I'm on a mission to find out what the Yanks think of our VF SS Commodore – but not the American public, who don’t care much for cars weighing under two tonnes (that’s excluding any typical American-sized passengers, of course) but the kind of people Chevy must impress if it wants to sell a few SSs: NASCAR fans.
If the first five minutes of my trip are any indication, having landed in LA and freshly collected ‘my’ Chevy SS, I may as well get back on the plane and head home with my tail between my legs.
A man on the Sunset Boulevard sidewalk, dressed like an extra from a Snoop Dogg music video (and, judging by the bagginess of his trousers, having recently lost a lot of weight) shouts to me as I drive past. I can’t repeat his heckle given MOTOR is a family magazine. Maybe he doesn’t like red cars, maybe it’s the badge – I’m not sure but with 300 million guns in the US, I’m not about to stop and ask him.
Life improves when I arrive at the Beverly Hills Hotel – surprisingly, the bellhop knows exactly what the car is and asks what it’s like to drive. Even with a Bentley GT, a Mercedes SLS and a wild AC Cobra sharing the hotel forecourt, he seems interested. I suspect he’s after a tip, but all I have is Aussie dollars so I flick him a purple fiver. He seems unimpressed. Assuming he has a gun, I get the hell out of there.
Some more background on this mission of mine. So the Chevy SS is well-known to NASCAR fans, but the sales figures suggest it’s not exactly a smash hit. My task is to introduce them to the real thing and see if a little Aussie culture can win them over. If it’s to sell in numbers, these are the folks the SS must impress.
From my perspective, the Yanks are already onto a winner – the Chev is a bargain at US$43K and is way louder than our VF SS. It also scores HSV’s 6.2-litre LS3 in 310kW/562Nm tune. Lucky bastards! I wondered why it felt so healthy.
Next morning, after a quick breakfast at Santa Monica Pier where a guy in his fifties ask if it’s a Cruze (he has his Aussie-built cars confused, that’s all) I point the first rear-drive performance Chevy since 1996 down Interstate 10 and head east with over 600km to cover to Avondale, Arizona – final destination, Phoenix International Raceway where there’s a NASCAR race this weekend.
Freeway cruising doesn’t tell you a lot about a car but I learn more when I give full Blundstone to all 310 kilowatts in an attempt to shake off a miscreant tailgating me like I’m leading the Daytona 500. I summon some Aussie muscle and row through the gears until I’m doing a speed that would land me in Alcatraz, but the tailgater is sorted.
After many an interstate mile, I pass Palm Springs, exit at Avondale and find myself at Phoenix International Raceway 400km later.
Built in 1964, it’s a 1.51-mile (2.43km) low-banked tri-oval that can seat around 67,000 gurgling hillbillies. It looks more like a footy stadium than a racetrack. The main grandstand looks like it’s 10 storeys high and there are folks and motorhomes everywhere.
The other strange thing about Yank racetracks is you can drive practically anywhere. I park the Commodore at the official Chevy merch area next to one of the SS race cars.
Seeing the two cars side by side is revealing.
Of course, the race car is a ‘two-door’ (or a ‘no-door’, really, given you get in and out through the window, Dukes of Hazzard style) and the two cars only share lights, grille, intakes and badging. On the racecar they’re all just stickers anyway. The body shapes are totally different.
I ask a family what they think of the SS. From Iowa, Dad Derrick – dressed in full cammo and looking like he hunted his own breakfast that morning – says he likes that it’s a family car with a sporty, aggressive look. We talk some more but with the race start not far off, I head for the infield to check out the action. Motorhomes circle the whole track and most of them have a viewing deck on the roof and a US flag as standard.
The NASCAR faithful back up to the insides of the corners, then set themselves up with barbecues and enough grog to make the top of Mount Panorama look like it’s under prohibition. A bloke in a Chev SS top sees the car and runs over. “I’m a huge Chevy fan – Richard Childress signed my shirt last night!” He seems rapt with our Aussie creation.
Another man wanders over. He’s got a beer in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. “Fireball!” he shouts and hands me a brimmed shotglass. Suddenly I’m doing shots while Todd, as he introduces himself, tells me how he’s the biggest Chevy fan around.
Again, the Commodore finds itself another admirer.
Not keen on throat cancer, I move on before the next Fireball shot and bump into 10-year-old Dakota. He’s on his BMX and reckons the 19-inch rims are cool. But fundamentally he doesn’t like it. “It’s a Chevy!” With a Ford tattoo probably hidden somewhere, Dakota’s choice of ride when he’s ready to give up the BMX lifestyle is an F350. Bless him.
Next I drive towards pit lane, swerving around hundreds of people – not to mention dogs, dozens of them. (Who brings their dog to a racetrack? Yanks, apparently.) At a NASCAR race the punters can get impressively close to the cars and drivers. The atmosphere is relaxed and super fan-friendly. I spot Marcos Ambrose smiling and chatting to fans, but I’m unable to get the car close enough to him to get his two cents.
Suddenly, the commotion stops and everyone stands up. It’s the national anthem. Just as I’m thinking I’m in Days of Thunder, there’s a 50-plane flyover, then fireworks. ’Merica!
By now, the place is buzzing. The loudspeaker announces, “drivers, start your engines!” and all hell breaks loose. Forty-three NASCARS rumble to life and rev through what sound like straight pipes.
They make V8 Supercars sound like road cars, they’re that loud. You have to hear it for yourself. With earplugs, of course, particularly given that over a brief 26-second lap, the decibel deluge never relents.
Having located earplugs, I head to turn one. Being America, I drive there. I park the Chevy SS next to a monster motorhome where Robert is busy cooking up lunch on the barbecue. He spots the car.
“It’s beautiful – they’ve really stepped up with their design and package,” he says. He’s a fan of the return of the rear-drive Chevy. “I’ve always been a rear-wheel drive type of guy – I’m glad they’ve gone back to it.”
With the race in full swing, it’s hard to ask folks what they think of our beloved SS Commodore as the noise is ceaseless. I’ve no idea who is leading but as a car goes past every half second it doesn’t matter much.
What’s more surprising, though, is the fans. Label me a gronk who believes in stereotypes but I assumed by mixing with the Yank punters, I’d be treading in puddles of spat tobacco, chewing straw and eating road kill for lunch. Not at all.
Everyone is super-friendly, right down to the track officials who politely ask me to move the SS when I accidentally park it on, err, the emergency helipad. If you tried that in Australia, you’d sooner find a race marshal turning into a beetroot with steam coming out each ear. In Victoria, someone would probably give you a fine.
I ask some of the punters where they think the SS is built. Craig, from Burbank, says: “Not in the US; it’s made in Europe for sure.” (We can only take that as a compliment.) Kim, from Tempe, thought it was some kind of BMW until she saw the bowtie. Few realise Australia makes cars.
Fittingly, the race is won by a Chevy SS. Kevin Harvick drives into victory lane under a shower of confetti.
And, day over, I’ve enjoyed my NASCAR experience. The fans are great, passionate about the sport and know their cars. I feel proud to be driving an Aussie car to meet them.
Most people I speak to love the SS. They dig the look, the power and that it’s a proper, rear-drive driver’s car. Now, if only they’d all buy one.
Body: 4-door, 5-seat sedan
Engine: 6162cc V8, OHV, 16v
Bore/stroke: 103.25 x 92.0mm
Power: 310kW @ 5900rpm
Torque: 563Nm @ 4600rpm
Consumption: 13.8L/100km (claimed)
CO2 Emissions: 333g/km (claimed)
0-100km/h: 5.0sec (claimed)
Top speed: 250km/h (limited)
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Suspension: struts, A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
Tracks: 1590/1585mm (f/r)
Steering: electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes: 355mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers (f); 360mm solid discs, single-piston calipers (r)
Wheels: 19 x 8.5-inch (f); 19 x 9.5-inch (r)
Tyres: 245/40 ZR19 (f); 275/35 ZR19 (r) Bridgestone RE050A
Positives: More power and equipment than Aussie cars at a cheaper price
Negatives: Not very popular Stateside; it’s cheaper than at home!