“There is nothing you can write in a book; you can’t write a process or a flow chart,” said Dave Pericak, Global Director of Ford Performance. “You can prove things with data but what you can’t do is capture that visceral element of doing a car.”
It’s a sunny and warm Monday afternoon in the Motor City as Pericak shares what goes into the perfect automobile.
“It is something you have to feel; something that comes from within,” he said.
The film A Faster Horse chronicles Pericak and his team bringing the 50th Anniversary Mustang to life. At the time, Pericak was Mustang’s Chief Engineer, tasked with upholding Ford’s most significant nameplate during the worst economic downturn in Detroit’s history. In one particular scene, Pericak declares the car isn’t ready. The team has the Mustang in a capable, even confident place, but something is missing.
When Pericak drives it during testing in Arizona, he knows.
“It’s that intangible, sixth sense that makes it go across the finish line in a way that is absolutely spectacular, and everyone who drives it will comment on it,” Pericak said. “Not everybody can get a car to that place but everybody can recognize when a car is in that place.”
Before design studios and product development centers, there was the living room floor and a curious boy running his vast Matchbox collection about. Before the spotlight in a Hollywood film, there was a factory, and a recent engineering grad working door trim panels. Well before the machine that is the 50th Anniversary Mustang, there were the machines on the manufacturing line. They required proper set up so every door trim panel would meet correct specifications.
This was “job one” for Pericak, a term that would ultimately take on new meaning later. However, before Pericak touched a Mustang professionally, it touched him personally.
“I asked my wife to marry me in a Mustang,” recalled Pericak. “I was just a young kid in the company.”
Today, Pericak is the Global Director for Ford Performance, a promotion earned following the success of the 50th Anniversary Mustang. While Pericak acknowledges it’s a dream job, he doesn’t downplay the challenges. One of the biggest is managing stricter government regulations.
“What we don’t want to ever do is compromise what a performance vehicle is,” Pericak said. “Performance products right now are under a bit of an attack with all the regulations and requirements.”
Pericak and his team are developing technological advancements to satisfy customers, government officials, and corporate objectives set by Ford.
“We are figuring our way through it and finding the end solutions for sure, but it’s a huge challenge to deliver what everyone expects from us, and do it in an way that meets all the requirements,” he said.
Teamwork & Tenacity
Pericak draws often from his experience working on the 50th Anniversary Mustang, where the margin for error was nonexistent. Mustang is, after all, Ford’s most iconic name, synonymous with freedom, performance, and affordability. With legions of fans around the world taking the car to heart, producing something that reflected the Mustang spirit was paramount.
Pericak finds himself in this position again.
“It is not too dissimilar from what it going on at Ford Performance right now,” he said. “All of that pressure, all of what drove us on the 50th Anniversary Mustang is what is driving us on our current performance lineup.”
Ford’s return to Le Mans this year demonstrated how they combine performance and teamwork. The number 68 GT of Sébastien Bourdais, Joey Hand, and Dirk Müller emerged as the winner of the GTE Pro Class of the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours. The number 69 GT of Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon, and Richard Westbrook took third place.
“Le Mans is another example of our fantastic team coming together with laser focus,” Pericak said. “On race day, when all the pressure was on, everybody came together to support each other because they knew the goal.”
The journey to the podium started last year, when Ford announced a return to Le Mans. The Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team worked around the clock, preparing for the day. Should Ford capture a victory, it would stand as an incredible tribute to their famous Le Mans run in 1966.
“This was the focal point of our program,” explained Pericak. “To go back and try to repeat history is definitely what we were focused on.”
However, Ferrari saw differently, and raced their number 83 car like none other. The occasion ignited a long rivalry, but in the 20th hour, Ford put Ferrari in the rearview, sealing the victory.
“This is the best example of teamwork that I have ever been a part of,” Pericak said. “I am really proud of them.”
When I interviewed David Gelb, the director of A Faster Horse, he said he was inspired by Pericak’s leadership. Every film he works on he implements what he learned from Team Mustang. I asked Pericak to share that leadership style, hoping to glean some wisdom.
“It’s about really connecting with your people, pushing them to their limits, figuring out how to support them, and giving them the confidence,” he said. “You cannot treat everyone the same – you can have similar expectations of everyone – but you cannot get them to that level of expectation in the same way.”
I asked him to elaborate further . . .
“One guy cannot do any of this and it’s ridiculous to think one person could,” Pericak said. “However, what one person can do is unlock the potential of many, and when you do that, people will do things they never thought they could.”
There is a marvelous string of scenes in A Faster Horse where Pericak drives through the Detroit area in a Mustang. Near the end of the film, he wonderfully explains how people will go to great lengths as long as they know somebody they trust is there. That what people really need is somebody to cheer them on.
The subtle rumble of the Mustang is a masterful edition to an already powerful message.
“There are a lot of smart people held back by their own fears or inhibitions,” he says, stopping the car for a moment.
When he accelerates again, Pericak explains the ultimate illustration of leadership, stemming from this idea. It’s true. I know many smart people who just need that extra encouragement. Some of them even write for this publication.
Pericak’s drive finishes as he pulls into the Ford Product Development Center. There is nothing to be said now, only an inherent symbolism is felt. The 50th Anniversary Mustang was a success but life goes on. This is the way of the automotive business, not unlike many others. It never ceases and so rarely rests. All the more reason people who embody industrial prowess, product passion, and family values are needed. Ford has always been at its best when facing the worst, but it’s because the blue oval houses leaders like this; ones who challenge, inspire, mold, and never quit, just like the business itself.
Henry Ford understood this generations ago. Alan Mulally, more recently, encompassed it.
Dave Pericak does too.
“We are going to survive another 100 years and persevere, but only if we support each other,” he said.
When Pericak mentioned he played with Matchbox cars as a kid, I smiled. It gave me a lot of hope. I have Matchbox cars on my desk.
Carl Anthony is Managing Editor of Automoblog and resides in Detroit, Michigan.