In His Own Words: Tom Wallace
Corvette's New Chief Engineer Talks About Racing, Restoring and Teaching Respect for Automobiles
DETROIT - On Jan. 1, 2006, Tom Wallace will officially become the car guy with the best job in the world. On that date he will succeed Dave Hill as Corvette chief engineer and vehicle line executive (VLE) for performance cars. Wallace will become only the fourth person to carry the title of Corvette chief engineer in the marque's history, joining an exclusive club whose membership includes Zora Arkus-Duntov, Dave McClellan and Hill.
As the head of the Corvette Nation, Wallace will become the steward of the Corvette legend and the head of an extended family of Corvette enthusiasts, owners, collectors and racers. He is the right gearhead for the job, with more than 30 years of experience as a hands-on builder, restorer, race car driver, and all-around car nut.
Wallace, 57, was born in Pittsburgh. He began his GM career as a cooperative student with Buick Motor Division in 1970. He held several engineering positions focusing on engine technology and played a key role in the development of the turbocharged Buick Grand National coupes of the early '80s. Wallace most recently was vehicle line executive for Small/Midsize Trucks.
After competing in amateur drag racing and gymkhana, Wallace started road racing with the Sports Car Club of America more than 30 years ago. He has competed in a variety of sedan and GT classes with raced-prepared Oldsmobile, Buick and Chevrolet models. He raced professionally in the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) American Challenge series in 1978-79 in several endurance races, including the Sebring 12-hour and Daytona 24-hour events. Wallace now races regularly in the Detroit area and has twice won the GT1 championship at Waterford Hills Raceway. He has competed in the SCCA National Championship Runoffs six times. His sons, Brian, 35, and Tom, 38, are avid road racers who also have competed the SCCA Runoffs.
In the following Q&A, Wallace discusses racing's impact on both individuals and auto manufacturers.
How does your racing experience influence your approach to your new position as Corvette chief engineer?
The one thing that racing absolutely drives is discipline in timing. When they call the cars to the starting grid, you can't say, "Hold on, I need some more time." You can't let it slide; you have to look at the end point and plan your work to be completed before grid time.
The second is the need for balance in the product. You can have a great motor, but if your chassis doesn't work, it's not a good race car. If you don't have a good driver, a good crew chief and a good crew, it doesn't work. If you run out of money and can't buy tires, you're done. You must balance all of the components. It really is critical to understand you can't allow one thing to override the whole vehicle.
Last but not least, you learn it's no fun to finish second. Winning is everything in racing and in the marketplace we're in today.
How does racing impact production vehicles?
Dave Hill and his team have done an awesome job with the sixth-generation Corvette. I've been fortunate to drive an early production Z06, and it's one incredible vehicle. First and foremost, we'll continue to build on this strong foundation by continuously improving the current vehicle and developing the next generation Corvette. I like performance vehicles, I drive them and I own them. I race fast cars so I understand what it takes to make a vehicle feel good, how it's connected to the driver.
I don't mean we're going to build race cars, but there is definitely cross-over from racing to production. For example, how does the brake pedal feel relate to how the vehicle decelerates? A race car has exceptional brake pedal feel, and the driver knows he has complete control of stopping of the vehicle. That brake pedal feel may be too touchy for the street, but you can start there and dial it back to where it's right for everyday driving.
Another example: good on-center steering feel is absolutely essential in a race car. To go fast in road racing you must hit the apex within inches every time. The only way you can hit the apex accurately is to have steering with such excellent on-center feel that you know exactly where the front wheels are. Customers who drive on the street also want great steering feel when they're driving down the highway. The vehicle doesn't wander, and when they see a pothole, they know exactly how much input they need to drive around it.
How did you start in racing?
When I was in high school, I loved racing and fast cars. I don't know where that came from, perhaps from one of my grandfathers who was mechanically inclined. I was fortunate to get a degree in mechanical engineering from General Motors Institute and started my career at Buick. A few months after I moved to Michigan from Pittsburgh, I bought a '67 RS Camaro. It didn't have a radio or air conditioning, but it did have big disc brakes, a four-speed transmission and a 4:10 rear axle. I drag raced it for a while, did some gymkhana, and finally decided to go road racing.
What is the appeal of road racing?
When I was drag racing, I put in hours and hours of effort to make three or four 14-second runs. I didn't like off-road rallying with a car, and I didn't own a truck. Then I did some gymkhana races in parking lots, going around pylons, and that really interested me.
My Camaro was 18 inches above the ground when I was drag racing, and then I had it slammed on the ground for gymkhana. This was my family car that I drove to the grocery store, and I torched the fenders and flared them to fit bigger tires. I liked that kind of driving, so I decided to try wheel-to-wheel racing. I went to a couple of driving schools and I got hooked. That's what I've done ever since.
And you passed on this interest in racing to your sons?
I don't know whether it was intentional, but it happened. When my sons Brian and Tom were young, they were interested in cars. They came out to the garage and helped me, and I started to teach them. By the time they were eight or nine, they crewed for me on the race car. Years later they went to Phoenix with me on a business trip and we found two rust-free Camaros that we could restore. We brought them back to Michigan and restored them as a family project, and to this day they both have beautiful Camaros.
What did you teach your sons through their involvement with automobiles?
One of a parent's worst fears is that a young driver will be hurt in a highway accident. I didn't have that worry because my sons had so many hours invested in their cars that they would never do something foolish. They had learned respect for their automobiles.
They also learned that you have to pay attention to details and to strive for perfection if you want to be successful in racing. Those are traits that carry over into the rest of life.
What is it about Corvette that excites enthusiasts?
It's the American sports car icon. There is some formidable competition, but Corvette has been around the longest, it offers the best value and the best balance. Corvettes are fast, and enthusiasts appreciate performance.
When I attend races and see hundreds of cars in the Corvette Corrals, I'm in awe. I'm going to spend a lot of time with Corvette owners because they have red Bowtie blood in their veins.
Corvettes have always raced, but Corvette wasn't officially in racing until 1999. What's the importance of having Corvette Racing competing as a factory team?
Before the formation of Corvette Racing, much of the factory racing support had a very low profile. It was helpful, but it wasn't as effective as a true factory-backed team. I think that today's Corvettes are absolutely better because we are officially connected with the race team. I intend to do everything it takes to ensure that Corvette continues to be the icon for the American sports car.
Is being the Corvette chief engineer a dream job, something you imagined as a teenager?
Being a gearhead, Dave Hill and I had a great relationship. We'd bounce ideas off each other, and he'd ask me to drive an engineering development car for a few days and give him my opinion. Even before getting this job I was driving a Z06 because he knew I'd drive it hard. So yes, it's a dream job, and it's still sinking in how awesome it is.
What's your current race car project?
I had a tube-framed GT1 Camaro that we raced in SCCA. My crew chief, Mike Begley, and I built it identical to a Trans-Am car, about 2300 pounds with 700 horsepower. I just sold that because we are building a new car, and just coincidentally, it's a Corvette.
Will your new job responsibilities cut into your track time?
I certainly hope not, but if they do, so be it. It may take some time for me to get integrated with the Corvette group, but I'm not going to cut out track time completely from my schedule.