With the combined effects of age and alcohol, my memory of late has started to fail on me. I have the hardest time remembering people's faces, names or how I even met them. I can't even tell you how many times I'll talk to someone making inane conversation all while attempting to shuffle through my mental rolodex coming up with a whole lot of empty. Well not completely empty, I do a mean "deer caught in the headlights" impression.
But even through the fog of Grey Goose-tinged memory, I remember meeting Stephan Papadakis. It was thirteen or so years ago at JG Engine Dynamics when he was still a lowly mechanic with a full set of hair. I remember him because two things stuck out about him: He had a beat up, but very fast black EF Civic, and homeboy could wrench. Working at JG, Stephan helped turn out some of the fastest Hondas of the era, all while quietly working on his own Civic. And in time, that little Civic would grow faster as did the legend of Mr. Papadakis.
Where did your love of Hondas come from?
My first car was a '91 Honda Civic Si. I had a few friends with Hondas who taught me how to work on them. They were easy to work on and a lot of parts were available.
How did you get into drag racing?
I went to the street races with my buddies back in 1993. I liked road racing, but there weren't any tracks and I didn't have the money to get on a circuit. Drag racing was my only outlet for competition.
When's last time you street raced?
Years ago, I think it was in 1997 or 1998 in Compton, Calif. Back then, we used to hit up V-8 muscle cars in Los Angeles. It was cool, but at the same time lame. I got used to getting on the track and only worrying about running the car, unlike street races where you need to worry about tickets, fines, impounds, and all the other drama associated with breaking the law.
The most you ever won on the streets?
The most was $500 split between a few of us. Back in the day, we took my EF Civic, which was all raced out at the time-turbo, H22 motor, rollcage, running 11-seconds flat-and towed it just down the street from a burger joint in La Habra, where all these V-8 guys would meet up. We unloaded the EF and rolled up on street tires and hit up an older dude in a built El Camino on street slicks. We set up a race in Compton and drove the car back down the block, loaded it up on the trailer, drove 20 minutes, unloaded the car down the street from the race, and drove up. We raced, barely beating them, and took the $500.
Nice. So, you played the domestics?
They were hustlers themselves, but didn't know how quick Hondas could be. They were pissed. I ended up running into them at the street races a couple months later. They made some changes to the El Camino; we raced again and ended up losing the $500 back to them. To make it worse, I ended up blowing my motor.
What was your first sanctioned event?
Battle of the Imports back in 1995: I took my black EF, single cam with dry 70 shot of NOS and ran a 14.5 with street tires. Pretty quick for the time, but the fast guys were running 13s.
The one dude you feared staging up against?
No one, I was down to race them all.
The record-setting FF 9-second run; how was that?
It was in 1999 in my '98 tube-chassis Civic, my second one after the EF. The funny thing is we were testing at Palmdale a couple of days before the big debut of the new Civic at Battle of the Imports and ended up running a 9.96 with only four of us there. So, when we ran the nine at Battle that weekend, we let everyone think that we ran 9s for the first time.
Why didn't you want to tell anyone about the 9 second run during practice?
Because if we didn't run the time at the event, it would seem like we were lying. I'm not big on talking; I'd rather let my actions speak for me.
What was the breakthrough that made it possible?
The combination between less weight, better tires, and more horsepower.
Do you remember the figures?
It was 1,650 pounds with me in the car, 26x8 tires, and 600+ hp. Nowadays these type of numbers aren't impressive, but this was back in 1999 before everyone understood the science behind building. We developed a lot of pioneering FF drag technologies on that Civic. That car eventually ran an 8.57 a year and a half later with relatively minimal changes: larger tires, wheelie bars, suspension tuning, and staged boost levels. With the yellow Civic we were always a half-second faster than everyone else.
You still hold the record for the fastest FF Honda with your 8.12 second @ 184 pass back in 2001?
Sort of: I held the fastest FF record from 1999 in Palmdale with the '98 EK Civic after that Battle of the Imports and held it with an 8.12 pass I ran in 2001 with my '01 Civic coupe until 2004, when someone else took the record. By then I switched to my FR-configured '03 Civic.
And you set records in your NSX-powered FR Civic as well didn't you?
Yeah, we changed to the '03 Civic in 2003 and we set pro import records with that car and ran a best of 6.52 at 215 mph.
Why the switch from FF to FR?
At the time the real-wheel-drive class was getting more competitive and we wanted to compete in the fastest class.
Out of all your drag cars, which was your favorite?
It was the '03 rear-wheel-drive red Civic. It made 1,600+ hp on methanol and had the most tunability. We had the most competition with that. We were going heads up against other 6-second cars like Abel Ibarra, Titan Motorsports, Street Glow, and so on.
What happened to all four of your Civics?
The EF was parted out to build the tube chassis '98 Civic. The '98 Civic is actually at the Peterson Automotive Museum. The '01 and '03 Civics were both sold and later raced by other teams.
Why did you quit drag racing?
I'm not sure if I quit, but I stopped for a while. After doing the same thing for so many years it's nice to try something new and drifting was a big challenge. The events and class turnouts in drag racing were getting smaller and I was getting tired of racing the same five teams at each event.
In your opinion, what happened to drag racing?
Oil downs! The show just wasn't there. Cars would break down, there'd be huge delays in the schedule and small class turnouts with only three to eight cars didn't give the spectators much to watch. Also, it became very expensive to operate a race team. The top teams were spending $500k+ a year on staffing, transport, parts, upgrades, and that's not including the price of building a car which was $150k+. With skyrocketing costs, there were less teams competing at each event.
Is there a way to bring import drag racing back?
I think it is starting to come back at the grassroots level, which is great because that's where our scene came from: owners driving their streetcars on the track.
What was the transition to drift like?
It was a whole new learning curve with driving and car setup. We've got the setup down, but I'm still learning on the driving side. Tanner, my teammate, won the '07 Formula D Championship in the car that we built here at AEM.
What most people don't know is that you actually wrench and build the motors you race.
Before I drove professionally, I worked out of high school at JG Engine Dynamics for two years and opened my own tuning shop, Honda Pro for three years. Ever since my '91 Civic, I've built all of our drag and drift engines, with the exception of the development that AEM's John Concialdi did on our turbo NSX powered '03 drag Civic. John built the first versions of the NSX race engine we used. But all the front-wheel-drive H22 drag motors, Tanner Foust's turbo VQ35, and my turbo 2.4L F22 drift motor I personally built and tuned with input from AEM.
In drag racing, you were on top: In drifting not so much...explain?
As a team owner/car builder, we are on top. As I mentioned Tanner won Formula D last year. As a driver it's been a steep learning curve combined with all my responsibilities on the team. Tanner is the "A" driver and I'm the "B" driver/crew chief/team owner. Racing the drift car has been a real challenge for me, and a humbling experience as a driver. Competing at the top levels of drifting takes a huge amount of talent, skill and practice, all of which I'm working on.
Compare your worst crash drag racing versus drifting?
I crashed once in drag racing. In 2004, the red '03 Civic got loose during testing at Firebird Raceway in Phoenix, Ariz., going over 140 mph and I ended up hitting the wall. Hard. I was fine, but because the car was all one-off custom built, the damage was over $75k and caused me to miss the first two events.
In drifting, I've crashed the S2000 a few times, but never had any huge damage to the car. The drift cars are factory-based chassis, so we can drop them off at the body shop and pick them up repaired. I think my worst crash was in Irwindale, where I ripped the front left suspension off the car. It cost only $3,000 in damage and the car was fixed in two weeks. I'm not scared of crashing; it's the fixing I don't like.
What's your involvement with the drift team?
I own and run the Rockstar/AEM two car drift team. Shawn Hillier and I pretty much do everything on both cars. From alignments, corner balancing, suspension setup, tuning, engine work, we do all of that in-house at AEM's facility. The only thing we don't do is paint and rollcages.
You're starting to get into circuit racing, how is that?
I'm doing some NASA club racing in the Honda Challenge series. I've built a personal '89 CRX Si for the H4 class. The rules are very limited for engine tuning-it retains the stock single cam-so it focuses on driving ability and suspension tuning. It's really fun and they are a great group of guys and competitors. I don't make any money doing this, in fact I spend my own, but it's well worth it. I've been learning a lot about chassis setup and driving techniques.
The one greatest motorsport achievement you're most proud of?
To be a part of a team and drive a race car that went over 200 mph-I think that's a barrier that few people get to experience. That and the fact I've been able to turn my hobby into a full-time profession.
Would you ever drag race again?
Definitely, if the right situation presented itself. It would have to be something new and different from what I was doing.
The next motorsport you'd want to try?
Taking the road racing a higher level would be fun. We've won championships in drag racing and drifting, and I think road racing is the next step. I think time attacks are getting people from our industry into road racing-we'll see where it takes us.
So, when can we expect you at our Super Lap Battle?
Unfortunately, my little CRX is not competitive outside the class it was built for. But I would be open to build an all out time attack car.
What about your S2000? Take that shit out!
It's totally setup for drifting right now. To be competitive, you have to build a specific car for its application.
Finally, where do you see yourself in five years?
On Youporn. With monkeys and import models. And Carter behind the camera. Honestly, I can't even see two years ahead, but I'm sure it'll be something in this industry.