Fishel put Chevrolet in the winner's circle
After meeting his hero, Zora Arkus-Duntov, during an interview, Fishel says, GM 'could have hired me for nothing -- and they almost did!'
Chevrolet got its name and its early fame from auto racer Louis Chevrolet and his fast-around-the-track brothers Gaston and Arthur, but the bow tie brand didn't really live up to that image until decades later, when Zora Arkus-Duntov put a small-block V-8 into the Corvette and Vince Piggins prepped the Camaro for the Trans-Am series.
And Chevrolet didn't achieve a dominating position on the nation's, and even the world's, racetracks until a protege of Arkus-Duntov and Piggins led the brand's motorsports activities.
Herb Fishel grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., where everyone followed Southern stock car racing. But Fishel's interest in motorsports had a wider geography.
"I learned through the local newspaper about Le Mans, the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, the Daytona 24-hour event and the Italian Mille Miglia," Fishel, 70, recalled in an e-mail response to Automotive News. "It seemed to me for an automobile manufacturer to have true motorsports heritage, it needed to compete in and win these events."
And not long before he retired, Fishel achieved his goal.
"In 2001 Chevrolet won everything but the Mille Miglia, which was canceled as an actual race after 1957," Fishel said.
But Chevrolet did have a presence in the famed Italian event in 2001 as Fishel and his wife drove in the Mille Miglia revival, a fast-paced touring event for classic sports and racing cars.
Uncle was early mentor
Before his tutelage under Arkus-Duntov and Piggins, Herb Fishel had learned about things mechanical by spending time in his Uncle Bill Tuttle's garage after school; by day, Tuttle was a mechanic in a Lincoln-Mercury dealership.
And "on Saturday nights he would take me and a few friends to the local racetrack -- a quarter-mile paved flat oval, Bowman Gray Stadium," Fishel remembers. "We would arrive early and stay late, wandering through the pits until closing time.
"For me, the '50s were all about cars, and I decided that working in the automotive industry would be my career path."
Fishel wanted to be a mechanic like his uncle, but his parents insisted he go to college. He majored in mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University. After his graduation in 1963 he wanted to work with a NASCAR team, but they did not yet employ engineers. He had an on-campus interview with General Motors and was invited to interview at GM headquarters in Michigan. While there he was introduced to Arkus-Duntov.
After meeting one of his heroes, said Fishel, "They could have hired me for nothing -- and they almost did!"
Flying under corporate radar
For six years, Fishel worked in engine development and was part of the team that created the high-performance Z28, LSS and ZL1 V-8s. In 1969 he joined Piggins' Chevrolet Product Performance Group, where he worked closely with two more of his childhood heroes, stock car racers Smokey Yunick and Junior Johnson, and played a key role in getting GM involved again in stock car racing.
"Vince's era was very complicated because of the GM 'nonracing' culture," Fishel said. "So much of his time and energy was siphoned to just keep the doors open."
Fishel said he learned lessons that would serve him well in his career: those of operating below the radar and the need to lay groundwork with stealth.
An example: In 1989 Fishel took a small group of GM engineers to Le Mans for the 24-hour race. For 11 years he worked quietly but diligently to convince GM management of the benefits of racing on an international stage. In 2000, a team of Corvettes raced at Le Mans, and just a year later won the GTS class there.
In 1976, Fishel was asked to head Buick's motorsports program, which was based on the V-6 engine. Buick was racing prototype sports cars against Asian competitors and was involved in NASCAR, which put Fishel in position to lobby the sanctioning body to use Detroit's intermediate-sized cars, such as the Buick Regal, instead of older full-sized vehicles.
"They were accepted in 1981, and the Buick Regal proved to be the superior stock car, with Richard Petty winning the Daytona 500 and the Junior Johnson/Darrell Waltrip combination winning two consecutive NASCAR championships," Fishel said.
Fishel also took Buick to Indianapolis, where its turbocharged V-6 engines set records that stood for many years.
A coordinated effort
In 1983 Fishel left Buick to head the Chevrolet racing operation, not only running and expanding the division's motorsports competition -- to include Indianapolis as well as NASCAR -- but also working to enhance Chevrolet's relationship with hot-rodders and other aftermarket consumers.
Under Fishel's guidance, Chevrolet cars or engines dominated Indianapolis, NASCAR, sports car racing and even off-road competition.
During much of its racing history, the competition among GM's divisions -- Chevy vs. Olds vs. Buick vs. Pontiac -- overshadowed the potential benefits of a unified effort with a primary target of beating Ford, Chrysler and the import-brand racing programs.
While still at Buick, but especially after taking over the Chevrolet racing program, Fishel began working toward the creation of a coordinated GM Racing Technology Group (later simply GM Motorsports), which he led from 1991 until he retired in 2003. GM Motorsports achieved widespread success with a unified racing program that targeted competition against external rather than intramural opponents.
After retiring from GM, Fishel launched a motorsports consulting business in Ann Arbor, Mich.
You can reach Larry Edsall at firstname.lastname@example.org.