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Spotlight On Jeff Toepper: Classic Camaros rev up this Detroit Truetrac Nostalgia Muscle racer

Posted By: Steve Baur
Interview by Mary Lendzion
Photography by the FSC staff

 
Harboring an appreciation for Chevrolet Camaros for as long as he can remember, Jeff Toepper admires how they look, how they sound, and how they made their way into the hearts of millions of people to became a prominent part of American muscle car history.
 
Toepper sees the significance of every model year of the car designed by the Detroit automaker, though his favorites are 1967-1969 models. When the opportunities to purchase a 1967 Camaro, when he was in high school, followed by a 1969 Camaro in 2004, presented themselves, he pounced on them.
 

He modified the 1967 Camaro and completely restored the 1969 Camaro, which he cruised on the street before he started racing it in NMCA Detroit Truetrac Nostalgia Muscle in 2014. So far, he finished as high as sixth in points and earned a runner-up finish in the car, which is currently set up for the 11.75 index. On the same weekend as that runner-up finish, he also earned a win in the Bracket category.
 
Away from the track, Toepper, who was a volunteer fireman, is now a Deputy Chief for the Channahon Fire Protection District in Illinois. He likes to spend as much time as possible with his wife, Kim, daughter, Paige, sons, Zack and Nick, and grandchildren. He also continues to help his father, Jim, grow corn and soybeans on his farm.
 
Read on for more about Toepper, whose pride for his 1969 Camaro is clear.
 
WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE 1967 CAMARO YOU DROVE DURING HIGH SCHOOL?
 
It was a Marina Blue Camaro RS, and my friends and I rebuilt its 327 cubic-inch engine, and got a three-speed automatic transmission for it. We did all of the work in the shed at my parents’ house in Manhattan, Illinois, and then I had the car painted. I learned a lot of basics while getting everything together for the car and working on it, and it was great experience. It was a lot of fun to drive, and then about four or five years later, I traded it at a GM dealership for a new 1984 Camaro Z28. All these years later, I wish I hadn’t done that. I wish I had put the 1967 Camaro in the shed and kept it. 
 
WHAT DID YOU APPRECIATE ABOUT THE 1984 CAMARO Z28?
 
It had a 350 cubic-inch engine and an automatic transmission, and it was a comfortable car to drive. It had more technology than the 1967 Camaro, and it had power-everything, as well as air-conditioning. I had it for several years, before trading it in on a 1989 Camaro IROC Z. I sold the 1989 because our children came along, and child seats weren’t going to fit in the back of that car very well. I wasn’t as attached to the 1984 and 1989 like I was the 1967 Camaro.
 

WHAT COMEPELLED YOU TO LATER PURCHASE THE 1969 CAMARO YOU CURRENTLY CAMPAIGN?
 
I had been looking for a project car to build up like I had done back in high school with the 1967 Camaro, and I wanted it to be a 1967-1969 Camaro, because I liked those model years of the car the most. I did quite a bit of looking on eBay, and I had one lined up in Tennessee to go look at, but then then they sold it and pulled it off the online auction. Then in 2004, I saw the 1969 Camaro that I have now on an online auction and it was in Tinley Park, Illinois, which was just about 30 miles from my house. I took a friend with me to look at it, and I loved it. It had a 350 cubic-inch engine and a Muncie four-speed transmission. It was solid black with a black interior. I was very excited to purchase it take it home.
 
WHAT PLANS DID YOU MAKE AFTER GOING OVER THE CAR WHEN YOU GOT IT HOME?
 
The exterior of the car was not perfect, and there was some Bondo on the quarter panels, but the trunk floor, fenders, and inner fenders were in good shape. The interior, which had original carpet, seats, dash and headliner, was pretty rough. I made plans for a complete restoration.
 
WHAT WAS INVOLVED IN THE RESTORATION PROJECT?
 
I started taking everything apart, and found more rust, so I decided that the car needed a frame-off restoration. I bought a new MIG welder and installed a rear quarter panel and floor pans and top dash panel. Along the way, I asked a lot of questions and asked for guidance from friends who knew how to do body work. I also installed the new interior, including the new carpet and headliner, and had the original seats recovered. It was definitely a challenge.
 
WERE THERE ANY BUMPS IN THE RESTORATION ROAD ALONG THE WAY?
 
One of the biggest surprises was when it came time for paint. I took the car to a painter and gave him the money to get started, but when I got back home, I just didn’t have a good feeling about him and it just didn’t feel right, so I went back, got my car and decided that I would paint it myself. I had not done any paint work like that before.
 

THAT WAS A BIG UNDERTAKING, BUT IT’S GREAT THAT YOU FOLLOWED YOUR INSTINCT. WHAT WAS INVOLVED IN PAINTING THE CAR YOURSELF?
 
I used to paint single stage on heavy farm equipment back in the day, but this was a whole different level, and it had to be perfect. With input from my son, I decided to paint the car Cortez Silver, which is the actual name of the paint for the 1969 Camaro. I talked to the people who sold the supplies, and to people who had painted a car before. The guys at Arnie’s Auto Body Supply in Joliet, Illinois, were a big help. They taught me about wet sanding and block sanding, and about filler, primer and skim coats. I did it right in my garage with a primer gun and color gun.
 
WHAT DID IT MEAN TO YOU TO TACKLE AND SUCCESSFULLY ACCOMPLISH THAT PROJECT ON YOUR CLASSIC CAR?
 
It was very satisfying, and it meant that when I was talking about cars with people, I could say that I had done all of that work to my car. I felt good about the fact that I took it on, despite the amount of learning involved with it.
 
WHAT DID YOU CHOOSE FOR THE POWERPLANT?
 
I chose to go with the 350 cubic-inch engine that was in the car when I took it home, but I had pulled it out and cleaned it up. With the rest of the restoration, I wasn’t ready to get into more engine work just yet. I liked the Muncie four-speed that came in the car, and I had a Hurst shifter on the floor. The restoration took two years and three months, and I started driving it on the street in 2007.
 
WHEN DID YOU START TO REALIZE THAT YOU WANTED TO RACE THE CAR?
 
In 2013, I went to the NMCA race in St. Louis to watch and to crew for Bruce Boyle, who raced in Open Comp. I had a really good time, and started to get to know everyone. I loved everything from the nostalgia cars to the Pro Mod cars, and I knew I wanted to race in NMCA Nostalgia Muscle. Soon after, I took the car to Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Illinois, to test, and I was a mess because I had a lot to learn. Fortunately, the track starters helped me on the starting line, and I worked hard at it.
 

WHEN DID YOU MAKE YOUR NMCA DETROIT TRUETRAC NOSTALGIA MUSCLE DEBUT?
 
I actually entered Nostalgia Muscle for the first time at the race at Route 66 Raceway in Illinois in 2014. I had a lot of fun learning about the category and meeting the racers in the category that weekend. Jerry Stamps and Don Fotti, among others, were very friendly and encouraging, and I knew I was among a good group. I also knew that I was going to have to make some changes to the car to be competitive, though.
 
WHAT CHANGES DID YOU MAKE TO THE CAR TO PREPARE IT FOR DETROIT TRUETRAC NOSTALGIA MUSCLE?
 
Over the winter of 2014-2015, I took the engine out of the car and took it to Beglar’s Machine Shop in Wilmington, Illinois, and they made it a 383 cubic-inch stroker engine on a GM cast iron block and paired it with a Powerglide transmission. I put Calvert shocks on the car, and I started going to the NMCA races that were not far from my home. Eventually, I replaced my open trailer with an enclosed trailer and began traveling to more of the NMCA races, and my car was running mid-12s back then. Eventually, the engine came out again and went to C&M Engineering in Bourbonnais, Illinois. There we worked on the internals of that engine, replaced the stock Chevy heads with new Chevy Vortec heads and replaced the previous carburetor with a Quick Fuel carburetor. It has the same number of cubic inches, but it has higher compression, and I moved up to the 11.75 index. My car is more consistent than it had been. I have upgraded the ignition system and installed a Painless wiring kit over the past few years, and I put a roll bar in the car two years ago. I’m considering different heads and intake, and maybe moving up to the 11.00 or 11.25 index.
 
THE RACERS IN DETROIT TRUETRAC NOSTALGIA MUSCLE ARE KNOWN FOR BEING FIERCE ON THE TRACK, AND FRIENDLY OFF THE TRACK. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE  CATEGORY?
 
There’s no doubt that the competition is very tough, and you have to be on your game, but I like the challenge. I also like that’s is a really great group of folks, and they are like a second family to me, including Jerry Stamps and others. Everyone is there for everyone else, and if you need anything, they’re going to do what they can to help you. I really like it. It’s a good fit for me and my Camaro.
 

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