In 1967, Ben Wenzel walked into Martin Chevrolet in Hemlock, Mich. plunked down a then-hefty sum of $3,463.50 and drove off with a shiny new ’67 Z-28 Camaro, squealing the tires not long after leaving the parking lot. A half-century later, that purchase might rate as the best investment since Apple stock went public at $28 a share.
Wenzel drove the Camaro home, putting 25 miles on the odometer, and that was almost the last time it has turned a tire on a public road. Wenzel bought the car because he felt it would be a perfect car for NHRA Stock class racing, and he could not have been more right. After running a few local events around his Michigan home, Ben, along with his brother Dave taking the role of mechanic and tuner, built a solid reputation with numerous wins in the tough Stock and Jr. Stock classes. Wenzel’s life changed forever over Labor Day weekend in 1967 when he attended the NHRA Nationals in Indy, and promptly won the Stock class title over Ken Gunning and his ’57 Chevy station wagon.
“There were only 602 of these cars made, but we didn’t buy it because it was unique,” said Wenzel, now a very active 75, and long retired from his job at the Saginaw Gear plant. “We bought it because it was made to race. It’s always been a race car. It’s an amazing car. The funny thing is that I was going to buy a Chevelle at first. We’d been racing a 409 Chevy and we were getting killed by the guys with Chevelles. I was going to get a big block Chevelle but then I took a look at the Camaro. At first I didn’t like it, but when I saw that it was light and had 290-horsepower, I knew it would make a good race car. I think I was right.”
Wenzel’s Indy win is a significant milestone because it marks the first NHRA drag racing victory for the iconic Chevy Camaro . At the same event, Bill Jenkins drove a similar ’67 Camaro to the Super Stock title over Bob Brown. Wenzel doesn’t recall which final ran first, but since Stock traditionally precedes Super Stock, it’s highly likely that he received his trophy at least a few minutes before Jenkins.
Since the '67 Nationals, the Camaro has become perhaps the most successful vehicle in drag racing with countless victories and championships. Dan Fletcher has driven his father’s ’69 Camaro Super Stocker to the lion’s share of his 101-career NHRA national event wins. The legendary Reher-Morrison team dominated Pro Stock in the early 1980s with a Camaro, first with the late Lee Shepherd and later with comparably talented Bruce Allen behind the wheel. More recently, Jeff Strickland won the 2016 Stock national championship with a COPO Camaro, a special-order factory-built race car that is a direct descendant of Wenzel’s ’67-model Camaro.
With the exception of a brief hiatus during the 1980s, the Wenzel brothers have raced their car since 1967. It has never been out in cold weather and doesn’t have a speck of rust on it, anywhere. The car remains mostly original with the exception of a few necessary upgrades in the interest of both performance and safety. It’s had one repaint, although it retains its original hue, Tahoe turquoise. The original Muncie four-speed transmission was long ago replaced by a Jerico gearbox. Wenzel recalls with a high degree of certainty that his first run in the car was 13.07-seconds and in its current C/Stock trim, the car has run a best of 10.36, and improvement of nearly three-seconds.
The Indy win aside, the Wenzel’s have enjoyed much success with the car. Ben was named as the Car Craft Magazine Stock Driver of the Year for 1967. They also won the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk in 2010 when Ben defeated David Rampy in the final. Wenzel has also won seven Lucas Oil Series divisional titles and in 2000, the brothers were inducted into the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame.
“It’s important to remember that this has always been about me and Dave,” said Wenzel. “He’s my brother and he’s been with me since the beginning. This is our car and we race as a team.”
Strictly on merit, any ’67 Z-28 Camaro is a rare beast. In the first year of production, GM offered the Z-28 as a performance model with a 302-cid small block engine and a four-speed transmission. As Wenzel noted, just 602 of them were built and many of them didn’t survive the gas crunch of the 1970s or the salt used to treat snow-covered Northern highways. No other ’67 Camaro has a pedigree that can match Wenzel’s car, which makes it one of the most desirable muscle cars in the world.
As an original, one-owner Z-28 with a world-class racing history, Wenzel’s Chevy would easily surpass the six-figure mark if it was ever offered for sale. Some estimates even put the car in the $250,000-$300,000 range but Wenzel doesn’t care so much about the dollars.
“Actually, I'd sell the car but the price would be out of this world,” Wenzel joked. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me what they think it’s worth but no one has ever made a concrete offer. There is almost no chance I’d take it anyway. I’m 75 and I still enjoy racing and I don’t want to drive anything else.”
No one could have predicted that Ben and Dave Wenzel would still be racing their timeless Chevy in 2017 but they have once again returned to Lucas Oil Raceway Indianapolis for the 63rd running of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Camaro, and their historic Indy win, Wenzel will take on a loaded Stock eliminator field that includes almost type of Camaro imaginable, from the first-generation 1967-69 pony cars to the current crop of factory-built 8-second COPO super cars.
In recognition of his long and distinguished career and the success of the Chevy Camaro, Wenzel will also be honored on Saturday when he participates in a special match race against current Funny Car championship contender Courtney Force, who will be driving a street legal 2017 ZL-1 Camaro.
“That’s going to be interesting,” said Wenzel. “Honestly, I’m just happy to be here. A couple of years ago I was doing an interview and they asked me what my goals were. I told them I wanted to race this car for 50-years and now that I’m parked here at Indy I can say that I’ve done that. I may not be the best driver in the world, but I feel I can get the job done. Every time I race, I still believe my chances are good. This is a game crazy people play, but we do it because we love it. I still love this car and I'm glad it's been with me the whole time.”