Almost every industry has its standouts. Ours is no different. Technology, sports, the auto industry, none of these would be where they are now were it not for forward-thinking individuals. Our industry is full of leaders; the ones who've helped us grow over the years. But only a handful can claim they've been around since the beginning. And even fewer can say they've taken a hands-on approach at multiple levels and helped shape things into the way they are now. Charles Madrid can. For some, the name might conjure up images and events, a legendary history, even tall tales. For others, the name might ring a distant bell, but not one loud enough to make a difference simply because they're too young to know. Charles Madrid, or "Dr. Charles" as he's commonly known, has been involved with imports like Hondas since the late 1980s. He's gotten his hands dirty for the better part of 20 years working on the world's most famous Hondas, and somehow always managed to find himself at the forefront of the latest engine swaps and engine combinations that many initially shrugged off as "impossible." He's piloted a few of the fastest cars to date, helped break numerous records, and worked for some of the biggest names in the industry. Dr. Charles quickly became known as the "go-to guy" for a number of race teams, both for reasons of taking advantage of his mechanical prowess and his driving skills. His work ethic and ability to troubleshoot in-depth problems quickly are both to be reckoned with. Despite all of this, his history escapes many. Until now.
I arrive at Skunk2's Norco, California, headquarters, Madrid's current workplace, and am greeted by another industry icon, Tony Shagday. After touring Skunk2's facility, Shagday motions me toward the other end of the spotless garage where Madrid is found test-fitting a supercharger kit. At the front of the shop, three cars line up, each with popped hoods, Madrid seemingly laboring on each of them simultaneously. He transitions from the S2000 to the Fit and then over to the Scion without hesitation. His frame is thin. He sports a bald head and wears a Skunk2 T-shirt along with his requisite Dickies pants. His trademark "triple OG goatee" hangs low off his face, tightly braided. He looks as though he's in his late-30s...at least from some angles, maybe younger, maybe older, and I'm quite sure I could not accurately guess his age if asked. After seeing countless pictures of Madrid posted online and in the magazines over the years, he was as I expected. A moment of suspense is knocking at the back of my mind as I wonder whether all of the praise and accolades he's garnered for himself have taken their toll on his ego. That door is abruptly slammed shut once the introductions are made and I feel foolish for even formulating such an idea. Madrid's attitude is friendly and inviting. His demeanor is laid back and personable. As we sit and begin chatting about the state of the industry, his humble beginnings, and everything in between, hilarious stories mix with hard facts and a vivid history, arguably enough to fill a small book. It didn't take long for me to find out what makes the legend tick, and what motivates the Doctor to continue moving forward.
Honda Tuning: Charles, there're so many stories about you, and of course, some of them are true, some of them are false, but we want to hear them from you directly. How did you get started working on cars and, more importantly, with your first Honda?
HT: Goodyear was your first big job, but you've worked for a number of shops over the years. Do you remember all of them?
DR. Charles: He takes a moment, looks around, and appears to be thinking deeply. "Wow, that goes back a few years. Alright, here it goes, let me go back to the very, very beginning. Sometime in the late '80s I picked up an old VW Bug and started playing around with it. At the time I wasn't really doing anything, and I remember I ran across the local career center at one point. They turned me on to sort of an apprentice program working on old diesel cars and Oldsmobiles at the Diesel Stop. I took to it pretty well and it just came naturally. I liked working on cars; the mechanical stuff was fun for me. I still worked on the Bug and later I picked up this metallic blue '67. It was pretty nice and it even had "VW Blues" on the license plate. Eventually I ran across a dealership that had this '91 Civic on the lot and I loved it. But, they also had a '91 Prelude there that looked good in black. For some reason I ended up buying the Prelude! Such a bad idea at that time because no one made anything for that car. But that was my first Honda. A lot of my friends were getting into them at the same time."
HT: Where did the "Dr." in Dr. Charles come from?
DR. C: "Well my first big job was with Goodyear, just working on every type of car you can imagine. People would bring their cars in for me to troubleshoot. A lot of times I could just listen to the engine and figure out what the problem was. It was just because I had worked on so many different cars that I could diagnose it pretty quick, like a doctor. People just started calling me that and it stuck."
DR. C: "Yeah, let's see, I worked for Cruising Motorsports back in the day; there was also Pit Crew Motorsports. Later on, some partners and I opened up Atomic Motorsports, but unfortunately it didn't last. There's some stuff that went on that I probably won't mention but yeah, it was cool for a while. I worked for Area 51 for a bit, and then there was Autolink for about a year or so. Now I'm here at Skunk2 and it's been almost five years."
Tony Shagday: "Has it been that long?"
DR. C: "Yeah, I think so. Wait, a little over four and a half. Yeah, almost five years now."
HT: Working for so many shops and having so many friends involved with cars, you must have had quite a few people and quite a few cars at your house. How did your parents feel about that?
DR. C: "My mom was actually cool with it. I mean, there were always guys at the house, but she was kind of used to it. Even back before cars, when I was skating, I'd always have friends over just hanging out. I think she liked the fact that if I was there where she could see me, I wasn't out doing anything I shouldn't have been doing."
HT: In the early days there was no Internet, no forums, and little aftermarket support for Honda. How did you get your parts?
DR. C: "Right. I mean, back then everything wasn't a click away. We'd roll to some of the local shops to see what was new, and find out if anything was coming out for our cars. At that time you'd have to buy everything face to face. If you had an exhaust, header, and filter back then you were the man! Sometimes I just did my own work to make it faster. I remember going to RS Engineering, I'd get heads and port them. I ported my own throttle bodies using a cylinder bore then stamp a butterfly for it. It was major when something new came out, like Data Systems' VTEC controller, it was like the first one; it was such a big deal at the time."
HT: No information superhighway also meant that information regarding swaps and engine building was hard to come by.
DR. C: "That's the truth, because it was all trial and error. We just had to keep trying stuff until it worked right. A lot of stuff was held as a secret back then, so you were on your own. Sometimes you'd go the long way to get it done 'cause that's all you knew. I'll tell you a funny story; my friend had a '92 Civic and picked up a B-series VTEC motor and I wanted to figure out how to get it running for him. I tore apart a GS-R harness and rewired everything from scratch to get it to work. It took a while but I got his car up and running fine. It wasn't until maybe a year later that I found out that swap was pretty much plug and play except for a couple of wires. Oh well, you live and learn."
HT: How do you compare the trial-and-error period associated with B-series engines to the newer K-series stuff?
DR. C: "Everything seems much easier now with the Internet and all. Still, I think the K swap separates the general mechanic from the more knowledgeable guys. For a lot of people, the K motor is still a little scary and that motor is so expensive. The B-series guys are doing their own work, it's a comfortable easy-to-work-on setup and it's already been perfected."
HT: During the 1990s, when import drag racing peaked, you drove a lot of different cars for many shops and crews at events like the Battle of the Imports. Why were you the one they turned to?
DR. C: "I don't know, I guess I was just at the right place at the right time. I was willing to drive anyone's car and everyone was pretty tight at that time so it wasn't a big deal. I was willing to stay in it all the way to the end and try to pull the best time I could every time. One of my best was with the Bergenholtz CRX. I hit 8.63 and I almost crashed it at Sears Point. That car was retired by Ron B, but it was fast!"
HT: In your opinion, what happened to drag racing?
DR. C: "It got huge, I mean it was all there was. But I think for the street-level guys, the lack of tracks and events killed it. There're just not as many track options for the younger crowd getting started. That's the thing about California, yeah there's all these cars being built, but there aren't many places to race them. Take Puerto Rico for example, they've got seven tracks there, seven! That's crazy when you think about the size of Puerto Rico. You could basically go from track to track and race all day and night if you wanted to. We don't have anything like that over here."
HT: Like most old-school veterans, you had your share of street racing experiences. Tell us about some of those and what Wicked Racing was.
DR. C: "My friends and I were getting into it. We were going to Mansville, Santa Fe, San Fernando, Ontario; all those places were going off. Later on around '94-'98 it was like a five-day schedule of street racing. My buddy Jimmy Yang came up with the name Wicked and there were only five of us in the beginning. It was wild times, but it was so much fun. It got a little weird when the name started growing too much. There'd be new members popping up everywhere and I didn't even know them. They'd ask me what side of Wicked I was from and I didn't even know there was more than one. Later on the crew pretty much phased out, but it was fun times. Some of the best times we had were going up to Sac-Town for CMI drag events. We'd rent U-Hauls and load up our cars, then race each other in the trucks on the way up there! We'd get up there, race all weekend, and head to San Francisco to hang out before driving back home."
HT: What do you consider your most significant Honda breakthrough?
DR. C: "Probably the K swap. I was working at Area 51 and I'd heard that Hasport was working on a mount kit but they couldn't get the car started. My friend Shawn Hillier told me that someone else was also working on a complete kit but I wanted to be first. I ended up using all of the factory mounts to make the swap work and someone had posted pics of it on the forums. Right away people were saying it was Photoshopped and that it was a fake. So I had them post that everyone was invited to come by the shop and drive it themselves. There were at least 50 people that stopped by the shop to drive it and see it running in person. That car took a beating."
HT: Tell us something about yourself that most people probably don't know.
DR. C: "Well, most people wouldn't know that I'm a kick-ass dart player! Seriously, I took Third in a state competition and I've traveled all over the place to compete. Other than that, I'm a regular guy. I like to hang out with my friends, maybe have a few drinks at the bar, and just talk about the good ol' import days. But I've been staying home a lot lately since I'm saving up to buy a house."
HT: How do you feel about people referring to as an icon?
DR. C: "I don't know about that. I just got into this whole thing at the right time and associated myself with good people. It's something that I've always loved, and it's cool that I've been able to help people out and introduce some new things that we do to our cars."
HT: Is there anything you regret?
DR. C: "I guess my only regret would be closing Atomic Motorsports. It was a tough time and I had to deal with some of the backlash because some customers got burned and I felt really bad about it. It was cool to have my own shop and, who knows, I might do it again someday before I'm too old."
HT: Speaking of age, how old are you? There's a lot of speculation on this.
DR. C: "Haha! Man, I'm 38 years old. I'll be 39 in June. I'm an old man, and I've been around for a while.
HT: It's been said that you're obsessed with Honda's Ruckus.
DR. C: "I wasn't feeling those things at first, but my friends were getting them and I ended up riding one and really liking them. It's just another thing for us to modify and have fun with. Right now is a good time because cops don't really know what they are and we can go crazy with them. It's like the new stealthy affordable race car to play with. Guys are doing big motor swaps but I'm sticking with the little motor. I've always been like that, why build a big motor to go fast? I'd rather build the little motor to kill it.
Tony Shagday: The conference room door opens and Shagday walks in. "Did you ask him about being called 'witch head'?"
DR. C: "Oh okay. Haha! Alright. Look, back in the day my hair was thinning and it was really straggly, like a witch. Javier (JG Engine Dynamics) was calling me names and I ended up being 'witch head' for a while. My friends were telling me to shave it and avoid the comb-over. Finally, I let them shave it for me. They left these two long pieces that I used to gel into horns. I'll tell you this, being in this industry, I'm a dude magnet, and every guy wants to talk to me about cars. But for the six months I had those horns, chicks were digging me! Any bar we went to, girls would be hanging out with me 'cause of the horns. I even dressed up as Satan for Halloween at SEMA with my gelled-up horns and I saw this dude dressed up as Jesus at the same party. People were taking pictures of us while we were hanging out drinking beers. It was hilarious.
HT: Thanks for your time, Charles. We know you're a busy man. Are there any final thoughts you'd like to share?
DR. C: No problem, man. Yeah, I hope people don't get the impression that you can't just come up and talk to me. I'm down to help anyone out. If they say 'thanks,' cool. If they buy me a beer, even better! I always tell people to just ask me whatever they want. I was in their shoes before so I'll share whatever info I can with them.