In last month's issue, High Performance Pontiac introduced you to John Heinricy, retired director of High Performance Vehicle Operations for GM's Performance Division. He discussed his early career at General Motors, the role he had in the development of the Pontiac 6000 and Sunbird, and the birth of GM's ILE showroom-stock–racing Trans Ams and Firebirds. He also revealed how Chevrolet's pullback from showroom-stock–racing gave Pontiac and the Fourth-Generation Firebird an opportunity to compete on road-course circuits in IMSA, IROC, and SCCA contests.
This month, we pick up where we left off with John, and hear him discuss Firebirds, Trans Ams, and the WS6 package; the new-age GTO, the Solstice, and the G8; and how the adage "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" held true for Pontiac until its death in 2009.
High Performance Pontiac: In Part 1, we discussed your involvement in the development and racing of various GM products, including Firebirds. In your opinion, what are the racing strengths and weakness of showroom-stock Firebirds?
John Heinricy: [In road-course racing], the Firebird's negative is its size and mass. It is relativity big compared to the competition. They are not the greatest under braking, so [GM Performance] kept experimenting with various brake pads until we found some that worked.
Joe Kent, owner of Kent Motorsports, is shown getting ready to qualify the #97 Firebird fo
We used to race in an IMSA series that held two 24-hour races. Changing brake pads quickly was very important, so the team developed a quick disconnect and reconnect brake-change system. The calipers were pre-bled and the brake lines had quick-connect fittings. During a pit stop, the brake-line hose was disconnected at the framerail, the caliper was unbolted, and the new caliper with pads was installed. A rotor change could also be done during this process.
The crew completed this task quickly and we never lost time during a race making this change. We won the 24 Hours at Mosport in 1996 driving a '95 Firebird but were disqualified. (Stu Hayner, Marty Miller, and Don Knowles were my co-drivers and we made a great team.)
HPP: When did you take over as chief engineer of the F-body?
JH:… In 1997, and I was involved in the redesign of the '98 models. I held that position until 2000 after we finished development on the '02 model. I spent a lot of time getting the WS6 package into production. We shipped the Firebirds to American Sunroof Corporation (ASC) to have their hoods and front fascias installed. Street Legal Performance (SLP) added the Hurst shifters and any other remaining equipment before they were shipped to dealers.
We spent a lot of time developing the performance exhaust for those cars. We had to meet the noise regulations while still making the correct power. We built a two-into-one-and-back-into-two [exhaust] system that met our power target because in '98 we were unable to accomplish this with the dual-exhaust outlets. So in '98 we had a single outlet in the back that made the power, but Pontiac was not very happy about that change. We redeveloped it for '99 and returned to dual outlets. It didn't make any more power, but it sounded good and looked better.
HPP:When you left the F-body group, what was your next assignment?
After retiring from GM, John started consulting with various manufacturers on product impr
JH: In 2000, I was named GM's director of Vehicle Dynamics at the Milford Proving Grounds. A little less than one year later, I became GM's director of High Performance Vehicle Operations.
HPP: You recently won the SCCA 2013 A/Sedan National Championship driving an '02 Firebird Formula. Was that vehicle equipped any differently than the IMSA Firebirds you used to race?
JH: The A/Sedan SCCA regulations allow quite a bit more modifications to the car. Springs and shocks are open, and you can make suspension-bushing upgrades front and back. This helps you run a lot of negative camber to improve turn in to the corners. The engines are equipped with a carburetor, not fuel injection.
The base engine is the old 305ci that was in the Firebirds from '87 to '92. The rules include an engine formula that allows you to vary the engine size from 302 to 358 ci depending on the weight you want to run the car. We have to use a 600-cfm Holley carburetor, and transmission ratios need to match the stock offerings. The rearend is free; a lot of people use the 9-inch Ford differentials, and you can add a Watt's Link rear suspension for better handling. A version of the LS1 Firebird has been recently approved for competition.
The '02 Firebird I won the championship with had a 311ci engine. It produces around 450 hp. The rules require 16x8-inch wheels; you are allowed to use any brake that will fit inside that wheel. My winning Firebird weighed 3,320 pounds with driver at the end of the race with minimal fuel.
HPP: How many A/Sedan championships did you win?
JH: I won five championships, and the last four were in the same '02 Firebird.
After John’s team completed the base Solstice, they unleashed their performance plan on th
HPP: Did Pontiac provide you with any on-track engineering support, and did any of the lessons learned on-track make their way into the production car?
JH: Pontiac was interested in how its cars were running in the Motorola Cup and the Firehawk series (1993-2000). There was at least one [Pontiac] engineer (and sometimes two) at each race. They focused on the brakes and any problems that occurred so they could make the production car better.
HPP: What was your favorite Pontiac?
JH: My favorite Pontiac in the '60s was a four-speed '66 GTO. My favorite current model is the G8 GXP sedan. Any time someone gets into a G8 GXP, they are very surprised at how nice a car it is. It had Brembo front brakes and the LS3 engine, which made about 415 hp. You could get it in a manual and it was really a fun car to drive. It was also equipped with oil coolers for the engine and transmission. If you added a supercharger to one, its performance would be very close to a Cadillac CTS-V because [the G8] is lighter.
HPP: You spent a lot of time in Australia with Holden. What Pontiacs were you working on at the time?
JH: I worked with Holden on G8 GXP development. The G8 was an older architecture based on the Holden Commodore. I spent time on the G8 development because of my role as director of GM High Performance. It was my job to make sure that any high-performance car entering the U.S. market met certain standards. This included power, braking, and handling. The G8 fell into this category.
The GM Performance Division tested and upgraded the suspension on the Pontiac GTO to prepa
I tested the G8 at the Nurburgring North Course and it performed quite well. The power, braking, and handling met all of our performance standards. In addition, we traveled extensively throughout Europe, shaking down the G8 before it was introduced. My impression of the G8 was that it matched the performance of the BMW M5 [and] that was our benchmark. In Australia, I would always spend time driving a G8 prototype to find out how [the model] was progressing. I was interested in finding out what needed to be added to the soon-to-be-introduced GXP. The things I pushed extra hard for were the Brembo brakes and oil coolers.
HPP: What were the similarities between the 21st century GTO and the G8?
JH: They are all based on similar architecture. The G8 was a refined GTO, and it did everything better than the GTO.
HPP: Were you involved in developing the showroom-stock Solstice?
JH: Darren Post was GM's Vehicle Line Director for the Solstice, and he is quite a performance enthusiast. He asked our group for ideas on where the Solstice could be raced successfully. We gave him several options, but he chose the SCCA showroom-stock category.
While John was working on the development of other GM products in Australia, he identified
Our engineering team worked on improving the base Solstice's handling. We released the ZOK option for it. This included springs, shocks, and stabilizer bars. Basically we added GXP suspension components from the future turbo car and applied them to the base car. We also gave [the Solstice] the ability to be lowered once the customer bought it.
The shocks had snap rings that held the spring seats in place. This would raise the car enough so it could pass through the production process. The customer could remove these spacers to lower the car for racing. We released a service bulletin so the customer or the dealer could make this change. These ZOK Solstices were sold with a full factory warranty, which was voided once the vehicle was raced.
HPP: Did you do anything to the Solstice's chassis to improve its stiffness?
John and his team performed extensive testing of new GM products undergoing development at
JH: Yes. We added a new reinforcement to the rear chassis to improve stiffness. On the later models, a torque arm, which ran from the transmission to the differential, was installed. It added mass to the car. The ZOK-option Solstices were built without this arm to reduce weight. They were used for autocrossing and won national autocross championships. The Ecotec engine was unmodified.
HPP: Did you perform testing on these Solstices before they competed?
JH: Yes, our team did extensive testing on the proving grounds and at a number of racetracks around the U.S. to gather enough data to make sure this Pontiac would be competitive.
HPP: What was your professional opinion of the Solstice?
JH: It handled very well and was extremely quick into and out of corners. That was its advantage over its competitors. Power to weight was decent, but it cornered better than its competition.
HPP: Where did support for this effort come from?
JH: Darren Post, who I previously mentioned, and Pontiac Marketing were big supporters of the program. It was a very successful effort. The Solstice won the SCCA National Championship in 2006 and 2007.
HPP: Did you build a turbo version of the Solstice for showroom-stock racing?
JH: Yes, we built a ZOK-option for the Solstice GXP Turbo. Phoenix Racing built four of these cars to compete in the Touring 2 (T2) class, and Don Knowles won two national championships (2007 and 2010) with one.
HPP: Did a group of these Solstices compete in a TV show?
JH: Yes. They appeared in a show called Setup, hosted by Tommy Kendall. [The show's theme] was designed for novice drivers. The winner received a ride in a Pratt & Miller G6 GXP Grand Am car.
Closer to home, John won many championships driving Firebirds, including this A/Sedan vers
The Solstices were specially prepared GXP Turbo cars. GM paid to have them built and our group did some engineering work on them. Pratt & Miller built these Solstices. Pontiac Marketing supported the effort.
HPP: What happened to the vehicles?
JH: They were sold and a lot of them became track-day cars. Some of them are still running in SCCA events in the Showroom Touring Under (STU) class. One even won the STU National Championship in 2012.
HPP: When did this program end?
JH: At the end of 2008 when I retired.
HPP: On one of our tours at the Milford Proving Grounds, I saw a prototype of the Solstice coupe. What did you think of that car?
JH: The Solstice coupe was one of my favorite Pontiacs. Pontiac only built 1,000 of them, and immediately they became collector cars. At the time, we were experimenting with a 315hp Ecotec turbo for the Solstice coupe. Our intent was to produce all of the Solstice coupes with that engine. I was really pushing the development of that engine with GM Powertrain.
HPP: Was the G8 or GTO ever considered for a racing program?
JH: We never had plans to race the G8. However we did modify the GTO to fit in the SCCA T2 class. The work was done in GM's High Performance Vehicle Operations Division. They added better springs, bars, and bushings to the T2 package.
HPP: Was the SCCA T2 GTO very successful?
In April 2012, John competed in two back-to-back A/Sedan races at Virginia International R
JH: [It] won some national races [in its class], but never did well at the runoffs because the competitors were much lighter and handled better.
HPP: What do you consider to be your greatest contribution to Pontiac?
JH: … the success of the Solstice racing programs.
HPP: What do you consider to be your greatest contribution to General Motors?
JH: I think my greatest contribution was training young engineers. I pushed them to be the best they could be, and engineer vehicles to be the best rather than ... "good enough." To sum up, it's instilling the racing spirit into engineering to win, not just finish.