Head back, one outstretched arm draped over the steering wheel and the other cradling the shift lever, John Heinricy looks perfectly at home behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Corvette Z51. And why not? Between his duties as head honcho of General Motors' High Performance Vehicle Operations and his second career as a world-class race car driver, he's probably got more quality seat time in Corvettes than anybody since patron saint Zora Arkus-Duntov. And as he heads home from GM's Milford Proving Ground near Detroit, he instinctively uses the prodigious torque of the LS2 to exploit each and every gap in traffic.
His wife, Rita, hates the way he drives - going too fast, following too closely, not slowing down until several beats after he sees the brake lights flash on the car in front of him. His racing competitors feel the same way for the same reasons. "He's ferocious on the racetrack," says team owner Joe Aquilante, who raced against Heinricy - a.k.a. Heinrocket - before deciding that, if he couldn't beat him, he might as well hire him. "The worst thing you can do is talk some trash or tap him during a race. He is very, very, very, very determined. He's wrecked a few race cars, but he's never given up in one of them."
With fifteen national championships to his credit, the most recent notched in October at the SCCA Runoffs, Heinricy (pronounced HINE-ri-see) is the most accomplished part-time road racer in America. But racing is more than his avocation. It's how he's helped restore GM's luster, which had been tarnished by a generation of faux performance cars. (Cavalier Z24, anyone?) His successes on the racetrack haven't hurt, but his real impact has come from leveraging his racing expertise to create a new segment of dynamic GM street cars that are more than mere hype.
"Racing improves the breed" is one of those clichs that automakers love to trot out to pimp cars that lack racetrack credibility. But for most companies, motorsports is just a marketing program rather than an engineering exercise, and it's hard to imagine any technology that's percolated down from, say, Toyota's vast Formula 1 and Nextel Cup efforts into a humdrum Camry or Corolla. At GM, by way of contrast, racing was the crucible in which production cars such as the Cadillac CTS-V, the Pontiac Solstice GXP, and the Chevy Cobalt SS were forged.
In developing the Cadillac for the Speed World Challenge series, for example, Heinricy and company discovered a problem with the LS7 engine valves that were slated to be dropped into the new Corvette Z06, hence allowing time for a fix to be made before production began. Then, while transforming the Solstice into a race car for the SCCA's Touring 2 class, he and his team found that the rear crossmember was flexing during hard cornering. The GXP street car now has a new, stronger crossmember, and the base Solstice will get it next year. "When we go racing, we're not just working an angle," Heinricy says. "We're always trying to develop the hardware in the car so that it applies to a [production-car] program that we're doing within GM."
A collateral benefit of Heinricy's efforts has been the creation of a cadre of engineers who have the driving chops necessary to evaluate and develop the sort of high-performance vehicles that appeal to enthusiasts. You'd think GM had plenty of guys like this. Think again. Sure, the Corvette program has traditionally been staffed by hotshoes. But elsewhere within GM, it was hard to find engineers who knew how to trail-brake or heel-and-toe. And that's a problem when you're developing cars designed for, well, trail-braking and heel-and-toeing.
So, six years ago, Heinricy launched a rigorous program to train engineers. Before being allowed to test on the Milford Road Course, they first must pass a high-performance driving class. But to test on the most daunting racetracks - including the Nürburgring - they also have to demonstrate the ability to consistently turn laps within two percent of a bogey time that Heinricy has set in a Z06. "His legacy," says Don Knowles, a fellow racer (and multiple national champion) who consults for GM as a driving instructor, "will be a core group of midlevel engineers who understand what a good car is. It doesn't matter whether they end up working on hybrids or pickups or whatever. They will have a ripple effect on the company."