Payne: Q&Auto with Big Nasty's creator

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

They call the ferocious, 650-horsepower 2015 Corvette Z06 "Big Nasty." But its chief engineer is anything but.

Tadge Juechter is a soft-spoken, wiry, passionate motorhead who grew up coveting Porsches. As just the fifth Corvette chief engineer, he now leads a brand that exists to eat Porsches for lunch. Inside and out, the plush, powerful Z06 is the most capable 'Vette yet.

In winning the Daytona 24 Hours GT-LeMans class last month, the Z06's racing variant — the Corvette C7.R — left Porsche and a field of other supercars in its dust. The stock $98,000 Z06 made jaws drop when it lapped VIR racetrack quicker than the $900,000 Porsche 918 hybrid. Mention these accomplishments to Juechter and he beams. He designed this weapon from the ground up to cruise the street and conquer the track. The now 57-year old is the kid who grew up down your block inventing crazy stuff in his dad's garage.

"I was born to engineer things," he says.

I sat down with Juechter at Nevada's Spring Mountain Raceway to talk Big Nasty, the future of V-8s, and grocery shopping.

Q: You like to drive your creations?

A: Oh, yeah. I'm still looking for keys where I can get them. Now that I'm on the Corvette team I used Corvettes for everything from track day to daily driver to going to the grocery store. My wife had a horse and we'd go to the feed store and buy 300 pounds of feed. The guy would come out with the handcart stacked up to here and he'd say: "Where's your pickup?" I'd say, "No, it's the Corvette over there." And I'd open up the hatch and say: "That's where it's going."

Q: You have mechanical and aerospace engineering degrees and a Stanford MBA. Why cars?

A: Since I was a kid I was interested in inventing things I could interact with mechanically. I was building go-karts and bicycles with suspensions. I didn't like remote control. I always wanted to be in the middle of it. There is no greater career path for someone interested in that than the auto industry. Maybe I could have invented jet engines, but I'm not going to be flying F16s around.

Q: The base Corvette C7 Stingray was built with racing in mind wasn't it?

A: Stiffness improvement and aluminum is the best way to do that. So this time we elected to do a ground-up build using technologies that weren't even available the last time around. Things like hollow castings and high pressure die castings.

Same thing's true on the (C7.R) race car. They wanted stiffer, stiffer, stiffer ... so that's how we engineered it. (They) put the roll cage on to make it stiffer yet, and the drivers got out in the car and they could tell from the first lap that the car felt more confident.

Q: The Z06 numbers are staggering. Zero-60 in 2.9 seconds. Sixty-0 braking in under 100 feet. Cornering loads of 1.2 Gs. Yet the Z06 has a front-mounted, push-rod engine and transverse composite springs — technology a lot of people would call antiquated. How do you do it?

A: (There) are two fundamentally different engineering approaches. We've been refining the small block since the '50s, and you put that much engineering over that much time refining a fundamental concept and you can squeeze a lot out of it. The small block V-8 engine is a miracle of engineering. Because it's so compact you can locate it well back in the car for 50-50 weight distribution. It makes our car extremely easy to drive.

Q: V-8s are becoming an emissions challenge. What is their future?

A: Our customers are in love with the V-8. But many governments give us a displacement penalty because in their mind it's correlated to fuel economy. So you get these upside-down situations where — even though we get better fuel economy than our competitors — we pay a higher tax or higher registration fees. My opinion is you stack based on what you want. Then you let the industry decide what the optimum technology is to get there. But that's not what (governments) are doing. They are choosing winners and losers. So that pressure is going to continue to grow.

Q: Is there a turbo V-6 in Corvette's future?

A: We didn't look long at a turbo-6 because we couldn't meet anywhere near our performance goals. And we can't (have) a car that's slower than the previous generation. People would just keep their old cars. We looked at turbo-8s, (but) we went to supercharging because we wanted the immediate throttle response. Even though turbos have come a long way, the turbo lag is still there.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.