GM Program Engineering Manager Mark Stielow builds some of the world's most incredible Pro Touring cars. Is it a coincidence that they're almost exclusively 1st Gen. Chevy Camaros? Probably not. Like many enthusiasts who have immersed themselves in the culture of Camaro, Mark fell in love with building Camaros around the same time he began his career with GM, way back in 1988.
Since that time, he has built a number of trailblazing Camaros with names like "The Mule," "Red Devil" and "Mayhem," amongst others – many of which have graced the covers of some of the industry's most beloved publications, including: Hot Rod, Car Craft, Camaro Performers, Chevrolet High Performance, Popular Hot Rodding, Street Rodder, Chrome and Flaming, Nitro and Performance Business. Not too shabby, eh?
After checking out Mr. Stielow's really cool video feature on Faces of GM a few months back, we reached out to see what makes him really tick. We wanted to know what drives him to spend countless hours wrenching away in a garage behind his house (after his day job), his own money (to build, test and race these cars) as well as how he musters the incredible amount of dedication necessary to engineer high-performance 1st Gen. Camaros of yesteryear, which, when all said and done – give some of today's finest 5th Gen. Camaros, such as the the ZL1 – a serious run for their money.
Check out Part 1 of our interview Mark Stielow interview below...
How did your love affair with cars begin?
Like a lot of people, when I was a kid I built model cars and I was just infatuated with it. My Dad had some cars that he'd built up, which piqued my interest. From there I got into RC cars. And then, of course, by the time I hit 15 it was time for a real car.
So what was your first car?
My first car was a '71 Mustang Mach 1 that I bought for $500. I started life as a blue oval guy, and didn't switch to GM stuff until I got my internship at GM.
When was that?
That was in 1988. Literally drove a '65 Fastback up to Detroit for my summer internship. While I was there over the summer, I purchased a '69 Camaro.
When did you officially start at GM and what post were you appointed to?
1989. When I first came to GM, through my co-op, I did a stint at Milford Proving Grounds and GM Powertrain – actually one of my assignments was working on the LT1 Camaro and Corvette engines. So when I got a chance to hire in full time, I went out to the Milford Proving Grounds, I was working on the Caprice underhood thermal, and I was there for about 8 months. Then I really wanted to be in the GM Motorsports Group, so I transferred over to GM Racing.
Wow, over two decades! We're sure there's lots of history over that period, but tell us what you're working on currently?
For the last couple of years I've been working on Advanced Vehicle Dynamics, so I Was an Engineering Group Manager, helping to define and establish the architecture so that future GM platforms have the best vehicle dynamics. My group was working on early designs, simulations, and predictive tools. As we walked through the development process, we stayed engaged all the way up until near the start of production. So we kind of bridged the gap from clean sheet of paper to doing the integration work when needed by the program teams.
Tell us a bit about your new book, Pro Touring: Engineered Performance.
The book we did recently, Will Handzel and I, was sort of the offspring of a car we built back in the 2002-2003, called "The Mule." And it was developed as a 22-month consecutive build-up project, prepped for Hot Rod Magazine. So we had enough content to support almost 2 years of feature articles and I thought it would be cool to pull all that together for one book. So, we gathered images that weren’t part of the magazine features and other images, and we expanded it to where it is now, somewhere around 1,200 images.
It's a pretty inclusive book, and what I tell people is, "If it helps you with one issue in your build, it was worth messin' with." Even to this day, I'm building a new car, and dealing with a new shop, and someone asked me how I built my roll cage, I picked up the book and showed him… I still use it as a reference book for myself, even on this current build.
Tell us how world-famous "The Mule" got its name and what have you learned since that build?
The reason I called it "The Mule" is that here at GM when we have a development property, we typically call it a "Mule" property. So, it was supposed to be a test vehicle for a bunch of ideas I had. And it kind of worked out that way. That car had my first iteration of four-link rear suspension. Many companies now have a similar system. Detroit Speed has something very close to what The Mule had on it. Really, a lot of things that were done on that car, even though it seems like a long time ago, are almost mainstream now.
It definitely was a trendsetter! So, Mark, many in the Pro Touring community may know you from some of your recent builds, such as the incredible, Red Devil, and your latest, Mayhem. But tell us about a build of yours that you felt maybe didn't get the attention it deserved.
Well, when I got hired in at GM and was involved in racing, I was at Watkins Glenn, and I was supporting a 24-hour, endurance road race. And some guys came in from One Lap of America. And I thought, I want to build a '69 Camaro to do that race. And that was really the genesis of the first Camaro I built that was featured in any magazines. And everyone thought that car was really cool, but I was just an engineer solving problems. I knew I needed a 6-speed gearbox in it, because I'd have long legs between tracks and it needed overdrive gears. It had great big brakes on the car, because I knew I was going to go to these road racetracks. It had big, modern 17' wheels and tires on it. So I was building the car for a specific purpose, and it turned out to be the first time I got exposure in magazines.
When Hot Rod saw it, they went pretty crazy over it. And I was just some 26-year-old punk kid building a car in my garage that I thought was cool. And that just kind of started the whole thing; I was enamored with the idea of creating a car that you could drive on the street, and also take to these track events and run it hard – sort of like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality. And that's been the M.O. of my cars the last 20 years.
I didn’t just want some parade ground cruiser; I wanted to have the hardware behind it to back it up.
Mark, when one studies your cars, it's obvious they're performance monsters. But, they're also works of art. Do you think of your cars in that manner?
Oh, definitely. You know, engine bays, I think everything should try and be square to grid. There's an aesthetic that I like, which is more of an OEM, form follows function style… But, I take my hat off to guys like Troy Trepanier and the Ring Brothers, who can really get a rendering and build that car. For me, I just try to keep the OE lines of a car so that ten years from now it'll still look fresh. People will sometimes complain that my cars look "too boring," but if you pull up a picture of Thrasher that was built in 1998 and take it to a local car show people would still say that's a really cool car. They wouldn't think that car was built almost 15 years ago.
It's really just reflective of my background, I'm an OEM guy and that's been my gig for a while now.
What about some other influences on your work, anything outside "the norm" that you gravitate towards?
Oh, absolutely, with Mayhem for instance, the paint scheme, silver with the orange stripe, that was influenced by a 918 show car I saw from the Paris Auto Show. I wanted something that had a modern/vintage feel to it. As a car guy, you're definitely influenced by your environment...
You recently put one of your builds, Red Devil, up against the mightiest new production Camaro on the block, the ZL1. Tell us a bit about that.
Oh, that was a lot of fun. The 1st Gen. vs. 5th Gen. angle was really cool. I was happy with the way it turned out, the story was neat, and definitely something that'll go in my hot rod memory album when I'm at my retirement party.
Alright, talk to us about your new monster, Mayhem...
Well, I recently sold Red Devil, with the intent of finishing the '67 Mayhem for SEMA 2012. I consider myself a very evolutionary engineer; so I keep what worked from the last car, fix the things that didn't work – and try to optimize the package. And that's kind of what we did… We were able to sneak a little weight out of the car, we've got 100 HP over Red Devil, we kept the chassis relatively the same. And by the time we got to SEMA last year, we were fortunate enough to have had enough time under the car, and enough experience, that we ended up prevailing.
Talk to us about the Pro Touring movement… How do you feel it's influencing the hot rod market?
Well, there are all different levels of Pro Touring. And there are people that are caught up on the Detroit Speed stuff, and cars like mine. But let's face it these cars are expensive.
When I built my first '69 Camaro in garage in Michigan, I think I had 15 grand in the thing. It was the classic junkyard deal... You can still build a Pro Touring car on the cheap, if you're willing to do the old style hot-rodding work. It can be done.
What's interesting in recent years is that a '69 Camaro has become more expensive than a '69 Corvette. That is to say if you're looking on the Internet for similar year and condition cars, the Camaros are bringing in more money. So the Pro Touring thing has driven the value of the classic Camaros up, significantly. It's definitely impacted the industry. The cars are fun, they're approachable. And it never fails when I take one of my Camaros to a car show, people invariably come up to me and tell me how their dad, uncle or brother owned a Camaro. There's a welcoming accessibility to the Camaro that other cars may not have.
What about production cars, how do you think the Pro Touring movement has perhaps influenced people there?
A bit, maybe. Tom Peters at GM Design is a friend, and he digs my car. I think maybe subconsciously some of the influences creep in. GM Design goes to SEMA every year, they look at the trends; they're extremely well plugged into what's happening in the industry.
What are you learning from your racing adventures that you’re bringing back to your day gig as Program Engineer?
I bring a lot back. When I go to the track and I'm trying to develop a car for our customer – I am the customer. I do this sort of stuff. When I'm in meetings I'm like "customers who are interested in buying a CTS-V or a Camaro SS or ZL1, they're going to want to do these sorts of things…" I live in that performance community, so I can certainly lend my insights there. From time to time I am sought out, and I'm always happy to give my input wherever I can.
Awesome, Mark. Thanks so much for joining us on The BLOCK. We're looking forward to Part 2 of the interview very soon! Fans, stop by the Camaro Forum and let us know if there's anything you'd like to see in Part 2 of our interview with Mark Stielow!