The answer to that question is most definitely yes! Like many other casual race fans, we all know the obvious legends in the Michigan auto racing scene- names like Benson, Howe, Johncock, Keselowski, Penske, Roush, etc. But there is one person who became a legend, not just in Michigan but also all over North America, and was known as the most influential person in racing no one ever heard of…that person is Herb Fishel.
This morning I read the legendary NASCAR mechanic/owner Smokey Yunnick’s “Best Damn Garage” in Daytona burned to the ground yesterday and it reminded me of my interview with Herb a few weeks ago.
So who is Herb Fishel? I will admit I had no clue he was such a key individual until Chas Howe (President of Howe Racing) said, “You’ve gotta include Herb in your book.” How impressed was I? After interviewing him, I nominated him for the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame and wondered why he wasn’t already there.
Here’s the bio of Herb Fishel that I sent in:
Herb Fishel graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1963. Three days after receiving his diploma, he packed his 1956 Olds with everything he owned and headed to Detroit for a job with General Motors in the Chevrolet Drafting Dept.
He would impress his bosses enough to be soon named the chief engineer for design of the 302 Camaro Z28 engine. That prompted a promotion to the Chevrolet Product Performance Group in 1969, where he would eventually be in charge of the secretive “Stealth Racing Dept.” He apprecticed in engine development with such NASCAR legends as Smokey Yunick and Junior Johnson and led the return of Chevy to stock car racing with the 1971 Monte Carlo. Because General Motors was officially not involved in racing, Herb Fishel would become known as “the most influential man in auto racing that no one knew.”
In 1976, Fishel became manager of the Buick Special Products Division. There he headed the development of the Buick Engine Program for racing application including the Indy 500. While directing Buick’s “stealth racing program” Herb negotiated with Bill France, Sr. the acceptance of mid-size cars into stock car racing and the immediate results was Buick Regals dominating NASCAR with Darrell Waltrip driving a Regal to Winston Cup Championships in 1981 & ’82.
Fishel returned to Chevrolet as the Director of Racing in 1983. While there, Chevrolet won an unprecedented nine straight NASCAR Manufacturers Cup Championships between 1983-1991.
In 1991, he was appointed the Executive Director of GM Racing. It would be safe to say, outside of direct manufacturer funding, Herb Fishel was responsible for contributing more money to racing programs from the smallest racetracks in Michigan to those Michigan racing teams competing at the highest levels of auto racing. When he appeared at a racetrack anywhere in North America, the word would spread like wildfire, “the Eagle has landed.”
Herb was instrumental in the creation of the “crate” engine, the Indy Racing League and the American Le Mans Series. Under his direction he can list as professional accomplishments 25 NASCAR Manufacturers Cups including eleven straight from 1981-1991 and 12 Driving Championships; 12 Indy 500 victories; Class wins in Le Mans, the Baja 1000 and the Pikes Peak Climb.
In 2001, GM won the equivalent of auto racing’s Triple Crown, with victories in the Daytona 500, the Indy 500 and the 24 hrs. of Le Mans.
Fishel was recognized by Car and Driver Magazine as one of their UNSUNG HEROES and a rising industry star in 1984.
For nine straight years, Racer Magazine picked Herb Fishel one of the dozen most influential people in racing (1990-1999).
He was named Michigan Auto Racing Personality of the Year by MARFC in 1991.
The Hot Rod Magazine Hall of Fame named Herb Fishel as one of 100 most influential in 1997.
Fishel is a recipient of the Spirit of Le Mans Award in 2003.
Also in the year he retired from GM (2003), Fishel was honored as the Celebrity Pace Vehicle Driver and led the field of 33 cars to the starting line of the 87th Indy 500 in a Chevy SSR.
Today, Herb is President of The Business of Motorsports in Ann Arbor, MI. and is passionately involved in “Green Racing” to assist in the development of alternative fuels and regenerative energy recover systems for auto racing.
For his accomplishments and contributions to auto racing in Michigan, North American and the world, Herb Fishel is certainly a very worthy candidate for the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame.
The complete interview with Herb Fishel will appear in the book Living On The Edge – A History of Auto Racing in Michigan, scheduled for publication in August