In my two months of owning a 2019 ZR1, I’ve been asked quite a few questions about the car, many of them having to do with its performance. But that topic has already been covered extensively in the press, including in recent issues of this publication. The question I hope to answer in this article has to do with a different area of inquiry, specifically, “What’s a car with 755-horsepower and the ZTK track package like on a long trip?”
The Vettes I’ve owned—eight of them, ranging from a 1963 327/340 convertible to this ’19 ZR1 coupe—all had high-performance engines, performance suspensions or both. From that perspective, in long-distance driving or just local cruising, the ZR1 with the ZTK Track Performance Package is a lot like a Z51-or-better C7 automatic, except it has a hell of a lot more passing power.
Around town, the car is a surprisingly low-key operator. Because the LT5 relies on a supercharger for its stratospheric power and torque, the ZR1 is a pleasure in easy street driving. The engine idles smoothly and quietly, shifts don’t thump you and the exhaust is a subdued rumble.
Highway driving is similarly pleasant, although some may not like the tire noise. The Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s, part of ZTK, stick like crazy but are not quiet. On the other hand, in two months and 4,844 miles, the ZR1 has averaged 20.6 miles per gallon for a cross-country trip, around-town driving and a number of acceleration tests done for my online writing. Pretty good for a car with 755-hp and no cylinder deactivation.
Made to Order
Zero-dark thirty, March 22. In a room at the Bowling Green Super 8, I was lying wide awake. In a few hours, my wife Sandra and I would begin the 3,000-mile trip home to Goleta, California. We’d picked up our ZR1 at the National Corvette Museum two days earlier, where the NCM’s Shane Webb and his Delivery Team had the car shined up with C-MAGIC, a car-care product NCM uses exclusively. Finished in Corvette Racing Yellow Tintcoat with black trim and black wheels, it looked stunning.
So how’d we end up with a ’19 ZR1? The editor of this magazine, Jay Heath, and Jordan Lee, GM’s Chief Engineer for V-8 Engines, are partially to blame. In late 2017, Heath sent me to Detroit to interview Lee, Assistant Chief John Rydzewsk and supercharger engineer Scott Halsall for an LT5 article that ran in Issue 124. On the jet going home, daydreaming of a 755-hp engine topped with the 2.65-liter BAS blower (the acronym stands for either “Belt Alternator System” or “Big-Ass Supercharger,” depending on whom you ask) sucked me in. Highly refined chassis tuning, a comprehensive aero package and the car’s purported “streetable track-readiness” sent me off the deep end.
Knowing that the next-gen Corvette would be mid-engined also played into my decision. ME cars are, by virtue of their chassis and powertrain layouts, often short on cargo space, so I was unsure that the C8 would have room for two weeks’ worth of baggage. Again, my thoughts returned to the ZR1.
This daydream lasted almost a year. We finally caved and placed an order, but it was tough finding a dealer with an allocation of ZR1s it would sell at MSRP. My quest ultimately led to Abel Chevrolet in Rio Vista, California, 20 miles west of Stockton. Abel specializes in Corvette sales and service, and the dealership also has a history in racing. Dealer principal Derek Abel has an ’04 Z06 he tracks regularly, and his father raced a ’69 L88 in the old SCCA A/Production class. Parts/Service Manager Rich Willhoff campaigns a C6 Z06, in which he has won two Optima Ultimate Street Car series and three Holley/MSD LS Fests. Clearly, this is a group that knows Corvettes, and Corvette performance.
ZR1 VIN 1878 rolled off the line at Bowling Green Assembly on February 21, 2019, equipped with the 1LZ base equipment package, 8L90 automatic, ZTK Track Package, Competition Sport seats, Corvette Racing Yellow Tintcoat paint, yellow brake calipers and satin-black wheels with “Jake” center caps. I passed on the top-level 3LZ because of its price, and because it’s laden with fancy features I don’t need. I also skipped Carbon Flash side mirrors, reasoning that more black trim might be too much of a good thing. Another weak exterior feature (to my eyes, anyway) is the stock wheel design. A set of Forgeline GS1Rs in satin black would be better looking, and, indeed, I have a set on the way.
Up to now, my Vettes have all been manuals. But recently, Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter shared with me what he felt was the primary advantage of the 8L90 eight-speed automatic: It allows a performance-minded driver to concentrate solely on throttle and brake inputs, improving lap times in the process. In fact, the ZR1 that former Corvette engineer and test driver Jim Mero used to beat the Ford GT by a second and a half at VIR was an automatic left in Drive, with its Performance Traction Management (PTM) system in setting five. So Juechter and Mero get partial blame for adding another two grand to the price.
After coffee—lots of it—and breakfast, it was time to load up. The high wing precludes lifting over the rear deck, but I found leaning over the rear quarters to load stuff was easy. Another concern of mine—that the tall spoiler would block rear vision—happily proved unfounded. In the rearview mirror, the wing itself is above the sight line, so all you see are its supports.
I’m consistently surprised at how much a C7 can hold. We had two Corvette-branded TRS Ballistic Check-In bags (made by Club Glove and sold by GM Accessories); a tool bag; a bag of NCM merchandise; two bags of factory ZR1 parts (the brake-rotor protectors, extra brake ducts, front license-plate mount, etc.); two backpacks carrying a laptop, books, magazines and personal items; photo gear and a bag of snacks and bottled water. There was still room for more merch we’d buy during stops in New Orleans, for a weekend of eating, drinking and sightseeing, and a day visiting Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia establishments in Waco, Texas.
Ninety minutes later, we were heading south out of Nashville on I-65, with the cruise set at 80, the Drive Mode Selector in Tour and the quite-decent-sounding base stereo cranked. The highway here isn’t the smoothest, so we soon noticed how well third-generation MagneRide (MR) damped low-frequency ride movement from low spots, heaves and whoop-de-dos. Considering that ZTK uses the stiffest C7 springs, the ride was firm but not uncomfortable. High-frequency movement, from expansion joints, ripple strips and pot holes, is a bit harsh due to high-durometer control-arm bushings and stabilizer-bar mounts required on a track-ready car. Mero did the chassis tuning and MR calibration on the ZR1, so the slight bias toward handling performance is understandable, and not unwelcome.
By late afternoon, as we neared New Orleans, it was obvious the extra money for the Competition Seats was well spent. Not only do they offer more side support for aggressive driving, they are comfortable during lengthy stints behind the wheel on a long road trip.
After a night at the Frenchman, a hotel located in the east end of the French Quarter, we stopped by the famed Cafe Du Monde for the obligatory coffee and beignets. We then visited the National World War II Museum, an educational but somber experience. I left there wishing we had more time to spend.
After dinner at the Hard Rock, we walked Bourbon and Decatur Streets, picking up souvenirs and stopping at a bar or two. We ended at one of the better night spots, the Balcony Music Club, or “BMC” to locals. On our second afternoon in Big Easy, I tested the car in congested traffic on Decatur, where it took our 200-plus-mph Corvette 20 minutes to go a half mile. I found the 755-hp engine well-suited to speeds so slow that skateboarders, bicyclists and Segway tours blew right by. The LT5 idles smoothly at 575 rpm, so poking along in Drive, there’s no jerking back-and-forth. The ZR1’s huge cooling system keeps temperatures in the no-worry range.
People ogled the bright-yellow paint, prominent “halo” hood and high wing. Reaction varied—perhaps depending on how many hurricanes the onlooker in question had imbibed—–from a turned head or a thumbs-up to one shirtless gentleman who ran out in the street yelling, “Totally badass car, dude!”
Late afternoon, we walked to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon Street. Built in 1727, it’s one of the oldest structures in New Orleans, and the oldest building in the United States housing a bar. Named after pirate Jean Lafitte, legend has it that the building was used by Jean and his brother Pierre as a New Orleans base for their nefarious activities. The story of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop involves some truth and a lot of French, Spanish, African, Cajun and American imagination, but one thing is for sure: The bar’s famed “Purple Drank,” also known as a “Voodoo Daiquiri,” is among the establishment’s most redeeming qualities. Good thing I wasn’t driving.
Day four began before sunrise. Fortunately, the ZR1’s instrument-panel lighting is excellent, as are the C7s headlamps, so early morning driving is a pleasure. We had an 8 a.m. appointment at Ross Downing Chevrolet in Hammond, about 90 minutes north of New Orleans, for the 500-mile oil change required for all dry-sump C7s. Downing’s techs worked quickly, and a little under an hour later, we were headed for Waco.
Deep in the Heart of Texas
Day Five stated with breakfast at Magnolia Table, a Waco breakfast-and-lunch eatery owned by HGTV personalities Chip and Joanna Gaines. The restaurant originally opened in 1919 as the Elite Cafe and was a local favorite for years before closing in 2016. The Gaineses purchased, renovated and renamed the business, reopening it in February 2018 under its new name. On a weekday, we had to wait an hour to get seated, during part of which time we snapped a few selfies with the car in front of the building. Again, the high-wing ZR1 got a lot of attention.
After hitting a few more Waco tourist stops, it was north to Arlington, located between Dallas and Forth Worth, to visit GM pal Tom Read. From the mid-2000s until the end of 2018, while Read was GM Global Propulsion Systems’ (GPS) communications manager, he was instrumental in providing information, arranging site visits and facilitating interviews for the many magazine and website articles I wrote about engines. When GPS was disbanded last year, Read’s job was eliminated and he was made the comms manager at GM’s Arlington Assembly Plant, which builds full-sized SUVs. Buying dinner was a small token of appreciation for Read’s efforts over the years.
Day Six took us across the rest of Texas to El Paso on I-20 and I-10, parts of which have an 80-mph speed limit. After lunch the odometer showed about 1,600 miles, so it was time to beat on the LT5 a bit. I let Sandy out to take photos, then, on an uphill on-ramp, put the A8 into manual mode. Nailing it in First would just enable traction control, so I shifted to Second at about 20 mph and rolled into the throttle. Despite its size, the ZR1 supercharger makes boost—up to 13.9 psi of it—right now. I heard the exhaust bypasses open—what a sound!—and felt the TCS reducing wheelspin. Seeing no traffic ahead, I short-shifted to Third and went wide-open throttle to 6,400 rpm. Another WOT, 6,400-rpm paddle upshift to Fourth and a subsequent one to Fifth found the car traveling at about 140. Coasting down seconds later, my Valentine radar beeped and I braked hard. I never saw a marked highway-patrol car, but it felt like time to set the cruise on 80 just the same.
The Home Stretch
On day seven, we overnighted in Phoenix and had dinner with another Corvette friend of mine, Scott Leon. Before retiring from GM, “Scotty” was the Corvette manager at the old Desert Proving Ground in Mesa. In the mid-’90s, when I was working for Road & Track Specials, I wrote about a couple of test mules originally used during the development of the C4 ZR-1. The photography was done at Mesa, and Leon was my contact. It was cool to hang out and compare the ZR-1 back then with the ZR1 of today.
On our last driving day, on the long stretch between Phoenix and Palm Springs, Sandy and I chatted about a name for the car. “Bad-Assed Bee” was one I considered. Sandy mentioned hip-hop artist Wiz Khalifa’s hit “Black and Yellow,” which is about his 2010 Hemi Challenger. Khalifa, who’s from Pittsburgh, had the car painted as a tribute to his city’s professional sports teams. Maybe some combination of the two monikers will do the trick. Late that afternoon, we were home in Goleta.
Regarding the question we originally set out to answer, the C7 ZR1 is indeed a deadly serious performance car that also happens to work pretty well as a long-distance road tripper. So well, in fact, that Sandy and I are planning an even longer, 5,000-mile trip this August as part of the National Corvette Caravan. We can hardly wait. m