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La Puerto Rican: the Puerto Rican racer that never was

27 May 2016


The story of the greatest Puerto Rican racer that never was!

The question Matt Wishart gets asked the most often is “Who the hell is Victor Hernandez?” Well, let me tell you a little story, as told by Matt … Victor Hernandez was a young Puerto Rican mechanic employed by Oasis Chevrolet Performance (OCP) in New Jersey in the sixties and involved in their race development program. Early in 1969, Victor was given a tired ex-development mule by management in recognition of his dedication to the cause. The battered ’68 SS Camaro was engineless, but Victor seized the opportunity and using other cast-offs from the development program (including a ventilated ZL1 block that he repaired), he built himself a kickass Camaro for the strip. Pretty soon he was making a name for himself up and down the East Coast, with competitors often heard to be cursing, “That damned Puerto Rican.” The name kind of stuck, and car ended up being known simply as “La Puerto Rican”. 

Despite Victor’s success, OCP was faced with stiff competition from other teams with bigger budgets and eventually shut down their Super Stock and Pro Stock divisions, and even their performance road/race division was axed. In 1971, Victor packed up his family and with the Camaro in tow headed back to Puerto Rico. That year he set up the infamous Victor Hernandez Racing Engines in San Juan, but what followed in later years was tragic. If you want to find out more about Victor Hernandez you could try Googling him, but you won’t find much, as the story you’ve just read is purely a figment of Matt’s imagination, conjured up after too many refreshments.

The true story is that the 1968 SS Camaro you see here was imported from the States in 1985 as a small block four-speed stocker. Early in its life in New Zealand, the then-owner, Paul Roach, carried out a number of chassis mods to the ’68, including solid-mounting the front subframe, fitting subframe connectors, mini-tubbing the rear and fitting a decent fuel system for the killer small block he was planning. Mike Gearing built a stout 383 that could take a big dose of nitrous oxide, but Paul found he was easily running low 11s naturally aspirated. Knowing that a cage would be required in order to run any faster, Paul decided not to develop the car further. The car then changed hands to an owner who couldn’t resist giving the giggle gas a try, which saw a first pass of 10.1 at 129mph and a stern “Don’t come back without a roll cage!” from the officials. He pulled the engine out to put it in a lighter car and the Camaro was relegated to storage, sometimes under cover and sometimes not. 

When Matt found the car two or three years later sitting out in the elements, it was looking pretty tired, and despite not being a big Camaro fan, he felt sorry for it. Having just sold his 1970 Chevelle, he was in the need of a new project, and despite its weathered look, it had a great stance, and with the mini-tubs and other mods Matt could see, it had potential. The first step was to remove the solid mountings on the subframe, replacing them with rubber for a little more compliance, next the rear brakes were rebuilt, and then it was a quick visit to Kitney Karpainters to tidy up the worst of the worn paintwork.

In terms of the engine, Matt always knew the motor for the Camaro would be a blown one, but what? After a bit of encouragement from Her Indoors along the lines of “go a big block or you will never be happy”, Matt settled on a ZZ502 Deluxe, and after running through the required specs with Al Shadwick, he soon sourced one from Shane at Segedins. Now, Matt has built cars himself before, but with a young family and working 60 hours a week, this time, it wasn’t going to be an option for him; this time he would be relegated to ‘parts bitch’, with Steve Giles from Wall Motors taking on the build for him. 

The new ZZ502 and 8–71 large rotor blower were dropped off to Steve, and then the fun began. The engine itself needed a number of changes for the blown application, and although the short block was untouched besides the addition of a steel balancer, the only thing that needed changing was, well, pretty much everything … The heads were lifted and 0.060-inch head gaskets installed to drop the compression, the sump and pickup were swapped to suit the Camaro, the engine mounts, and trans cross member were swapped for big block items, and of course there was the little matter of fitting the 8–71. While the engine was being prepped, Matt visited Chuck Mann down in Rotovegas and over a fine afternoon of refreshments, ordered a heavy-duty manual valve body TH400. Once the new super-duty trans was mated to the 502, it was squeezed into the ’68, and for the first time in four years it was complete again, and with the stance, Matt was after.

The engine and trans proved to be the simple part, as anyone who has ever built a car knows that making everything work is where the real fun begins. The car had a power steering box fitted but nothing else, so Matt sourced a lightweight alloy KRC pump from PG Hydraulics. Wanting to mount it real low and out of the way with the alternator mounted under it, poor Steve had to design and make the custom alloy mount and brackets and allow access for adjustments — no easy task. Even the simple stuff like the off the shelf Hooker Super Comp headers took a full day’s work to get them to fit properly. A good cooling system was always going to be a priority, so Steve fabricated the mounts and brackets required to fit the oversized custom alloy radiator. He also modified the fuel system to suit the new blown motor and fabricated the throttle linkages too. A B&M Street Bandit shifter was installed, as was a custom alloy plate containing all of the switches for line lock, fans, and fuel pump. In addition to the full complement of SS gauges, including the factory ‘tick tock tach’, a few Auto Meter items were also added. 

With things looking close and ready for a fire-up, the car was sent to Ron Wood Auto Electrical for a final check-over, but the news was not good. The car had a lot of burnt wiring, so it was almost completely rewired. Upon firing for the first time, it sounded sweet, but through its cobbled together and minimal exhaust it was loud, so it was obvious a better system was going to be needed. Dean at Mr. Muffler sorted that out with twin three-inch pipes complete with two FlowTech Warlock mufflers with removable caps, for when a bit of extra noise is needed. About this time Matt noticed the stance of the ’68 had changed with the Moroso drag springs struggling under the weight of the heavy motor and blower. A new set was sourced, which then changed the look to that of a gasser. Third time lucky and a set was custom-made, which now has the stance just right. With all the horsepower up front and Matt planning on doing plenty of driving, the 90/10 shocks were also ditched and a set of Konis fitted in their place. 

The brakes got another once-over, with Sterling Brake & Clutch rebuilding the unboosted master cylinder and fitting vented front discs along with new pads and braided lines. They also checked over the rebuilt rears, which is a good thing as they found the shoes had been installed back to front …

Before the final certification sign-off, the limitations of the cooling system reared their ugly head. After a tuning session on the dyno on a 28-degree day, the temperature kept rising, and while Matt tried to convince himself the gauge was faulty, he was wrong. The guys at Magnum Automotive have a lot of experience in keeping high-horsepower Camaros cool, so it was sent to them for a cure, and cure it they did. Fitted with two 14-inch puller fans and the old 16-inch Davies Craig unit relocated to the front as a pusher fan, things began to improve. And once they fitted a new CVR electric water pump, the cooling system began working a whole lot better. The result was a cool-running and certified car a few days before Beach Hop 2013. 

The final touch was to be the decals. Matt has always loved the look of the Pro Stock and Super Stock cars of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and after a lot of tweaking, Express Signs applied Matt’s version of his car’s history the night before he left for Whangamata. 
The question most asked of Matt — after “Who the hell is Victor Hernandez?” — is usually “What’s it like to live with?”, and the answer in one word: awesome. Even only running 4psi of boost, the 502 puts out over 500hp at the treads, along with obscene amounts of torque; it doesn’t overheat and has proved to be pretty low maintenance. Sure it’s a bit loud, but that’s because Matt chooses to drive it with the caps removed from the mufflers most of the time.

The only downside is the lack of a fuel gauge and the smallish fuel cell, which has been preserved from its racing days, meaning trips and fuel stops have to be well planned. Also preserved from the racing days is the rubber up the rear quarters, and the old time slips are still in the ashtray — although none from Victor Hernandez. Matt has been fortunate to have some good people involved in the build, which, along with a few surprises and hurdles on the way, has enabled him to build a fantastic-looking tribute car for the greatest Puerto Rican racer that never was!  

1968 Chev Camaro SS

  • Engine: 502ci big block Chev, four-bolt mains, iron block, forged steel crank, forged steel rods, forged pistons, GMPP alloy heads, 2.25-inch stainless intake valves, 1.88-inch stainless exhaust valves, hydraulic roller cam, The Blower Shop 8–71 large rotor supercharger, Quick Fuel Q-Series 950cfm double pumper carb, Al’s Blower Drives Garlits scoop, K&N filter, 45-litre fuel cell, Mallory fuel pump, Mallory regulator, MSD 6AL-BTM ignition, MSD Blaster coil, Pro-Billet distributor, 8.5mm leads, Hooker Super Comp headers, two-inch primaries, twin three-inch exhaust, FlowTech Warlock mufflers, aluminium radiator, twin 14-inch puller fans, 16-inch pusher fan, CVR electric water pump
  • Driveline: GM TH400 transmission, manual valve body, reverse shift pattern, 3000rpm stall convertor, narrowed 12-bolt diff, 4.11:1 ratio, LSD head, C-clip eliminators, Strange axles, Moser cover
  • Suspension: Urethane bushes, Koni shocks, custom springs, CalTrac traction bars
  • Brakes: HQ front calipers, DBA rotors, Mintex pads, line lock, stock drum rear
  • Wheels/Tyres: 15×4- and 15×10-inch Weld Draglite wheels, 26x6x15 Mickey Thompson front tyres, 325/50R15 rear tyres
  • Exterior: Matador red
  • Chassis: Mini-tubbed, subframe connectors
  • Interior: B&M Street Bandit shifter, stock re-trim, 
  • Auto Meter gauges
  • Performance: Untested 

Driver profile

  • Owner: Matt Wishart
  • Occupation: Company director
  • Previously owned cars: 1969 Chevelle big block, 1979 Caprice cop car, HJ Sandman, and the list goes on …
  • Dream cars: Whatever I have at the time!
  • Why the Camaro? I just felt sorry for it!
  • Build time: Two-and-a-half years
  • Length of ownership: Two-and-a-half years
  • Matt thanks: Steve Giles and Craig Wall for their install and fabrication skills, Ron Wood for the wiring, Magnum Automotive for sorting out the cooling and dyno tuning, DC Trading for all the little bits and bobs, Shane at Segedins for the 502, Express Signs for the graphics (Victor would be proud!), Chuck Mann for the transmission, GSS for the fittings and tank, Al Shadwick for the blower and scoop, Bart’s Auto, and my son Austin for his ongoing enthusiasm

This article originally appeared in NZV8 Issue No. 102. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: