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The idea for the Hugger Camaros was conceived by Tom Nehl in the spring of 1979 as a means of funding his racing effort in the Twenty-four Hours of Daytona. Nehl took a page out of the Indy Pace Car Dealer Drive away but with an unusual twist. The drive aways were to be modeled after the number 28 Camaro race car instead of the pace car used to start the race. The race car number itself was selected in order to publicize the newly engineered 1980 Z-28 Camaro.
Early in 1979 Nehl had developed a strategy for running the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) Twenty-Four Hour Pepsi Challenge, an endurance race run over the course at Daytona International Speedway on the 2-3 February 1980. Neal knew from experience that in endurance racing reliability, consistent lap after lap performance, was as important as speed – before you can win, you have to finish. Neal believed the reliable consistent performance needed for endurance racing could be obtained by modifying a z-28 Camaro. His plan called for limiting the modification to the car so that after the race the car could be returned to its original street condition. Funding for the race car and its entry into the 1980 IMSA Twenty-Four Hour Pepsi Challenge was to come from the Jacksonville Zone Chevrolet dealers who were going to participate in the Twenty-Four Hours of Daytona Dealer Driveaway. For this reason, the driveways were only available in Florida.
Bill Mitchell, a well-known specialist in Camaro modifications, entered the picture when Nehl’s fellow racing enthusiast Bill Warren recommended that Mitchell’s Company, Special Vehicle Development (SVD), build the Daytona Special 150 (DS150) number 28 race car and the DS150 Camaros. In the Fall of 1979, the Chevy Camaro Z-28 advertising focused on the suspension – “A Driving Legend.” The ads read in part, “It’s engineered from the ground up, with the most sophisticated suspension in the Camaro line, with special shocks, anti-sway bars and springs to help stabilize the ride.” The ads concluded with, “CHEVY CAMARO, THE HUGGER.” Bill Mitchell was asked to continue this theme and so the name was changed from the DS150 to HUGGER.
In keeping with this theme, the Huggers were to have the same SVD performance package as the race car that included the following equipment: Minilite wheels, Koni shock absorbers, SVD rear stabilizer bar, SVD front spoiler with Fog Lites, Racemark steering wheel, windshield clips, rear window strips, hood pins and Dunlop Steelmax 205/70 HR 14 tires. The race car had additional performance improvements that included a race prepared 350 engine with the Emission Hardware removed, the stock exhaust system was replaced by a heavy duty racing system. The race car also had required safety features that included a roll cage, fuel cell, Minilite racing wheels, racing tires, recaro driving seat, window net and racing belts.
The dealers participating in the Driveaway program were all to order Z-28 Camaros painted Red Orange. In all, 90 Huggers were ordered by 48 dealers participating in the program which used up about one month’s allotment of the 350 engine. The cars were to be delivered in December to Special Vehicle Development, Hwy US 92 Daytona Beach, Florida (Daytona International Speedway), where Bill Mitchell and his team would complete the assembly. A distinctive striping style was developed exclusively for these limited edition Z-28 Red Orange Huggers. Except for the color, the choice of options was left up to each dealer. But a few dealers, wanting more variety, ordered the Z-28’s in colors other than Red Orange. The best estimate is that among the 90 cars delivered to Daytona there were six black, two yellow, one white and one blue. It should be noted that the blue Z-28 was not delivered with the striping – the colors clashed. Another rare option is the 4-speeed manual transmission – only one of the Huggers was ordered with this option.
Bill Mitchell arrived at the Daytona Speedway on the first of January to see the infield filled with waiting Camaros. Two assembly teams were formed and they got to work installing the SVD Hugger kits. Bill had planned on the final assemblies taking three to four weeks, but the teams completed the last car by mid-January, well ahead of schedule.
The representatives from the Jacksonville Zone Dealerships arrived the evening before the race weekend to complete the final paperwork, pick up the car keys and attend a pre-race party hosted by Tom Nehl.
On the day of the race, the Red Orange Huggers made the parade lap – Mitchell put his foot down and would not let the other Huggers on the track. As the race unfolded that day it was clear that Tom Nehl’s strategy was paying off. The driving team of Tom Nehl, Kathy Rube and Pete Kirill were steadily improving their position. After 12 hours they were running 24th; after 17 hours they had moved down to 17th and were continuing to improve their position until a header cracked. Decision time: Take time to replace the header or go on? The decision was made to go on and risk warping valves when the engine was shut down during refueling. The worst happened – a valve was bent and number 28 had to retire after 19 hours.
Number 28 was repaired and was raced for several more years. The fate of the car is unknown. The car was wrecked in its final race. In one account the car had been totaled in the wreck, so it was parted out. In another account the car was repaired and later sold.
The Twenty – Four Hours of Daytona Driveaway, The Hugger, had been so successful that Tom Nehl was asked to do it again in 1981. Tom declined the offer, leaving the 1980 Z-28 Huggers their unique place in automotive history.