HPP: What was the first Pontiac you raced?
JH: I started racing a Firebird in 1993 and competed in the Firehawk series for IMSA from 1992 to 1998. Joe Aquilante, owner of Phoenix Performance in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, prepared the car. Joe owned a Pontiac dealership for about 10 years and sold it [in] 2000.
Besides playing with cars during his workweek at GM, John became a very proficient racecar
HPP: Why did you go with Firebird and not Camaro?
JH: Chevrolet was no longer interested in racing in the Firehawk series. [The brand] had been competing and winning with showroom stock cars since 1984. They were very competitive and difficult to beat. When Chevrolet decided to stop supporting their (Phoenix Performance) cars, Pontiac stepped in to take its place in 1993. Pontiac was interested in supporting the Phoenix Performance team because they were willing to race the company product. In exchange, Pontiac provided them with engineering and some parts support.
HPP: Was this Firebird equipped with the 1LE package, and did you have anything to do with its development?
JH: Yes, I did have something to do with that. In 1988 I was the Corvette and Camaro product engineering manager. My responsibilities included working on the architecture for the 1993 Camaro, and I worked closely with the engineers to make sure a 1LE option would be available for that platform. And since both cars were very similar, the 1LE was applied to Firebirds and Camaros.
HPP: When was the 1LE option introduced and what did it include?
JH: The 1LE was introduced to the Firebird and Camaro in 1987. It included stiffer antiroll bars, different transmission ratios, bigger brake calipers from the C4 Corvette, brake rotors from the Caprice police car, an aluminum prop shaft, rear suspension bushings, and a fuel system upgrade. The fuel pump was redesigned to enure all of the fuel would be delivered to the engine in racing conditions. The engine remained showroom stock with no modifications; to order a 1LE you had to delete air conditioning.
HPP: Was this the same package that became available for the 1993 Firebird?
JH: For the most part, but it also included adjustable Koni shocks. The Corvette brakes were no longer part of the package as the Firebird/Camaro brakes were just as capable.
HPP: Were there any differences between the two generations when it came to handling?
Stu Hayner and John raced this 1996 1LE Firebird in the IMSA SpeedVision Cup. They are at
JH: The newer generation was better because it had SLA (short/long arm) front suspension. Previous to 1993, those cars had a strut front suspension. The SLA improves the suspension kinematics, which provided better control of the movement of the tire and wheel through the suspension travel.
HPP: Were there any differences in the aero packages between both cars?
JH: The standard Firebird had a lower drag coefficient than the Camaro. The Formula was lighter and had a better aero package than the Trans Am, which made it the racers' choice.
HPP: What changes did you make to the stock Firebird to make it competitive?
JH: There really wasn't much allowed. You were required to run the stock 1LE equipment; in addition, you could add different brake pads, aftermarket wheels, and the series-specified racing tire. We had to add a complete rollcage, and the late Marv Palmer built our engines. Marv was an expert at extracting maximum horsepower and reliability from small-block GM engines. A lot of the original interior remained, including the passenger and back seats.
The original LT1 produced 275 hp in 1993. In 1995, we were allowed to add a hot cam that bumped the power into the mid-300s. In 1997, we were able to change over to LS1 engines, which were lighter and more powerful. I won the championship in one of these Firebirds in 1996 and 1997.
Next month for Part 2, John discusses his activities with GM from 1998 until he retired in 2008. This includes being named chief engineer for the F-body group, the stories of his Firebird racing experiences, and his extensive development of the Pontiac Solstice and G8.