How Did The Corvette Racing Team Start?

Greg Zyla
This week, we do things a little different as we present a one-on-one interview with Doug Fehan, the Corvette Racing Program Manager responsible for the overall running of the Corvette professional GT road racing team.
Following a succession of spectacular Corvette endurance wins that include the 2015 “triple play,” notably wins at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Mobil 1 Sebring 12 Hours and 24 Hours of Lemans, the team opened 2016 with huge wins at Daytona 24 hours and Sebring 12 hours.
Fehan explains how the modern-day Corvette road racing team was born and the determination to make it happen. Sit back and enjoy what really went on behind closed doors at GM and the birth of world renowned Corvette Racing.
Zyla: Doug, I had a nice chat with Herb Fishel, the legendary former GM racing executive not long ago and we talked about Chevrolet’s and GM’s efforts in road racing and the fact that you and he both did a lot of leg work early on. Can you tell our readers how the corporate Corvette race program came about?
Fehan: Absolutely, Greg. I started at GM in 1988 working for Herb and I spent that year critiquing the Chevrolet road race programs which were all failing at the time. I also studied all of the other manufacturer programs, and specifically everything they were doing correctly and everything they were doing incorrectly. I refer to that completed report as a clandestine white paper report.
Zyla: So it was all top secret?
Fehan: Yes. No one other than Herb knew I was working for GM and what we were trying to accomplish. I completed the report in the fall of 1988, and Herb asked me if I would be interesting in coming to work and implementing some of the things I indicated as requirements in the white paper. He assigned me to the Chevrolet Beretta Trans Am program. After success, things changed in 1993.
Zyla: I remember GM pulled the plug back on several high-performance programs in 1993 with the exception of NASCAR and some NHRA Pro Stock racing.
Fehan: Yes. It was not a happy time. I left my position and went golfing. (Fehan, by the way, invented the successful “rolling golf bag”).
Zyla: When did you see Herb again?
Fehan: I ran into Herb in 1994 and he said he might have something for me. I told him I appreciated being considered, but wanted to make sure that if we did anything, we had to do it right. So I went in to the GM Tech Center and met with Joe Negri, Herb’s second in command. The deal was the Oldsmobile World Sports Car program with Aurora power. I was asked to go in there and coordinate like I did with the other programs. They needed balance between Oldsmobile and GM Racing.
Zyla: And from there it grew to a Corvette opportunity?
Fehan: Yes. It’s now the fall of 1996, the Olds program came to its conclusion and both Herb and I didn’t want to lose the momentum we had built and the credentials we were gathering within the GM Corporation. We were now GM Racing, officially, which was a tribal fight to get it founded and funded, which Herb led the charge on. So, Herb calls me into his office and mentions that the new C5 Corvette was coming out in 1997, and felt there was a good chance to race the Corvette corporately. He asked me to dust off some of my old ideas, tweak them a bit, and let’s go see if we can get a factory program for it. I told him we needed everyone in on this, and if everyone wasn’t in, I wouldn’t do it. So Herb asked what I meant by ‘everyone,’ and I told him General Manager, Brand Manager, advertising, marketing, design, engineering, production, everyone had to buy in. I wanted them all in the room and all in place for the meeting.
Zyla: And then?
Fehan: The day finally arrived, and we’re all in the room. Everyone was there. The presentation took about 20 minutes, and I asked for a period of two years strictly for development before we raced the Corvette factory cars.
Zyla: Can I ask how much this development cost for a road racing Corvette program?
Fehan: Back then I was asking for a lot of development money. The first year was $1.3 million, the second $1.7 million. Now, remember this is 1996 monies, and GM had never spent that on a program that was actively being raced. So, I told John Middlebrook (GM head back then) what we needed, and I felt I would be out of there in a few seconds because they had to feel I was just completely crazy. Then the amazing happened. John looks at the program, and says it’s the first racing program put in front of him that made any sense at all!
Zyla: Wow.
Fehan: You could have heard a pin drop. The only thing you might have heard were chins slamming on the table. So, John then goes around the table for everyone’s vote and, not surprisingly, when the GM boss says he likes it, all the soldiers fall in line. But John wanted to hear it from everyone to emphasize there was indeed the complete buy in we needed. And they were all in.
Zyla: And the Corvette team we know today was born.
Fehan: That’s correct.
Zyla: How many people work on the Corvette team now?
Fehan: That’s a difficult one, because everyone who touches the Corvette team cars is probably 300 people, but right now we travel with 25 people domestically.
Zyla: Anything you want to mention about what’s on the horizon?
Fehan: I can tell you this. Lessons learned in our racing experiences are directly applied to all new consumer Corvette designs. We are intimately involved on a day-to-day basis with everything from aero, cooling, performance, handling, suspension, tires and lubrication. Everything we do in racing is done under one tent. The galvanization between the two groups has grown indelible. As far as the future, we will race whatever it is we build, because we will have built it with racing knowledge.
Zyla: Which leads to a “win on Sunday sell on Monday” scenario where the Corvette is concerned. I truly believe with the road racing crowd, this adage has never been stronger.
Fehan: Yes. You can measure your statement just by looking at the strength of our Corvette Corrals at the races. We always completely fill the amount of acreage the tracks will give us. We build 35,000 Corvettes a year and we sell 35,000 Corvettes a year. It has to do with cascade engineering as we started with a C5 with no racing input, then a C6 with racing input, then a C6 Z06 with more input and now the C7 and C7.R, which are better road cars and better race cars, respectively. Bottom line, if you want to win, you’ve got to start with a great road car.
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