Payne: At the limit with GM’s Dynamic Duo

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Pahrump, Nevada — Rocketing out of turn one at Spring Mountain Raceway in the 2017 Camaro ZL1, General Motors President Dan Ammann sticks with Vice President for Product Development Mark Reuss like glue.

With the Camaro’s V-8 bellowing in our ears like Kraken unleashed, Ammann stuffs the Camaro into fourth gear just shy of the 7,000 rpm redline. The speedometer hits 122 mph before he hauls it back to earth for turn 2. “The brakes are just tremendous lap after lap,” the bearded, New Zealand native shouts over the howl.

This is no video game. These are two of the top auto executives in the world going at it hammer-and-tongs in the most capable Camaro ever. Track-licensed Ammann and Reuss not only manage the development of GM’s cars — they test them to the ragged edge of their capabilities.

Riding shotgun with Ammann at Spring Mountain this month, I got a glimpse at a unique partnership in the auto industry. The two executives are as capable in fast corners as they are in the corner office.

“He’s really good,” Reuss says of Ammann. “(Our driving skills) help product development every day ... because we both understand cars, and what a broad torque range means and all that stuff.”

Their track-bred insight has helped take GM’s performance to new heights as the company has unleashed one critically acclaimed car after another: the BMW M3-hounding Cadillac ATS-V, the Corvette Z06 supercar, the nimble Gen-6 Camaro.

Now comes the ferocious ZL1, which marries the neck-snapping power of GM’s 640-horsepower, supercharged LT4 V-8 — the same mill that powers the Z06 Rex — with the athletic Camaro’s Alpha platform. The platform shared by the Cadillac ATS, the best-handling car in luxury.

The combination is dynamic.

As is the team of Ammann and Reuss, an unlikely bromance between a veteran GM motorhead and a Wall Street financial guru who share a passion for cars. When Ammann joined GM’s executive team in 2011, Reuss sensed his talent for the track.

“I told the guys to put him in the driver program,” said Reuss. “He’s going to be able to do a very high level — I can see it in his temperament.”

An intense, year-long licensing process ensued, juggled with Ammann’s 24/7 duties managing GM’s marketing and sales. “It started at Milford in an STS as I recall,” says Ammann, who is designated a top-flight “Level 6” driver.

“The program we have is an achievement-based program. It’s very intense,” says Reuss, also a Level 6. “Very few go to the point where they can do Nurburgring (the legendary, 13-mile German track) and all those things within a tenth of a second of a professional driver.”

Ammann’s talent is evident as he smoothly whips the Camaro from turn to turn. I’ve raced go-karts and race cars since my teens. It’s in my bones. It’s more difficult to learn the instincts of any sport late in life — much less one where speeds can push 200 mph. Yet Ammann has mastered the art.

Today, the two men routinely test cars at GM’s Milford proving grounds, sharing feedback with top engineers like Corvette’s Tadge Juechter and Camaro’s Al Oppenheiser. GM CEO Mary Barra also visits Milford’s proving grounds, though usually on her own schedule. Last October, Ammann and Reuss took the ZL1 to Nurburgring where the car lapped while wearing leopard-spotted camouflage. They liked the result.

“The best Camaro I have ever driven,” says Reuss.

Ammann says, “It cuts like a knife. It makes 640 horsepower feel more approachable.”

The product of more than 100 hours in the wind tunnel, the muscular Camaro is 200 pounds lighter than the previous-generation ZL1, gains 60 horsepower and features 11 heat exchangers to cool the 378-cubic-inch monster beneath its aerodynamic skin. But the ZL1 is more than a fast muscle car.

It is also the first application of Chevy’s high-tech, lightning-quick 10-speed transmission. Jointly developed with Ford and planned for eight Chevy models for model-year 2018, the 10-speed shifts faster than many dual-clutch transmissions found in supercars.

The ZL1 also gets six-pot Brembo brakes with 15.35-inch rotors the size of Captain America’s shield; Recaro seats; wider front fenders; and special Goodyear tires.

It goes on sale this fall.

“The Camaro ZL1 is designed to excel at everything,” said Reuss. “Acceleration, handling and braking — with the highest levels of technology and perfect chassis damping, (it’s) suitable for everyday driving. It will compare well to any sports coupe, at any price and in any setting.”

At Spring Mountain, Reuss piloted a 10-speed, Ammann a 6-speed manual.

Who’s faster on track? “That’s classified,” jokes Ammann, his hair matted after 22 hot laps.

“Honestly, we don’t (compare lap times),” says Reuss. “We never do that because when you get into that sort of thing it’s not safe.”

Camaro sales are up 44 percent this year over last, the Corvette Z06 is clocking test times quicker than $200,000 Lamborghinis, and the development teams are having fun.

“It beats the office at the Ren Cen,” Ammann says.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne.