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Doug Peterson Interview - Glory Days

Doug Peterson: Championship-winning driver, high-performance builder, Comptech co-founder, and integral player among Honda's first American automotive racing efforts.

Aaron Bonk
Jan 24, 2014
Photographer: Doug Peterson

Soft-spoken and comfortably not indulging in his own ego, Doug Peterson can likely tell you more about Honda's initial American racing efforts than just about anyone. Efforts that began with the company's first American-based race car—an SCCA-prepared GT-4 CRX—and that culminated into the infamous NSX-powered IMSA Camel Lights Spice car as well as a stint with IndyCar. Driver, builder, engineer, team and company owner, Peterson's played nearly every role and has arguably done his part in furthering the Honda performance cause, not just on the race track but behind the garage doors of the Northern California company he'd co-founded in 1979—Comptech—and later, at CT Engineering. It was at Comptech, though, where Peterson helped usher in an era of high-end, high-performance components designed specifically for Honda and Acura loyalists. Comptech wares weren't among the least expensive, but their ability to perform as expected as well as their durability were rarely questioned. There, Peterson helped develop some of the first and most renowned high-performance NSX goods as well as what are considered among the most thorough forced induction solutions entry-level Honda owners have been privy to. The story of Honda's American automotive racing efforts starts now.

HT: You raced all sorts of cars before getting involved with Honda. How did that begin?

DP: In 1973 you had to be 21 to get an SCCA racing license, so as soon as I [turned] 21 I went to driving school. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the SCCA Runoffs were a big deal. There wasn't the dilution of stuff that's out there now from NASA to all of these track day events; nothing like that existed. If you wanted to road race in the United States, SCCA was it. I [raced] a [European] Ford Escort MK1 and then a Mini. We were on the pole at the Runoffs in 1981 with the Mini and that caught the eye of Renault. They were really big back then; they were [racing] IMSA and were making a big push to have the Renault Cup series. They asked Comptech to build a GT-4 Le Car. That was factory support. Holy cow! They actually gave us parts and an engine. We built the car, went back to the Runoffs the next year, and won easily. In 1983 we went back and won again, and then in 1984 I won with the Mini. We [also] built a Renault Encore and [finished] second in GT-4, all in one year. I was going to take 1985 off until Carroll Smith called me out of the blue and said, "Hey, I've got some customer from Mexico who wants to build a Renault Alliance. I don't know anything about them. Do you want to build the car for him?" At the time, Carroll was a [production car] consultant for Honda and had previously worked for Carroll Shelby and managed Ford's race team when they won Le Mans in 1966 and 1967. We built the car, and when it was all done I called Carroll up and thanked him for the contact. That was it, but in the midst of all of that, we'd heard rumors that Honda had built a GT-4 CRX.

HT: I'm guessing this is where the Honda story begins for you. What happened next?

DP: As it turned out, Carroll's son, Chris, was driving [the CRX]. In June the phone rings and it's Carroll. Honda had rented Laguna Seca for [the weekend] to test the car. He asked, "Would you come down and teach my son how to drive a front-wheel-drive car?" Well, I was quicker in the car than Chris was, so on Tuesday I got a call [from Honda]: "Can you come down to Willow Springs for a day?" I got out to Willow Springs, tested the car all day, and it went really well. On Thursday I got another call: "Why don't you come down to the race at Laguna Seca this weekend and bring your helmet and suit?" It was the most awkward thing. Basically, Chris was supposed to drive the car for one session, I would drive the car for another session, and whoever was quicker got the ride. It was awful. I was quicker. I got the ride. Carroll was really upset, but fortunately our relationship survived that. It was extremely awkward, but that's how I got involved with Honda. It wasn't like I had a goal to get that ride. They came to me.

HT: You ultimately did more than just drive the car. You took over the GT-4 CRX program. How did that transpire?

DP: Honda was introducing the upscale Acura brand in 1986 and wanted to impart a performance image through racing. A decision was made to run an Integra in the IMSA International Sedan series. While we were finishing the season with the CRX, Dix Erickson and Charlie Curnutt began building an Integra at Honda Special Projects. Sometime in December a decision was made to base the Integra project offsite. In the course of driving the CRX and winning the Runoffs, [Honda] got to know what we were capable of at Comptech as far as engine and chassis building, and Dix was told that we were taking over the program. Dix was upset. I think he believed I had gone around him to steal the deal away. That wasn't the case at all. I was thrilled to death just to be driving. We finished the car and were lucky enough to win the 1986 drivers championship against factory efforts from Chevrolet, Dodge, and Mazda. Honda Special Projects continued running the CRX in 1986 with Parker Johnstone driving and again won the Runoffs. In 1987 we took over racing the CRX and Don Erb, my business partner, ran the car from 1987 through 1990, winning the Runoffs in 1989. The car ended up with three Runoff wins and six pole positions from 1985 through 1990.

HT: How did the CRX compare to the Ford, the Mini, or the Renault?

DP: It was a very conservative car. It was a pretty conventional car but they'd done a beautiful job building it. Mugen built the engine, so [Honda] actually had an in-house [Mugen] engineer, Takashi Uno, who came to the U.S. and worked at Honda. He rebuilt the engines, did the work on [them], and came to all the races. He was very conservative on the engine; it only made about 165 hp, but it was easy to keep the speed up in the corners. Charlie built shocks for it. We got pretty sophisticated with it. It was just a very good car. The short wheelbase, it was quick transitionally, and it handled really well. Even at the Runoffs where I was against cars with probably 30 more horsepower, we'd qualify on the pole and win the race. The car was just really well balanced.

HT: What else can you tell us about that CRX?

DP: The initial engines that Mugen built were pretty impressive. They used beautifully polished, stock connecting rods. They still used cast—high-compression, but cast—pistons. [They had] stock crankshafts and Japanese-spec heads. The U.S.-spec heads weren't nearly as good. They were still three-valve heads and Mugen designed their own cams for them. They fabricated a manifold to use the 44mm Mikuni carburetors and a beautiful header. We actually met the [supplier] who made it. He had this little shop that made these hand-bent headers. It was old-school; he'd sand-pack the tubing so it wouldn't crumple and then heat the tube up and bend it. These headers were a work of art. They were four-into-one, and the four primaries would come down and [merge] into a flat collector.

GT 4 CRX engine 02 Photo 2/5   |  
The engine that started it all and that powered the factory-backed GT-4 CRX, driven by Peterson.

HT: What was it like visiting Mugen in the mid-1980s? How did that influence Comptech?

DP: Obviously, it was a thrill just to go there in the first place, to meet Hirotoshi Honda, and to see the original Mugen [facility]. They've since tore it down and rebuilt it. The original place was pretty basic. They had three separate buildings, and this one room that we were in had three dyno cells and a small manufacturing area. It was inspiring. We went through their parts area and [saw] the body kits, dry sump pumps, and all these little parts they made for various Hondas at the time. I said, "Wow. Maybe you can make money doing this" [laughs].

HT: How was Comptech formed? What did you specialize in initially?

DP: I was sort of your parents' worst nightmare. I'd taken engineering classes at school and quit to go earn money so I could race [laughs]. I worked at an automotive machine shop in Palo Alto [California] for three years while I was racing my Escort and the Mini, and then in 1978 I decided that I just wasn't going anywhere so I quit. I spent about six months racing and figuring out what to do and decided to open my own machine shop. I met my future partner, Don Erb, at the previous machine shop. I was initially going to do it on my own but eventually asked him if he wanted to join me. He did, and we started up in 1979.

HT: What sort of machining were you doing at first?

DP: We were doing anything that [came] in the door. We were doing a lot of mundane stuff but we were also doing V12 Ferrari engines, 911 Porsche, BMW—a lot of oddball stuff. We were doing aluminum heads when a lot of places didn't want to. Even back then we were having cranks and pistons made to sort some of those old engines out.

HT: How did Comptech transition into a race shop?

DP: From 1980 through 1984 we worked on the race cars at night and earned money during the day. It really wasn't until I started driving the CRX that things took off. We kept the machine shop but started morphing into more of a race shop. The Acura deal allowed us to get more involved with the racing side and the race engine building. It wasn't until we [started] running the Camel Lights car in 1991 that the aftermarket parts thing even seemed [possible]. We started getting NSX owners calling us for parts because we were racing a car with an NSX engine in it. Gradually, starting in 1992, we began developing camshafts, an air intake, headers, and an exhaust. It was really small-time, very much an aside to the racing effort.

HT: Were those initial NSX parts one-off, special-order pieces or were you doing small production runs?

DP: It started as one-off development parts and transitioned into small runs, but it was really low volume. I don't remember the scale of it, but it was small.

HT: That's interesting that without the help of the Internet or any advertising on your part that NSX owners had the wherewithal to seek you out.

DP: It wasn't many people, but it seemed like a lot to us [laughs]. It was enough to get the ball rolling. I spent most of my time on the racing [side] and Don spent his time on the aftermarket parts side. In 1994 we had a complete house car running ported heads, camshafts, headers, an exhaust, and an air intake. For the chassis we had a Brembo brake kit, shocks, springs, and [anti-] sway bars. That was the car that was tested by Car and Driver [magazine] in 1994. We started our first supercharger kits in 1995 on a really small scale. In 1996 we built the yellow [NSX] for Honda, which had every part we made for it. One night we were at dinner at Laguna Seca [during] an IndyCar race and Dave Marek, who's one of the head designers at Honda now, was there and sketched out an NSX on the tablecloth and said, "This is what it should've looked like," so we had our wide body kit built from it.

HT: That first Comptech body kit was loosely based off of his drawing?

DP: Yeah, it was. We didn't save his original sketch. I wish we would have. Unfortunately, by then the NSX was starting to die down because Honda didn't really promote it. But still, we had people who bought cars brand-new and shipped them to us, and we'd put another forty-grand worth of stuff on them. We didn't do a lot of that, but we did sell a lot to [Honda and Acura] dealerships [since] everything was CARB-approved. When we stopped the IndyCar program in 1996, that's when we started to get serious about the parts side. In 1997, that was the first time we deviated from the NSX.

HT: In 1997 there were already a handful of companies making high-performance parts for entry-level Hondas like the Civic and Integra. What made you think Comptech could do anything different?

DP: We'd hoped that maybe the racing heritage and image would help, but we'd also hoped that our involvement with Honda and [its] dealers would help. Our intent was to sell dealerships packages. We'd printed up these nice, glossy, color brochures and it didn't work [laughs]. We didn't know. Our stuff was more expensive because we'd gone through CARB approval and because we were making everything over here. It costs a lot of money to do that. It worked, but not the way we thought it would. We sold stuff piecemeal; the package deal didn't work out. But we sold a lot of Integra parts. Gradually, in 1999, when the [new] TL came out, we started looking at the V6 cars and did a supercharger for them. By that point we had our own in-house engineering and manufacturing; the only things we couldn't do were the castings.

American honda IMSA international sedan team 03 Photo 3/5   |  
American Honda’s IMSA International Sedan entry and team: Comptech co-founder, Don Erb (third from left); Peterson (fifth from left); Mugen engineer, Takashi Uno (eighth from left); American Honda vice president, Tom Elliot (tenth from left); Mugen co-founder and son of Soichiro, Hirotoshi Honda (eleventh from left).

HT: You certainly could've had parts made overseas and arguably been more profitable. Was that a conscious decision to keep manufacturing in-house?

DP: You know, right or wrong, we really never thought about doing it overseas. The bottom line is that, yeah, we wanted to do it ourselves. It was definitely an uphill battle. We were never huge-volume sellers because our parts were more expensive.

HT: Would it be fair to say that you focused more on perfecting the parts you made than trying to maximize the most profit you could get from them?

DP: Yeah, that's probably true. No question about it. We tried to do things right and, I think, by and large, I'm proud of that. You could criticize the price—and a lot of people did—but at the end of the day, you couldn't criticize the performance or the quality.

HT: Besides Jackson Racing, Comptech was really the only other company offering supercharger systems for Hondas. At a time when turbochargers and even naturally aspirated performance was so popular, what was the impetus for developing supercharger systems?

DP: We felt that the reliability of the superchargers was more consistent. We had a warranty and were selling them through Honda dealers and, let's face it, when we first started; we were aiming for TL buyers, not Integra buyers. They had more money and were expecting more.

HT: Was Comptech's goal to produce products that would strictly be sold in Honda dealerships?

DP: That was the goal. Our idea was for everything to look as [original equipment] as possible. We didn't do anything flashy. We used Honda hardware so that the bolt hexes would match—little stuff like that. Back then; I don't know that a lot of [companies] were dealing directly with [Honda]. I mean, we'd have Tom Elliot drive the cars and critique them. When he praised [something] that meant a lot to us.

HT: Can you tell us more about your relationship with the former vice president of American Honda, Tom Elliot?

DP: When I [first drove] the CRX at that test at Laguna Seca, there were these two guys standing in the background watching. It turned out that [one of them] was Tom Elliot. Tom was the driving force behind the beginnings of this little racing program. We had this little 2,000-square-foot shop and suddenly Tom Elliot and Hirotoshi Honda are coming up to look at our place. We ran around in circles and got everything spiffed up.

HT: Were there any other contenders besides Comptech in terms of taking over Honda's racing program?

DP: I have no idea. There may have been, but I kind of don't think so because at that time I was driving the GT-4 car for them, we had a dyno, we had the fabrication facilities, and they knew what we could do. It was an easy choice. Plus, they didn't know a lot of the ins and outs, like getting an entry to a race and licenses—all of the mundane stuff. That wasn't their thing, so we were able to supply those logistics. Ultimately, they felt confident that they could put it in our hands and we wouldn't embarrass them.

HT: Let's talk about the NSX-powered Camel Lights Spice car. What was your role in all of that?

DP: When we first learned about the NSX in 1989, we were racing the Integras in IMSA. We had multiple meetings [at Honda] about what to do with the NSX. At that time, the perfect place to put the car would've been IMSA GTU. That's where we initially looked, but Tom decided that he didn't want the NSX running against those types of cars. They weren't upscale enough. We looked around and, really, the only other thing that made sense was Camel Lights. It was very much portrayed as an upscale deal. I don't remember exactly when that decision was made, but needless to say, that was exciting for us. By then, I am sure that there were other people talking to Tom who probably had a lot more experience than us with campaigning that type of car but, to his credit, he gave us the rope [laughs]. In 1990 we ended up buying a used, nasty-looking Spice chassis from a guy in Atlanta and bought all new body work from Spice USA.

Takasahi uno 04 Photo 4/5   |  
Mugen engineer Takashi Uno video-recording a 1985 SCCA Runoffs victory lap.

HT: That was a used chassis?

DP: Yeah, it was a [three-year-old] old tub that [used] a four-cylinder Pontiac [engine]. At the 1990 Daytona race it caught fire and the body work was gone. We bought the tub, gearbox, and suspension. None of us knew a thing about these cars. We hired a guy who'd worked on a Pontiac Spice [who] orchestrated us and became our crew chief. We rebuilt the chassis and put a four-cylinder Pontiac engine in it and started testing while the [NSX] engine was being developed in Japan at Honda R&D. Tom let us run the last race of the year at Del Mar. We entered with the two-valve Pontiac [engine], Parker [Johnstone] and I drove, and we put the car on the pole and won.

HT: What happened once the NSX engine came along?

DP: They delivered the engine in December 1990, and we had to do a lot of work to get it to fit. We got it all together and tested it on the street in front of our shop on Christmas Eve. We couldn't get Sears Point to open up on Christmas Day so we tested there on the 26th of December [laughs], threw it in the trailer [afterward], and hightailed it to Daytona because on New Years [Day] they had a big three-day test for the 24-hour race.

HT: That particular engine wasn't a production version, though, was it? Can you tell us about it?

DP: That was a MK1 race engine. [When] Honda R&D heard that we were going to be running the program they became interested in doing the engine because they wanted it to be a learning experience for [its] young engineers. Mr. Kimura, who headed up the design team on the [production] NSX engine, [led] a group of four young men whose jobs for six months was to design the [race] engine, source parts through their supply chain, and machine them. They even had to do a Honda parts book for the engine with every little piece detailed out with a Honda part number. Their culture was to use racing to ultimately teach how to produce a street car.

HT: Can you tell us anything specific about that engine?

DP: It was still a 90-degree V6 and the deck height and cylinder spacing were all the same but, fundamentally, it was all new. They recast the block with a closed deck to support the cylinders better. The casting was heavier duty for better rigidity. They used cast-steel main caps instead of cast-iron. They designed a beautiful four-stage dry-sump system that was integrated into the front of the block. The block design had been changed so that the pump could bolt onto the front. The cylinder heads were surprisingly stock, although we didn't use VTEC. Those heads didn't have any of that machined into them; there were just spacers where the center rockers would be, and completely different cam castings.

HT: Anything else?

DP: Well, the heads were hand-ported, although we later went to CNC porting. The valves were 1mm bigger, which, I think, ended up being the standard [size] on the [later] 3.2L [engine]. They also designed an injection manifold system, which shows how involved they got. Initially, the engine made about 425 hp at 8,500 rpm but three years later, after a lot of development, we were [around] 465 hp. With the pistons they supplied we were at about 11.5:1 but we ended up at about 13.0:1 with Cosworth pistons. We could've done more development. Honda R&D would let us try things but we couldn't race with them until we could convince them that they were safe. We probably didn't move as fast or aggressively as we would've if we were on our own. Like cam profiles: we never even tried alternate cam profiles. We left a lot on the table. I may be wrong, but I bet about 500 hp was there if we did more development.

HT: Can you describe how those engines were tuned?

DP: Well, the first ones [used] stock NSX ECUs that they supplied with a removable EPROM chip that could be reprogrammed. They added another set of stock injectors that aimed down but they weren't timed; two for each cylinder fired at the same time. The ECU didn't know any different.

HT: Let's talk about the Speed World Challenge engines that were later developed for Realtime Racing? What can you tell us about those now that time's passed?

DP: Man, you're really testing my memory banks [laughs]. I don't think we were allowed to do a lot. All we could do, as I recall, was blueprint to the nth of our lives.

HT: That brings up a good point. When you were blueprinting or looking for more power with something that was already as good as a B18C, what did you do?

DP: Hondas were always frustrating to work on because they'd done such a good job stock. Blueprinting other engines back then, you'd see huge gains. I find a lot of that to be smoke and mirrors. There's so much urban myth out there about blueprinting and what you can gain.

HT: Let's talk about your involvement with IndyCar.

DP: The IndyCar program started, unbeknownst to us, with Bobby Rahal, who was a Honda dealer in Ohio. I was at an IMSA race and Tom walked up to me and pulled a little snapshot out of his pocket of the first [Honda] IndyCar engine. This was probably in late 1992. In 1992 we made two trips to Europe looking at chassis because we were hoping to run a GTP car using Honda V10 F1 engines. They'd gone to V12s in F1 and had about 100 V10 engines left over that were going to go to the crusher. At the end of 1992 the decision was made to not pursue the GTP program. We ran the Camel Lights car for a third year in 1993 but our big, hoped-for graduation to GTP never happened. At the end of 1993 Tom told us that Acura would give us a little bit of money to run six races. Rahal had converted one of his '93 Lolas from an Illmor [engine] to a Honda [engine] to do testing and we ended up getting that car. We ran six races and were totally out of our depth. First of all, the '93 Lola wasn't the best chassis. Back then, the top teams discarded their cars at the end of the year so everybody else was running '94 Lolas [or Reynards]. We were floundering around at the back of the field. Rahal's relationship [ended] and because of that we started doing engine testing. You wouldn't believe the instrumentation on that engine. They had sensors on each main cap measuring crank harmonics. It was like a spider web of data coming out of that car. The problem was, we could see it all but they wouldn't talk about any of it. It was a secret. All we did was plug the engine in, go drive around, and do what they wanted us to do [laughs]. We did 12,000 miles of testing in 1995. For 1997 we could not raise enough funding so Honda moved the engine program to another team. In 1997 the Comptech IndyCar team and I moved to Indianapolis and ran Dario Franchitti in his first year in IndyCar with a Reynard Mercedes for Hogan Racing.

Doug peterson SCCA prepared GT 4 CRX 05 Photo 5/5   |  
Peterson alongside Honda’s first-ever American racing effort, its SCCA-prepared GT-4 CRX.

HT: What is your most memorable racing experience?

DP: Selfishly, as a driver, winning the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1991. That was a real race car. For me, that was a huge accomplishment. For the team, what we did with the Camel Lights car, winning the 24 Hours of Daytona twice, Sebring once, and three consecutive driver and manufacturer championships for Acura, that was a pretty big deal. It showed that a bunch of SCCA club racers could figure out how to do that. In IndyCar, the highlights are few and far between, but we had a 2nd-place [finish] at Long Beach in 1996, and in 1995, Parker put the car on the pole for the Michigan 500, which was a shock to everybody. That was Honda's first-ever IndyCar pole.

HT: What's one racing experience you'd like to forget about?

DP: There's a lot of those [laughs]. I put myself under huge pressure when we were racing for Honda. Basically, if [we] didn't win, it was a disaster.

HT: Today, what is Honda doing right?

DP: They still hit home runs with the Accord, which is their mass-selling car. I'm glad to see that the NSX [will] be back. On the other hand, to me, the NSX is the loss leader to get somebody to come into the showroom and say, "Well, I can't afford that but, holy cow, look at this." But they don't have that, in my opinion. It seems like they really made a mistake when the Integra went away. They lost their entry-level, sporty car that a normal person could think about affording.

HT: In light of your experiences with the original NSX, what do you think about the new one?

DP: I think the technology is cool, but it puts the car so far out of [our] range. It looks really nice. It actually looks like a really exotic car. If everyone's being honest, that's the one thing that was disappointing about the [original] NSX is that it didn't look how we hoped it would. It was kind of conservative.

HT: Were there any mentors early on for you? Did you just apply techniques you'd learned from other programs or was it all entirely new for you?

DP: I certainly never had any grand plan or anything like that. I flogged around club racing because I enjoyed it and then it turned into a business. The guys [who] impressed me were people like Mark Donahue, who drove for Roger Penske. They always had immaculately prepared cars and his attention to detail was amazing.

HT: When starting out, would you ever have believed how popular Honda and Acura as brands would become among enthusiasts just a decade or two later?

DP: It was a surprise. When we were racing the Integras in the late-'80s, Honda pretty much actively discouraged it and was uncooperative. Tom liked racing, but there were other layers of management, and most didn't want to go there. Honda was really sensitive.

HT: What would you consider one of your greatest accomplishments or developments that has helped advance Honda performance as a whole?

DP: I'm not sure how to answer that because I feel like we certainly weren't the first guys by any means to break new ground. Maybe, if anything, we had the attitude that anything we did, we were trying to make Honda happy. They had to drive the car and not criticize the handling or the noise. For that reason, maybe a lot of our stuff wasn't as edgy. Everything was always CARB-approved and legal and you weren't going to blow your engine. I'm not aware of any of our CARB-legal kits ever resulting in engine problems. We tried to put packages together that worked harmoniously.

HT: Do you have any plans for the future in terms of Hondas and racing?

DP: I wish. I'm 61 now and I last raced the Minis in 2004. I'll admit; my competitive side isn't the same as it used to be. I can't believe how single-minded I used to be; win or [die] [laughs]. But I'd love to drive.

HT: Any other memories?

DP: I remember when we showed up at Honda engineering in Tochigi, [Japan], and Mr. Kimura, who designed the NSX engine two years earlier, and Mr. Asaka, the head of R&D, were both there. We walked in the building, up the staircase past the engines on display, into their engineering offices, and when we walked in the door—Parker, Don, me, and Kris, our crew chief—people were lined up, applauding as we walked by. All the engineers were standing up, applauding. It was really embarrassing [laughs]. And then Takeshi Maruya, who was kind of a maverick and high up enough to where not too many people could push him around, took us into a room with 40 dyno cells and all these experimental engines with covers on them. He pulled the covers off of them and all of his little minders behind him freaked out as he pulled [one] off of a V10 NSX engine—a prototype V10 NSX engine back in 1991. He laughed, put the cover back on, and the other guys just freaked out.

HT: What do all those years of involvement with Honda mean to you?

DP: It's my professional highlight that I've been able to be involved with Honda's first automobile racing efforts in the United States. It was a CRX, but still, that was the first thing that American Honda ever did. I can't say enough about Tom Elliot and how much he trusted us. By the time we got to the Camel Lights car, I'm sure he had proposals from teams with better track records and more experience in those series than we had. The fact that he stuck with us, I can't express how much that means to me because we could've easily embarrassed him. Just to be involved with Honda at a time when they were growing so fast, with its engineers, and with the guys at Mugen. It's also gratifying to see that after all these years parts that were designed and developed over are still being produced and sold at CT Engineering. Well over 100 supercharger kits alone are sold every year and new kits are in development.

By Aaron Bonk
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