Recently, Team VETTE was given the opportunity to not only see the spectacular new Daytona 500 Z06 Pace Car in its natural environment, but also to speak with its creator, GM Director of Design for Specialty Vehicles John "Kip" Wasenko. Kip, a longtime Corvette racer and plastic fanatic, works out of GM's Technical Center, in Warren, Michigan, and is the head of what might best be described as the corporation's pace-car-design team.
In an interview, Kip and Chevy Communications' Travis Parman provided us with an inside look at what went into designing the newest-and possibly baddest-special-edition Corvette ever to hit an oval. Here's what the duo had to say.
VM: Let's start off with an easy one. Which of the pace cars has your team designed?
Kip: Our design team was formed, along with the GM Performance Division, maybe three or four years ago. The first Corvette pace-car design we did was the 50th Anniversary that paced Le Mans. We also designed the '04 and '05 Corvette Indy Cars and the Daytona 500 Corvette from last year.
VM: The Corvette seems to be pretty popular with your group. Other than its history, what makes it so well received?
Kip: The tweaking required on Corvettes is minimal. That's how good those cars are. You can really take one as it is, and they don't require a lot of modification. I mean, the modification, of course, is the elaborate paint scheme.
VM: Aside from that, and this being a premiere year, what made the Z06 the ideal candidate for the Daytona 500?
Kip: The Z06 paint scheme that was selected is very vivid. It's very important to be able to see the pace car from the top of the grandstands. Because of the paint technology we used, which was "Hot Hues" through DuPont, the Z06 presents well. However, in what I'll call "non-natural" lighting, like a photo studio environment, it's not as good, because the color needs the sun to bring out its presence. Even as we painted the vehicle, we would check the color by taking it outside because, in the indoor lighting, the color looks very different. By going outside we knew what adjustments to make to the paint's colors based on how the car would respond to outside lighting conditions.
VM: Tell us about last year's pace-car design on the '05 C6. How has its design influenced the current one?
Kip: We did the yellow Corvette last year to introduce the new C6, and by design we tied it in very closely to what we had exhibited at SEMA the November before. It was very much influenced by the new C6 and C5-R-as well as the soon-to-be-seen C6.R-hence the big wing, rockers, and carbon-fiber pieces. When we did the [car for the] Indy 500, which I go to every year, the C6 had already been introduced. I wanted to do a theme that was something very tasty and sophisticated because that, to me, is my impression of what Indy is. This year, however, we really wanted to stretch outside the box. We had the SSR Pace Truck that we did for the Nextel race the year before, which had the classic American flames. We thought there was nothing more American than flames, and we were proud of it. More importantly, so was the crowd at NASCAR. The fans absolutely loved the flamed SSR. So, this year, we developed a new theme with a more contemporary evolution.
VM: So, design-wise, the new car is more tied into the SSR-but not completely. Where did the new design come from?
Kip: It has somewhat of a relationship with the SSR in terms of American flames and the gradation of white to yellow to dark to blue. As opposed to doing a classic flame job, we built it on two ideas. The first one was scallops, which are also used on custom cars and motorcycles. They're still pretty popular today. Secondly, and more importantly, [was] the image of something entering the atmosphere. For example, I once saw a picture of the space shuttle entering the atmosphere where the nose was glowing, and it was going this outrageous amount of speed. This led us to do the most elaborate paint scheme we've done to date. When you look at the car, as I know you did outside, you see the yellow, and the metallic yellow, and the copper, and the red, and the blue. It was the most expensive paint job we've ever done because, as you saw, each one of those colors is masked and painted. So it's not only the most creative from a design standpoint, it's also the most elaborate from a paint-scheme standpoint. And I think from the grandstands, when you see that vehicle going around on a sunny day, those colors will blur together.
VM: When you were looking for the inspiration for the "rocket reentry" look for the '06 Daytona Pace Car, were you looking back at any old space footage?
Kip: We were searching in every direction. We tried some real graphic Americana, which was real abstract. We tried something involving the Statue of Liberty. We tried a lot with the waving flag. We tried some really abstract red, white, and blue to give it an American theme without really doing an American flag literally. We even tried some military themes. Everything we did was based on America, because this is an American sports car, and I think the Corvette is the American dream for a lot of people. So the themes we explored were a very wide variety of images.
Jim Brinkerhoff, one of our designers, did one that was similar to what we ended up with; it was the one we continued to evolve. I kept seeing that image, and it was like an ink-blot test. Everybody sees something different. And I said the thing that I'm attracted to with this thing is that my mind kept remembering a shot of the space shuttle somewhere. And the more we evolved it, the more popular it became. And when it came down to selecting the final direction we all said, "Let's do this. It's just so different from what we've ever done." It was that feeling of outrageous speed. Whether it is a meteor or a space shuttle entering the atmosphere, or the fluid dynamics we often see with computer-generated aerodynamic studies, it just had that image of something at an incredibly high rate of speed. And that's why I have to say I am very pleased to hear that even standing still it looks like it's going fast. That's the subliminal image that I guess I responded to, and that's the subliminal image that we want others to have-something moving at an outrageous speed. That's why I can't wait to see it pace the Daytona 500 . . . because I think what's going to happen, in theory, is that all the colors are going to blur together from white to yellow.
VM: Obviously, the design wasn't born overnight. What went into GM's final decision to pick this one?
Kip: I'd like to say, without exaggeration, that 65-80 different paint schemes and illustrations were thrown on a wall, and we always came back to this one. And when I invited our Vice President of Design, Ed Welburn, and Design Director Ken Parkinson over to the board to see what we were doing, they immediately went to that one. It was, by far, the most different from all the other directions we were taking. We had everything from traditionally what you'd expect to very avant garde. In the end, I think some people may find [this design] too avant garde, but it's our responsibility as designers to stretch the envelope and think outside the box.
VM: With this new pace car, do you think you have raised the bar for yourselves to a really high level for the next race? Meaning, will the next pace car have to beat this one?
Kip: We try to raise our own bar every time and outdo the one before. And as proud as we were of the yellow Daytona 500 Corvette from last year, we're equally excited-but in a new way. We've really done something that hasn't been done before. We're breaking away and trying something creative. And I think that we, as designers, always have that as a goal. We try to break new ground and search new territory, and we're particularly anxious and excited to see how the crowd reacts to it-to show them we're doing something they haven't seen before.
Travis: I have a picture of last year's Daytona car on my desk, and I'm looking at it right now and I realize that you didn't label the new car as "Official Pace Car" like you did last year. You've gotten clever this year and labeled it "Official Pace Z06."
Kip: Well, that's exactly right. We're proud that this is a Z06, and we know the world has seen the Z06. The fact that the paint job is so elaborate somewhat camouflages the car, and we felt out of respect for the car it's important to say "Official Pace Z06" because that, to me, is equally important and equally significant. To have the '06 Z06 pace the Daytona 500, the Great American Race, that's a pretty significant thing that we want people to know. So rather than saying Official Pace Car, or Official Corvette, we're telling them it's the Official Pace Z06.
VM: Is there any one favorite thing about this Corvette and its paint that you appreciate over the rest of the car?
Kip: I have a particular favorite area, which is the top part of the front fender that goes into the door, where [the paint] goes from golden yellow to copper to a candy-ish red-not a bright red like you'd expect. And I love the way the copper and the yellow and the red all worked together as three colors. It's a lot different from working with primary colors, like red, white, and blue. And for me, the negative area of the paint, whether it be a letter or a graphic, is just as important as the positive area.
VM: It's really nice how the colors flow. You go all the way from a warm white to a cool blue. It adds to the look of speediness and the visual appeal of the car. You have the complementary colors on each end of the car and the really nice transition graphically. Is there anything you had to do to aid this transition?
Kip: When we did the first paint job before it was rubbed out, they painted the nose of the car. I made them repaint the nose to add more white on the leading edge and let it roll up the nose a little bit farther and [also] to the corners to get that feeling of heat. And it was interesting because after they painted it they came to me and said, "Kip, you were absolutely right." And when we compared the final, which is the one on the car, they said, "Wow, that really is better." I think it's the fine attention to detail that makes this car stand out. I think when you look at it carefully, you can see that. It's not just, "OK, we'll put a gradient in it." We spent way more time on this one than any of the other ones before, and it took a lot longer to paint this one than any of the other ones because it's so elaborate.
VM: Since each of these cars was painted separately, does that mean each one is unique?
Kip: Not at all. All three cars were built with the same mask set. We designed these on the car, in tape, then tuned them up, and then we put the mask back on the car. We'd tune it again, and then they'd make the set of masks, so they're all identical. They're all computer indexed properly so that the paint schemes are all literally the same. The paint schemes are very carefully made with precut masks that we designed and tuned and approved before we painted anything. So, they're identical. Also, we didn't use decals. Of course the standard Z06 badge is on the car, but the only decal is the Daytona 500 label because, after the 500, it will be reused in another race. But as far as the paint scheme, that's painted on and will remain with that car.
VM: Revisiting an earlier question, was there anything on the car you wish you could have gone back and changed?
Kip: I think if I had thought that the car was going to be inside on display half the time, I probably would have made the red just a little bit brighter. But that would be the only thing because, like I said, I think that the car was designed to be shown outside. Maybe I should have tweaked it a little to be more to my satisfaction indoors. But again, that's easy for me to say now!]
VM: Obviously, the Z06 is not a convertible, and therefore it doesn't have a drop top that would allow the roof strobes to be hidden behind the seats in a dome, like they were on the '98. So, with the Z06, there's a light bar on the roof. How did you get past the design hazards of an object that could potentially interrupt the lines of the car itself?
Kip: We designed it, clayed it, cast it, fabricated it, and molded that light bar here. And it was designed and fabricated specifically for the C6 coupe. It was not an off-the-shelf bar.
VM: That's impressive! It's amazing to think that this much detail goes into one car that may only be used once. But, I think that's part of the pace-car mystique. The casual observer will never know.
Kip: Our pace-car program is very important to us. The number of paint schemes we evaluate, and the amount of effort we invest in terms of follow-up and detail is because we think this is a very important part of the race. [It's] part of the entertainment, part of the impact, and I think that's part of what people pay good money to go see. In fact, I have to say one of the biggest compliments people at Chevrolet always give us is how much they appreciate our effort when they see what we do with the pace cars. We treat it very seriously. We have a team that has a lot of history in doing pace cars. And perhaps more importantly, we have a real passion for them. And hopefully people like them!
VM: I don't think you're going to have to worry about that.