John Schnatter was just a young man when he came upon a painful crossroads while driving a 1971 Z28 Camaro.
His was a difficult choice: keep the cool ride and watch as his father’s tavern continued to struggle or sell the car and use the money to help out Mick’s Lounge in Jeffersonville, Ind.
As the story goes, Schnatter sacrificed the car and bought $1,600 worth of used restaurant equipment. He also knocked down the tavern broom closet and started to sell pizza out the back of the bar.
“John got rid of something that was really dear to him,” said Jay Foley, the self-described corporate “car guy” of what is now Papa John’s International.
‘Good American story’
Visitors to the GM Nationals Friday at Carlisle Fairgrounds had questions for Foley. They wanted to know if the gold and black Camaro parked in building T was the actual car the founder of the pizza chain sold back in 1984 when he was 22.
“They wanted to know the story,” Foley said. “It’s hard to find a good American story.”
Sure enough, this weekend marks the first time the original Papa John’s Camaro has ever been on public display, said Ron Kizima, a partner in eight Papa John’s stores in Cumberland, Dauphin and Lebanon counties. He explained how normally the prized vehicle is kept in a vault on the corporate campus in Louisville, Ky.
For years, Schnatter searched discreetly for any leads on the whereabouts of his Z28 Camaro, Kizima said. Nothing ever came of it until Schnatter posted a reward of $25,000 for any tips and $250,000 to buy the car from whomever owned it.
News of the award money circulated nationwide and yielded a tip on the individuals who purchased the vehicle from Schnatter, Kizima said. This led Papa John’s representatives to visit Jeff Robinson of Flatwood, Ky., who lived only five hours from corporate headquarters.
Robinson had converted Schnatter’s old street car into a drag strip racer through the installation of a more powerful engine. At one point, the car was clocked at 160 miles per hour. “That made it the fastest pizza delivery car in the world,” Kizima joked.
A public first
The pizza chain purchased the Camaro from Robinson and Schnatter was reunited with his old car last August after 25 years. As personal mechanic to Schnatter, Foley removed the souped-up engine, returned it to Robinson and replaced it with a more standard engine. This cut its power from 845 to 502 horsepower.
Foley also replaced the racer hood with the original hood the car had when Schnatter sold it. Luckily, Robinson had kept the original parts in storage. Foley maintains not only the original Z28 Camaro, but two replicas used in ad spots.
Being local, Kizima knew about Carlisle Events and its annual GM Nationals. He thought the story of the Papa John’s Camaro was so unique, the car needed to be put on display at a public venue, so he contacted the corporate office.
At first, the answer was no until Kizima talked to Schnatter in person in March and clued the founder in on the importance of the show. That was enough to convince Schnatter to have his old car featured in this weekend’s event.
“I told him if you let the car go anywhere, it should be in Carlisle at the GM Nationals,” Kizima said. “People here can really appreciate what John had to go through to get his original car back.”
Also on display this weekend is a movie hero car called FireBreather designed for the upcoming independent film “Jinn,” expected in theaters in early 2011. Rather than use a sports car for the chase scenes and stunts, director Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad wanted a concept car based on his own design, said Ben Dresser, co-producer for Exxodus Pictures of Detroit.
Rich Bowning represented Classic Design Concepts, the Michigan-based company that created the custom body kit for the 2010 Camaro based on Ahmad’s design. This is the same company that created the Mustang-based Knight Rider GT500 for the TV show.
Browning said only things still Camaro in the exterior design is the front fender, the doors and the roof. The rest has been modified with 1,000 custom-made parts his company manufactures.
One goal of the film is to jump-start the struggling economy and auto industry in that state, Browning said. His company plans to market 50 replica models of FireBreather for sale in conjunction with the movie at a price tag of $85,000 each.
Dresser explained how the name FireBreather relates to the plot of the movie, which has, as its main character, a concept car designer. This character is the last in a line of specially gifted humans who fight against the Jinns, an ancient race of fire beings common to Eastern mythology.
Currently in post-production, the film stars Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” and Snake Eyes in “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra.”