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Ron Bergenholtz Inteview - Show & Go

Ron Bergenholtz—Mastering the art of going fast and looking good while doing it.

Aaron Bonk
Mar 20, 2013
Photographer: Courtesy of Ron Bergenholtz
Htup 1303 01 o+ron bergenholtz interview+drag CRX Photo 1/9   |   HTUP-130300-OG-

They called him "Show and Go," and he bore the nickname proudly. Fifteen years ago, few others deserved such a title. Throughout the 1990s, Ron Bergenholtz purposefully and almost systematically united the brazen, outlaw-like world of Honda drag racing with its finessed, more composed show car counterpart. In an unprecedented fashion, his turbocharged '91 Integra monopolized Southern California street races, drag strips, and car shows. Bergenholtz's formative Honda years were shaped at the street races where he shared rank alongside what is perhaps the most notorious Honda racing crew ever--Wicked Racing--and set up shop in what was once considered the Honda mecca of Southern California. Later, Bergenholtz, along with brother Ed, campaigned the first-ever nine-second unibody Honda and introduced wheelie bars to FWD drag racing. Today, Bergenholtz's story lives on in infamy and perhaps exemplifies better than any that performance and good looks not just can, but should coexist.

HT: How does the Honda story begin for you?

RB: It all started back in 1987. We were into freestyle bikes, and a buddy of mine--he just got his license--brought over this '87 Integra LS. It was lowered, and we were like, "Why would you do something like that to it?" [laughs] He says, "Well, let me show you," and he took us to the street races right off of Western [Avenue] and the 405 [Freeway] in Compton. We were like, "My God, this is insane!" Back in the day, the reason everybody built these cars was to go up against V-8s. The street races at that time were predominantly Japanese--all Hondas, Toyotas, that sort of thing. So I guess my boy, Ryuji Hora, is the guy who's responsible for getting me and my brother into this. Seeing those cars fixed up at the street races, it was really cool. That started my love for Hondas.

HT: How old were you then?

RB: Oh, 16, 15, something like that.

HT: Right around the time you started driving then. What was your first car?

RB: Back in the day I was driving a stock Dodge Maxivan. It was more of a transportation tool to throw a bunch of bikes in and go freestyling all over Southern California.

HT: Moving ahead, how did you eventually became a part of one of the most respected Honda racing crews ever, Wicked Racing?

RB: Living in Little Saigon [Westminster, California], there were a lot of individuals who were into Hondas. My group of friends that hung out at my house formed a little racing team called Import Racing Society, also known as IRS. We called it IRS because we were here to take your money at the street races. We did that for a couple of years, until I ran into my boy Chris [Tran] and we were like, "Let's do a shop." Speed Image started and I befriended another set of friends, which turned into Wicked Racing. We operated out of Speed Image, where we worked on our cars and, if the shop wasn't open, we'd be working on race cars in front of my house. I mean, [there would be] six race cars strong in front of my house. We started off street racing until Battle of the Imports began to grow and we became more professional. It was an evolution.

HT: What was it like being part of Wicked during its prime in the mid-1990s?

RB: It was a major privilege. To this day, with anything I doit could be racing cars, it could be playing putt-putt golfis to never, ever, ever give up. Ever. You stay the path and, in the famous words of Viet Lam himself, "Either you're a bitch or a man." Or in [his] broken English, "Eitha yo a bit o a man." On the streets, you're either a bitch or a man. Which one are you? You've gotta be a man. There's no crying. There are no excuses. I credit being who I am in racing today from my tenure with Wicked Racing.

HT: That explains a lot. Wicked was pretty ruthless at the street races, no?

Htup 1303 02 o+ron bergenholtz interview+turbo CRX cover Photo 2/9   |   HTUP-130300-OG-

RB: We were the top dogs out there. Later, what we were doing at the street races, we applied that toward the track. It was that gangster mentality, except for motorsports.

HT: Your Integra killed it at the track and at the shows. Was doing that a conscious effort, planned from the beginning?

RB: Nah! It started with the street races, but I liked the car to look good, too. With Wicked, it was about racing; go fast first, show second. Personally, I try to make them go hand in hand. I started grenading a lot of stuff, blowing up motors. I was throwing away a lot of money. I gave up racing that car and started doing more shows because the money you dump into shows, it's still there.

HT: That's when the real racing began, though, partly because of your brother Ed, right?

HT: And dominate it you did. Talk about that.

RB: With the Integra, I would take trophy after trophy. I was like, "Yeah this isn't good." I felt bad. Nobody else was getting a chance. I don't want to be arrogant, but I was taking home a lot of trophies, so I told Hot Import Nights and Import Showoff, "I think it's time to retire the car. Just give me a small fee for showing up, just to participate and promote the sponsors." After being into show for so long, it became a little dry for me, and I stopped doing car shows in 1999. The racing became so much more of a challenge. I started concentrating all of my efforts on the CRX.

RB: When he got the CRX, he took care of the race side and I took care of the show side. Because he was making a lot of money being a computer nerd, he was able to spend money on blown motors and stuff like that. I wasn't making that kind of money at Speed Image. My main focus under the Bergenholtz household was to dominate the show circuit.

HT: Backing up a bit, your Integra was ahead of its time in terms of powerful street Hondas. It even had a stand-alone engine management system early on. How did that come to be?

RB: When Wicked started off, our main purpose was to kick everyone's ass, period, at the street races or at organized races. At the time, the only way to go fast was with a stand-alone. And so everybody being in the crew and doing the same things, everybody had Accel DFI. So if everybody else had Accel DFI, guess what? I had Accel DFI [laughs].

HT: Was there anything special about your original non-VTEC engine? It got you into the 11s, after all.

RB: A lot of the people in the crew were running a pretty similar setup. We were all sharing information and tweaking the setup so that all of us could go fast together. At the time, the world record for a FWD car was 11.20--the Honda Service Center CRX and my car came out with an 11.90, so I was only seven-tenths away. Most of the Wicked Racing crew was in the mid-to-low-11s so that's why What was the question? You'll have to excuse me; I'm getting old and senile.

HT: The engine. Tell us more about your engine [laughs].

Htup 1303 03 o+ron bergenholtz interview+bergenholtz integra Photo 3/9   |   Both early iterations of Bergenholtz’s Integra—one of the first imports to make the cover of Turbo & Hi-Tech Performance magazine.

RB: It was everything that JG [Engine Dynamics] had to offer. At the time, JG was on top and our crew was with JG. Twenty years later, when I think of all the parts we ran, it really wasn't all that cutting-edge [laughs]: pistons, rods, sleeved blocks. A lot of us were using that deck girdle that Shaun Carlson made back in the day.

HT: What was your thought process like for what parts you chose? Were you partial to particular brands? Did your car have a theme or a direction?

RB: All that mattered was that something worked. Turbonetics turbochargers--Garrett wasn't involved in this--Hotshot headers, JG intake manifolds. It was all about JG back in the day. JDM? We didn't find out about Type R cams until later. We were running a domestic computer--Accel DFI, for God's sake. That's a horrendous computer now. It didn't matter whether it was JDM or domestic. The only thing that was JDM about it was that it was a Honda motor. There were no tricks.

HT: Your Integra progressed over a long period of time. Today, a Honda of that caliber can be put together in about a month. Any thoughts on that?

RB: Back in the day, nobody made anything for Hondas! We had to come up with those parts ourselves [laughs]! We were--saying this as humbly as possible the pioneers of building all this stuff. Nowadays, you can build a Honda in a month because all this stuff is already made. We did the legwork. A lot of the major manufacturers, they didn't even catch on to the Honda market until the late-'90s when [they] started building things in bulk. We had to fabricate everything back in the day. There were no companies making stuff for Hondas at first. It's no wonder that these kids, the new enthusiasts, can build a 1,000hp Honda in less than a month because the parts are already out there.

HT: What was the quickest the Integra ran? How much power did it make?

RB: The Integra ran 11.86 at 122 [mph]that was the fastest--and made about four and a quarter [425hp]. That was about it.

HT: There was a rumor several years ago that you were going to give your Integra away in a raffle. What happened?

RB: I was talking to Ken Miyoshi [Import Showoff founder] about doing it but, unfortunately, my emotional attachment to the [car] outweighed the business aspect of it. Same thing as everybody who runs those stickers on their cars that say "I love my Honda." Yeah, I loved mine a little bit more than I should've.

HT: You still own the Integra, don't you?

Htup 1303 04 o+ron bergenholtz interview+bergenholtz integra Photo 4/9   |   HTUP-130300-OG-

RB: It's in Texas now. I still have it, and it still looks the same except there's no motor in it.

HT: There were a lot of shops in your pocket of Orange County back then. You had Viet Lam at Pro Import, Stephan Papadakis at Honda Pro, Kurt Gordon at KG. What was that like?

RB: There were like eight shops around there. Not to be racist, but Asian people love fixing up imports and, c'mon, it's Little Saigon, man [laughs]. If you were a young Asian back in the day, you fixed up your Honda, you went to those shops. If you wanted the attention, if you wanted the acceptance of your peers, you drove a Honda. I mean, they nicknamed the [nearby] University of California, Irvine [UCI] the "University of Civics and Integras" for God's sake! We [Speed Image and surrounding shops] did a lot of magazine stuff, and people wanted to go to the shops that they saw in the magazines.

HT: Were there ever any altercations between shops?

RB: We had our arguments, but we stuck together, and then we laughed about it. Wicked was tight. We were tight. We had each others' backs no matter what.

HT: Talk about your relationship with JG Engine Dynamics and its owner, Javier Gutierrez.

RB: JG was very instrumental because it gave us a resource to build our motors. You could call it "JG college." We'd go to JG, and he'd open his shop up to us and help us build our motors. In return, we'd promote the living garbage out of JG Engine Dynamics.

HT: How important was Javier to the growth of the Honda performance industry?

RB: I'm not gonna take anything away from Javier. Javier knew some stuff. We would've never gone fast without knowing anything. Javier was able to get us in the know. Unfortunately, as time went on, the student ended up learning more than the teacher. After you've learned so much, it's time to move on. I'm in motorsports still to this day, and I'm going to the F1 race here in Austin to learn more. You can never know enough. That's why when everyone goes, "Oh, you know so much," I just go, "No, I don't know shit!" I'm still learning every day, and I'll probably keep learning until I'm dead.

HT: You've mentioned the CRX a couple of times now. How did your and Ed's involvement with it begin?

Htup 1303 05 o+ron bergenholtz interview+bergenholtz engine bay Photo 5/9   |   They called him “Show and Go,” partly because of this engine bay and partly because of the 11-second timeslips.

RB: That car started off as a street racing car owned by a buddy of ours named Robert Sapinosa. He was one of the people who inspired me. He'd say, "I want to be the fastest car on the streets of L.A. and Orange County." And he was one of the fastest, for a Honda. We broke off a lot of people at the street races in that car. Ed did his first engine transplant in '92 in that car! It's not much of a transplant, but we went from HF to Si. That's what propelled that car to be the fastest. There was a lot of gang activity in the early '90s, and [Robert] was killed for mistaken identity in the streets of Little Saigon. [After that], none of us had any money to buy his car. Ed didn't have a job, and I couldn't buy it, so it switched hands. All of a sudden, Ed started making money as a computer nerd and says, "Let's buy that car back for the sake of Sap." We went to the kid, who wasn't even selling it, and we go, "Hey, we wanna buy this car. How much you wanna sell it for?"[Robert's] parents sold it to that kid for like two Gs. We bought it back from him for five. We forced the sale on him. We brought the car home, and the same goal was made: to be the fastest Honda ever. Ever! Not at the street races, though, because now Battle of the Imports was kicking ass. Viet took it even further and took one of his customer's motors that he built and chucked it in the car [laughs]. That's how down Viet was. First time out-Ed had never driven a drag car before and he nails an 11.80 right off the bat. Viet was down for us to succeed.

HT: There was a lot of sentimental value in that car, wasn't there?

RB: Right when we introduced it, on the front and rear bumpers it said "Sap lives." Sap died in that car. That's why we went as crazy as we did with that car because we wanted Sap's goals and spirit to live on. We went above and beyond with that car to make it the best.

HT: You guys were the first to use wheelie bars on a FWD car. Talk about how that came to be.

RB: We got done working on the car in '97 and were like, "How can we get this car to go faster?" One guy goes, "Let's cut the car in half and make it longer. It might launch better, like a funny car or pro stock car." Screw that! We're not gonna do that. It's gonna look stupid. It won't look like a CRX anymore. We started thinking about other forms of motorsports. We were like, "Well, they put wheelie bars on RWD cars. Why can't we put them on a FWD car?" So I bought them out of the JEGS catalog62-inch Jegsters. I ordered them, sent them to Speed Image in the winter of '97, and they sat. We went out testing without wheelie bars, and the thing rips a 10.53 with some minor tweaks and more horsepower. At the time, the record was a 10.87 or something. We were like, "We're not changing anything!" We ran all of '98 with a bunch of 10.50s.

HT: So you actually had the wheelie bars long before using them?

RB: Yes. This was [now] 1998, when Steph came out to SEMA with that tube chassis car. We were looking at it like, "F@%k, dude, you're telling me we've gotta build a tube chassis car to get into the nines?" Everyone was trying to figure out how the hell they were gonna get into the nines. Steph came to SEMA saying, "This is how you do it." After SEMA, we went testing. We came back in January of 1999 with the wheelie bars on and, boom, a 10.42 showed up.

HT: An instant improvement? Let's hear the whole story.

Htup 1303 06 o+ron bergenholtz interview+trophy Photo 6/9   |   Another car show, another trophy. When asked about the repeated wins Bergenholtz admits: “I felt bad.”

RB: When the Battle of the Imports season was over we started winter testing. M&H gave us a new compound. We went to Palmdale and, because the slicks were so pliable, Ed launched off the line, the tires went from super flat to super round, and the front end popped upoff the ground! We were like, "Whatthef@%k?" Because of that fake wheelie, we were like, "Dude, we've gotta put the wheelie bars on." We knew that we had to keep [them] a secret, so we came [back] on a Sunday when we knew no imports would come. Most of the imports came on Friday nights or Saturdays. We kept it really, really secretive. It nailed a 10.42 right off the bat with an improved 60-ft. We were like, "Holy shit, this shit really works!" When Battle of the Imports came up, Steph showed up and broke the nine-second barrier. We came out to that event and won with a 10.36. We showed up with bright yellow wheelie bars. Everybody was like, "What the hell are those things doing on the back of a FWD car?" Nobody had wheelie bars. After that, we were like, "We've gotta get into the nines."

HT: So how did it finally happen? Let's hear the story of the first nine-second unibody pass.

RB: Good Times threw a [predominantly domestic] event at Pomona just before the July '99 Battle. We went out, first pass off the trailer and blasted a 9.87 at 147 [mph], dethroning Stephan Papadakis. The rumors started going around because there were some imports there, and Frank Choi [Battle of the Imports founder] called me up, asking me, "Did you guys run a 9.87 at Pomona?" At the time, Steph was Frank's boy, and now you've got this unibody, full-interior CRX dethroning a tube chassis car. People thought that you had to build a tube chassis car to run nines, and we proved them wrong. Battle came, and we ran a 10.1. We got eliminated first round for something stupid, so we told Frank, "Dude, put us in exhibition." We went in exhibition with Steph, and he let us go first. We were lined up with Steph behind us, and Ed ran a 9.76. Steph saw the 9.76 and he knew that the fastest he ran with his car was a 9.99. He went out after us and ran a 9.90-something. We went in front of the crowd, parked the car, and fans were going nuts, yelling and screaming. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, Steph belted out a 9.68, dethroning us right then and there. Nobody [else] was able to jump into the nine-second zone [that year]. In 2000, everybody started hitting nines. That was the heyday, right then and there.

HT: Did you experience any major failures with the wheelie bars at first?

RB: No, the wheelie bars worked right off the bat. They were really janky. They were really ghetto.

HT: Any other experiments gone wrong?

RB: I developed a true, adjustable four-link front suspension that actually worked and dug the front tires into the ground. We abandoned it because it unweighted the nose of the car. I think if I would've had some time with it, I would've been able to develop a better 60-ft.

HT: Is there a particular racing memory that stands out for you?

Htup 1303 07 o+ron bergenholtz interview+honda CRX Photo 7/9   |   Bergenholtz Racing shortly after posting its nine- second record.

RB: The best feeling I've ever had with that CRX was when we beat Steph in front of that screaming crowd. That was the best feeling in the world. We gave hope to the little guy with the unibody car that you don't have to build a tube chassis car to run nines. That was one of the best feelings in the world. The best.

HT: Hondas weren't expected to be fast early on. How did that change?

RB: At first it was like, "Nah, Hondas can't do 11s," and then Honda Service Center broke the 11-second barrier. "Nah, Hondas aren't gonna do 10s," and then David Shih came out with a 10.87. "Dude, there's no f@%king way that a Honda's gonna do nines," and then Steph gave the solution. After that, everybody started believing in Hondas. That's when manufacturers began believing in the Honda market. It was only a matter of time for eights. It was only a matter of time for sevens. The highlight of the import industry sort of...not ended...but as far as breaking barriers was concerned, it was now expected that FWD cars would break more barriers.

HT: Did you ever imagine, growing up street racing, what a big business import drag racing would later become?

RB: No, we did it for the street races. We did it to fight the V-8s. None of us bought a V-8. We bought something different, something to stand out, something that was our own. We did it for the love of our individuality as a community. We all believed in imports. Commercialization? We weren't looking for sponsors. We wanted respect on the streets. That's what we were fighting for. We weren't fighting for a big sponsorship or for getting in a magazine--magazines didn't even exist back in the day. We didn't care about that stuff.

HT: How involved was American Honda with your and your brother's racing efforts?

RB: For the record, American Honda did support the racers. They supported Steph, they supported Adam Saruwatari, they supported us, they supported Jeremy Lookofsky--a short list, but Honda was very picky on public perception of their company and their involvement with drag racing. You have to understand that Honda's long-term goal was to be productive members to the environment. Drag racing didn't really promote those types of goals, but they were there. They did help.

HT: You eventually walked away from Honda and import drag racing. Explain the chain of events that started that?

RB: I hate to say this, but General Motors' involvement killed our sport. They shocked the industry with their resources and their technology. Our industry wasn't ready for that. But, in the famous words of Vinny Ten that I still live by to this day, "I may not have a million dollars, but I've got a million f@%king ideas." With GM dumping millions of dollars into the sport and coming out with that psychotic Sunfire, it kind of ruined hope. You couldn't compete anymore, so a lot of these Hondas got parked. The thing that was cool before GM was that everybody was on the same playing field. Everybody had the same backyard technology. But now you introduce a shitload of money, and money wins. You can't compete with that. You'll go bankrupt.

HT: As a longtime Honda enthusiast, what was it like for you to ultimately transition all of your efforts toward Mazda? Why did you make the move?

RB: We realized, especially with GM coming in, that we were gonna need manufacturer support. We knew tube chassis was the future, so we pitched [Honda] a tube chassis RSX. Because of politics, they gave the account to RJ DeVera. And, well, I never saw RJ DeVera come out with a tube chassis RSX, did you? If they'd given that account to us, maybe we'd have won [them] some championships. We fished around, wanting to stay with imports, and asked Tod Kaneko of Mazda if [they'd be interested]. Mazda was like, "Let's do it!" We built them the craziest FWD four-banger and delivered them two NHRA championships. Don't get me wrong, I still have that soft spot for Hondas. There's no doubt in my mind that's where we came from, but we're Mazda guys now.

HT: Who were some of your early influences in terms of Honda performance?

Htup 1303 08 o+ron bergenholtz interview+legends group shot Photo 8/9   |   Legends, every one of them. From left to right: Viet Lam, Ron Bergenholtz, Dr. Charles Madrid, and Ed Bergenholtz.

RB: I learned a lot from Viet Lam. I was enrolled at Cypress [College] for automotive and Viet goes, "Don't do that. Just help me work on these race cars." So I dropped out, helped Viet, and learned a lot. Obviously, Ryuji Hora and his Integra for getting us into this. If it wasn't for him, we would've never have gotten involved.

HT: Who were your main rivals?

RB: Tony Fuchs! Cyber Racing. Cyber sucked. Wicked and Cyber, we hated each other. At the street races, my enemy was Tony Fuchs and his white Integra. At the street races, DAs went against DAs, Civics went against Civics, CRXs went against CRXs. That's how it was sectioned off. Obviously, Wicked wanted the quickest and fastest Integra. That was the fight. Cyber Racing was our arch nemesis, our Lex Luthor.

HT: Was the rivalry ever personal? How long did it last?

RB: It was all about a faster car. We'd talk shit to each other nonstop. But, as the years went by, especially after Team California, Cyber and Wicked [became] friends, really close friends. When you're young, you do stupid shit. When you get older, you mature.

HT: Tell us about Team California.

RB: [That was because of] some crazy man, the guy who brought Clutch Masters to life, Chris Jewell. All of the magazines were in California, and there was a following on the East Coast for imports. [Chris] came up with the crazy idea of bringing all these cars you see in the magazines to the East Coast and getting into a fighta race fight with the East Coast. So we brought all these Hondas to [New Jersey] to do battle.

HT: Did street racing help or hurt this industry?

RB: You've gotta start somewhere, and the passion as to why everybody did this came from the street races. Period. Of course it helped. It's not gonna help now. I don't believe in street racing anymore. You can go to the racetrack. It's better to take it to the track and talk shit on the track. It's the same shit. You'll know heads-up, for real, who wins. Street racing's too dangerous. You can hurt innocent people. I don't condone street racing today. Any street racing that occurs now is not gonna help the industry.

HT: What exactly are you up to nowadays?

RB: I've come back to the fountain of youth. A partner of mine and I have a shop together now--jTran Studios. Dude, I haven't lowered a car since '98; I lowered a car about a week ago. I feel young again. With what I know after 24 years of screwing around, now the work is even better. I can offer consumers a better car compared to back in the day. I can build one mean Honda if somebody wants to. I installed a supercharger kit on a 350Z recently. The kid comes barreling out of the driveway, I could see that he was happy. He comes back and says, "This thing's amazing." It's a totally different reward that I'd forgotten about. I try to have them spend their money once and do the job right rather than jumping shop to shop. I want my customers to spend their money once, like we did at Speed Image. We did a good job right off the bat and customers poured in. It feels good.

HT: What are your thoughts on Honda today?

Htup 1303 09 o+ron bergenholtz interview+turbo license plate Photo 9/9   |   At a time when street-driven, turbocharged Hondas were rarities, the license plate said it all.

RB: OK, [coming from] an OG Honda guy, the new Hondas, they're not all that great. I think Honda's lost sight with what these cars are all about. I mean, you've gotta be kidding me when you come out with a product like [the CR-Z]. People love the body; there's no doubt about that. It's a new school CRX. But they're ripping that motor out and putting a K24 in. I think Honda needs to remember its roots! But, you know, the principles that guide Honda--being good to the environment and to the public--high horsepower isn't their forte. Ever since Honda got out of F1, they haven't been introducing any of that technology into their passenger cars. The NSX has some hope, though. I'm still rooting for Honda. It's OK, though. We'll still buy the old ones.

HT: Will we ever see another Ron Bergenholtz creation?

RB: My Integra's coming back, and I'm going to drive the damn thing. That's my fountain of youth. That's going to be the '59 Mustang for me.

HT: Hopefully you'll be updating the engine some?

RB: I'm gonna put one of our CRX drag motors in it. I still have love for older Hondas. If Honda of America wants me to build the new NSX, I'll build a kick-ass NSX. I'm actually dying to get my hands on another Honda.

HT: Tell us more about your BMX roots. Where would you be today were it not for that '87 Integra and your first street race?

RB: I would've been in X Games with five million broken bones riding in the senior citizen class. I had a major passion for it. I was successful at BMX. I kicked ass at BMX.

HT: What was your best trick?

RB: Probably a Rolling Decade, which was in '85, or getting two feet out on a 10-foot ramp with two feet of vert. Rolling into a 10-foot ramp with two feet of vert, that was scary. They have a skate park here, and I was just riding about three weeks ago. It felt good riding the bowls and ramps again. I can still ride and I can still do tricks. It's weird, you never lose it.

HT: Any final thoughts?

RB: To the executives at American Hondabuild something cool and fast! Build a CR-Z Si with no electric stuff. In fact, I'd love to build a CR-Z throwback in Bergenholtz colors. I'd love to do that. In fact, I'm trying to find an NSX right now. If I could find an NSX right now, I'd buy one. I don't want a Ferrari. I don't want a Porsche. I want an NSX! That was the end-all, be-all car back in the day.

By Aaron Bonk
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