Article By Rick Jensen. Photography courtesy of GM and Source Interlink.
The 2015 Corvette Z06’s specs are simply shocking—650 horses, 650 lb-ft of twist, 0 to 60 in 2.95 seconds and the quarter mile in 10.95 seconds at 127 mph. Those numbers put this flag-waving beast on par with the world’s best supercars. But even more impressive than the power is the price: Z06’s $78,000 base price has raised the bar of affordable performance to a previously unreachable height.
Like you, I’ve been shaking my head in wonder at this budget supercar all week. But, for me, this news reignited a decade’s worth of shock and awe about Corvette’s Z06 program. Because 10 years ago, my magazine test of a stock C5 Z06 recorded a mind-blowing 11-second quarter-mile time.
In 2004, I was the new editor-in-chief of GM High-Tech Performance magazine. GMHTP was a small EFI GM mag owned by Primedia, which had everything from Motor Trend to Hot Rod in its portfolio. GMHTP shared the north New Jersey office with three other titles including Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords, High Performance Pontiac and, alternately, Mustang Illustrated or Super Chevy. It was a 10-strong, typical satellite office—while our overachieving group didn’t get near the attention that the west coast mags got, we didn’t have the office politics (or HR department) to deal with either. But it lacked many of the amenities that the West Coast guys had; they worked on projects in huge Primedia shops with tools, lifts and in-house dynos, while we wrenched in our driveways, or at nearby performance shops.
But our East Coast office had one huge benefit—Old Bridge Township’s Raceway Park. This quarter-mile strip near Englishtown is a mecca for thousands of NYC-area drag racers, and for good reason: the track plays host to NHRA national events, so it’s smooth and wide, with concrete walls, plenty of runoff and a sand trap. And because it’s only about 50 feet above sea level, cool weather drops the density altitude readings to several thousand feet below sea level—optimum conditions for setting records. Adding to that, E-town’s staff was an amazing group of hardcore racers: before he became the three-time NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champion, Eddie Krawiec was Raceway Park’s track manager, and he would perfectly prep the track for our magazine track days, then fire off some lightning-quick passes on his drag bike.
We Jersey guys were known company-wide for being hardcore racers, and our pizza and grabass-filled track days happened at least once a week. Most of us spent our formative years not learning how to string a sentence together, but racing and wrenching on streets and strips around the country. We knew our way around a drag strip and an autocross course, and a few of the older editors were damn good road racers, too.
But within our group, there were a couple of guys who were so good at bangin’ gears, you would have thought they were born with a shifter in their hands. One was Steve Baur, GMHTP’s associate editor. To describe Steve was to take the savant from A Beautiful Mind and mix him with a lifelong car nut from a Florida trailer park. None of us could understand his FUBAR Floridian lingo—nearby Sopranos hangout Bada Bing was a "jack shack,” and he’d give anything in the next lane "4500 worth of Team Magnaflow” during commutes. He’d also yank our testers’ E-brakes in traffic and giggle as we spun. Slightly insane? Clearly. But he could also coax an extra few tenths out of any manual-trans car’s ET, and I needed a great wheelman for our 2004 Z06 press car. It was a no-brainer: Baur was the perfect Z06 test driver.
And Steve was gonna have his hands full with this beast. While the first Z06s were race-ready 1960s Vettes with big gas tanks, the first insanely fast Z06s were the 2001-2004 models. The Corvette team started Z06 planning early with the 1999-2000 "Fixed Roof Coupe” hardtops. They were lighter, stiffer and quicker than hatchback Vettes and served as the perfect donor for the Z06’s 346-cube, high-compression LS6. While the 2001 Z06 sported 385 horses, the 2002-2004 Z06s, like our tester, was rated at 405 horses and 400 lb-ft of torque, huge N/A power for the mid-aughts.
The Z06 was ours for a week, so we immediately drove down to SLP in Toms River, NJ, for a dyno session. And the Z06 didn’t disappoint, putting down 363 hp and 353 lb-ft at the rear wheels. That was 55 horses more than that year’s LS1-powered base Vettes, which were solid 12-second cars to start with. And base Corvettes were also nearly 200 pounds heavier than the Z06. Corvette engineers had resorted to extreme measures to cut the Z06’s weight, including using a lighter battery, a thinner windshield and the first titanium exhaust system ever used on a mass production car. The result? Our Z06 weighed an astonishing 3,074 pounds!
In short, this Z06 was a freakin’ rocket. Obviously, Corvettes are well-balanced road course carvers, but anything with high power, low weight and a strong drivetrain can tear up a drag strip too. Which Z06s were doing—it was rumored that they could outrun the mighty mid-’90s ZR-1 by a full second in the quarter mile, and many forum posters were gloating about low 12-second ETs after some practice. Baur’s eyes burned with "challenge accepted” after seeing that, so after a few nights of 135-mph interstate runs and gut-wrenching 0-60-0 fun, it was time to track test the brutal machine. So on March 22, 2004, Baur and I pointed the Corvette’s nose south and headed to Englishtown.
It was a cool 50 degrees when we rolled up to E-town’s tower. After popping the hood and putting a couple ice bags on the composite intake manifold, we fired up the TAG weather station. The humidity was low, and the barometer was a steady 30.00. We shared a knowing look: racing weather.
Thirty minutes later, the track was prepped and Baur slid into the Z06. After a quick spin of the tires to get ‘em clean and sticky, he pulled to the line, revved to 3200 and watched the tree come down. On the last yellow, Baur aggressively added gas while slipping the clutch—but the touchy IRS rear hopped on launch, and the LS6 zinged to redline so fast that he hit the rev limiter in first and second gears. It looked like the run was wasted, but he was determined to run it out so he kept the gas planted through third and fourth. When the right-side Dodge clocks lit up with a 12.2 at 117, I couldn’t believe it. If it could go that quick on a wasted run, what would it do on a good one?
A great 60-foot time is mandatory for a great ET, so we spent the time between runs discussing different launch rpm and clutch slip points. After a few passes he’d whittled the Z06’s ET down to a 12.03. But because of the long cool-down time between runs, the warm sun was dropping faster than we wanted. Soon the track would start to go away—we had to find the beast’s sweet spot, and fast.
Baur’s next run reeked of clutch smoke and resulted in a wheel-hopping launch and a disappointing ET. My hopes started to wane with the fading light, but instead of parking it, Steve immediately drove back to the starting line and did a quick burnout. The clutch was getting hot, and the coolant temp was over 200 degrees. Our 11-second hopes were fading as fast as the sunlight… but in that moment, Baur performed a miracle.
A perfect street-tire launch sounds really strange; it happens when a tire just barely spins while trying to completely break away from a sticky, VHT-covered starting line. Baur had finally found the perfect launch technique: a steady 3200 rpm with a knee-jerk, no-slip clutch engagement. And when the IRS loaded, the 220-treadwear Goodyears screamed "EEEEeeeek” in protest. It was a hop-free, full-traction launch, and as the LS6’s big torque yanked the Z06 forward, a 1.90 60-foot time showed on the right-lane board. "Whoa…” I exclaimed, and like the angry Z06, my thoughts were flying. As Baur powershifted second and third, the tires chirped as the LS6 sang near its 6500 redline. And soon after he grabbed fourth gear, the silver missile sailed through the traps with an 11.97 at 118!
We both erupted—I jumped and hollered on the starting line, and Baur let out a muffled exclamation on the return road while craning his neck to see the board. We high-fived, marveled in the fact that we just ran one of the quickest stock Z06 times in the world, then quickly parked the conquering Corvette in front of the board to get some photos.
We subjected the high-strung monster to a complete battery of instrumented tests that week, including acceleration, deceleration and lateral g tests. The C5 Z06 went 0-60 in 3.91 seconds, stopped from 60 in 117 feet and averaged exactly 1g on our 200-foot skidpad. Its neck-snapping power and crisp handling felt like a go-kart, and it was as much of a supercar as any early 21st century American car could be. Our Machine Silver tester left GMHTP soon afterward, but I can still remember its explosive personality to this day.
As the years progressed, it took a lot more power to drop those ETs: in 2006, the C6 Z06 ran mid-11s with 505 horses and 470 lb-ft. And today, the insanely powerful C7 Z06 puts out 650 horses and 650 lb-ft of torque from its supercharged 6.2-liter V-8. It will cost around $90,000 to run those 10.95 quarter miles: $78,000 for the Z06, plus a couple of necessary add-ons including the Z07 performance package. But think about this: after a few years of depreciation, these things could dip into the $50,000 range!
I’ve driven the C5 Z06, C6 Z06 and the C6 ZR1, and can honestly say that the C5 Z06 was the most surprising of the three—not because it was the most powerful, but because it was so much faster than any Corvette I’d experienced before. The words "insane,” "wicked” and "crazy fast” get dropped into lots of performance car reviews. But including the awesome Viper, the C5 Z06 was one of the first cars in the domestic EFI era to truly deserve such words. Its acceleration was the most brutal, jarring and thrilling feeling I’d ever experienced. That’s the beauty of GM’s Z06 program: it completely blindsides you. And right now, that’s exactly how the 2015 Z06’s competitors are feeling.