The Chameleon Camaro

Captured through a smoke filled lens, in this weatherbeaten photo, is an image of the late AJ Lancaster at Lakeland International Raceway around 1970. AJ raced this Camaro in the then fledgling Pro Stock class until he hung up his helmet about a year after this photo was made. But there is more than meets the eye here, as this car has a special history, and has miraculously survived a long but powerful journey to the present day.

If you were in attendance at the 2011 Memphis Rodders Reunion you may have taken notice of a sequoia green 1968 Camaro among the display cars. It was unquestionably a nicely restored first generation Camaro, but to the untrained eye, that might have been all that was noticed. Rest assured, in this instance, there is more than meets the eye.

First, note the special badges that identify this car as a rarer than hen's teeth Yenko Camaro. The Yenko Camaros were a sort of underground secret weapon in the horsepower wars of the 1960's. They were a dealer prepped performance package that surpassed the go-fast potential of the meanest Camaros as offered on a factory Chevrolet order form. It went like this... Yenko Chevrolet, located in Canonsburg Pennsylvania, would order up a 396 cubic inch big block Camaro SS from the Chevy factory to sell to horsepower hungry buyers. Then with a bit of sleight of hand, and some good old fashioned factory parts swapping, they would head out the dealership door with a 425 HP L-72 427 cubic inch engine among other performance upgrades.

Some of these cars were bought by other Chevrolet dealerships for resale to their own "select" clients. Reportedly, four of the thirty three 1968 Yenkos wound up at Union Chevrolet in Memphis TN. One of these cars was sold to Miles Pleasant who presumably enjoyed it until the reality of owning a street bound race car convinced him to put the Yenko up for sale within a matter of months. This is when local drag racer and Memphis Rodders member AJ Lancaster bought the car and set about converting her into a class specific drag racer, that would compete in the then newly established Pro Stock category.

AJ had the foresight to keep everything he didn't need on his race car. He removed the interior to put it in storage, and the body was left essentially unmodified. All of which would make its eventual restoration a lot simpler than it might otherwise have been.

As you can see in the photo above, AJ's old race car has been returned to it's original Yenko specification. So what we now have is a rare Camaro, with a special race breed pedigree. Adding to her rarity, is the fact that this particular Yenko accumulated most of it's mileage 1/4 mile at a time. Having been driven only on drag strips really helped keep the odometer reading down, and the net result is that this Yenko is one of the lowest mileage examples of the unique muscle car known to exist.

A lot of bad things could have happened to this rare car on the journey back to a being a restored rarity. She had several pursuers after her race days were done. She met a few that only wanted her fortune, but she saved herself for the right guys, and survived to shine like new once again. Well after her retirement from the race scene, Rob Ferris convinced AJ to sell him the Camaro. Rob was keenly aware of the uniqueness of the rare car, and began initiating some of the restoration. He made progress, but it was always his intention to sell the car as a collectable. The opportunity to sell came sooner than expected, when Dr. Vance Shappley bought the car and he and Jim Simmons then set about returning it to its as delivered Yenko form. Her path to purity was now assured. Just as AJ had kept all of the stock bits and pieces, the race bred parts were kept and are still available should this chameleon Camaro ever need to change into another skin again. This trio of caretakers, are the primary reason we can all enjoy seeing this rare breed of Camaro today.

They have everything that made the car an early Pro Stocker safely stashed away. From AJ's homemade engine stand, to the crusty Cragar SS wheels. A race bred, tunnel ram equipped 427 engine patiently waits to be called to duty. In fact, the well stocked selection of vintage speed gear has given them reason to consider creating a clone of AJ's racer using the original Pro Stock bits. While no definite decision has been made to build a duplicate racer, it would certainly let those of us who appreciate such history, have the best of both worlds to admire.

Sadly, AJ Lancaster passed away last summer. He was an avid drag racer for many years. He raced almost anything with wheels, from a 57 Chevy to a factory lightweight Hemi Belvedere. This Camaro was his last competitive drag car. It's only fitting that she continues to carry the torch of high-performance into a new era. If you listen closely, you'll find she has a lot of stories to tell.