The 1990s knew two kinds of Hondas: the purpose-built drag cars that made no apologies for their shoddy exteriors and no-nonsense engine bays, and the elegantly crafted show machines that seldom considered performance or proper vehicle dynamics. Jason Whitfield was among the first to meld the two worlds of Honda builds together in such a way that, 15 years later, has arguably been rivaled. Of course, no conversation of Whitfield can transpire without giving equal time to the late Shaun Carlson, one of the Honda performance world’s most gifted fabricators, founder of parts manufacturer NuFormz, and the brains behind numerous record-setting quarter-mile sprints. Together, Whitfield and Carlson redefined what it meant to build a Honda. For the first time, high-end, bespoke racing components made their way onto the show circuit while aesthetically pleasing details lent themselves to the racetrack. The duo’s efforts led to titles such as Turbo & Hi-Tech Performance magazine first taking an interest in Honda performance. Together, Whitfield and Carlson also assembled what was known as the world’s most powerful 1.5L SOHC Honda engine and paved the way for the industry standard that later became high performance paired with strikingly good looks.
HT: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you become acquainted with Hondas?
JW: Well, I started with a Volkswagen Bug that I’d built with my dad and sold for so much money that I was like, “Wow, I can get something cooler,” which at the time was a Honda. My girlfriend at the time had a ’90 Integra, so instead of buying my own Honda, I used hers. We did the three-piece Wings West wing, the Wings West body kit.
HT: Was that the extent of that car’s mods?
JW: We went to Robocar next and they got us for about $1,500 for an exhaust and a DC [Sports] header, $25 for a “Powered by Acura” sticker, and we thought it was the greatest thing ever. We ended up getting her a new car, and I kept the Integra. I went to Bill Gude and said, “Hey, how do I make it faster?” He gave me a set of cams, I bought the Haynes manual, and it went well. We took it street racing a lot, but when it finally blew up, it was like, “OK, now I’ve got to learn how to fix it myself.” We couldn’t tell anybody. I couldn’t tell her mom or my mom [grins]. I decided that if we were gonna keep messing with this Integra all the time, I’d need to buy a car, so that’s when I bought my ’95 Civic.
HT: You were among the first to partner up with the late Shaun Carlson. How’d that relationship begin?
JW: Shaun and I grew up together. He was a year ahead of me, and it was cool to have the older friend. He was…man, that freakin’ guy, he could do anything. If you gave him a bicycle, he could ride it; a skateboard, he could do the tricks. He played tennis, he was great in school—just a smart guy. He was always building something. He was building mini trucks when I was still driving my Bug. You’d see him pull up to school one day and he’d have a lifted Toyota truck. I’d always called it the “Back to the Future truck.” You know when [Marty McFly] goes back home and gets that new black Toyota truck? [Carlson] had that truck. And I’m not even joking, we’d come back on Monday and that thing would be hammered to the ground, body-dropped, the whole nine. Two weeks later it would be on hydraulics. A month later it was lifted again. He was the guy you wanted to hang around. He taught me how to weld, how to bend material, pretty much everything. The first thing I ever welded was his parents’ sliding gate. He was like, “Hey, you wanna learn? Here’s the MIG welder, get to it.”
HT: Both you and Shaun played an integral role in getting magazines to recognize performance-based Hondas. Tell us about that.
JW: When I got the Civic, he started working at Mini Truckin’ [magazine]. He started building a Toyota turbo truck, and that’s when he gained the interest of the owner of Turbo magazine, Kipp Kington. Kipp was like, “Man, you’re [Carlson] pretty smart. Come work on my Mustang.” So now Shaun was leaving Mini Truckin’ at like six o’clock at night and driving over to Turbo. Turbo had an area where they could work on cars. Shaun was constantly over there, and I think that’s when the change happened, when he was like, “Oh, I’m kind of over Mini Truckin’.” He started shooting covers for them [Turbo], [writing more articles], and working on Kipp’s car. I got to hang out with him, and when Shaun needed extra help, I’d even get a little check here and there. I knew that if I got up in the morning and ran around with Shaun, then all I was gonna do was learn.
HT: You’re mostly associated with your CRX. Let’s talk more about the car that initially put you on the map, though, your Civic hatchback.
JW: We had the Integra, but we kind of grew out of it. That’s when I decided to buy the Civic. One thing with Shaun—nothing could stay normal. It just couldn’t. I don’t know how it happened, but within a week that car was turbocharged. We didn’t know anything about turbocharging. I remember Shaun opened up his cabinet and goes, “I’ve got Paul’s turbo right here. Let’s try it.” I was like, “Alright, let’s do it!” From talking about it to installing it to driving it, it was done that night. There wasn’t really an online source—not like now. It was like, “Call this guy, call this guy. Oh, wait, his Nova’s turbocharged, he’s gotta know.” It was the most hacked job, but it looked good. I can’t believe we did it.
HT: I heard there’s a funny story about that first “intercooler.” Tell us about it.
JW: We called it the “ghetto intercooler” [laughs]. It was 2.5-inch piping from the throttle body all the way to the turbo. We got some couplers from a diesel place nearby, then we took a big piece of four-inch aluminum tubing and ran it across the front so that air could hit it easier.
HT: That was it? Just a big piece of tubing sitting in the bumper opening?
JW: I swear to God! That was the ghetto intercooler [laughs]. At the time, you could only get a Spearco or maybe one other [brand]. You couldn’t buy cores, so you had to make things work. Later, we ended up finding an intercooler through Eddie [Kim] at Dynamic Autosports. He had one from some sort of factory turbo car and it happened to fit the Civic. [Shaun and I] were both just looking at it like, “OK, what do we do with this?”
HT: By now you were doing everything at Shaun’s house, right?
JW: Yeah, I was working nights at a Target warehouse, so I would go to work, leave my car at Shaun’s, and I would take his Mitsubishi wagon or Toyota truck. Something was always getting torn apart, so whatever was running I would take. The opposite car that wasn’t running, he would work on. I’d get it home in time for him to go to Turbo, and he’d give me a list of stuff to work on. It was crazy.
HT: Knowing Shaun, I can imagine you coming back to some interesting scenarios.
JW: I can picture it. He called me and said, “Hey, the [Civic’s] out front, just be quiet when you leave because it’s a little louder.” I was like, “It’s a little louder?” He said, “I talked to some turbo guys, and it’s gonna be fine.” As I make the turn and see my Civic sitting there—the Civic I’m still making payments on—I see the whole bumper cut out with a huge (I thought it was huge) intercooler. The hood was cut open, an air scoop was put on, and the exhaust was coming out the fender. My first reaction was, “Not good!” But then I got a better view of it and I was like, “That looks pretty good.” I pulled into his driveway and, of course, he was up even though it was four in the morning. He walked out onto his balcony laughing at me. I was like, “You cut my hood.” He was like, “It’s fine. You need air to the turbo.” I was like, “Alright, whatever.” The car felt totally different. It felt like it was making a million horsepower. It was the greatest thing ever. I got home and looked at it and saw that he’d used the brake light off of his Toyota Four Runner for the scoop.
HT: What sort of ancillaries made up the rest of that turbo system?
JW: Stock ECU, stock fuel pump. We went through probably five or six engines before we realized how to control boost, before we realized that the oil had to flow [through the turbo]. We thought it pumped [shrugs shoulders]. We killed that turbo. It was a catastrophe, but it was so much fun. We were learning a lot from Kipp’s Mustang, and he was like, “You guys are idiots. You need a fuel pump.” We bought an MSD inline, but where did we put it? We put it by the fuel rail. We didn’t put it in the tank [laughs], so we were only getting the fuel pressure that the tank was supplying. There were hose clamps on the steel braided lines, I mean, the whole nine [laughs].
HT: You’ve always been one to achieve a high level of manufacturer support for your projects. Tell us about one of the first companies you’d worked with.
JW: Through his relationship with them at Turbo, Shaun called up GReddy. We met up with [them] on a Saturday, and they spent 10 hours with us. It felt like we’d went to school. We walked around the whole place and, in 1995, that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. There were hundreds of exhausts, they taught us about the PRofec B and the Rebic, turbo timers, stuff that we knew nothing about. We were mini truckers. They told us, “This is the direction you need to go.” Whatever money I had, whatever money Shaun had, we bought whatever they said. They could’ve put a bottle of GReddy water in front of me and I’d have bought it. We went home that Saturday and installed everything. We spent the next two days driving up Baseline and Foothill, just messing with all the dials, trying to figure it out. It was really fast, but we kept breaking motors. That’s when we decided, we’re either gonna get serious with this car or we’re gonna stop messing around with it.
HT: You were both still heavily into mini trucks at the time, weren’t you?
JW: I still had my Mazda that had hydraulics and sat on the floor, and Shaun still had his crazy Four Runner that he’d built. It was the first body-dropped Four Runner on 20s. No one even knew what a 20-inch rim was. But we were breaking away from mini trucking and getting into the performance stuff.
JW: We were putting every dollar we had into it. At that time, if you started a magazine build-up, you needed to finish or there’d be problems. You’d burn your bridges. We did four or five articles using the [Civic] before we even started the build-up articles. We did a brake upgrade, a cam install for JG [Engine Dynamics], a seat install—I mean, super-basic stuff now, but 15 years ago it wasn’t. It kind of got to the point where we’d created a monster that we had to finish. And, again, with Shaun, nothing was normal [laughs].
HT: Shaun’s company, NuFormz, which you were directly involved with, developed one of the most innovative Honda performance parts of its day, the block guard. How did that come to be?
JW: Shaun was driving [the Civic], we pulled up next to this 300Z, beat him, and then driving home we stopped at Taco Bell and, in the driveway, smoke started billowing up from everywhere. We towed it home and he was like, “We’ve got to build the motor.” Within a week we had the parts. We had Cunningham rods, Arias pistons, JG valvesprings and retainers, one of their regrinds, and one of their stock cam gears that had the adjustable aluminum piece in it. Rodney Wills from TMR—the first little [import] magazine—he referred us to this Toyota guru who was like, “Man, you guys are gonna break your sleeves.” We go to his house, open his garage, and it looked like a freakin’ machine shop. He had a block there from some road race Toyota and he was like, “We break these sleeves, so what I do is fill them with epoxy. You don’t know how far it drips down, though, so you don’t know how much coolant it’s taking up. We’re trying to come up with an idea…” [snaps fingers] That’s all it took Shaun. We left the guy’s house, walked back to the truck, and Shaun was like, “I’ve got it!” We left there, went to his buddy’s mini truck shop after buying some scrap aluminum, used the guy’s mill, and just kept going. That was the first block guard and, from that point on, I never broke a sleeve.
HT: Were you a part of NuFormz?
JW: Legally, no. NuFormz was all Shaun in his parents’ garage, and at that time we had no reason to leave and add the stress of bills. Shaun had me source the block guards from a local machine shop, and the CRX became the poster car for the business. I was still at my night job and Shaun was at Turbo, but NuFormz was taking off, and then I’d started my own shop, Rage Performance Inc.
HT: Blowing all those engines before adding the block guard, it must’ve been expensive, especially since the ’92–’95 Civic was barely out of production.
JW: Oh, we were spending probably $800 to $1,000 to buy a block each time.
JW: When we took it to Eddie at Dynamic and tuned that thing it made like 320hp. After that, Kipp was like, “This import thing’s kind of taking off.” Back then, to have an import car in the [magazine], especially a Honda, it just wasn’t gonna happen. I remember when I took it down there one time, I pulled up, Kipp was smoking his cigar and he was like, “Pfft, whatever.” I was like, “Let’s go for a ride!” and he said, “I’m not getting in that thing.” Shaun was like, “Just go for a ride.” I took him out, got through second gear and he was like, “Stop! Stop! Stop! Take me back.” He was like, “We’re doing articles on this car.” It was a huge deal when he let us use Turbo magazine to do the build-up. He was so against it [at first]. It was huge to get him to say OK.
HT: That Civic was absolutely pivotal in getting magazines to actually take notice of Hondas. What happened to that car?
JW: I let a friend borrow it. I thought he was a really good friend of mine. Not even 40 minutes later I get a call from the police saying he’d crashed it. He tried to make a pass on a single lane around a semi, and I guess he didn’t notice that there was a Saturn coming. They hit head to head.
HT: Was he OK?
JW: He did end up breaking his ankle and getting some cuts, but he totaled the car. The police report said that he was going about 60–65 [mph] and [the Saturn] was going about 45–50 [mph]. My insurance wouldn’t cover him, and his insurance wouldn’t cover my car. I was still making payments on it. I was young. I made a mistake. His parents ended up suing me because they said the car was unsafe [since] it was modified. They ended up winning, and he’s since disappeared. My insurance ended up paying for it [the car], and I bought it back. They covered the car, but they wouldn’t cover any of his medical. I made payments on that for quite a long time.
HT: What a shame. All of this leads us to the CRX then, right?
JW: I let [the Civic] sit for a week or two, and then Shaun and I were like, “What are we gonna do?” We’d made all these promises [to the magazine]. I went looking for another Civic and, at that time, they were so much money. You didn’t find them used. We were driving by Speed Trends—Speed Trends owned the used car lot and STR was the parts and accessories [store]—and there was this black CRX out front. I had a little bit of money saved up and I was like, “Let’s buy it.”
HT: Your CRX was among the first to conquer both the car show world and the drag strip. With the exception of Ron Bergenholtz, nobody else had done that. Was there a friendly rivalry between the two of you?
JW: Ron was building his Integra around the same time I was doing the hatchback. The first time we’d both went to shows was when the CRX was done. I knew Ron had been building his because we’d hear about how he was polishing different things. It kind of became an unwritten competition. When we took the car to its first Import Showoff at Pomona in ’97 or ’98, no one had seen the finished product yet. When we pulled the cover off the next day Ron walked over to me and was like, “Are you kidding me?” We won that one. But it was always a fun rivalry between us. We even had a “race” after an Import Showoff once. It was so funny; both cars weren’t running at the time. It was a “push race” [laughs].
JW: I don’t think you can put a dollar amount on it. Realistically, between Honda-Tech, K20A.org, and magazine articles, you can find the information if you’re not lazy, but I would never replace what I’d learned with Shaun. You can never replace the hands-on [experience]. We had no boundaries or anything to look at, so our imaginations went to work. If you don’t have directions but you have to get somewhere, you’re gonna get there. We wanted to build a crazy CRX that everybody would look at and say, “Holy crap!” That huge intercooler, everybody laughed, but we were gonna do it just because. The chrome, let’s just do it because. How come we can’t go fast and look good? The airbrushing? We just did it so that people would ask. How come the single-cam? Because we wanted you to ask “Why?” What other car is still talked about six months after being finished, let alone 15 years?
HT: There must’ve been a turning point for the CRX, a point where you’d decided to go all-out.
JW: I’d felt like I’d owed Turbo. I couldn’t leave them hanging. I felt like I could get Shaun in trouble. We got to his house one day, looked at each other and were like, “OK, let’s go.” We stripped it down to a bare shell. We went crazy on it. It almost felt like it wasn’t as nice as the [Civic] so we didn’t care. I’d paid cash for it so I didn’t owe money. It was just a different feeling. We [NuFormz] were also becoming known so it was like, “We’ve got to do something good.”
HT: What you guys had done to that CRX, generally speaking, people weren’t taking it to that level back then.
JW: Oh, yeah. The Skyline intercooler that we used, I think I paid like $1,000 for that thing from XS Engineering. I was like, “This is how big my bumper is, can you get me something that’ll fit? I remember leaving Benson’s with my sleeved block and it just killed me that it had been sandblasted perfectly but there were handprints on it. We both just kind of looked at each other and were like, “Let’s get it chromed.” We did a U-turn and went to Santa Ana Chroming and Plating, which was down the street, and they laughed at us: “We can’t chrome that thing…but we can polish it.” We took it home and bolted it to the sandblasted transmission [laughs]. We took it apart again and had that polished, too. Now we had to do the starter, and then we had to do the distributor. One day, we finally took everything off the car and took it all to Santa Ana.
HT: Who were you guys sourcing information from back then?
JW: We were learning everything from V-8 guys, and Shaun had friends in every form of motorsports. There was no Google, no Internet. We spoke to Eric [Hsu] at XS who told us about intercoolers, piping, blow-off valves. He was dealing with a lot of Mitsubishis back then, stuff that was already turbo from the factory. I think they were one of the first guys to have a Skyline [in the U.S.]. Eric would always tell us what to do, and we’d go a little bit crazier.
HT: Was there a conscious effort to dominate both car shows and drag races?
JW: I always felt like we had to go over and above for the magazine. That created the monster of chroming and polishing. There become a buzz around a few of us: Who would be the fastest chrome? That was the joke. The magazine, Ron, everything just kind of pushed us. We didn’t say it was a competition, but it was.
JW: Shaun made up the nickname. At the time, getting into the 10s was hard, especially with a single-cam. Remember, he was a mini truck guy, so he was really good friends with the guys from Kal Koncepts and Air Syndicate up in Bakersfield. We went up there on a Friday night, dropped it off [for paint], and they were like, “So, what do you want?” I was like, “I’m not sure. Shaun wants to do this.” I pictured the most weeniest racing stripes with checkered flags. I couldn’t believe we were painting it again, but if Shaun wanted to do something, we did it. If I wanted to do something, we did it. We didn’t argue about it. They called us Sunday afternoon and said it was ready. We pulled up and saw this crazy airbrushed paint. He painted the seat, which I didn’t even ask for. He painted my helmet, which I left in the car. He painted my nitrous bottle. I mean, this guy just went buck wild. As I was paying, Shaun was like, “So, we had to name the car.” Now, before [the company] was named NuFormz, Shaun had called it DEFCON 3, so I wasn’t really ecstatic about whatever he was gonna name the car [laughs]. He walked me to the back of the car and showed me: “Killing Time.” He said, “I named it that because everybody said we were wasting time on this car. Everybody said that we weren’t gonna go fast, but I think we’re gonna kill the time that’s out there.” It all came together and meant so many things at once. It was perfect.
HT: What was the car’s best time?
JW: At an event it went 10.23 at 149 [mph] at Pomona. In testing it had gone 10.13. At that time we didn’t know anything about gear ratios. It had [Accel] DFI, a ZC tranny with a welded diff—we didn’t know how to do the [intermediate] shaft, so we constantly broke the long axle.
HT: What transpired when Shaun first got involved with Stephan Papadakis’ car, which later became the first nine-second Honda?
JW: Steph came over with his black hatchback, the ’88–’91. That thing was extremely fast already, but you could see the wear and tear on it. The original job that they’d talked about was to redo the front of the car—adding the cage to the front since it was all bent up. It was fast, but the motor was ripping up the car. [He finished it], but in typical Shaun fashion, he was like, “This is a waste of time.” That’s because, at the time, [Shaun] had just started building a drag race Toyota truck chassis in his garage. You’d go into his garage and you’d see a tube chassis truck with my CRX and Steph’s car. I don’t know how it came about, but Steph was like, “Why don’t we do that?” That’s when [Steph’s] EK started.
JW: No. Shaun felt conflicted because he didn’t want to leave me hanging, but he wasn’t. I’d gone as far as I was gonna go with the CRX. I was winning all the shows we’d go to and it was fast. It’d already been on the cover of five or six magazines. I was happy. I’d started my business, Rage Performance, and later added Whitfield Racing so we could get to the track more. I was content.
HT: What’s become of the CRX?
JW: I’ve built a lot of cars. That’s probably the one I wish I would’ve kept, but it served its purpose. I got so busy with the business, ended up having a son, and the family and shop were so important that the car just sat in the back under a cover. It became a car that was just going to waste. We put a Prelude motor in it, but I didn’t like it. It kind of killed the car for me. I’d just kind of lost the love for it. I sold the swap to one of my customers, sold the chassis to a shop down the street, and bought my dyno. It was a means to an end.
HT: Do you have a favorite track memory?
JW: Once, we left Hot Import Nights in San Diego at 1 a.m., loaded the car up, drove straight to Palmdale, slept in Shaun’s parents’ truck in line, and four hours later put the slicks on and raced the car. Those were great times. We never won with that car, but we’d leave after Battle [of the Imports] and go straight to the street races. That was crazy to do with that car.
HT: What contributions have you made to the Honda performance movement?
JW: Nobody even knew what a [quick-release] Dzus tab was before we did the CRX. Shaun saw them on a car at a chassis shop and was like, “We’ve gotta do that.” We did the bumper, the hood, the side skirts, the rear bumper…there were 200 on that car. And it wasn’t just for looks, it was functional. And the huge intercooler, that’s the norm now. We had dimple dies on that car. That was off-road stuff. We did Lexan on the front windshield. Even the fast guys were still using glass. There wasn’t anybody doing the crazy build like we did where you’d strip the car down to nothing and go for it. I think that car’s overall design, build, whatever word you want to use, paved the way for people to know that you could do something like that. If we hadn’t built that car, I don’t know if Steph’s car would have been built. I really don’t.
HT: How important was Import Showoff to this industry?
JW: Huge. Before that, we were going to stupid shows at Fuddruckers or A&W. When we’d pull up, people would be like, “Get the hell out of here.” Not only because it was a Honda, but because it was pea green, because there were two kids who looked like they were 20, because Shaun had long hair and a ponytail, and because the people we came with were all tatted up. It wasn’t the group that they wanted to see.
JW: The CRX pushed me to do what I love, which is work on cars all the time. My companies, Whitfield Company and Rage Induction Products, keep me busy full-time. I’m here every day. We do a lot of dyno tuning, a lot of fabrication, diagnostics. There’s pretty much nothing we can’t do except for paint and chrome.
HT: Who do you credit for your and the car’s success?
JW: Obviously Shaun. He got me into everything and helped me settle down. He was like, “Get off your ass and do something that’s going to benefit you and your family.” Eddie from Dynamic, he really made us feel like we were doing something important. Kurt Gordon—he didn’t help me with the car, but he taught me things about heads, cams, and headwork that are irreplaceable. Eric [Hsu], Darren [San Angelo] from R&D Dyno—we didn’t know anything about that stuff—Steph for coming over at four in the morning, Abel [Ibarra] was always around. If a kid comes to me now and needs something, I try to return it because those guys did it for me. Shaun’s mom and dad, they were great and pushed me to do the shop. My wife, Amber, and boys, Seth and Jason Jr., they keep me grounded. They make all the headaches I have here become nothing when I get home. The magazines, too. They helped put me where I am now. My customers—I have a great base of customers who’ve been coming here for years.
HT: Any final thoughts?
JW: I feed off of the competition. I want to see how far we can push the envelope. It’s been 15 years of nonstop. It’s almost been a blur. I turned to my boys last night and I was like, “How do I sum up 15 years?” I just told them, “Realistically, boys, it was a blur. I just remember having a great time.”