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Up Close & Personal With Brian Wolfe - Right Man For The Job - Brian Wolfe Interview
For Former Mustang Drag Racer Brian Wolfe, Doing The Right Things At The Right Places At The Right Times Led Him To His New Pos
I met Brian Wolfe in September of 1989 during a trip to Dearborn while working at Super Ford magazine. Hank Dertian, an engineer at what was then known as Ford Motorsport, now Ford Racing, invited me out to a Wednesday afternoon test session at Milan Dragway for a sneak peek at his new GT-40 hardware for 5.0-liter Mustangs. He convinced me to drive out to Milan by promising that he'd bring prototypes of the GT-40 heads and intake for photography, along with offering the opportunity to drive a car with the GT-40 equipment installed. They would be using Hank's 5.0 coupe and an '86 GT owned by a young Ford engineer named Brian Wolfe.
Little did I know then that Brian was on the fast-track at Ford. Obviously knowledgeable and a darn-good driver, he was also friendly yet unassuming. Last year, less than two decades after our meeting at Milan, he had climbed the ranks and was named director of Ford Racing to replace the retiring Dan Davis.
Brian happened to be in the right places at the right times doing the right things with both his career and his '86 GT. Shortly after getting his driver's license at the age of 15, he followed his older brother into drag racing by purchasing a '68 Cobra Jet Fairlane. Later, he bought a new Mustang GT at the end of the '86 model year as a treat to himself for completing his master's degree in Mechanical Engineering. His racing activities led him to Ford Motorsport's Hank Dertian, who asked if Brian would be interested in testing the new GT-40 heads and intake. Brian was amazed when his GT-40 equipped Mustang ran quicker than his CJ Fairlane. Soon, he would find himself in the middle of the Pro 5.0 wars as a naturally-aspirated hold-out while most of the sport moved into nitrous, supercharging, and turbocharging. His Mustang would become recognized as the first to run in the 11s, 10s, and nines without a power-adder.
On the career side, Brian joined Ford in 1982 and held various positions with the powertrain development area, including a stint as manager of the Advanced Engine Group for North America. In his job before moving to Ford Racing, he had global responsibility for all powertrain computer control software and calibration. Not bad for a Mustang drag racer. When he replaced Dan Davis as director of Ford Racing during the summer of 2008, he was able to combine his profession and his passion. "It's nice to understand corporate and how all that works," Brian told us. "But if you don't truly have a passion yourself, it's hard to relate and understand."
We talked with Brian back in April as he was preparing his keynote speech for the Mustang 45th Anniversary Celebration banquet in Birmingham, Alabama.
MM: You grew up in a Ford family. Tell us about that.
Wolfe: It was a Ford family like many others. My Dad never worked for Ford. He was born in 1912, so he was kind of growing up as Ford Motor Company grew up. He was raised on a farm in mid Michigan, outside Rose City. Henry Ford was a farmer and he put America on wheels, so my Dad remembers all that. As a kid growing up, I'd hear the stories about the great cars Ford built. That was the only car I ever wanted to own because of my Dad. My brother raced a 427 Fairlane in the 1960s so of course I wanted one of those. I always thought I was born 10 years too late because I turned 16 in 1976, so the musclecars were falling off a bit. I tried to get a '66 Fairlane but couldn't find one. So I found a '69 428 Cobra Jet Fairlane. I bought that when I was 15. Everything is history from there.
MM: In another way, you grew up at the right time because those old musclecars were cheap then.
Wolfe: Yeah, that's a cool point. I bought that 428 Cobra Jet Fairlane for $375. I still own it. It had 41,000 miles on it when I bought it and only has 43,000 on it now. But when the 5.0-liter Mustangs started to get popular, that's when I bought the '86 Mustang. I was 26. I had been out of school a few years and had a little bit of disposable income so I could start playing with my hobby.
MM: You started drag racing the Fairlane, right?
Wolfe: Yeah, I had it at the drag strip when I'd had my driver's license a week. I was thinking it was going to be fast with a 428 Cobra Jet, 4.56 gear, and B&M transmission. I thought it was going to run 12s. I think the car went 14.60. That was the first awakening of what it took to have a 12-second car. I think the car eventually went 12.80, maybe 12.70 at 108 mph. Like I've always told people, I could never figure out how to make carburetors work well. Then I bought the Mustang brand-new in 1986. I remember I bought it at the end of the 1986 model year when the '87s were coming out because it had a good rebate on it. I had owned the car around three years when I put the GT-40 heads and intake and 9-inch rearend in it.
MM: How did you get involved with Ford Motorsport?
Wolfe: I was working on the car and a guy I worked with, Wally Beeber, was in the 5.0-liter engine group. I told him about my Mustang and he told me he had just sent some GT-40 heads and intakes over to Ford Motorsport because they weren't going to be putting them into production. He said Ford Motorsport was going to see if they could sell them in the catalog. So Wally introduced me to Hank Dertian, an engineer at Ford Motorsport, and he said, "Let's put them on your car to see what they'll do." The first day out, it went either 12.40 or 12.50. The best my CJ Fairlane ever went was 12.80. I was thinking, "This is way too easy." That same combination, after tweaking and calibrating, ended up going 11.66 at 115. That was the article you did on the car in the January 1990 issue of Super Ford.
MM:Then all of a sudden you were involved in this movement that became known as Pro 5.0.
Wolfe: At that time, it was really cool because it was like reliving the history of drag racing. We got to where we were running 11s and that was really fast. Then 10s, then nines. And other people were doing the same thing, whether it was Stormin' Norman Gray, Gene Deputy, Joe DaSilva, Jimmy Larocca, or Nitrous Pete. And then you had promoters like Fun Ford Weekend who gave us a place to take the show. And like anything that's a heads-ups sport, it starts to get more and more aggressive. Now the cars are going sixes with Pro Stock bodies. Of course, it's the modular motor now, but that's the evolution.
MM: It's interesting that the evolution was also taking place on the parts side. All of a sudden the 5.0 Mustang was the '57 Chevy of the 1990s.
Wolfe:I don't know how many times I've heard, "I used to be a Chevy guy but the Mustang was so cool and so inexpensive I had to buy one. Then I started to modify it, and then I had to buy an F150 so I could tow it to the drag strip. Then I bought my wife a Taurus." That's just a summary of how the whole thing is supposed to work. As a performance enthusiast, I was only looking at the racing side and having fun doing it. From the corporate side, you saw a story of people switching their alliances, getting them to buy Ford cars and recommend them to friends. But back then, I wasn't putting two and two together.
MM: You were racing and serving as a test-bed for Ford Motorsport, but at the same time you were climbing the corporate ladder at Ford. What jobs have you held during your career at Ford?
Wolfe: I've been very fortunate. A lot of it is right place, right time. A lot of people plan their careers - where they're going and what they're going to do - but for me I loved engines and I really wanted to get to where I could do engine development. So I started at Heavy Truck as a Ford College Graduate in 1982. It was the only place hiring, but I had a wonderful time there and really learned a lot from some great people. About two years later, I was lucky enough to come to Engine Engineering. As a fuel system engineer, I worked on fuel injectors, regulators, throttle bodies, fuel rails, and those types of components. And I was meeting all these great guys like Wally Beeber, Hank Dertian, and a lot of the guys who did the development work on the 5.0-liter Mustangs in the 1980s.
A guy named Jim Clark was a department manager who went to Advanced Powertrain to bring back this new engine called the modular 4.6. So I said, "Here's my chance!" I knew Jim went for coffee every morning in the drafting room. So I waited there, watched him get his coffee, and followed him back to his office. I told him that I knew he was bringing in this engine and I really wanted to work on the development. So he gave me a chance to work for him, even though there were older and more experienced engineers available. I did that type of work for about 10 years, either as an engineer or a supervisor. I worked on the 4.6 2-valve, 4.6 4-valve, and the Durotech 2.5 and 3.0 V6s.
Then one day my boss called me into his office and said, "Everyone knows you're having way too much fun here so you're going to have to start working for a living like everyone else. We're going to put you in a little different role." That was engine systems engineer, which is a nice way to say program management, where the engine actually sits in the vehicle and achieves its attributes, whether that was fuel economy, NVH, emissions, or performance. I worked on the Durotech 3.0 which was going into the Taurus, and I went from there into Advanced Powertrain where I worked on the Aston Martin V-12, the 3-valve combustion system, and a few other neat projects. I worked there about 2 1/2 to 3 years and then I went to Europe as a chief engineer for Inline Gas Engines. I worked in Europe for three years then came back for the job I had right before this job, which was basically powertrain as installed with responsibility for the engine control system.
In a meeting with the vice-president of powertrains, I was asked about my career, my desires, and where I wanted to go. I said, "You know, if Dan Davis ever retires, I'd love to get the opportunity to do that job." And that's how I ended up here.
MM: Sounds like two things prepared you for your current job as Director of Ford Racing - racing and management at Ford. Plus your work with engines. Did all that tie together to help you with your current job?
Wolfe: It really did. The accountability here is pretty large, having the entire motorsports for North America - NASCAR, NHRA, Performance Parts business, and all the other ancillary racing, such as NMRA. We're trying to get more involved in local circle track racing.
There are a couple of things that are important. One, I think it's important to understand how Ford Motor Company works on the engineering side so when you're working with racing teams you understand what they do and you respect what they do so when you need help you know who to go to and how to ask for it. And two, for someone who has loved motorsports their whole life, it allowed the chance to say, if we're going to use motorsports to improve corporate image and help draw people into Ford products, what would appeal to me? So when I'm in the meetings I can make sure I'm looking at it from a customer perspective.
MM: You mentioned the Performance Parts side of Ford Racing. It's interesting that your '86 Mustang helped develop that market in the 1980s. And now I would assume that a large percentage of your parts customers are late-model Mustang owners.
Wolfe: Most of the parts in the catalog revolve around the Mustang. There are a few Focus and truck parts, which we're going to try to expand, but with the Mustang being such a great platform, whether it's for drag racing, which I'm so familiar with, or Grand Am, with cars like the FR500C that not only won Grand Am Koni Challenge but also European GT-4. Those are backed fully by the individual racers. They're just picking cars they think will have the best chance of winning. With the Mustang being engineered so well by the guys at Ford, it sets that platform up so the guys in racing, after tweaking a bit for those classes, can end up with something that is unmatched in the industry.
MM: That's become a very successful program, I understand.
Wolfe: Yes, the FR500C definitely, and along with that we've been able to do the new Cobra Jet Mustang. Never mind that the guys in Ford Racing did such a great job, even more astounding are the guys at Ford who worked so hard to get the geometry right on the Mustang, to get the handling characteristics right. So when the car goes to that Grand Am Koni Challenge road racing circuit, I mean, it's running against Porsches and BMWs, and in Europe it's running against Aston-Martin. And Mustang was the champion. We're very fortunate to have such as strong group of engineers at Ford to get the base platform so sound.
MM: You mentioned the Cobra Jet. It must have been a great accomplishment to have it win its first race at Pomona 41 years after the original Cobra Jet won its first race, also at Pomona. And in the same Al Joniec colors.
Wolfe: We're fortunate to have so many loyal Ford blue fans. One of the guys is Brent Hajek. How fortunate are we as an auto manufacturer to have a guy like Brent buy those Cobra Jet cars and, at his own expense, have them race prepared, lettered like the Cobra Jets from '68, and hire world-class drivers to drive them. It was amazing to have John Calvert go through seven rounds in the Al Joniec tribute car and win in its maiden appearance at an NHRA race.
MM: It was great that Brent paid homage to the original cars.
Wolfe: He had Joniec, Gas Ronda, and Hubert Platt, all original drivers from '68, at Pomona. I don't mean to dog my competition, but when you look at the Drag Pack Challenger, they started a year and half before we did. When we knew that was going on, I was still at my old job but I was kind of pushing the guys at Ford Racing to do something like that. Along with Jesse Kershaw, they were able to make that car happen. We delivered those cars to Brent on December 23 and he was at the Winternationals in January. When you look at the Drag Pack Challenger, it comes with no wiring in the car, no brake lines, no fuel system - it's really more like a body-in-white. But that goes back to how great a platform the Mustang is.
MM: A lot of people don't realize how instrumental Ford Racing was in creating the Shelby GT and GT500KR.
Wolfe: That's a good point. The people at Shelby Automobiles worked with the guys at Ford Racing to take proven off-the-shelf parts and bundle them into a great package for the GT-H and Shelby GT. And likewise for the KR, many of the upgrades were taken right out of the Ford Racing catalog. Then the engineers at Ford Racing, working with the SVT engineers, gave it a further refinement and tweaking.
MM: I read that you'd like to see the Mustang in NASCAR. Anything happening on that front?
Wolfe: Truth be known, in one of my first meetings with NASCAR, they asked politely if, when the Nationwide series switches over to the Car of Tomorrow, we take a look at making that car with the Mustang nose as opposed to the Fusion. We said we would definitely look at that, which is what we're doing right now. At this point, the Fusion is approved for Nationwide and it's doing quite well. And we have the 2010 Fusion approved for the COT as well. But we have actually built some cars with the Mustang nose and hood for wind-tunnel work. So yes, we're actively looking at that as a possibility. Do you have any more info on that, Kevin?
Kevin Kennedy (Ford Racing Public Affairs Manager): A lot is going to depend on what direction NASCAR wants to go. They just made changes to the Sprint Cup COTs, so that may not change for a little bit. Now they're looking at Nationwide but a lot depends on the economy. They're trying to be mindful of the costs for the teams to changeover. We'll have to wait and see. (Editor's note: Right before we went to press, Brian announced that the Mustang would debut as a Nationwide Series race car in 2010. See page 14).
MM: Many of the parts in the Ford Racing catalog are for late-model Mustangs but we're seeing a lot of them being adapted to vintage Mustangs - crate engines, Cobra brakes, etc.
Wolfe: It's nice when they can modernize those cars. I love the fuel injection conversions, which are great for restomods. Then there are the base blocks and heads we offer.
MM: What are you planning to tell the Mustang owners at the 45th banquet?
Wolfe: It won't be a lot different from what we've talked about here. The cool part about Mustangs is that they appeal to so many different people. I call it the heirloom car because it's been in the Ford family forever. The kid can't wait to drive dad's car or grandpa's car. People remember Mustangs for their first date, the drive-in, the cross-country vacation, and trips to the amusement park, things that are part of everyone's memory. It could be a '64 1/2 or an '82 or a '92. Or for someone who just bought an '05. It has that appeal. You've got the restorers, the guys who have always loved Mustangs but let their first one go and now want to recreate it. They want to know where that stamp was from the factory. And then you've got the guys like myself, the modifiers and racers, who make the Mustang their car. So you've got all those different types of folks. Of course, I'll end with a shameless advertisement: "If you want us back for the 50th anniversary, we'd appreciate your purchase of other Ford products as well."