John Fernandez - PVO, Shelby, Neon, Viper, and Motorsports

John Fernandez had a long history with Chrysler, ending when he left the company to work with Chip Ganassi Racing. He joined Chrysler Corporation in 1969 as a co-op intern after watching Richard Petty and others racing on the dirt tracks; he became a full-time project engineer in 1972 after receiving his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from University of Detroit (he was later to get an MBA there, courtesy of Chrysler).

john fernandez, can-am

In the 1970s, Fernandez was a powertrain product planner, though we don't have any real details on his work; he stayed away from racing except for some go-karting until, in the 1980s, he was chosen to work with Carroll Shelby as the executive engineer of Shelby Operations, and the pair became friends through their work on the Omni GLHS and later vehicles. The idea was that Fernandez would, living near Shelby in Whittier, California, help take Dodge’s technologies and use them in high-performance products, with Shelby helping in engineering and tuning, and perhaps of equal importance, with his well-known name. A year later, Shelby Automobile Inc. was formally created, with the first vehicle being the Omni GLHS. Fernandez was appointed second driver in Shelby’s racing efforts, as well, in the showroom stock category in 1985. The team, with two cars and two drivers - and eventually a crew - competed in the SCCA Showroom Stock Division A, racing the Shelby Charger. The team achieved Southern Pacific Division A championships in 1987 and 1988.

John Fernandez was also a major participant in the Shelby CAN-AM program, according to Bob Johnston, who provided these photos of John with Carroll Shelby testing the first SCA at Willow Springs in 1989.

Fernandez was called back to Chrysler to work on the Neon starting in 1990, and he helped it to gain its character as a zoomy not-so-small car that could compete with the best of the under-$20,000 set on the raceway - building up an enviable record of successes. Part of the reason was because Fernandez proposed (and pushed through) the idea of making the Neon ACR (American Club Racer) package, specifically aimed at the SCCA racer. Only drivers with an SCCA license were allowed to buy them in their first year. Over 6,000 of the ACRs were made in the first five years, and they racked up a huge number of victories — with Fernandez and Gary Johnson winning three consecutive SCCA Central Division C championships from 2000 to 2002 with the Neon ACR package.

After helping build the Neon and ACR, he moved on to Team Viper as Executive Engineer in 1997. He took over the Viper GTS-R program, whose ambitious program was similar to that of the Neon: to make a car that could take on comers that cost twice as much, or more. The program was not successful at the time, but Fernandez was able to turn it around, for three years of wins - all the more incredible as the Viper was going up against Ferrari, Lambourghini, and others.

After the Viper was redesigned for the 2003 model year, Fernandez started looking for a way to keep the 70-member team together, and was able to convince Dieter Zetsche to create PVO to create fast new vehicles and provide interesting work for the team. Thus, PVO was borne. This success at keeping the Viper designers together is debatable, the impact of PVO on Dodge is not: the SRT-4, SRT-8, and SRT-10 Rams have generated a massive amount of publicity for Dodge, and may have been responsible for the rise in Neon sales in late 2002, as it brought many new people to consider the Neon.

The Neon was picked as the first PVO vehicle partly because of Fernandez's involvement in its creation. The SRT started shipping in December, and, according to Fernandez, has quite a bit of the old Neon ACR in it. Fernandez hopes to see production go up from 2,500 to 7,000 units per year; either way, Dodge will make a profit on the high-performance car, this generation's Spirit R/T.

In late 2002, Fernandez was tapped to take over Chrysler's lukewarm racing efforts, becoming the head of Dodge Motorsports as well as the Mopar Performance division. While Mopar Performance was hot in the 1970s and 1980s, it has gradually ceded its place and reputation to smaller outfits like Howell Automotive, which have been more in tune with customer needs - and cheaper, too.

Fernandez said that the "one team" approach to racing was working will, with Penske, Evernham, Petty, and Ganassi working together. People really are sharing, he said; and any team can come to Chrysler's well equipped R&D center without anyone looking over their shoulders, or with Chrysler engineers available if desired. He said the teams were making use of these resources. Having Penske racing with Dodge brings the popular Rusty Wallace (made famous partly by GM advertising) from Ford, which will be especially useful once the rear-drive V8 sedans come out.

New resources for Dodge included lap time simulation - a program to predict racing times based on a number of different variables, to help in fine-tuning and setup - and a new wind tunnel. Neither was available for the 2001-02 racing season.

According to Texaco-Havoline, John Fernandez started out in racing with dirt tracks at Fonda Speedway in upstate New York. He graduated from high school in Pittsfield, Mass., and took economics at St. Francis College in Maine. After one year, he transferred to the University of Detroit, majoring in Mechanical Engineering. Through the university’s co-op program, Fernandez got an interim position with Chrysler in 1969, staying with the company for 35 years. He joined Ganassi in August 2006.

[Thanks to Ellis Brasher and Bob Johnston]

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