The story I’m about to tell you isn’t the story I wanted to tell you. It’s about the 2016 Camaro, but it’s not the story most other journalists got. That’s because during Sunday’s press drive at Belle Isle State Park in Detroit, I crashed a Camaro mule on the track and put it out of commission.
(Full disclosure: General Motors wanted me to drive a 2016 Camaro engineering vehicle so badly they flew me to Detroit, put me in a room at the Westin Book Cadillac, and paid for all my food and booze. I’m also starting to think I should just avoid Camaros in general from now on.)
A day after Chevrolet officially pulled the wraps off the new Camaro before an audience of hundreds of gathered Camaro owners, they allowed journalists to test some camouflage-covered pre-production test mules equipped with V6 engines on the same street course where the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix happens next week. I was there to drive the car and mend some fences with GM. It ended badly.
Belle Isle is a tricky street course. There’s a lack of real runoff areas, so if you go off course, you’re probably going into a wall. This was the first time I had ever driven there, too, so I wasn’t familiar with the layout, but I did a lap in a fifth-generation Camaro without any trouble. After that, we got behind the wheel of the new V6 Camaro mules.
Sure, the cars didn’t have the new 455 horsepower Corvette Stingray-sourced V8, or even the new 270 HP 2.0-liter turbo four everyone is curious about. And yes, they were mules instead of production cars, the same heavily camo’d up cars you’ve seen in the videos and spy shots. But come on, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to drive a real, honest-to-God mule? It had the swirly camo and everything! I had always wanted to do that.
Plus, what could go wrong, I thought? While I’m not a pro racing driver, I have years of on-track experience, both for my job and doing HPDEs and autocross for fun. I had just finished hauling the Cadillac ATS-V around Circuit of the Americas with no problems. Quite the opposite, in fact. The V6 Camaro didn’t sound too intimidating compared to the vastly more powerful exotics I’ve driven.
Mule or not, it was still a chance to put the new Camaro through its paces and test how its driving dynamics compared to the outgoing car.
I found out that it doesn’t like being slammed into a wall.
When the crash happened, I was the second Camaro mule in a train of cars following a lead driver in a Z/28. But as I came up on one corner, I made a mistake, took a line that was all wrong and braked far later than I should have, inducing terminal understeer.
I think that’s what happened, at least. It happened very quickly, and adrenaline has a way of mucking with your memory. I probably wasn’t as focused as I could have been — especially on an unforgiving and unfamiliar track — while trying to talk and record my driving impressions into a GoPro at the time. I don’t know how Chris Harris and the Top Gear guys do it. It’s harder than it looks.
The front left fender slammed into a wall of tires, hard enough to make the car bounce off. The mirror got knocked off, the wheel got scraped up pretty badly, and some of the bodywork was left digging into the tire. My door could barely open from the damage. If it were a street car, I don’t think it would have been totaled, but it would have come with a nasty repair bill. The whole thing felt kind of surreal for a while. It took a while for what happened to fully sink in.
The car may have been a mule, but as far as I can tell the crash was my fault as a driver and mine alone. I can’t lay blame on the vehicle and I won’t be that egotistical jackass who comes up with hare-brained mechanical excuses for his screw-ups. (In fact, I don’t even know if the tire pressure was measured with digital or analog gauges.)
I guess the good news is I’m fine. I was unhurt except for my pride and my reputation. My passenger and videographer Mark Arnold was okay as well, thankfully. But I feel really horrible about trashing one of GM’s cars, especially a development mule. It wasn’t how I wanted the day to go at all.
A lot of outlets aren’t upfront about it when it happens, but press cars get crashed all the time. You don’t ever want to be the guy who does it, though. It’s every bit as humiliating as you probably think, and then some. Worst of all, it torpedoed a review I was excited to write. (Some drive impressions are coming later today.)
Things were already off to a rocky start before I even set foot in the Austin airport. Some at GM were pretty angry at Jalopnik for publishing an internal GM memo containing the Camaro’s specs on Friday, a day before its official unveiling, after the photos leaked on CNBC.
The General’s employees put a lot of effort into inviting hundreds of Camaro owners to Belle Isle for the reveal and they felt like we ruined a big surprise. Some of them argued we shouldn’t be allowed to attend the launch.
After all, this wasn’t just some the launch for yet another forgettable crossover SUV. This was The New Goddamn Camaro! To a lot of people at GM, and to many fans, the Camaro is more than just a car — it’s like their best friend from growing up, their baby, and their entire way of life wrapped into one snarling, V8-having, America-tacular tire-smoking package. It’s a symbol. It’s a huge part of their heritage and how they represent themselves in this new golden age of American performance we find ourselves in.
I don’t feel bad about publishing the leaked memo. Pretend for a second that your job is to get big scoops, and a really big one just one lands in your lap. After you vetted it and made sure it was legit, wouldn’t you go for it? Of course you would.
This launch was a big deal to them, and while my obligation is to report the news, I get why they were mad about the leak, even though it wasn’t negative or damaging in any way. (Car companies in general are too caught off guard by leaks, even when they’re all but inevitable in the Internet era, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Still, my job was to not just to test the new Camaro in Detroit, but also to cool things off a bit.
I was ordered to be polite, professional, friendly and grateful to be there, which I try to be anyway. Turn on that all-Texan charm, my editors told me. I was there to make nice, to show the hardworking people at GM that Jalopnik isn’t just a bunch of assholes who want to piss in everyone’s Corn Flakes, tie women to train tracks and cut tags off of mattresses.
Instead, I crashed their car.
The wreck felt pretty mild on my body, but after I got the car off the course a paramedic checked me out as a precaution.
After that, and some profuse apologies on my part, a GM rep told me to leave Belle Isle. A lot of people didn’t want me there anyway, I was told, and that this crash was essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back. The drive continued without me and down one Camaro mule. You have no idea how terrible I feel about the whole thing.
While it’s normal to not let a driver back on the track after a crash, it is not standard procedure to kick a journalist out and it does seem as though GM has vented all their frustration over not being able to keep a secret in our direction in a way that’s reminiscent of them inviting basically every other journalist in the world to drive the C7 Corvette after our untimely leak of that car.
Ultimately, our job is to serve the readers and not a manufacturer’s timeline and the folks at GM usually get that. Maybe we all just had a bad weekend.
I’m not gonna lie though. I kind of feel like a shitty American. Being the guy who stuffed the newest version of one of this country’s top performance icons isn’t a good feeling. Sorry, America. Hope we can still be friends.
Video credit Mark Arnold for Jalopnik
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