Photos from Turbo & High-Tech Performance Magazine Archives
The Honda drag racing collective was waiting for it to happen. The 11-second quarter-mile had long been breached by FWD Honda fans. That someone would dip into the 10s was only a matter of time. That someone outside of the greater Los Angeles area would do it--the unofficial but undeniable capital of 1990s Honda performance-was hardly expected. On June 1, 1996, all of that changed when Northern Californian and wheel-and-tire-shop owner Dave Shih shook the Honda world, making drag racing history with a 10.87-second pass. Earlier that year Turbo & High-Tech Performance magazine--the scene's sole medium in terms of high-performance Honda-related news--declared Shih's CRX the Silver Bullet. The Newark, California-based shop owner's 136-mph pass at nearby Sacramento Raceway only reinforced his deserving that title. Shih wouldn't be the only Honda racer to post such impressive times, though, and not long after his Silver Bullet faded away into obscurity. A quest to transform the uncannily stock-looking race car into a full-fledged tube-frame racer that, admittedly, had never fully gotten sorted out, didn't help. Following a rebirth that should've led to the first single-digit trip down the quarter-mile for a Honda, regrettably culminated into something that wasn't any faster and was certainly less consistent than what Shih had started with. Perhaps the Honda world just wasn't ready for that sort of thing. (It wasn't until 1999 that Stephan Papadakis and Shaun Carlson built something similar and achieved 9-second glory.) But none of that takes away from Shih's and the Silver Bullet's accomplishments and the fact that there will always be only one Honda that was first in the 10s.
HT: You're best known for making the first 10-second pass in a FWD Honda. Were you expecting to make Honda history?
DS: No. It was a fluke. It just happened. That day, I believe it was our first or second pass. It was just like any other day. We didn't prep any differently than we would have for any other race. We made the pass and then spun out at the end of the track. I had no idea [what happened] until I pulled back in and everyone was jumping up and down. Ever since that day the car would keep spinning out at the end of the track. We had no idea why. We did that [several] times until, when we retired the car and began disassembling everything, we realized that the front crossmember was out of alignment by about an inch and a half. But, yeah, it was just like any other day. Luckily, I didn't get hurt and nobody else got hurt.
HT: Let's start from the beginning. Why Honda?
DS: As a child, I definitely had an interest in cars--more domestics than imports. I had no idea what a Honda Civic was [or] what an Integra was. I had a good friend who I was working with, taking on an apprenticeship manufacturing wire wheels. In 1992 we opened up a wheel shop [that was] strictly retail, just selling wheels and tires. My cousin found out and wanted to order some Eibach springs for a 1992 Honda Accord that he'd just gotten. "What was an Eibach spring?" [I thought]. I honestly had no idea. I got [them] for him and put them on in the parking lot. In a matter of months, all of his buddies started coming by. "Order me some PIAA fog lights," [they said]. I had no idea. I liked lowriders and muscle cars at the time. [They were into RS] Akimoto, DC Sports, Eibach, city lights, side-markers, the big shopping cart wings. That's what triggered everything for me. They were into that stuff, and hanging around those guys every day, eventually they convinced me to open up a shop area. So we rented a detached warehouse, set up shop, and they did the installs.
HT: What led to you actually getting your own Honda?
DS: [That] was through a $20 bet. At the time, there was all this talk about street racing. I'd never gone to a street race in my life. Finally, they took me out to [one] in San Jose [California]. I was like, "Oh, this is pretty cool." They were always talking about Archie [Madrazo]. He was their idol. I [said to] the guys, "What's the big deal? It's just a CRX. If he can do it, anyone can do it." Everyone at the shop was like, "No way. LA knows everything. They're the best." They were basically dick-riding those guys [laughs]. I was like, "We can do it." [They were like,] "We'll bet you $20 you can't do it." I took the bet, and the next day I went out and bought a used CRX from Mike Harvey Acura for $4,000. I started tearing it apart and building it in-house. That's how everything started.
HT: Archie's reputation traveled pretty far didn't it, considering there was really no Internet access and the magazines had yet to include Hondas in them?
DS: Oh, yeah, even Tony [Fuchs] had a reputation up here. At the time, it was Archie and Tony. They were huge up here. Cyber Racing had a huge following.
HT: How quickly did your business, The Wheel Connection, transform into more of a performance shop?
DS: Our shop shifted in a matter of six months from wheels and tires to anything and everything you could do to imports.
HT: Tell us what the CRX was like when you first ran 10s, specifically its engine program.
DS: Engine management was an Accel DFI from the Mr. Gasket company. It was their DOS-based version. I [had] an LS motor with JE pistons, 9.0:1 compression, Crower rods, and everything in the top end was from JG [Engine Dynamics]. The exhaust manifold was JG and the intake manifold was from JG. The turbo went back and forth between Turbonetics and Pro Turbo.
HT: Was the block itself relatively stock or was it sleeved?
DS: Not when the car was a unibody. That technology wasn't available yet.
HT: Coming from a wheel and tire background and admittedly new to Honda performance, you must've needed some help, right?
DS: If I had to thank anybody, it would be Mike Ferrara [DSPORT magazine founder]. He was a big influence and helped us out on late nights. Also, Simon Kim who worked at Dynamic [Autosports].
HT: You did most of your tuning at Dynamic Autosports, which is in Southern California, about 400 miles away from you. Why was that?
DS: At the shop, we could only go so far. We did the traditional, basic bolt-ons-nothing special. We were making bi-weekly trips to LA to buy parts from wholesalers like Han Motoring--Peter Han. When we walked in there, he had a finished JG motor on the stand and [he] offered to sell it to us. It was a long-block that was set up for carburetors. I said, "Can you give us the specs for the motor?" He said, "JG built it." JG was only two miles down the street so he sent us there. I walked in and said, "My understanding is that you built this motor. What can you tell me about it?" I remember Archie's car was in there. A couple of my guys were with me and they were just drooling [laughs]. Javier [Gutierrez] gave me a tour of the shop and, eventually, we became good friends. He said, "Why don't you bring your car down here and let us work on it? Let's work together." I had no idea what the bill was going to be, I had no idea what was ahead of us, but I said, "Sure, why not?" A couple of weeks later I brought the car down [where] it sat for three months. Initially, he had it set up with Mikuni carburetors with the red manifold that he was known for. He called me one day and said, "You know what, Dave, I've decided that you should go turbo. Don't run carbs. That's old technology." I said, "Okay, what's it gonna take?" He said, "I'll do everything on the engine side, set the turbo up for you, but we don't do fuel management. You've got to find someone who can handle that for you." During that time, we were [also] buying a lot of parts from Dynamic Autosports, and I became really good friends with Eddie [Kim], the owner. [Eddie] said, "There's this company, Mr. Gasket, who wants to try its DFI system, which is for Mustangs and Camaros, [on a Honda]. Let's try to make it work." We left JG, went straight to Dynamic, and were down there for a couple of weeks. Simon did the installation and Mike Ferrara did the tuning.
HT: Was your CRX the first Honda to use DFI? There were a couple of other cars using other stand-alone engine management systems, like Electromotive.
DS: I don't believe we were the first import with DFI, but I think we may have been the first Honda [with it]. There were some Talons and Eclipses that had it. I remember when [the car] was first done, we made like 250 hp and no one could believe it [laughs].
HT: Once you got into the 10s, how much power were you making?
DS: We were in the 450-475hp range. At the peak we were at about 525 hp before using nitrous.
HT: There's some history between you, Stephan Papadakis, and the late Shaun Carlson. Can you share that with us?
DS: When I started racing, the JG crew was Archie, who wasn't really active, Myles [Bautista], me, and Steph. Archie kind of fell out of the scene around the time I started. When I met Javier, I'm pretty sure Steph was already working there. There was actually a period when Steph worked for me up here. Shaun Carlson worked for me up here as well. Steph and I became really good friends. This is before he became famous. There were times when he'd fly up here, spend days up here, and help us work at the shop. I met Shaun through Kipp [Kington, Turbo magazine founder]. He was a photographer for Turbo [magazine] at the time. We spent many nights talking-hours and hours on the phone, coming up with ideas [about converting the car to a tube-frame chassis]. We ended up hiring someone [from] up here, but [Shaun] toured with us that first year. When we were racing across the country, he was with us every day. I think from there he took that experience and that knowledge--and trust me, there were a lot of errors that we made [laughs]--and applied it to Steph's car.
HT: Stephan is generally credited as having the first tube-frame Honda. Since your car didn't get much exposure after it was redone, it's almost forgotten that it was indeed the first, no?
DS: Yeah. It wasn't done right, but it was [the first] tube chassis [laughs].
HT: You, more or less, built a tube chassis within an existing CRX body, didn't you?
DS: Yep. The guy we hired--BRE [Bogart Racing Engines]--was a Volkswagen guy so it was essentially a dune buggy with a CRX shell on it [laughs]. It looked okay at the time. Steph's was the first well-performing tube chassis car, though [laughs]. If you want to get technical, JG had the first tube chassis CRX--the red one with the Prelude motor in the back. They got the body mounted but they never [raced it]. Ours was the first full tube chassis car.
HT: Do you think Javier had an instinct for choosing the right people to work with? I mean he had no idea who you were or that you'd go on to break the 10-second barrier, yet he did so much for you early on.
DS: I don't know. He never said no to me. [Later,] when we had the tube chassis car, that first season we went through at least 50 motors. I'm not saying it was his fault [laughs], what I'm saying is that, for support, he was always there for me. He had a genuine interest in helping me. I truly believe that as a result of my relationship with JG it was mutually beneficial. A lot of it had to do with timing--the industry as a whole and import racing starting to take off, me coming in and doing semi-well, the exposure he received, and the exposure I received. It was beneficial for both of us. I believe that was a big part of his success. He didn't help everybody. I got along well with the guy and I have a lot of respect for him to this day.
HT: Once you broke into the 10s, were you secretive with whom you'd share information with regarding your setup?
DS: I wasn't. We were friendly with anybody at the track. As more people got heavily involved, more people began experimenting and becoming competitive. It was bound to happen. A lot of the technology was shared among everybody, and then they'd tweak it to how they saw fit.
HT: There were still some major rivalries, though, weren't there?
DS: There were still rivalries. I remember we had the "It's no Gude" stickers [laughs] and they had the "JG: Just Garbage" stickers. At the time, I was racing with Wicked, and there was always talk about fights after [a race]. When I joined Wicked, [they were] anti-JG. They were with Dan Paramore [Racing]--DPR. Every single member was DPR except for me. Those were the three: Wicked was [with] DPR, I was with JG, and Tony [Fuchs] had Gude. Eventually, though, all of the Wicked guys went to JG as I introduced them, and Javier helped every single one of them, as well as Tony.
HT: On a personal level, who would you consider your biggest drag racing rival from that period?
DS: In the earlier days it was the Honda Service Center CRX. That was the one to beat. That was the one we were always focused on. That was a nice car.
HT: Wicked was primarily based out of the greater Los Angeles area. Living in Northern California, how did you come to be a part of it?
DS: When I started [my business], there were only two shops: [us] and a shop in Milpitas by the name of Auto Innovations. A couple of years [later,] a new shop came along by the name of Speed Image. TinTin [Nguyen]--the owner and founder--was originally from Santa Ana and was involved with Santa Ana Speed Image, hence the Wicked [affiliation]. When he opened his shop up here he became a competitor. We worked pretty late, and I remember there were nights where we would see cars drive by with Wicked stickers. We didn't know what it was, but we could tell there was a rivalry. One day I went over there, thinking I'd be the better person and introduce myself, and we started talking and became friends. Viet Lam, at the time, was spending one weekend at the Santa Ana Speed Image and then another up here, working back and forth, so we became friends, [too]. Viet came over to my shop and said, "Hey, I'll do work for you, I'll wrench for you. I'd like to learn more about your car." I showed him the car, introduced him to Javier, and that's how the whole Wicked going from DPR to Javier thing got started. Viet was the first one. As I became friends with Viet and TinTin, they were like, "Hey, will you put a Wicked sticker on?" I was like, "Sure," and the next thing you know, I became friends with all of them.
HT: Is there a specific racing memory that stands out for you?
DS: Running 10s was one of the most memorable moments. My favorite track was LACR [Los Angeles County Raceway].
HT: Palmdale was your favorite track?
DS: Yeah. It was a dump, but we had so much fun there. We had developed a good relationship with the [track owner] and had a lot of privileges that no other track would give us. I mean, in terms of a nice track--Pomona, Norwalk--those were nice tracks, but Palmdale was fun.
HT: After being the first in the 10s, you extensively modified the car, converting it to a tube chassis, like you'd mentioned. What were the results of that?
DS: When we first took it apart we realized that the front crossmember and the whole unibody was tweaked. It was so out of spec that we realized that we had to scrap it and build a new car. We met BRE through a friend. He was a VW guy by trade but was willing to take on anything. He was actually a pretty talented guy. Just like JG, I walked in there and asked if he could do a tube chassis car. He charged me ten grand [laughs]. That was it. I was friends with Abel [Ibarra], and [he] and Adam [Saruwatari] had their cars built for eighty grand. Shaun was like, "Let's build it ourselves," but he was working full-time at Turbo so it was a nighttime commitment at his house. I couldn't be down there, and here's BRE saying, "I'll do it for ten grand." It took a couple of months, and for ten grand, it was a screamin' deal. We finished it up here, drove the car down to Dynamic, tuned it, and never having any seat time in the car or anything, we took it to Battle [of the Imports]. At the time, no one had private track days. That was unheard of. You'd go wherever you could. We took it to Battle, tried it out, and it ran 12s [laughs].
HT: So with the car completely redone, did it ever go faster than it did as a unibody?
DS: We ran a couple of 10-second passes but we just couldn't get traction. This was before wheelie bars. There were no tricks [laughs]. We did have the Home Depot straps in the front, though [laughs].
HT: Good old-fashioned limiting straps. What about tires and suspension?
DS: We ran 26-inch M&Hs and at one point we tried putting in solid pipes in the rear for shocks. We had some Konis in there that we were working with them on developing, but it was still going down so we just put a solid pipe in.
HT: Would you say that the car was slightly ahead of its time, that maybe Honda enthusiasts and tuners weren't quite ready to sort out all of the challenges of a tube chassis car?
DS: Yeah. We just didn't know.
HT: Besides hitting the 10-second mark, what were some other firsts for you and the CRX?
DS: We were the first ones with a parachute. Turbo magazine actually paid for it. We were at LACR and, based upon our trap speeds, we were required to have a parachute. Nobody knew how to put one on, where to mount it, or what would happen when you pull [it] on a FWD car. Kipp said, "Hey, we'll pay for it if you figure out how to put it on." We rigged it up and it worked [laughs]. I remember when we started playing with nitrous. Understanding the fundamentals of the intercooler, we started spraying the intercooler with [it]. Next thing you know, everybody was doing that. Then we were the first ones to [take] brake lines, drill the holes, and purge it directly onto the intercooler, like a spray bar. Next thing you know, everybody else was doing that. We were the first ones to have a velocity stack coming out of the headlight. That wasn't by choice; we had nowhere else to put it [laughs]. We had a two-step [rev limiter] and a staging brake; nobody had that at the time. That was on the tube chassis car. BRE did that. I know Shaun saw that and liked that idea.
HT: Did you ever believe that import drag racing would become as mainstream as it did during the early 2000s?
DS: There was a time from about 1998 to 2002 when I shut everything [import-related] out of my life. When I [came back], I remember there was a Battle up here that I went to and I couldn't believe what the cars were doing. I was like, "Wow!" The million-dollar question is: How long will this Honda performance thing be around? When everyone else is saying that the industry is dying, I don't believe it. I think that drag racing as a spectator event has died, but there's no shortage of racers. You go to any CMI [California Modified Imports] event and there's no shortage of racers, but you will not see more than 100 people in the stands. Why that is, I don't know.
HT: So what did it cost to own and operate the world's fastest Honda in 1996?
DS: We had a $1,000 budget per race. That was for fuel and travel expenses. The car [itself] couldn't have been worth more than $20,000 [laughs].
HT: Your CRX was extremely simple, but getting it to do what it did wasn't easy, was it? You had almost no resources besides JG and Dynamic, right?
DS: The car was simple. We were fortunate enough to work with a lot of manufacturers back then. Whether it was a turbocharger or a manifold, we were one of the lucky few that they actually opened their doors to. For example, Energy Suspension, before they were doing anything for imports, we left the car there for a few weeks so that they could develop bushings for it. Koni gave us shocks to try and we'd give them feedback. B&M, when their short shifter came out, we were the first ones [to use it]. Turbonetics [would give us turbos to try]. A lot of it was just trial and error and giving them feedback. Some stuff worked and some stuff didn't.
HT: How did street racing help or hurt the professional racing you'd done?
DS: I was never big into street racing. There were times where I'd go, but I was never heavily involved in it. I was definitely never involved in the car show scene [either]. I went a couple of times but that was it. The car show industry has grown tremendously from what it was years ago. I think it's taken over as a spectator event [where] drag racing left off.
HT: Who were some of your early influences in terms of Hondas and racing?
DS: I think Mike Ferrara had a lot, Eddie Kim had a lot, Simon Kim had a lot, JG had a lot of influence. People who were saying it couldn't be done were a big driving factor--that someone from Northern California couldn't do it. When we threw that North vs. South event, that's where it came from, because I was so tired of hearing people say, "Oh, LA this and LA that." I was like, "Okay, let's go racing then and see who actually wins." That's how that came about.
HT: I didn't realize you were behind those events.
DS: Yeah, I was the one who threw those races. That was in 1994 or 1995.
HT: If you look at Honda's old crop of engines and cars, like the non-VTEC engine that you had ...
DS: I'm still a fan of those [laughs]!
HT: [laughs] How do those compare for you to Honda's more recent engines, like the K-series?
DS: I don't [look at those]. I'm still stuck in the past.
HT: Nothing about the K-series excites you?
DS: No [laughs]. I like the B-series stuff. I [understand] it.
HT: Can't argue with that. The fastest Hondas in the world still use them. Moving on, does anything in Honda's current lineup excite you? What about the new Civic Si with its 2.4L engine or the Accord V6?
DS: I've owned every Honda there is other than the Odyssey, the Insight, and the Element. I still own four or five Hondas. From a reliability standpoint, racing made me a believer in the brand. But the new stuff, I mean, I drive a [Nissan] GT-R and I'm shopping for Ferraris right now. There ain't no Civic on that list [laughs].
HT: Fair enough [laughs]. If you could build another drag car, what would it be?
DS: I want to build a full tube chassis [Scion] FR-S with a [Toyota] Tundra motor. There's been talks...
HT: What do the people who only know Dave Shih, the first Honda drag racer in the 10s, not know about you?
DS: I live a boring life in the Bay Area [laughs]. I'm gonna run for mayor someday for the city of Fremont [laughs]. I don't know. There's nothing cool about me. I have a wife, a kid, and a dog. I don't drink, I don't do drugs, I don't party [laughs]. I have a boring life. What can I say [laughs].
HT: Let's wrap things up with some final thoughts.
DS: I don't dwell on those old days. The last race I went to, I still was signing autographs, as dumb as that sounds. I was like, "What? Are you serious?" For me, everything was self-taught. I wasn't the main mechanic. I wasn't the tuner. It was a collaboration of everybody working together as a team and experimenting as a team. I'm grateful for all of the support from everyone who's helped me-obviously my wife and my son for standing by my side all those years. It would be great to get back in the seat one day [laughs]. Before I'm 50, I'll build another car and I'll be back at the track.