One of the great things about being an American citizen is freedom of choice. In the case of automotive fanatics like ourselves, this means having the freedom to order a full-blown 454-cubic-inch LSX454R crate motor online or at your local dealership. Powerful, customizable, and easy to drop into just about any rear-wheel drive car, the Chevy V8 is able to deliver just about all the power you’ll ever need.
Driving cars like the insane Cadillac CTS-V with its supercharged 640 horsepower Corvette motor show how easily a Chevy V8 can transform just about anything into a borderline track car. By firing up that bowtie-engineered V8, you’re celebrating Chevy’s lengthy and well-documented history of building race engines. Plus, the neighbors probably need to learn how to appreciate the aroma of race fuel anyways.
With a racing history that spans more than a century, Chevy’s racing engines division has continuously evolved, and today, it resides under a single roof at the all-new Powertrain Performance and Racing Center up in Pontiac, Mich. Thanks to the guys over at GM, who have graciously opened their photo vaults to us, here are the greatest Chevy racing engines of all time, from the Brickyard at Indy to NASCAR to your local drag strip.
1. 409 V8
As the longstanding patriarch of the Chevy Big Block engine family, the 409 remains the quintessential race motor of the 1960s. Even though it made its debut in 1961, this motor continues to command the respect of enthusiasts with its strong torque curve and high horsepower capabilities. In its heyday, the 409 was churning out around 425 horsepower, making it an obvious choice for any GM enthusiast who wanted to dominate in NHRA Stock and Super Stock drag racing classes. Easily recognizable due to its W-shaped rocker covers, the 409 is about as iconic as it gets in the engine world.
2. 427 “Mystery” Engine
In 1963, NASCAR racer Junior Johnson raised pulses and eyebrows with a performance of unprecedented proportions during a Daytona 500 qualifying race. Stuffed beneath the cowl of his car was a 427 cubic-inch engine, which had recently been dubbed the “Mystery V8″ in a magazine article. GM says this engine was specially designed by Chevrolet and “included design elements that would evolve into the Big Block family.” Later, plans to name the motor the “Mark II” V8 were scuttled when a corporate edict pulled GM brands from organized racing, limiting its potential and presence.
3. 302 Small Block
By the late 1960s the SCCA’s Trans-Am road racing series had morphed into a monster, and Chevrolet’s new Camaro was gearing-up to offer pony car competitors a swift backhand to the face. But there was a problem: at the time, there wasn’t a suitable production engine in Chevy’s lineup that met the series’ strict displacement limitations. By utilizing its wide range of Small Block options, engineers were able to take the 4-inch bores from the 327 engine and mate it with the 3-inch stroke out of a 283 engine in order to achieve an ideal 302 cubic inches. In an effort to get the engine homologated (inspected and approved) for series eligibility, Chevrolet opted to install it in a special version of the Camaro. That car became the legendary Z28.
4. 427 ZL1 Big-Block
First developed for the now-defunct Can-Am racing series, the 427 cubic-inch ZL1 engine was resurrected when a certain Chevrolet Dealer by the name of Fred Gibb took Chevy’s special ordering system to a whole new level. Commonly referred to as “COPO,” this special ordering process allowed Gibb to build fifty custom 1969 Camaro muscle cars with race-spec, all-aluminum high performance motors. Once other dealers got wind of this procedure, everyone was talking about Gibb’s special package, and even though only 69 ZL1-powered Camaros ever hit the streets, these motors flourished as engine swaps grew increasingly popular and easy to execute. This engine offered the best of both worlds for GM enthusiasts: It had all of the power of a Big Block but weighed almost 100 pounds less thanks to its aluminum-intensive construction.
5. SB2 NASCAR Engine
This motor represents the first time Chevrolet developed an engine package exclusively for NASCAR racing. Based on the bones of the classic Small Block V8, this race-spec motor from 1998 took things to a whole new level with things like unique cylinder heads for better flow, a one-off valve arrangement that enabled higher RPMs, and more efficiency and durability than any conventional GM cylinder head to date. The proof was in the pudding too; famed NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon took his SB2-powered Monte Carlo to the series championship that year with 13 total wins, and was crowned the Winston Cup Champion that year.
6. R07 NASCAR Engine
Once the aforementioned SB2 engine program proved to be fruitful beyond its expectations, Chevrolet set about looking at ways it could be made even more potent. First introduced in 2007 as the R07 race engine, this monstrous V8 benefited from cutting edge “computational fluid dynamics,” which helped optimize high-speed airflow. Designed strictly for NASCAR racing, the R07 had nothing in common with previous Small Block or Big Block engine designs other than being made of metal and having eight pistons within its walls. Interestingly enough, this same engine still powers NASCAR Sprint Cup racers to this day, with 15 recorded wins in 2015 alone netting Chevy a record-setting 13th consecutive manufacturer’s title.
7. 7.0 Liter Corvette C6.R
The Corvette Racing C6.R was an absolutely amazing vehicle to watch race. It logged 39 wins in the GT1 class, multiple championship wins from 2005-2008, 12 consecutive wins from 2005 to 2006, and 25 succeeding wins from 2007-2009. And all of those wins were made possible by a production-based 7.0-liter (427-cubic-inch) race engine. Concocted to house a forged steel crankshaft, titanium intake valves, sodium-filled exhaust valves, titanium connecting rods, a dry-sump oiling system, and hydro-formed exhaust headers that featured unique “quad flow” collector flanges, the LS7.R engine was an unstoppable monster in the 2000s.
8. Chevrolet/Ilmor 2.65 Liter Turbo V8
Perhaps one of the more obscure engine tales comes from Chevrolet’s 1986 CART Champ Car series. After partnering with England’s Ilmor Engineering (at the insistence of Roger Penske), a small-displacement, 2.65-liter turbo V8 engine was born. Positive performance results were staggering, and before long this oddball engine had become most racers’ preferred powertrain. Up until 1992, the 2.65-liter motor ruled the roost, owning 64 of the 78 races outright, and racking up six consecutive IndyCar Indianapolis 500 wins.
9. Chevrolet/Ilmor 2.2 Liter Twin-Turbo V-6
Chevrolet’s return to IndyCar racing in 2012 received a significant amount of fanfare, thanks in part to an all-new 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6. Much like the amazing Chevy engines of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the 2.2 was co-developed in partnership Ilmor Engineering. This direct-injection, small-displacement engine produced around 700 horsepower consistently, was near impossible to break, and powered Chevrolet drivers to 10 wins during the 16 race 2015 season, a feat that included Juan Pablo Montoya’s famous Indy 500 win.
10. 1.6 Liter Turbocharged Inline-4
Our final engine isn’t the biggest one, but it’s definitely a fun one. The Chevy Cruze helped elevate Chevrolet’s motorsports program onto an international scale, and even though it’s just a 1.6-liter turbo motor, it absolutely dominated the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) series. Scoring more wins than any other manufacturer, four consecutive driver championships (2010-2013), and three consecutive manufacturer titles from 2010 to 2012, the Chevy 1.6-liter turbo proved that dynamite can come in small packages. Isn’t it funny how something as mundane as a pint-sized production engine from a Chevy Cruze can take the world by storm?