Peter Brock, in his own words: Winning beautifully … and with humility

Peter Brock

Where does one begin when telling the story of Peter Brock? He is, after all, the man who helped Chevrolet design the Stingray Corvette when he was barely a legal adult and who soon thereafter became Carroll Shelby’s first hire. At Shelby American, Brock was responsible for developing the Cobra and, later, for designing the FIA Championship-winning Cobra Daytona Coupe.

After leaving Shelby, Brock earned success under his own name (Brock Racing Enterprises) with legendary Datsun racing teams that featured driver John Morton (oh, Brock taught him to race, too) and won numerous championships. Once Brock had achieved all he could in car racing, he set about revolutionizing the world of competitive hang gliding—and proceeded to win six consecutive world championships.

Amidst all of these endeavors, Brock has somehow found time to immerse himself in photography, journalism, and aerodynamic trailers. Brock’s biography and achievements have been well-documented. In our chat with the automotive legend, we were curious to understand the mindset and approach to life that have enabled Brock to achieve so much across such a wide array of pursuits.

To what or whom do you credit your ambition, curiosity, and aptitude for design?

I don’t really consider myself ambitious in the general sense. My goal was never to make a lot of money like a lot of people, but rather to create something that was personally satisfying to myself and perhaps satisfying to other people as well.

As to my aesthetic sense, I can’t make something and just make it functional. I have to make it as aesthetically pleasing as possible, as well. That’s always been a bone of contention on projects where other people just want to get something done. If it’s racing, for example, all people care about is, “Will it win?” I want to win beautifully.

A lot of this probably goes back to my mother’s influence. She was a creative person and I grew up with a lot of artisans and creative people around me, and that gave me a sense that things should have a certain beauty to them. If you are going to live with something you should also be able to appreciate it as a matter of art.

I’ve always thought that automobiles are really kinetic art. I can’t help but drive down the street and look at every car and think, “My God, what a waste of time and money that people just hack this stuff out.” If you’re sitting in traffic and looking at the car in front of you, you just see this tangle of lines going everywhere. Who the hell designs that stuff and why is it done that way? It’s simply because today we can achieve anything mechanically through tooling and computers, but things get so overworked that you get these confusing lines that have no purpose except that somebody could do it—and then somebody in management allowed it to happen.

On the other hand, that’s why there are certain beautiful cars in the world: because they were created by people who had that passion for aesthetics.

How do you know when it is time to leave behind a successful venture and move on to the next challenge?

The decision to leave is always made on the basis of analyzing what has been completed and then evaluating whether it is as good as it can be under the existing conditions. At that point, you may not have enough control or enough money to go further with it, or perhaps you’ve been blocked by political or bureaucratic things.

With my hang gliders, the decision to quit was completely the result of product liability and the legal situation. We were making the world’s best foot-launch gliders—and I don’t think I’ve done anything in life that was more fun than flying gliders. We became the largest hang-glider company in the world, but we finally had to shut it down because we just couldn’t exist under today’s legal system.

What common thread unites your successful ventures into design, racing, hang gliding, building trailers, and journalism?

I have always found excitement and beauty in doing something better with a great group of people that I really admire and respect. That’s probably the most important thing: have other people around you who are probably smarter than you are in certain areas. If you pick the talent that will allow you to complete something beyond your own knowledge, then you can normally succeed in what you’re doing.

In hang gliding, for example, I started on my own simply because the sport started with a bunch of hippies running off the big sand dunes out near my shop in El Segundo, with their old gliders made of bamboo, Visqueen plastic, and duct tape. It was a lot of fun, and the glide ratio was about the same as the slant on the hills, so if the thing broke in the air you’d never fall more than 10 feet into the sand. You weren’t going to get hurt. But as soon as we started taking those gliders up into the mountains and launching at several thousand feet, we had to get serious about making it safer.

At that point I got really involved and realized I didn’t have the skills to design those things. I looked around and found a young guy named Roy Haggard, who was out on his own in the middle of nowhere developing a better hang glider. With his talent and my ability to put together a team, we ended up changing the world of hang gliding. Our greatest success was that we won the world championships six years in a row.

We know a lot about your triumphs. What about your setbacks?

We got to the end of the hang gliding era and said, “What are we going to do with all this ultralight technology?” We had gone from running off sand dunes in El Segundo to flying at over 15,000 feet for 300 miles with little foot launch gliders. How could we make that into something that was really useful for the world?

We decided to build a small airplane that you could use in the Third World. This plane would have had a number of uses, such as the application of fertilizer to improve farming in parts of the world that were essentially starving because they had no way to build the huge factory farms that we have here. But you can’t just put normal airplanes into a small village in India or China because there is no money to buy them and no infrastructure to support them—no runways, no pilots. And the cost of flying an airplane is at least $15 per acre, versus pennies for our little airplane. So we developed a small airplane that could take off in 30 feet and had a 2,000-foot-per-minute climb rate which was totally aerobatic and could carry everything.

Then we thought, “Well, we need an engine for this.” There was no engine, so we designed our own. One of the great failures in my life was trying to build and develop a super lightweight engine. I reached out to people who had all the experience and found that an engine that was super lightweight, and which had tremendous potential, just couldn’t get financing. People would say, “Gosh, this sounds like a great idea,” and their engineering people would verify that it met all their criteria, but they’d never seen anything like it in their world so they wouldn’t back it.

Now I see that project as being ahead of its time with the current need for small, lightweight engines that you can put into drones and spy planes. Our engine was designed for the Third World. You could take it apart with two tools—a socket and a spark plug wrench—and it would run for thousands of hours with no maintenance. It’s still a great design, but I’ve never been able to convince anybody, so I spent a couple years and a lot of money and still lost the whole thing.

You can’t think you’re going to build something all by yourself if it is going to be really big and take a lot of money. You’ve got to have some capital behind you to be able to do something like that. That’s probably the toughest thing: to acquire capital without having to give the whole thing away. There were several people out there who said to us, “You know, that’s great. Now give us 70% of it and we’ll give you the money.” But there was no point in doing that.

These are the things you learn the hard way if you don’t have a so-called “proper education” and never learn the art of finance in school. You just go out and do stuff, and it can get pretty expensive.

What did you learn while working for automotive legends like Carroll Shelby and Bill Mitchell?

If your own passion and enthusiasm tell you that you can go in a certain direction, but you’re still working for somebody else, the reason for this is because those people have been successful—season after season after season—and they have some knowledge that you don’t have. They have the ability to see what’s good and what works, and even though you’re convinced that you’re right you have to go with their experience.

I had this happen with Bill Mitchell when we were designing the Corvette. There were a lot of little changes I wanted to do to that car but his marketing sense overrode my aesthetic sense. We were selling cars, though, and he had the right approach. There were a lot of little things, like on the Stingray Corvette, that just drove me nuts—all those little faux scoops and ducts all over the car that didn’t work. And it drove Zora (Arkus-Duntov) nuts, too—he looked at them and didn’t like them either, so I had an ally.

But Mitchell said, “Don't worry, kid. This is what people look for in the showroom.” He was absolutely right: the guy was a master salesman, and it was an honor that he picked my work and allowed me to design the car.

Working with Shelby, I did the first testing on the Cobra and spent hundreds of hours at Riverside Raceway developing the car before we raced it. When it came time to run it, Shelby brought in Bill Krause and had us run head-to-head, and I was faster than Bill.

I was really pissed because he gave the drive to Krause. I had seven races in my logbook and it didn't matter whether I was faster. Bill Krauss had years of experience running on dirt tracks and Shelby made the right choice. It was Shelby’s experience that told him that going fast was not the most important thing on a race track if you don’t have knowledge of what to do in a thousand different race situations. He made the right decision.

You don’t always realize these things until you get into the position of team manager and have to select your guys. Only time and experience can give you this perspective.

You have a reputation for challenging the status quo. Why do you think some of your ideas have been met with skepticism?

There are two ways you can approach things in building for production: one is fashion, one is function. Fashion is always going to be what sells cars, so a lot of designers are in the game simply because they are trying to do something fashionable. I’ve always been a guy up for function. That comes first. After you get something to work—and it may be the strangest looking thing out there—then you try to put the aesthetics in it and make it work against the competition, which is your measure in determining success.

You can turn something previously thought of as ugly into something that’s beautiful. The perfect example is the Daytona Cobra. When I first proposed that car to the guys at the shop at Shelby they literally refused to work on it because, in looking at my drawings, it didn’t look like anything they had ever seen—with its chopped off tail and the funny-looking roofline. They just didn’t want any part of something that they perceived as a loser because it didn’t look like anything that had succeeded in the past. All the cars to that point were based on the beautiful teardrop shape with the long tails on them. Then I came along with a car that was funny looking, and nobody wanted a car like that.

My biggest peeve in looking at cars out there today is the huge wheels and tires. It’s absolutely senseless to have all this unsprung and inertial weight that does nothing for you except that it’s perceived to be powerful or to have more traction. You can’t use any of that, whereas if you went back and designed a car with little narrow wheels and superlight tires you would increase efficiency tremendously.

Any engineer can tell you this, but if you try to put it to the marketing guys they are going to say, “We’re not going to sell that car because nobody will buy it.” It’s years and years and years of people thinking a certain way, and it’s very tough to go against that wave of public opinion and believe in something different.

What in the car world excites you? Where do see the most potential?

The guys who build the Corvette—the true believers—are the best overall design team in the world right now, combining technology and performance at a reasonable cost. If they took that whole concept and put it into a production version of a Chevrolet sedan, I think we would have the world’s best car. I would love to see that combination happen. And I’m not talking about the high-end Z06 or anything. I’m just talking about all the trick engineering stuff that went into designing and building that car. We could smoke anybody in the world with that design team.

But GM never really notices those guys. They are working on a car that does more for GM than any car in the whole corporation and yet there are all of these little political groups that won’t let it happen. So any guys who go into the Corvette studio are essentially risking their future because there is nowhere for them to advance in terms of political power. They are considered an offshoot and not really that important.

When I was at GM, the whole Corvette program was abandoned in 1957, along with anything else high-performance. The whole thing was cut off completely. If not for Bill Mitchell personally reinstating the car, building it in secret, and risking his reputation, we would never even have a Corvette today.

I think if they got a guy in there—a guy like Bob Lutz—and turned those guys loose they would make something that would absolutely blow your mind, and they could sell it for $30,000-$40,000. It’s an incredible design, and the fact that you could build them by the hundreds of thousands would drop the price down while still having all the technological advances that are seen in the Corvette. (A sedan with Corvette underpinnings) would make the world’s finest automobile, without a doubt, and at a cost anyone could afford.

Why are trailers your current attempt at disruption?

There is quite a bit of composite work in our Aerovault trailers. All the roof structures and the centers, inner and outer, and all the doors are made with fiberglass, which allows for some pretty radical forms for a trailer. Most of the things out there on the road are breadbox trailers, but our trailer is super aerodynamic, so it has a 30% improvement in mileage when you’re towing compared to a square front trailer.

We’re changing people’s whole idea about what a trailer should be, refining the whole idea. It’s another one of those obvious ideas that nobody ever picked up and did anything with until we did it because everybody had been building the same thing since the 1920s. Nobody ever wanted to change, so we had to step up and do it ourselves.

How have you maintained your reputation as an all-around good guy while working with so many legendary egos in the automotive and racing worlds?

I just like working with good people, and I have tremendous amount of respect for all the people who work with me and for me. It would be stupid to try to elevate myself above people who are better than me. It’s the collective knowledge and experience of all the people around you that make you great. The minute you start thinking that those people don’t matter, you’re not going to exist any longer. This keeps the team together because you have the respect that gives a team its cohesiveness and allows them to put out the best work. You have to allow people to do what they think is the best, and you can’t micromanage everything because everybody has their own experience.

Then, sometimes, you just have to take all that experience and make a decision. Hopefully you make the right one. Again, it’s just having a respect for the people you work with.