing number of privately owned road race courses under construction across the country and there’s an emerging trend, according to several of our sources.

“With all the country club road racing tracks coming on line, our road racing parts are jumping off the shelves,” said Lou Gigliotti, owner of LG Motorsports, a specialist in Corvette and Camaro performance in Anna, Texas, north of Dallas. “For example, we make drop spindles that lower the Corvette around one inch while adding some camber as well. In addition, we offer a complete line of suspension spherical bearings, sway bars, coil-over shock conversions and other parts that we developed on our own race-winning Corvettes that are getting installed on many track day cars.”

Gigliotti explained how private tracks are “sprouting up everywhere from Chicago to Monticello, Atlanta, Palm Springs, Virginia and more. In fact, we are working on building our own track, LG Motorsports Park, on 170 acres here behind LG Motorsports.”

The National Auto Sport Association (NASA) in Napa Valley, California, has offered for a number of years an American Iron class in its road racing series that “encourages competitors to create an aftermarket-sourced configuration that will make their cars perform at an optimum level,” explained Jeremy Croiset. “The explosion of new offerings from Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge have spurred interest in the series and brought new blood to the class because they wanted a competitive environment to showcase their new vehicles.”

PREDICTION: MORE RACERS (AND FANS) WILL COME FROM THEIR LIVING ROOMS

This isn’t a side effect of ever-more-sophisticated video games. Cable television is generating interest in racing.

“Discovery Channel’s hit TV show Street Outlaws, and the street-car-style drag racing it attracts, will continue to impact sanctioning bodies like NMCA, NMRA, and NHRA in the future, bringing new, young enthusiasts and fans into the sport,” observed Steve Wolcott of the NMRA and NMCA Series, based in Santa Ana, California.

“NMRA and NMCA play in what we call the street car drag racing scene, where we attract everything from wildly aggressive street cars (turbos, nitrous, blowers and so on) to mild street cars (bone stock new Mustangs, Camaros, Challengers),” Wolcott explained. “We have seen a huge amount of fan interest in NMRA and NMCA that we directly attribute to the Street Outlaws TV phenomenon. The cars on the show are similar to the cars that race in our Street Outlaw, Radial Wars, Renegade, Xtreme Street and Drag Radial classes. They have turbos where headlights used to be, big nitrous purges, bumper holes for blowers. Heck, even NHRA did an X275 exhibition at New England Dragway featuring some of our NMRA and NMCA race cars.”

PREDICTION: THE HUNT FOR PERFORMANCE WILL CONTINUE IN UNEXPECTED DIRECTIONS

Engine development, transmission evolution, chassis science and rubber chemistry will remain the primary frontiers in the quest for faster cars and lower ETs. But racers will be looking in other, less obvious places to boost performance— and safety.

For Lakeville, Minnesota-based QA1, best known for suspension components, its carbon fiber driveshafts are the new “hot topic,” said Dave Goldie. “They’re popular in the drag race market, circle track racing, and street cars.”

The primary reason is safety. “A steel or aluminum driveshaft, if it explodes, can do a lot of damage, and injure or even kill a driver,” Goldie said. Should a U-joint fail on a carbon-fiber driveshaft, the shaft will destroy itself, what Goldie called the “brooming effect,” and not damage the bottom of the car.

Yet there’s a performance advantage too, Goldie said. “People spend thousands of dollars to get the lightweight trick of the week, but the driveshaft has been overlooked for all these years,” he noted. “Going from steel to aluminum will help, but carbon fiber has less rotating mass, so it’s more efficient. You’ll accelerate better, 60-foot better, get better ETs. Everyone who has a carbon-fiber driveshaft says the car has picked up a couple of numbers in the 60-foot and ET.”

Bold Predictions For The Muscle Car Market

The slugfest between Dodge Challengers, Ford Mustangs and Chevy Camaro shows no signs of abating, as it seems the factory wars continue to raise the performance bar each year.


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