MY PUNK | MOONEYES 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Drag Racer
Words Luke Ray & Shige Suganuma Photography Luke Ray
This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 25.
Tuesday morning. I was still trying to process what had happened the night before during our ‘Souki session’. I had a feeling that it was going to take a while and I had a big day ahead, so with batteries charged and memory cards ripped, I slid the brain-melting experience to the side for the moment and Chris and I headed out to MOONEYES H.Q. in Yokohama for the first shoot of the day. After the vans, Volkswagens and Japanese machines, it was time for some solid American muscle. MOONEYES owner and all-round top bloke Shige Suganuma has had this ‘69 Camaro for many years and it holds plenty of history with him, as you’re about to find out. Shige still regularly takes the car to the drags and puts it through its paces, so it’s no show pony. With tough, take-no-prisoners looks, a 10 second quarter time and some interesting history to boot, ‘MY PUNK’ has all the ingredients for a Fuel story. Over to you, Shige...
SS: In 1979, a year after I started to study in the USA, my friend ‘K’ followed to study in Southern California. The first thing we did was look for a car. It was the start of a long story about me and my Camaro. Back then, the major way to buy a car was to search the for sale ads in newspapers. For example, from a simple spec on a few lines like "1969 Camaro SS 396 AT, AC, PA, PW, Good Condition $4,000/OBO Call Bob 714-333-4199" we had to figure out the market price and decide on which car we wanted. Then we had to call all the candidates and continue to visit them to check out the car.
That was the fastest way to find a good car. In that situation, K found a 1969 Camaro RS, I think it was about two thousand dollars. K decided to buy it on the spot when he looked at the car. The number plate was ‘MY PUNK’ on this little worn out Camaro with a vinyl top. The body was a little bit worn out but K didn't worry about it as he had planned to paint it someday anyway. K took the vinyl top off and fixed the body and painted a base coat. As he did this little by little, the Camaro had uneven paint spots and was delivered to Santa Monica's ‘Spotted Wolf’.
One day K got a Z28 cowl induction hood and put it on the car. It looked so cool, MY PUNK was suddenly my new Hero and I wanted to get a Camaro for myself too. When K bought the Camaro, I suggested that he buy it because I wanted to buy a 1969 Camaro RS/Z28. At that time, I had a 1972 Chevrolet El Camino SS 454. I used to go around to the used car lots at night to look for a ‘69 Camaro and visited the cars I found on newspaper ads as if I had money to buy the car. Whenever K was going to do something on his Camaro, I gave it serious thought and discussed it with him.
Chico was another friend who was an important part of our lives. He moved from Japan in 1970 and lived in Costa Mesa. Chico had a drag race car, a 1969 Chevrolet Nova with a 427 motor. He was a quiet guy who was always doing work on his motor in his garage. Ever since we met Chico, K and I spent the remaining four years in Southern California working on cars.
During the time that K had MY PUNK in his hands it had the hood changed, the suspension lowered and Cragar SS wheels were changed to Centerline wheels which were hot items at that time. We added BF Goodrich Radial T/A tyres which were also treasured by us and even though the body had uneven paint it was much cooler. But one day K was turned on to a VW Beetle and asked me to buy the Camaro. Without a doubt I said “Yes!” and it was the moment when MY PUNK became my own car.
But when I got to drive MY PUNK on the street, people stuck their finger up as they passed by, other people asked questions like “Why?” or “Are you a PUNK?” I admired K for driving this car through these hassles and at the same time it was too heavy to deal with for an Asian student studying abroad to go through. So, I decided to change the plate at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles).
The MY PUNK license plate was returned and a new seven digits plate—1 ACL 163—was received. The license plate had recently increased from six to seven digits as the registration of cars was still increasing in California in the ‘80s.
After that I changed the 350 motor to a Big Block 402. I also changed the automatic transmission to a Muncie 4 speed M-21. But with such little knowledge about cars, I bought a Muncie at a swap meet thinking all Muncies were the same and Chico told me there were various types of Muncie. After he told me, "You bought that one? There is a much better one than that." He was always like that and he still is like that now in his role as the president of MOONEYES USA.
It was fun to drive the car built the way I liked with my own hands. A fast cruise on the 405 Freeway to see my friends in LA and going to Huntington Beach at midnight to get some help on my studies from a friend, to get to anywhere, the Camaro was my way to go. By the time it was ready for paint, K introduced me to his Japanese-American friend Doug who offered to help paint the car if I helped to do the prep work and I decided to take his kind offer. But actually, Doug did most of the work, even the finish up waxing but MY PUNK was reborn to a clean Camaro.
There were many Camaros at the shows with genuine Rally wheels on and even though I liked Centerlines then, I was in love with the Rally wheels and quickly bought a set of Rally wheels while they were still cheap back then. A lowered Camaro with Rally wheels was right on style at the time and it stood out more with half flat black paint on all chrome parts which was getting popular among the Japanese-Americans.
Through meeting Doug and his friends I learned about the car lives of the young Japanese-Americans which made me take in some different styles from the original hot rods. I first learned about lowering blocks to get the car lower about the same time. They taught me where to go and I was able to buy them in Downtown LA.
K was driving his Cal Look VW around but found another '69 Camaro again. Around the same time Chico had opened the shop "Specialty Auto Works" in Costa Mesa, CA. The best place to hang around was created. The way to buy a car was slowly changing and a special magazine with pictures called the Auto Trader was what we read every week and dreamed about all the cars. K bought a standard model '69 Camaro with 307 motor for one thousand dollars. He had always dreamed about a real Z28 302 motor, and built a 302 motor that was loaded with special parts he gathered over time. The motor was light but very powerful and the high rev exhaust sound made quite an impression, you could tell it was not just any Camaro. But that same sound had an unfortunate result as K’s Camaro disappeared one night with his favorite jacket and his favorite Japanese music cassette tapes of Yumin and Tatsuro Yamashita!
Meanwhile, I was getting more things done on my Camaro. My plan was to get everything I wanted done before I left the USA. The diff gear ratios were changed to 4.10, I added a line lock, safety loop, traction bars, Hayes ignition system and I had it tuned. I added the Z28 emblems I had always wanted and then I took it to the Long Beach Port to load it on a boat for Japan.
The Camaro reached the port of Yokohama after I relaxed in Hawaii and returned to Japan. I got the Camaro through customs and headed home with temporary plates but something broke and the sound of metal came from the motor on the way. “What's going on?!" The oil was empty even though it was full in USA and there were no signs of drains or leaks. I had no time to wonder and changed motors in my backyard as I needed to get ready to go to the drag races in Fuji Speedway hosted by SCAT. I managed to be in a race but learned my car was not as fast as I thought. The next year at the JHRA race, Chico came to Japan to drive and he bent my crank shaft from high RPM and made my engine a heap of junk. Thank you very much! Around from there my lifestyle was changing a lot and it was getting hard to live the way I lived in Southern California. In the spring of '82, I decided to sell my Camaro to my friend ‘U’.
The reason why I decided to sell was I had no money to fix the broken motor and I decided to get married but didn't have money to buy an engagement ring. My friend U loved cars and never let go of any car he had so the Camaro would not be far away. It was the first American car for him too and he was fine with the broken engine, so I got the engagement ring instead of the Camaro and my friend U got to start drag racing.
"Making a car is all about how much money is put in it”. That was U’s policy and the Camaro went through a total lightweight modification and suspension change. It was a totally different car. He even hired a professional driver to race. He pushed the limits of the Camaro, then bought two real NHRA Pro Stock race cars from the USA and made them both run in races. But even after the Camaro was finished, he painted the red body white, changed to wider rear tyres with new wheels and MY PUNK had changed totally and after that it didn't show up to the scene anymore.
He passed away all of a sudden in 2007 with all his cars that he loved. He never sold any of his cars. The Camaro who lost its owner had returned to me after 25 years. The engagement ring I was able to buy because of U was stolen when my house got broken into a couple years ago. To replace that ring the Camaro is back in my hands now. It is not the same paint done by Doug but it was painted Candy Red with Fenton dish front wheels I bought when I was in the USA and now I go to drag races with this Camaro.
At the end of 200, with the Candy Red painted over the Sugar Daddy White, the Camaro was back in my hands and the dashboard and gauges were placed back. My own motor and transmission were placed in it and it was returned to drag racing from the spring of 2008. It is still the same "MY PUNK" after thirty years even though it's finished as a clean car and runs the quarter in ten seconds.