Nobody ever expected Honda Civics to make single-digit quarter-mile passes. The 10-second barrier, which was breached during the mid-1990s, was, by and large, considered the FWD import's shining moment. Any faster from a front-wheel-driven, four-cylinder-powered Honda was, arguably, irrational. But technology moved on and, soon enough, high-10s became mid-10s, and whispers of nine-second timeslips began stirring. The story of Honda drag racing simply cannot be told without including Stephan Papadakis, conqueror of the nine-second barrier and the first to introduce Honda fans to the likes of a real-deal, tube-frame drag car. Papadakis' accolades don't end there, though. The import drag racing pioneer made his mark before that poignant pass and has since gone on to be first in the eights, and to make headway in RWD drag racing as well as multiple forms of motorsports in both driver, manager, and team owner capacities. For Honda fans, though, that single-digit blast is the one that'll live on in infamy.
HT: How did you become interested in Hondas?
SP: I used to be into RC cars when I first got my license back in 1993, and a lot of the guys at the RC car track were into cars. I thought I wanted a Mustang or a Camaro because I wanted something fast. There were a couple of guys who raced RC cars who had Honda Civics, and I got a ride in [one]. I was like, "Oh, this thing's nice." It was fast and way more obtainable for a 16-year-old than a Mustang. My first car when I was 16 was a '91 Civic Si.
SP: I had been in a couple but decided to not do that anymore and [instead] do my own thing. But a lot of my friends were from Wicked so, by default, [so was I].
HT: Was it a privilege to be associated with Wicked and some of the fastest Hondas of that time?
SP: No, I wouldn't call it a privilege. They were just buddies who also liked to go racing. I wasn't really part of that culture. They had their little cliques. They felt like they had to beat the other crews. I wanted to beat everybody-even the guys who were in Wicked. It was never anything personal. I just wanted the fastest car. The club thing always took it to more of a personal level, or more of a club versus club thing. It was fun, though. I mean, all of those guys were super fun. Those were good times.
HT: Tell us about some of that first Civic's early engine setups, before the H series that you're often associated with.
SP: Man, that car went through a lot of phases. When I was 16, I put nitrous on [it]. It ran pretty quick-in the 14s-which was pretty fast for back then. I blew the motor, rebuilt it, and then put carburetors on it-dual sidedraft Mikuni 44s, also with nitrous. But that setup never really worked that well, and I ended up blowing that up. For the next setup, I took the whole engine out and put in a '90 Integra LS [engine]-the non-VTEC 1.8L-turbocharged with a DFI fuel-injection system.
HT: Why the non-VTEC engine? Was this before VTEC engines were readily available?
SP: This was well before [that]. You have to remember that the Integra [GS-R] didn't come out until 1992 here, and that was an extremely rare car. At JG [Engine Dynamics], which is where I was working at the time, we were building [non-VTEC] engines and knew how to tune them. It was a setup that was already in Dave Shih's car, and Myles [Bautista] was doing something [similar]. A lot of guys were already using that engine, so the formula was there. I ran it like that for about a year or so and ended up selling that setup.
HT: What led to the H series, at a time when nobody had really used that engine?
SP: I felt like I was always a little bit behind the curve. I wanted to leapfrog and get ahead, so I switched to a '93 Prelude VTEC motor. Charles [Madrid] was putting one in Jeremy [Lookofsky's] CRX, but [almost] no one else had done it [yet]. I might've gotten mine running before they did, but it was all around the same time. I blew that up pretty quickly because we used a stock block. I rebuilt it with good rods and pistons, and went out and raced with that for about a year or so, running in the 10.60s-second fastest to Tony Fuchs. Now we're approaching 1998 and, because I had to notch the front of the car so much to fit that motor in, it started flexing the framerails. That's when I met Shaun Carlson. I thought maybe he could help me fix the car.
The way that Shaun worked, though, it always snowballed with that guy. He'd start small and it ended up [turning] into this huge project. We realized that the framerails were bent, so we decided to cut those off. We went farther back, ended up doing the firewall, and basically front-halved my '91 Civic. We ran it one [time] and we were like, "We've gotta do more" [laughs]. So we brought it back to his house and ended up cutting it and making it a full tube chassis. Well, since we were making it a full tube chassis, we thought: Why does it need to be a '91 Civic anymore? We might as well make it a current-model Civic. We never actually bought a Civic. Instead, we bought all of the [body] panels, put them on the tube chassis, and that was the car that came out at the end of 1998.
HT: Moving back a bit, when did the '91 Civic stop being your daily driver? Did the H-series setup ever see the street?
SP: We had some street races with it [laughs], but yeah, it was never a street car with that engine or with the B-series.
HT: There was a brief period when that first Civic had a multi-colored paint scheme that debuted for only a short time. Was this before you partnered with Shaun?
SP: Just before. It's weird because I can't find any pictures of that. I said, "OK, I've gotta make this thing look nice." So I did the paint, and then shortly after we did the front-half, and then right after that we did the full tube chassis, and that car basically went away. That car got cut up at different times until it ended up in the Dumpster.
HT: You just threw it away?
SP: Well, we threw the front clip away, and then we just had the back clip, and we Sawzalled it, and threw it away.
HT: What was it like working at JG Engine Dynamics?
SP: Everybody was learning a lot, including the owner [Javier Gutierrez]. This was at the forefront of stand-alone systems for Hondas, building their engines and sleeving blocks. I wouldn't say necessarily that a lot of firsts happened there, but I would say that a lot of the well-running, full packages were coming out of that shop. This was a time when there were a lot of different people building a lot of stuff but having poor results with actually finishing their projects. I think, at JG, that was one thing we were good at-completing projects and actually getting them onto the track in a reasonable amount of time.
SP: Dude, that was hilarious [laughs]. There was this fabricator-Mike Hansen-and he and Javier Gutierrez got together to build the fastest Honda. With their extremely limited understanding of drag racing, they decided on a rear-Prelude-engined CRX with independent suspension, a stock Prelude transmission, and Nissan 240Z front struts. It was a Frankenstein of a car. They were so over their heads. It never got completed.
HT: How much of an influence was Javier on the Honda performance scene?
SP: He was a huge influence because he came from an earlier generation of street racers and SCCA road racers. He started off as a garage mechanic. He was a garage street racer guy who learned how to do stuff out of necessity. I think Peter Han [Han Motoring] got him into [Hondas]. Javier was like, "Whoa, I guess there's something here," and ended up getting a shop. I was a customer of his, and then out of high school I was like, "I want to work here." I started sweeping the floors until, finally, he said, "This guy's here every day, I might as well give him a job." I ended up answering phones, doing wiring for DFI installations, and getting into a lot of other stuff.
HT: Who else was working at JG during that time?
SP: Just a couple of Javier's buddies who were not from the scene-Ralph and Bobby.
HT: So this was before Charles Madrid or any other recognizable names in the Honda industry worked there?
SP: Well before. This was 1994-1995, when it was a three-person shop.
HT: What did working at JG lead to next?
SP: I just wanted to go racing. I was street racing and at Terminal Island until I got out of high school, and then I worked at JG so I could learn more and work on my car. I worked there for about two and a half years, and that's when I started Honda Pro with Viet [Lam]. I did that with him for about a year, and then without him for another year and a half. I was always racing in parallel with all of that.
HT: Street racing was far more prevalent back then. Any thoughts on the topic?
SP: When I got into it, street racing had already been big for a couple of years. I think you had guys who wanted to race their cars but had no outlet to do it legally, so the outlet to do it, by default, was the streets. It just blew up from there to where you had guys who wanted to be the quickest or who wanted to have their cars look good, and it just started this new hot rod culture.
HT: How did Terminal Island's Brotherhood Raceway fit into everything back then?
SP: Street racing continued to grow even after the big crackdowns in Long Beach in 1992. In 1993, they started having more [street races] outside of Long Beach, like Ontario and Sylmar. The local street racers in Long Beach and Compton had been trying to get a racetrack, which finally became Terminal Island-Brotherhood Raceway. No one I knew from the import scene was really in on that. It was mostly the older street racing guys like Big Willie. We just happened to go there. It helped take some [of us] off the streets but, really, we would go to Terminal Island and then go to the street races right after a lot of times. But that was the beginning of getting guys onto the track and getting actual quarter-mile times. Now you could modify your car and actually have a tangible result rather than beating somebody or rating it in car lengths.
HT: Who were some of your early influences in terms of Honda performance?
SP: The early street racing guys: Archie [Madrazo], probably Tony Fuchs, Myles, and E.T. [Saffon].
HT: Let's go back to Honda Pro and the surrounding speed shops. There were a lot of tuners in that small area of Orange County then. What was that like?
SP: We tried to have our shop near to where the scene was happening. There were a few scenes-you had the San Fernando Valley, which is where Myles was from, you had the San Gabriel Valley, and you had Orange County. It mostly had to do with where you could get a shop, like where automotive shops could be zoned for a reasonable amount of rent, and that just happened to be Santa Ana.
SP: [Honda Pro] was supposed to be Charles, Viet, and me, and at the last minute Charles said, "Nah, I can't do it." He stayed at Pit Crew. Viet knew a lot of people and he was a good salesman, but he wasn't a good businessman. He was a hustler [laughs]. It was a double-edged sword; he was able to bring in work, but it wasn't necessarily profitable.
HT: What type of work did you specialize in? What was popular then?
SP: Our specialty was swaps. We left the engine building to the engine builders, and the lowering [of] cars and stuff like that to the guys who did that all day long. I shied away from [engine building] because of the liability. The motor builds back then...nine out of 10 were coming apart in about a couple of months. If you had six months out of your modified engine, that was huge. I knew that and didn't want to have any part of it. We had a niche where we understood, inside and out, Honda electrical systems, transmissions, the way the different parts fit together, the different models-everything. We were able to take a CRX, put a GS-R in there, change the wiring, and get everything working, including VTEC and the butterflies in the intake manifold.
HT: Seems like common sense, but those were details some shops didn't address back then, no?
SP: Right, and that was our forte: getting the swap done, on time, for the price that was originally quoted, and working 100 percent like that engine originally did in the original car.
HT: What was it like making those exhibition passes with your first Civic at NHRA's Winternationals at a time when imports didn't get much respect?
SP: In hindsight, we must've looked like such goofballs out there. Anybody who knew anything about race car building must've looked at those things and said, "Oh, my God. I can't believe they're sending these things down the dragstrip that fast." But I think that was the whole point, in a way. The NHRA started with guys from the street who needed a place to race, and that was our generation doing that again. It just happened to be with FWD Hondas.
HT: Was that a nerve-wracking experience, racing your Civic in front of a crowd who came to see 6,000-plus-horsepower Funny Cars?
SP: Totally. I mean, I'd been down the dragstrip a lot of times, but we were having dreams of grandeur, where we were like, "OK, this is the moment. It's gonna be professional racing from here on out." There was definitely a lot of pressure, but because we were living it, always working on our race cars, and always going to the dragstrip, it was just another day at the track when it finally came to driving the car down the track.
HT: When your next car, the tube-frame Civic, first came out in 1998, it was way ahead of the curve in terms of what everyone else was doing. Where did the foresight to build a car like that come from?
SP: It was Shaun. Shaun was the guy where things would snowball, but it was me who would regulate and say, "OK, we've got to finish this and move to the next step." I regulated the project, in a way, because up until that time, Shaun had never had projects that were finished. That's what my business was-making sure [customers' cars] were finished on time-that's what I carried over to the build of the race car. I don't think there was much of that [out there]. Maybe you had someone like Myles who was good at that; he had a business, and he also had race cars, so he understood how he needed to finish stuff to be able to make it, to actually race it.
HT: Where did the funding come from for the tube-frame car?
SP: That was my college education money right there, and Shaun's time. When you see the first images and video of that car, there was not a single sticker on it. I don't even think I had my name on it. We wanted to buy everything and make sure that it was just us. No one else got credit for it other than the people who actually put effort into it.
HT: What was the reason for that?
SP: Seeing the landscape of other racers trying to go professional but not having a professional outlook-stickers all over, the car not looking good. It's what we thought we needed to do to take that next step to be professional, which was: decals on the car are monetary. It's advertising space, so it's not the bro deal anymore.
HT: It seemed as though everyone was progressing at the same rate, and then when that car came out, all of that changed. What was the impetus for such a car?
SP: People had already gone 10s, and we'd already run 10s, so the next logical step was nines.
HT: Was there a sense of urgency to get the car finished and run nines? Were you afraid somebody else would beat you to it?
SP: Definitely. But we didn't know how fast the car would go or how much quicker it would go either. Everybody was stuck at 10.6 for a little while, so we thought, "Well, OK, maybe we'll run some 10.30s." There was definitely a deadline, but there was nothing really on the horizon that was poised to be that good of a car. There were people building stuff, but if you knew them or knew what they were doing, you knew they would never be finished. Or run well [laughs].
SP: Right. There were no breakthroughs coming.
HT: What was it like working with Shaun Carlson?
SP: He was definitely a workaholic. He'd always be working on something, moving forward with some project, or five projects at the same time. One of the biggest things I learned from him was the patience to build a part correctly that looks good and is engineered properly. Before that, I would just start doing something without a vision of how it was going to unfold. You end up going down a lot of dead-end roads when you work like that. His time estimate for projects wasn't very good, though; that's why his projects always went way over time-wise and way over budget.
HT: So time management wasn't necessarily important to him?
SP: Maybe. Or that wasn't the point. For him, I think the point was: this is what he wants to build, and then whatever it takes to get there, that's a step he's not worrying about. He's worrying about the final product.
HT: What sorts of innovations did you guys make to the tube-frame Civic to prepare it to go nines?
SP: Bigger tires and lighter weight. It's really straightforward. It's just physics.
HT: Your engine program always seemed pretty straightforward and reliable too-no tricks. Were there any secrets that you can share now?
SP: From my years at JG, I became very leery and didn't trust the aftermarket at all. I had just seen too many failures. I would concentrate on things on the engine that we knew would fail, and then only change those out. No one ever had crankshaft issues, so I never messed with the crank. Everybody had rod issues, so we put rods in. Same with the pistons. I wouldn't call myself an engine builder, but I wouldn't call most of the engine builders back then engine builders either [laughs]. It was too much liability to do it for other people, but I didn't trust anybody else to do my stuff.
HT: What was your process like for selecting the right components?
SP: I wasn't after horsepower from the engine build. Horsepower came from turbo boost. The engine just needed to be strong enough to take the boost. Different people had different angles: they wanted to make the most power, or they wanted to have the most unique setup-the fastest four-door something or other with whatever obscure motor. I just wanted to have a quick car. It all had to add up to a fast car. It's not my saying, but to finish first, you must first finish. I took that to heart. All these people were building all of these crazy things, but they could never get to the track, and if they got to the track, their cars weren't reliable. I wasn't going after the highest-horsepower setup; I was going after the most horsepower I could make with the most reliable parts. It wasn't always cutting-edge technology. I would go for the most stock engine, replacing only the parts I knew would fail. We used the stock head gasket, stock head bolts, stock cams. The factory H-series parts were much stronger than B-series.
HT: That's a lot of stock Honda parts. What sort of power were you making when you first ran nines?
SP: Around 600 [hp].
HT: Were there any major failures with the car that you'd kept tight-lipped?
SP: The weekend it went nines at Battle of the Imports, we had already tested at Palmdale earlier that week and it had already run nines. Bernie, the track owner was there, and Frank Choi [Battle of the Imports founder] was there, and they were like, "This can't be right." We were like, "I don't know...it feels pretty fast" [laughs]. We didn't celebrate too much, but we knew we were onto something.
HT: You actually thought that pass might've been a fluke?
SP: We didn't want to claim nines just yet, but the 60-foot times and everything added up.
HT: Back to the failures-were there any?
SP: The first big pass on the car, we almost crashed it because there was so much weight on the front end and such little on the back. We had no idea what we were doing with aerodynamics or anything. I did the pass, got to the end, hit the brakes, and the back tires came off the ground. There were scrape marks on the front of the chassis where it hit. We mounted the parachute pull bracket too low in the car, so when the parachute came out it actually lifted the car up. Between that test day and the event we moved that bracket up higher in the car.
SP: It's at the Petersen Automotive Museum.
HT: Do you have a favorite track experience?
SP: A bunch, but I think it was the time there was an IDRC race at Pomona, and we raced that same car. I think it was 2000 or so, and we raced against [Eddie Bello's] Porsche and [Adam] Saruwatari. We actually had a class! Up until that point, at all of the Battle of the Imports, it was just an exhibition car. We'd just go out there and do single passes. When they had that event it was like, "Whoa! I can race against people. Awesome!" There weren't any Hondas or FWD cars, but we won that event.
HT: That was for at least a year or two that you only made exhibition passes in that car, no?
SP: Right. Since the street races or Battle of the Imports with my old EF, I hadn't been able to race anybody.
HT: You've gone much faster with some of your later cars, but has anything been as sweet as breaking that nine-second barrier?
SP: It was anticlimactic because we had already run a nine earlier that week. It was easier to run nines in that car than it was to run high-10s in the EF because the EF was such a handful, so unrefined, and such a POS that there were way more things happening.
HT: So breaking the nine-second barrier was just expected?
SP: I guess so. That car was effortless compared to the other car. In hindsight, though, that car was a handful, too. There were no two-steps. You'd hold the rpm, and then hold the hand brake to kind of stage it, and then launch the car, grab second, back to the steering wheel, and hit the Profec for the second stage of boost, and then try to keep the thing straight. There was a lot going on.
HT: Back then, everybody, including you, was still learning, weren't you?
SP: Yeah. It was easy to go quicker because nobody knew anything, and it was easy to learn because it was all low-hanging fruit. It almost seems like common sense now.
HT: Did you ever have any idea how popular the Honda performance scene would become?
SP: There was a little bit of imagining and it [came from] Japan. We thought they were doing what we wanted our scene to be like, [but with] Skylines and RX-7s and those sort of cars. We thought we knew what we wanted it to be like.
HT: What about import drag racing, did you see that growing the way it did?
SP: Sure. We had even bigger dreams, like the days of Funny Cars and Pro Stock cars would be numbered. Our cars were the wave of the future. We were young and dumb and thought that the stuff we were doing was the best ever. It continued to grow for a while until it plateaued, and then I think we became a victim of our own ignorance to where it was like, let's try something new, let's make more power or run a bigger tire. And then there was no show anymore. It was just a bunch of dudes at the track trying stuff out. [You'd] get to the event and see 10 good passes all weekend and a bunch of oil downs, cars crashing, fires, and all this mess. Not often was there a delivery of a show.
HT: When do you think this downfall began?
SP: Uh, day one [laughs]. Even if you look at the quickest-Honda day at Battle of the Imports back in 1995, there would be three guys and they would all try to be the quickest down the track. There was no actual heads-up racing. It was always the guy who wanted to have the fastest RX-7 or the fastest Civic or the fastest whatever-they just happened to also be racing. That's where I felt I differed a little bit. I just wanted to go racing and I just happened to be in a Honda. I was definitely a Honda guy-don't get me wrong-but racing was more important than my Honda-ness [sic] or my fastest Civic-ness [sic] or anything like that.
HT: Who were your main rivals at the track?
SP: Everybody. It was never anything personal. I just wanted to go as quick as I could. It wasn't about individuals. It was about beating everybody. When you win, you have to beat everybody. A lot of the guys wanted it to be personal, but it never was.
HT: How involved was American Honda with your racing program?
SP: They were helping us with parts, and they were a huge supporter when we built the '01 Civic coupe and then also with the '03 RWD Civic. That car was in some TV commercials and some of their ad campaigns. We had a great relationship with Honda during those years.
HT: Honda was very selective with any drag racers it may have worked with sponsorship-wise, no?
SP: Yes, they're a very conservative company, and we were still probably on the edge of being conservative enough for them.
HT: What did Honda expect of you?
SP: Winning and going fast didn't need to be said. If you're going to be in a Honda, represent the brand well and let people know how good the product is. Us using so many factory engine components, even down to the stock Honda oil filter, was a testament to Honda's engineering.
HT: How do you feel about Honda today?
SP: I think there's exciting things happening within the brand, just not in the U.S. The cars they have here are so watered down. It's hard to get enthusiastic about it. And when they came out with a car that might be potentially tunable, we get the CR-Z, which is inherently not tunable.
HT: If you had a Honda legacy, what would it be?
SP: Before I built the yellow car, it was like, get the car running as quick as it will go, and that was the priority. It wasn't about looks, it wasn't about paint, it wasn't about safety [laughs], which is not a good thing. With the black EF with the Prelude motor, speed is what I wanted-looks and all of that stuff, it wasn't even secondary; it wasn't even on the list.
HT: True. The tube-frame hatchback was one of the first well-rounded, professionally built Hondas. What else can you take credit for?
SP: Oh, the engine placement of the '01 Civic. We turned the engine 90 degrees so it was pointing north-south. That whole drivetrain setup was my design, built by Rob Miller. I mean, that's how you build a Pro FWD car now. That's how you do it.
HT: Moving forward, how involved were you with your RWD Civic program and now your drift team?
SP: I'm 100 percent involved. Nowadays, I'm not the driver, so Tanner [Foust] had a lot of say with what we were going to do to the 350Z when we built it, and Fredric [Aasbo] has a lot to say about the drift car that he drives. I've learned a lot because of that, but at the end of the day, it's me who makes the final decision on what we do, I guess you could say.
HT: Bring us up to speed on what you're up to now.
SP: From 2003 to 2005 we had the RWD drag car, but I'd already been drag racing for so long, and there still wasn't a whole lot of competition at the dragstrip. I don't mean that there weren't good competitors; I mean there weren't many competitors at all. We'd go to the track and it was the same four to eight cars every time. That's nothing. On the side I built a [Nissan] 240 drift car just to have some fun with in 2004, and then in 2005 Honda asked if I would switch to an S2000, which I ran in conjunction with driving the drag car throughout 2005. I ended up getting more coverage with the S2000-with me not even doing well-and I actually had more fun because the drag car became so expensive and so high-maintenance. So in 2006, we switched to the two-car drift team-I drove the S2000, we hired Tanner to drive the 350Z, and we parked the drag program. I was still doing the Honda stuff until 2009, and then I took a step back to run the program when we brought Scion on, and I've been a manager and car builder ever since.
HT: Any final thoughts?
SP: That was just an amazing time. It's almost unrepeatable. You had almost the whole world going FWD drag racing. I mean, I still meet people now, like at PRI, these guys were from Brazil, and they race FWD Hondas and knew of me. Because these Hondas are so broad all over the world, they've become a pretty standard drag racing vehicle [everywhere]. They do a little bit of research and are somehow led back to some of these fast cars. I guess the legacy has sort of lived on.