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Chief Engineer Tom Wallace - The Definitive Tom Wallace Interview

We Ask The Tough Questions. Corvette's New Supremo Answers 'Em.

Dr. Greg Johnson Mar 29, 2007
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Corvette Chief Engineer Tom Wallace (left) talks race prep with a member of the Pratt & Miller race team.

While at the NCM's 2006 C5/C6 Birthday Bash, we had the privilege of spending some time with Tom Wallace, the new chief engineer for Corvette. Tom is truly an enthusiast's enthusiast, and it was a joy to watch him mingling with the Corvette faithful as if he were just another fan. After a bare minimum of prodding, Tom agreed to answer a few of our more burning questions regarding Corvettes past, present, and future.

VETTE: Tom, you are known as a car guy by everyone we talk to. Tell us about yourself.

TW: I was born in Pittsburgh. I grew-up as a "car kid." I started playing with cars when I was 2, my grandparents told me. While I was in high school, I had the fastest car in town. I used to drag race at the time and very seldom lost. I started doing some gymkhanas after I decided I liked going around corners better than I liked to drag race. I soon got tired of gymkhanas because it was a lot of work-you were only allowed three or four passes, and all I was doing was knocking down pylons. So I went to a couple of driving schools, decided I liked banging fenders a little bit, and started in SCCA road racing in [the] A Sedan class.

VETTE: When was that?

TW: I started in the early '70s and have raced ever since. I took a couple of years off for kids and stuff like that but have been road racing, mostly amateur, for most of my life. [I] did some professional IMSA stuff back in the late '70s and early '80s. My claim to fame then was the 24/12/6 series-the Daytona 24-hour, Sebring 12-hour, and Talladega 6-hour. Gene Rutherford and I drove an Oldsmobile in the Kelly Girl Challenge Series. We lasted 10 hours at Daytona, 9 hours at Sebring, and won Talladega.

Anyway, that was my pro racing. I did that for a couple of years, but due to my job I didn't have time to [race professionally], so I've been hobby racing. I have been to the [SCCA] Runoffs several times and finished in the Top 5 . . . and I'm not done yet. I'm going to win the Runoffs. I don't know when, but I will!

The latest car was a GT1 Camaro-tube frame, carbon fiber, 2,400 pounds, 700 hp. And my claim to fame since I got this job [at Corvette] is that on tracks where both the C5-R and I had raced, I was faster. With the C6.R, they are now faster, [a] credit to the Pratt & Miller team. We sold the Camaro to get some cash so I could finish the new car I started about a year ago, which is a Corvette. I'm going to run it in GT1.

VETTE: Your sons race as well, don't they?

TW: Yes. Both my sons race Camaros in A Sedan, which is more of a production class. They have both been in the Runoffs. Brian has finished Second the last couple of years. Tom just got back into it this year. They shared a car about six or eight years ago, sold that, had my grandkids, and now they're both back into it.

VETTE: Do they wrench for you when you are racing?

TW: Yes, they wrenched for me for a long time until they got their own cars. Now I actually crew-chief for their two cars. On a typical SCCA hobby weekend, the GT1 race is not with the A Sedan race. So they help me in the GT1 race in the morning, and I help them in the A Sedan race in the afternoon. Every once in a while we are all in the same race together. It's so much fun because we have cameras and have fun filming each other.

VETTE: When did you get started with GM?

TW: [In] 1966, right out of school. I started in an engine area and did engine work in the beginning on the Buick V-6. My claim to fame there-and the reason people call me a car guy-was that I was one of the two or three people who really created the turbo V-6s and the Grand National series. I did the motor stuff, and the other guy did the chassis stuff, and then we had a third guy who did the body stuff. [Besides that] I've probably done five or six pace cars for Indy. So I did a lot of engine work at Buick. Then, in the early '80s, I went to Stanford and got my Masters in Business. The MBA [was] because [GM] thought maybe I was a little too "engineering-ese." It has helped me a lot in the rest of my job.

After that I came back and worked in chassis for a while. I had the brake department and chassis department as I was advancing in the company and [attaining] management level. Then I became chief of [the] Buick V-6 [program] when we fully combined the Buick, Olds, and Cadillac groups. So I was over all the V-6 engines for about three or four years, then I switched to what then was called CPC [Chevrolet Pontiac Canada]. That was my first stint as a chief of engineering for a whole car-I was chief of the Corsica and Beretta.

After that I was chief of the W cars [Buick Regal, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Olds Intrigue]. Then I did a "quality" job for a couple of years, and then, bingo, when we went to the Vehicle Line Executive organizational structure in 1995 for North America, I was one of the original 12 VLEs assigned to midsize trucks. A VLE is like a general manager of a business, [in that] he is in charge of the whole business, from design through production to sales and service. I did the new Trail Blazer, Envoy, Bravada, and Saab 9-7. Then I did the Hummer H3 and the Colorado/Canyon pickup trucks.

I did that for 10 years and 4 days [before] it was announced that I was replacing Dave Hill as the VLE of performance cars. Included in the lineup are the Chevy Corvette, Cadillac XLR, Saturn Sky, Pontiac Solstice, and Opel GT. I also have dual responsibility as chief engineer of the Corvette. So I really have two different titles. When I am down here [in Bowling Green], I'm chief engineer of the Corvette. But when I am back home doing programs as the VLE, I'm responsible for the financial performance of the vehicle.

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Wallace (second from left) mixes comfortably with NCM habitus at the museum's 2006 C5/C6 Birthday Bash.

VETTE: How do you feel about that? Do you think there is a value difference or a conflict in sharing the platforms between the Corvette and Cadillac?

TW: No, I think it is a fantastic idea. If you look at the XLR, Dave's team did an unbelievable job at making it very differentiated [for] a very different customer. You can get away with using similar architecture if you make enough specific differences to satisfy your different customers. Corvette customers are so different from Cadillac XLR customers, but the fundamentals are [that] they are both two-seat-sporty-car drivers. One [car] is more performance, and one is more luxury.

VETTE: At one time the idea for a "budget" Corvette was talked about. Is that an issue at all?

TW: I have only been on the job 90 days, and I never heard about that, so I don't know. [But] there has not been any discussion, nor has anybody asked me about it.

VETTE: The auto companies are facing financial difficulties these days. Is there any financial impact on your programs?

TW: No. I mean I don't want to talk finances for the company, but I all I can say is . . . the key thing is product, product, product, and that is what I am about. I have no problem getting the support I need to make great vehicles. Do we argue over how much capital we are going to spend? Of course we do, and that's just good business judgment. But at the end of the day, if I say that we as a team need something for the product to make it satisfactory to the customer, I generally get it.

VETTE: The current Corvette styling has followed a path that is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Is that the way you see Corvette styling going in the future?

TW: You know, I don't know. I love the style of the new Corvette. I think the C6 change from the C5 was outstanding. But I do meet some of our customers who say [it wasn't a] radical enough change. I'm still formulating an opinion about how much change you do and what do the customers want. We are just starting to talk about the C7-when we should do it, what it should be, should it be evolutionary or revolutionary. So I don't have an opinion right now of what we'll do. I do know I thought the change from the C5 to the C6 was adequate. So if I had to express an opinion, I think that kind of a change from C6 to C7 would be adequate. But we need to look at the other alternative, which would be more change, and that's what we will do.

VETTE: Is the cycle for these changes time specific?

TW: We always do planning [regarding] how long we are going to run [a model], but it always changes. We have a vision in mind about how long we are going to run this architecture, but shorter architecture is better. If you look at the length of the life cycle of all the GM entries into the marketplace for, say, the last 10 years, they have gotten shorter and shorter.

[Author's note: During a presentation given over the "Bash" weekend, outgoing Corvette chief Dave Hill opined that the planned six-year life cycle for the C6 might actually be too long. Shorter generational cycles for the Vette seem to be on the minds of the GM brass.]

VETTE: Do you think there is room for a retro-type styling influence in cars?

TW: Personally, no. But I have to tell you, I think the problem [in] trying to answer that question is we first have to have a long discussion about what "retro" is. Corvettes are known around the world, and we have a lot of C5s and C6s that a lot of people love. I wouldn't want to stray too far from that.

VETTE: Corvette has maintained a pretty heavy international motorsports presence. Is that something you see continuing?

TW: Absolutely. It's critical; it's essential. It's paying for itself, it's been talked about, [and] there's no question it's an important part of the brand's success. Of course, you are going to have people say, "Gee, we're selling every one we can build. Why do we race? It costs money." Baloney. We're selling every one we can build because we race. That's not the only reason, but that's one of the reasons. So we're doing well with the racing, and the racing internationally is high on my priority list. This is the thing we need to keep going.

VETTE: This weekend, [Corvette Racing Manager] Doug Fehan and [GM Road Racing Manager] Steve Wesoloski talked a lot about the bleed-over in technology between the racing effort and the production car. As an engineer, do you see this?

TW: Yes. I mean, we could even do more, but we have done a lot. Dave's team has worked very closely with the race team. We have traded ideas back and forth. The LS7 dry-sump systems on the car, some aero work we did on the production car that the race-team guys did, the wicker bill, the aerodynamic assists, some of the items for friction reduction and fuel economy. I almost like to say the groups are the same, but they are not. [They're] two different groups, but Dave and his team, and Fehan, Wesoloski, and Pratt and their team did as much as they could to share and trade back and forth. So there are lots of examples. We could go on and on about that.

VETTE: It seems the trend in sports cars is bigger and bigger horsepower. The numbers just keep climbing. When you and I were kids, and someone down the street told you he had a 500hp or 600hp car...

TW: You wouldn't believe it! Yep, five years ago if I would have told you we were going to make a Corvette with 505 horsepower, that size wheels and tires, carbon-fiber parts, a dry-sump system, an aluminum frame, a magnesium cradle . . . what would you have said?

VETTE: I would have said you were crazy.

TW: Me too! This is a true story: We were in a vehicle-program review, which is a regular meeting we have with all the VLEs of the car programs. I'm sitting there, and Hill was up talking about the Z06. I was reading some memo about my program, sort of half-listening to him, and he said [something about] 505 hp and a dry-sump system, and I dropped what I was doing and said, "What did you say?" To a racer, dry-sump systems are a "wow"-pretty exotic. And 505 hp . . . I turned to Bob Lutz and said, "My goodness, this is unbelievable! Do you know what Dave is about to do?" This was like . . . I was just overtaken by this. And everybody else in the room is looking at me. Some of the people in the room did not know what the heck Dave was talking about.

VETTE: There is a debate rising about whether or not turning over a 500hp car to a novice driver is a good idea. What do you think about that?

TW: I get concerned about it. To sell the Z06, a dealer has to sell Corvettes, because we have them on allocation. Most of the dealers who sell enough Corvettes to get Z06s really do understand Corvettes. Most of them are pretty good at talking with the buyers and saying, "Look, you have to have respect for the car. Would you like us to help put you in a drivers' school?"

VETTE: Do you see GM doing something like BMW did with the Z8, in providing the buyer with a comprehensive driving school as part of the purchase experience?

TW: I don't know. In fact, I want to talk to Dave to find out if he ever tried that, because I personally think it would be a good idea. I don't know if we have franchise rules that won't let us influence the dealers to make that happen. I don't know enough about it. Personally, I would never let my kids buy one if they didn't go [to driving school]. I personally believe in the idea, but I have to talk to some of my marketing partners.

VETTE: You have heard this question posed many times, but I will ask it anyway. Everybody's wondering about the "SS," or "Blue Devil," super-Vette. Are we going to see it?

TW: I'll answer as I do everybody else: I'm not talking about it. But I will tell you what I personally think. I personally think it's a heck of an idea.



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