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The Innovator - Legends

Kurt Gordon: The Honda performance story begins here.

Aaron Bonk
Dec 13, 2011
Photographer: Henry Z. De Kuyper

Innovator. It’s an attribute often applied all too recklessly, doled out as frivolously as 4th Grade Honor Roll bumper stickers. The number of innovators—of groundbreaking leaders this industry’s indeed seen—are few. To be sure, Kurt Gordon is one of them. In 1993, Gordon established what was undisputed among the first Honda-dedicated performance shops and later campaigned the fastest all-nitrous Honda the world has ever seen. Gordon’s story doesn’t begin there, though. Born and raised in California’s San Gabriel Valley—the unofficial birthplace of Honda performance—Gordon cut his teeth as a technical specialist at Nitrous Oxide Systems, earning his reputation as the obvious choice Hondaphiles who sought chemical horsepower looked to. Later, Gordon worked alongside key companies, helping develop the industry’s first Honda-specific forged pistons and connecting rods, and had his hand in some of the most influential, impacting Honda builds of our time. The following are the excerpts from a true innovator. The following is where the Honda performance story begins.

Htup 1201 01+the innovator legends+kurt gordon Photo 2/7   |   Nostalgic, present-day Gordon alongside his infamous Ford Super Duty tow vehicle while holding among the final remnants of his old race car—an original Rev Hard turbo manifold.

HT: You had the world’s fastest all-nitrous Honda for the longest time. Why did you stop racing?
KG: My last race was at Las Vegas in 2000. I was using Ed Bergenholtz’s old, worn-out, year-old motor from the year before. I just didn’t get my stuff together in time to where I had a fresh motor in my car. I ended up qualifying, and during one last pass before eliminations while I was doing a burnout, the valve dropped. That was the end of it. From that point on I wanted to focus on the guys I sponsored, to put all of my money, time, and energy into their cars to help them grow, to help my business grow. I felt that I was kind of competing against my racers, and I didn’t want it to be that way.

HT: You owned one of the first Hondaperformance shops, KG Precision Engineering. What made you finally close?
KG: In 2003, I took a bit of a hit when the import industry started to slow down. There were so many shops out there, so many people working out of their garages, and so much stuff from China coming in. I stopped doing a lot of the labor and started selling parts, doing engines, and building heads for other shops. I kept it going, barely making a living, and in ’05, I started working for another company [Bassani] doing R&D, fabricating exhausts. I’d get up at 5:40 a.m. for Bassani, get off at 5:30 p.m., and work at my shop until 12 a.m. I did that for two years until I finally closed it down. The headaches and pressure of getting stuff done in a short period of time took its toll on me. It was heartbreaking for me to close it.

HT: Let’s go back to the beginning, before your shop. What’s your earliest Honda-related memory?
KG: It’s of a guy named Bernard who came to my work at Nitrous Oxide Systems, wanting to put nitrous on his ’90 Integra. It went from me putting it on as a side job at my house to him becoming competitive with Tony Fuchs at the street races every weekend.

HT: Tell us about working for NOS.
KG: I worked for NOS for four-and-a-half years doing research and development for all of the Pro Mod racing, mountain motor, and 5.0 Mustang stuff. That was ’88–’92. I was like 20, 21 when I started. We were one of the highest paid in the industry back then, making $11.50 an hour. I was also doing a lot of side jobs with a lot of import cars at that time. Street racers would drive by my apartment, looking into my garage to see whose car I was putting nitrous on. I was doing like four nitrous kits a weekend.

HT: Besides the side work, was any import stuff going on at NOS then?
KG: No. Nothing at all. It was all Grand Nationals, Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes.

HT: What happened after NOS?
KG: The Gulf War came, NOS did a huge layoff, and I started KG in ’93, ’94 in Westminster [California]. I started it with two $5,000 credit cards that were maxed out. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. The shop was about 1,100 square feet. We did nitrous refills and sold performance parts there. We used to have just enough room to pull one car into the back of the shop. Tom Jung [Wicked, Arias Pistons] actually went to work for me when I started the company. He was always out at the street races promoting the company. He was at Etiwanda [Ontario, California] every single night that they raced. He was at Terminal Island [Brotherhood Raceway] every day that it was open. We were taking in a lot of work. He and I would do it after we would close the shop at like six o’clock. We’d go home and start wrenching in my backyard. It became out of control. At one time I had 12 cars in my backyard and the city actually came down on me.

HT: What kind of modifications were you doing at first?
KG: Tearing apart motors and stuff like that. Just pistons, no rods back then—we’d shot-peen and polish them. Nobody made anything yet. This guy, Rick Lucero, who worked with me at NOS, went to work for Arias Pistons, so I had an in to get pistons made.

HT: Did Arias make the first forged Honda pistons?
KG: Yeah. They were the first out of everybody.

HT: Did you help them with piston development?
KG: Yeah. At first everything was all custom—four- to six-week waits—until about a good year and a half later. But because I started to be repetitive on bores and piston setup they said, “You know what, we should just make a Honda shelf piston.”

HT: Was there any competition, shop-wise, early on?
KG: The only shop that was around during the beginning was Han Motoring, which was in Alhambra [California]. I used to do a whole bunch of installations, from headers to nitrous to all kinds of weird stuff that he didn’t know how to do. There was also Options Auto Salon which used me for all of their installations, so that’s kind of what got me into the whole import industry. And then there was Eddie Kim from Dynamic Autosports. He opened up around the same time.

HT: You weren’t known for street racing. Why was that?
KG: When I had the shop, I was really against street racing. Back then there were a lot of shootings, there were stabbings, people crashing, all that type of stuff. I was really against it, and I didn’t want to hear about it. I wanted to run a company to where people respected me and not have my guys out there street racing.

HT: Some would argue that street racing is what built this industry.
KG: It definitely is. Street racing has always been that way. That’s where the grassroots was. I grew up street racing by Dodger Stadium in the early ’80s. I had a ’72 Capri that was built with nitrous on it. Once I got the shop, though, it was more business-oriented.

HT: Let’s talk about your drag Civic. What made you go the nitrous route?
KG: It was easier to go fast if you knew what you were doing, especially since I had all that technical and track experience doing all the big Pro Mod motors. We were doing stuff back then that nobody even knew about, like running alcohol.

HT: Nobody else was using alcohol back then, were they?
KG: Nah [grins]. Nobody even knew. We had a small fuel cell in the back that was just for alcohol.

Htup 1201 02+the innovator legends+full view Photo 3/7   |   The Innovator - Legends

HT: None of the other racers knew?
KG: Nah [still grinning]. It was for the longest time. If the track ever knew, they’d have outlawed it.

HT: You never got into the 10s with just the nitrous, did you?
KG: It didn’t run 10s. I think the fastest it went was in the 11.20s.

HT: You’re the nitrous expert. What happened?
KG: It should have gone way faster. I had a Japanese B16 ECU running my car, and we couldn’t figure out why at the very top end it would lay over. The fuel would cut off but the nitrous would keep the motor going. Turns out those ECUs kill the fuel at around 122 mph. Later on we found that out, but by that time I was already converting it to turbocharged.

HT: Hold on. You were running a stock ECU?
KG: Yep, just the stock Japanese ECU from the B16. I wish we would’ve found that issue way before, because it would’ve been in the 10s easily. That thing should’ve been way faster. Every time I would launch, I’d leave on everybody, and then all of a sudden they’d motor right by me and I couldn’t catch them.

HT: What was your nitrous setup like?
KG: I had a really nice direct-port on that GS-R intake, the one that curves down. I also had a plate system, which I developed for NOS. That setup was good for 250 horse. The plate I used to come out of the hole—75 horse—and then as soon as I had enough traction, I would hit the 100.

HT: You helped develop the GS-R plate system for NOS?
KG: Oh, yeah. That was 100 percent me. I didn’t work there at that time, though.

Htup 1201 03+the innovator legends+awards Photo 4/7   |   A young Gordon after collecting his trophy and payout at one of his most memorable tracks—Colorado’s Bandimere Speedway.

HT: Do you receive royalties for helping develop that kit?
KG: Nah. If any of us got royalties from any development, it would’ve been great. It was great to just help develop something. That kit did pretty good, and then I think the whole nitrous thing kind of scared everybody after a while.

HT: So you were running a 175-shot?
KG: Yeah, it was pretty big, especially for a Honda motor. That GS-R motor was 11.5:1. It probably made 180 horse on the motor and then the nitrous doubled it.

HT: What should today’s Honda performance industry thank Kurt Gordon for?
KG: The biggest thing I think that helped the whole industry, and that everybody laughed at, was when I brought out the skinnies for the rear of the vehicle. We were picking up 3–4 mph at the top end, and the cars were way more stable. To this day, everyone still uses those. I got a set for Ed Bergenholtz and he instantly picked up 4–6 mph.

HT: What else?
KG: Rods. Nobody had rods. Back in the day, I met up with Eddie Kim from Dynamic Autosports. He was one of my competitors as far as selling parts, but we hit it off really good and helped each other in the industry as far as buying power. The whole Crower thing exploded as far as rods because of us. That was the first import rod, other than Cunningham, which was a custom deal that no one could afford.

HT: What about porting heads? You were one of the first to do that.
KG: I started porting heads back in ’84. When I was in Georgia, I was porting heads on the side while I was manager at Super Shops. When I moved back out here and started my shop, I did a lot of Toyota stuff for Toysport in Gardena [California]. RC Engineering used to do cylinder head porting for a lot of SCCA, IMSA, and World Challenge cars. I used to do all of their bowl clean-up. No one ever knew that. I used to call Russ Collins [RC] “Dad.” That’s how close I was to him. Later I bought a SuperFlow flow bench. It was like a toy. That’s how I developed all of my cylinder heads. On Aaron Schley’s car—one of the top all motor Honda contenders back then—we used to go back to the drawing board every couple of races and re-port his head.

Htup 1201 04+the innovator legends+overhead view Photo 5/7   |   KG's 10-second Civic, as featured in Turbo and High-Tech Performance magazine more than 10 years ago.

HT: Did regular street customers want ported heads back then?
KG: Yeah, that was huge. The biggest thing between ’93–’95 were the single-cam VTECs. Those things were like the fastest motors back then. I was getting 6–7hp out of intake manifolds by balancing out the runners. And out of the heads, I was getting about 8–10hp. We used to go over to Oscar Jackson’s dyno, which was two streets over from my house and do all of our testing there.

HT: Anything else?
KG: M&H slicks—that was a huge innovation. This industry’s cars wouldn’t have gotten as fast as they did as quickly as they did if it wasn’t for the information that I gave to Marvin, the owner of M&H, and his contributing all that he knows as far as compounds go. We had different tires [compounds] for Palmdale, back east, Bakersfield, for all of the different tracks.

HT: Tires for just you guys?
KG: Well, mostly for people in the industry that I was helping, like Adam Saruwatari—he was the one who helped develop the RWD tire. There was also Ed Bergenholtz and Lisa Kubo; she did a lot of testing for M&H through me. It kind of gave us the edge over everybody else. Now tires like that are standard.

HT: Even though you were competitors, it was more about helping the industry grow through innovations?
KG: Correct. It always was that way. That’s what my shop was about. It was about helping other shops grow. In that era, there were a lot of shops fighting against each other. I wanted to keep it neutral.

HT: Any other KG firsts?
KG: I also found this guy, Dan Benson, who actually turned and made his own stepped sleeves. I was the first person ever to go to him and start doing sleeved motors. Stephan [Papadakis] was actually working for JG [Engine Dynamics] at the time, but because we were friends, he told me about him.

HT: Benson’s didn’t offer the first Honda sleeves, did they?
KG: JG was doing these Mickey Mouse sleeved-up blocks that were breaking, and I’m sure there were other people out there doing stock replacement sleeves. Dan did all of the engineering of the stepped sleeve that sits on a ledge, so it couldn’t sink or drop. He’s the first one to come up with that. That was a huge gain for our industry.

HT: Who are some familiar names that were affiliated with KG?
KG: Jojo Callos. I found him at a grocery store in ’95. He worked for me until ’98. He was a big part of my company. To get his car going fast, I tuned it after Myles Bautista turbocharged it. He learned from watching me and ended up going out on his own. Another person who I helped a lot was Stephan Papadakis. When I worked for NOS, he had this little Prelude he was working on, and we became really close friends. Later, he used to come by my shop and hang out. We used to talk about all kinds of new things to try. We were really tight. There are so many people in this industry who’ve become someone and started from either one of my engines, one of my heads, or me helping them get going. Oh, and Dr. Charles [Madrid]. Let me tell you, I helped that guy forever. He would throw something together and he would come to me and have me check it out, look it over, and tell him what I thought about it. He used to call me all the time.

Htup 1201 05+the innovator legends+memorailia Photo 6/7   |   The Innovator - Legends

HT: Did you guys have any idea of what was in store for the Honda industry?
KG: Nah. It’s crazy to see it. We thought it would be fly-by-night like the Bug thing was.

HT: Has the approach people take to find more power changed?
KG: Back in the day, there was a lot of engineering involved in figuring out things like camshaft geometry, valvespring coil bind, and seat pressure. Nowadays, people just throw that stuff in, not knowing what their seat pressure is, not knowing what their installed heights are. They throw these big cams at it, drop a valve, hit a piston, and blame it on the valve or whatever else they bought. That’s what kind of killed the industry. There are so many people doing stuff the wrong way.

HT:Why did you eventually turbo your race car?
KG: I got frustrated, getting beat a lot. The car should’ve been in the 10s with just the nitrous when everybody else was going low 11s. I was always in the Quick Eight, but I just could not win. Everybody was telling me to turbocharge my car. I’d finally had enough and did it.

HT: Please tell us you got rid of that factory ECU.
KG: Yeah, I was big into the Accel DFI stuff. I knew the guy who started that program. He moved to Fel-Pro and came out with their ECU. I was the first one in the whole import industry to get one and make it work.

HT: Explain why stand-alone engine management systems were so challenging to make work back then.
KG: They weren’t made for four cylinders. The crank trigger for a Honda is inside and has a different pulse than what V-8s have on their cranks.

HT: Fel-Pro became Speed-Pro, which became FAST, right?
KG: Yeah, I had it way before that, though. Everybody else was using DOS DFI or Electromotive [TEC-II] still. Fel-Pro was Windows-based and was all new to us.

HT: Speed-Pro was one of the first stand-alone systems to offer a plug-and-play four-cylinder engine harness. Was that because of you?
KG: Yeah, all of that development happened at my shop and also had a lot to do with Lisa Kubo.

HT: Tell us more about your turbo setup.
KG: The biggest injector that we had back then was 550cc/min. Everybody ran those. They were only supposed to make about 450–500hp, but we were pushing close to the 600hp range. People couldn’t believe how much we were making with those. Turbo setups back then were T3/T4s, not straight T4s. The turbos that we were running later were supposed to max out at 600–650 horse, but we were making more than that. We were over-boosting their efficiency, running 28–32 pounds. Back then, we ran what we could get. What the turbo companies thought we shouldn’t run, we ran. It surprised everybody.

HT: What else did you push the limits on?
KG: Out of the 16 cars that I worked with and sponsored, only two of them ran aftermarket axle and hub combinations. The biggest reason why we could run the stock axles is that we spun the tires so hard. Other people were putting more pressure on the tires and breaking axles.

HT: What about the engine itself?
KG: I always did the extreme that other people were too scared to do. My turbo setups were always 11.0:1–11.5:1, making more horsepower and torque down low without running as much boost. I always ran more compression than anybody else in the industry. Why would you want to detune a motor to 8.5:1 and lose power and then run more boost?

HT: What’s the quickest the car ever ran?
KG: It ran 10.22 at 148 mph back in 1999.

HT: Did you have any rivals at the track?
KG: Yeah, it was always the Wicked guys. We were friends, but they always wanted to beat people. There were times when we’d be getting interviewed for Turbo magazine or whatever the case may have been and one of their guys would come by and puncture our slicks. We knew who did it, but what were you gonna do, go and fight them? We didn’t want a war with those guys.

HT: Weren’t you one of the first racers to have a dedicated tow vehicle?
KG: When the Super Duty came out in ’99, that was the ultimate tow vehicle. Turbo magazine actually covered mine and did the whole photo shoot on it. It was supposed to be called: “The ultimate tow vehicle for the import scene.” It never got released, though. About 15 other guys did the same thing to theirs. It gave everything a professional look. That’s the biggest thing the promoters wanted: an image of professionalism.

HT: What’s one of your favorite track memories?
KG: There was this event at Palmdale where only like six of us were invited. Javier [Gutierrez] was there, and Ed [Bergenholtz], Lisa [Kubo], Tony [Fuchs], Jojo [Callos], and I think David Shih. It was a private event for all of the top guys. I felt honored to be there. Well, Javier would make these little points like, “Why is your car here?” Stuff like that. Well, my car—back when it was nitrous—would bang everybody off the line. I kicked ass that whole weekend. He was actually telling people that he respected my car after that. I’ve always had respect for him because we used to do a lot of development stuff with him, like Kamikaze headers—I did a lot of the development and tuning for those with him. He’d help me figure things out and make sure the cars were making power. He was like my best friend when I was in front of him, but as soon as I would leave, something was said [grins]. For the most part, I never talked down about the guy. He was my competitor, but I didn’t need to stoop down low like he did.

Htup 1201 06+the innovator legends+truck Photo 7/7   |   KG’s current stable

HT: Do you ever wonder what happened to all those engines you’ve built?
KG: There’s still a lot of my heads out there on eBay and Craigslist going for a lot of money. It kind of makes me proud. I recently got a call from an old friend of mine, George from South Gate Auto. He got a ’98 Integra from an auction that had my full top and bottom, sleeved motor, and everything, still running to this day. That’s pretty cool.

HT: Do you even care about the Honda brand anymore?
KG: I totally care about it. I’m a Honda person until death. The way that Honda’s been going kind of bums me out, though, because there really isn’t so much of the performance stuff like they had back in the day. I thought that CR-Z would’ve been pretty cool but it makes no power. For them to not have a turbocharged car is, well, they’re missing out on that.

HT: Do you think people will look back on, say, the ’06+ Civic Si with the same sort of nostalgia that we look back on early ’90s Civics?
KG: Never. It’s just because that era—the way Honda developed those cars and designed them—there was so much there to be done. Nowadays, you can’t stick one platform’s parts onto another platform’s. Those things were so simple back then. That engineering is gone. The excitement’s lost.

HT: I’m sure there are some people you’d like to thank.
KG: If it wasn’t for David Nicart, Mike Acero, and Tim Pham, I could never have ran my shop or my racing team. And my dad, Art Gordon, he was a big part of my racing career and would fly from Atlanta to all of my races for support.

HT: Any final thoughts?
KG: Just that I was somehow or someway involved in the development of so many parts for this industry. All of those companies that jumped in—I helped with a lot of their stuff, whether it be testing or me having them manufacture something. There were at least a dozen of us who were the main names as far as Honda tuning and racing went that just really had huge drives and sank every dime and penny that we could into it. And guess what we got out of it? Nothing. We got fun, though [laughs]. It was a good time, a very, very good time.

By Aaron Bonk
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