To Pontiac traditionalists, the war cry, "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday," bred the brand's formidable reputation as a performance powerhouse. From NASCAR superspeedways to NHRA quarter-mile battlefields, Pontiac was a motorsports leader, and America's new-car buying public wanted to be on the winning team.
Though its true that Pontiac's backing of organized motorsports came and went many times over the decades, that adage that started Pontiac on its track to success was never entirely abandoned. In fact, even to the last days of Pontiac's existence, General Motors tasked its Performance Division with putting Pontiac forefront on America's tracks and using the wins to sell new vehicles.
John grew up on a farm in South Dakota and learned how to fix mechanical equipment from hi
John Heinricy is the former director of high-performance-vehicle operations for GM's Performance Division. Since 2001 until his retirement in 2008, he and his team developed, built, and tested most of GM's high-performance vehicles. John and his staff tested their handiwork on North America's best racetracks and at the famous Nordschleife (or North Course) Nurburgring track in Germany. (He drove over 1,000 laps around this tricky 150-turn, 12-mile racetrack.) Looking to the past, he served as chief engineer for the Pontiac Trans Am and Firebird (and Camaro) platforms from 1997 to 2000.
In his spare time, John plays with cars—fast ones. That includes being strapped into the best GM showroom stock and purpose-built racers the corporation builds. John won 12 SCCA National Championships, including four in Firebirds. He began racing in 1984, and won nine 24 Hour races at tracks including Watkins Glen, Mosport, and Mid-Ohio. He competed at the Daytona 24 Hours and the 12 Hours of Sebring. He was part of the team that broke three 50-year-old world speed records at Fort Stockton, Texas.
High Performance Pontiac recently chatted with John about his career inside GM and the hand he had in furthering Pontiac's reputation as The Excitement Division.
High Performance Pontiac: You started at General Motors right out of college in 1970. What were your first duties?
John Heinricy: I graduated from South Dakota Tech in the Black Hills. GM recruited me in 1969. I interviewed with Pontiac, Rochester [carburetors], and Chevrolet. I received an offer from Chevrolet and I gladly accepted their offer.
HPP: What were your first job assignments?
This 1993 1LE Firebird that John helped develop is shown on the pre-race grid at the India
JH: I joined GM as a college graduate in training for two years. I worked in Chevrolet Research and Development (R&D) when it developed the aluminum Can-Am and Trans Am motors. That was pretty exciting. When my training was completed, I was assigned to the Milford Proving grounds. My position was experimental test engineer doing durability testing on various vehicles. Next I was promoted to senior experimental engineer and worked on the front-wheel-drive Citations.
HPP: Did you have any involvement with Pontiac engineering during your early career?
JH: Yes, when we developed the Citation chassis in 1976, I worked with an engineer from Pontiac to help develop the suspension packages for the Pontiac Sunbird and 6000 models. My job was to provide feedback to the design engineers on the vehicle's suspension tuning. This included making it behave the way it should and develop a handling package for its targeted market. This included testing shocks, anti-roll bars, and springs for maximum handling-and-ride comfort. I did this testing at the Milford and Arizona proving grounds.
HPP: What was the first Pontiac you tested? Please describe the experience.
This Pontiac ad appeared in USA Today after John won the 1997 IMSA Manufacturers Champions
JH: In early 1980 I worked with a group that was charged with designing a front-wheel-drive replacement for the Firebird and Camaro. It was called the GM80 program. The Pontiac member of the development team used a modified VW Scirocco as a Firebird development mule. Its engine was pumped up, and it had different suspension in the front and rear. It was powered by a 60-degree V-6. I did some development driving in it at the Desert Proving Grounds and it was a good handling, front-wheel-drive car. One of the things we discovered was that dealing with torque steer with higher horsepower was a major effort. The steering wheel would pull to the right under hard acceleration. After extensive testing, GM made the decision to stay with a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive chassis for the Firebird.
HPP: When and how did your racing career begin?
JH: My racing interest began in early 1984 when our group converted an '84 Corvette into an '85 production-spec, showroom-stock Sport Car Club of America (SCCA) racecar. I met [famous Corvette racer] Dick Guldstrand during this project and told him I was interested in racing. He recommended attending a SCCA driver's school to see if I liked it. With no support from GM, I leased a Citation X-11 racecar and used it to get my license. I began testing a Corvette for Tommy Morrison at Mid-Ohio for a 24 Hour showroom stock race. He asked me if I wanted to drive, and I said, "You betcha!"
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.