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Gary Castillo Interview - Jack of All Trades

Gary Castillo: Behind the Scenes with an Automotive Icon

Scott Tsuneishi
Dec 4, 2012
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Gary Castillo. If by some odd chance you're not familiar with the name, we don't blame you. Gary came to prominence in the early '90s as a mechanic at a renown tuner shop in Irvine, CA, eventually moving on to work at Import Tuner as the magazine's technical editor. By now most of you are asking yourselves, so what makes this guy so special? Before you pass judgment, peep the facts that this behind-the-scenes 30-something-year-old is accredited with many "firsts" in the industry, including solve the first LS/VTEC oiling system, helping wrench/tune the first 10-second quarter-mile Honda, build the first '02 Subaru STI in the United States, share blood, sweat, and tears with the Scion xD rally team, and most recently, building a zombie-proof car for the AMC hit show Walking Dead. Yeah, we think he's a pretty big deal when it comes to the automotive industry.

We recently paid a visit to Gary and his shop facility, Design Craft in Garden Grove. Once there, we distracted him with a few questions and a photo shoot that dragged on well into the night. The interview came at a time when Gary himself was able to sum up his achievements and really give us a view of his perspective and past experiences. From his days of street racing to working on many of the industry's most memorable builds, Gary has kept it real by maintaining his character and increasing his automotive ingenuity. He is regarded by many as one of the most influential icons in the import tuner community.

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The format was a quick Q&A of directed questions. But, with Gary, there is no direct line from point A to point B, and neither is he the type to shy away or evade questions. This man does what he wants and says what he feels. We ended up covering a lot of ground, talking about life, fabrication, the industry, future projects, and oh, yeah, a little bit of racing. Let's get started:

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IT: Tell us how it all began?

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GC: My passion for wrenching came at an early age. In the fifth grade I owned a minibike. I didn't know the first thing about engines but I would always take my bike apart and put it back together. If the engine blew (on more than one occasion), I simply went to garage sales, picked up lawnmowers, and replaced the blown motor. From there, things just escalated into high school, as friends kept hitting me up to work on their cars. I was fortunate enough to have friends who trusted me to tinker with their cars.

IT: So you've been blowing up engines since you were 5 years old? It all makes complete sense now. Were you more of a domestic or import car guy back then.

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GC: Believe it or not I was pretty wrapped up in the domestic scene. I owned a '67 Mustang and was one of those V-8 guys who talked a lot of s#it about import cars. I built that car from the ground up and thought I was a complete badass until one day a Honda Civic pulled up next to me and totally blew me away. From that point on, I had a new respect for import cars. Over time I quickly learned that it was more fun as well as challenging to develop horsepower out of the smaller displacement engines rather than the larger V-8 setups that already had a lot of power from the get-go.

IT: How long have you been in this industry?

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GC: It was back in '91 when I started getting into modifying import cars. The scene was so small back then, but it was something I enjoyed doing as a hobby and envisioned one day of turning it into a career.


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IT: You don't have an engineering degree yet you manage to outshine many engineers in our industry. Are you too smart for your own good?

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GC:The people who know me know that I have a big gripe with engineers. I'm not talking about all engineers but the few who want to hide behind the math, yet refuse to get under the car to figure out what the math is doing. A lot of times their calculations don't always pan out. I believe in order to be a good engineer you need to really do two things. The first is the ability to be good at the math, and second is understanding how things work on the car. The most common engineer I love to hate is the type who doesn't know how to work on cars usually like to run their mouths, talking about how this or that part is wrong. I say stop hiding behind the math and get your ass under the car and figure it out.

Don't get me wrong, not all engineers are jerk-offs. Take Tyler Hara from AEM, for example. This guy looks like your typical garage mechanic, but he is a one smart engineer. Not only is he a nerd, but he's also a nerd who drove his Sport FWD class '98 Civic deep into the 9-second e.t., and is willing to get down and dirty under the car. I have the upmost respect for guys like that.

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IT: Interestingly enough, you like to refer to yourself as "the smartest dumb guy you'll ever know". That sounds a bit harsh coming from your own mouth.

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GC: Anytime I design or fabricate a part it ends up being a one-off piece. I always have friends and colleagues in the industry telling me, "Dude, you should mass produce that part and sell it!" But that's where the reference to "dumb guy" comes into play, because I never end up following up on their advice when I know I could be making a ton of money.

IT: Many of our readers are oblivious to the fact that you used to work at Turbo & High-Tech Performance magazine. How did you go from wrench monkey to a desk jockey?

GC: I used to work at a performance shop in Irvine, CA. Coincidently at the time, I knew a few guys who worked at Turbo magazine who stopped by the shop with parts for me to test or fabricate. My feedback on a lot of those products was a turning point in their decision to offer me a job at the magazine back in '95.

IT: You eventually transitioned over to Import Tuner magazine in '98?

GC: I was actually working on both magazines at the same time.

IT: You worked at the magazine for a number of years before you decided on opening your own company, Design Craft Fabrication. Why the move?

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GC: In '03 I left the magazine but wasn't worried about my finances since I had already been working late nights after the magazine, busy branding the Design Craft name by working on clients' cars. I was renting space from A'pexi to work out of their garage in exchange for doing fabrication work on their project cars, including D1 Champion Youichi Imamura's FD3S RX-7. The problem was I had clients that were in direct competition with A'pexi who prevented me from taking on those jobs. Based on that, I decided to open up my own shop.

IT: But, of course, you miss working for the magazines, right?

GC: [laughing] I have to give the magazine lot of credit. Working at IT opened up a lot of doors. I wouldn't know half the people in the industry I know now if it wasn't for the magazine. Coincidently, the people I met through the magazine are people I still have close ties with and work with. So yeah . . . thanks Import Tuner!

IT: Do you recall the first tech article you ever wrote for the magazine?

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GC: That's funny you should ask because it was an in-depth tech story on a Frankenstein Honda engine known as the LS/VTEC. The story was groundbreaking and literally changed the Honda scene overnight.

IT: So are you telling me that you were one of the pioneers to develop the LS VTEC engines into existence?

GC: Steve Rothenbuiler (aka Omniman) was the first to bolt up the B16 head on the B18 block and get it to run but couldn't figure out how to get the VTEC to turn on. I chimed in on his call from his shop in Colorado and was able to figure out how to bypass the oiling system from the back of the block, similar to a turbo oil feed line to get the VTEC to activate. Sure there will be people who claim to be the first but I don't really care. We accomplished what we set out to do, and I'm just happy we were able to contribute to the import scene.

IT: The late '90s were dominated by drag racing with cars already in the 11-second club, but the real goal was to enter the elusive 10-second club. Talk about your experiences and teaming up with the CRX dubbed "Silver Bullet", which was one of the first to set a world-record drag quarter-mile time.

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GC: If you look at how import drag cars are built now compared to back then, there's been so much change. Back then it was all about speed, and it didn't matter how ugly your car looked as long as it was fast. The scene eventually evolved into going fast, but, at the same time, looking good was just as important. At the time, the Silver Bullet was still running the factory unibody and was fast as hell, but in terms of fabrication and looks, it was a complete sh#tbox.

IT: The CRX ran a 10.87 e.t. at 136 mph on June 1, 1996, making it the first Honda in the 10 seconds.

GC: I was part of Dave Shih's pit crew who helped build, maintain, and tune the CRX. This was even before I began working for the magazine. At the time, you had fast guys like Junior Asper, Miles Bautista, and Archie Medrano who gained celebrity status in the drag scene at Battle of Import IDRC events in Palmdale, CA. The CRX was making approximately 400 whp all turbo and 420 whp with a 60 shot of nitrous. It might not sound like a lot of power by today's standards but back then it was amazing.

IT: Were there any problems you encountered with the car?

GC: None that I can remember but one thing that was cool was that we made the jump to a 26-inch drag slick, which was unheard of at that time for a front-wheel-drive car, let alone an import car. Most cars were running either a 22.5- or 24-inch tire. The 26-inch slicks worked to perfection but there was so much rotating mass that we were snapping axles at every event. At the time nobody made custom axles that were strong enough to handle the power. I remember during one event I ran the CRX and somehow managed to snap both axles at the same time. That was pretty interesting to say the least.

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IT: Most memorable project?

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GC: I'd probably have to say the C-West Honda S2000. This car was a one-off, purpose-built vehicle that was designed with a carbon composite body that weighed less than 2,200 pounds. We were given the car to campaign specifically for one race event back when it was naturally aspirated. We put the race program together in less than a month before our first race by installing a bolt-on Greddy turbo kit, upgraded the wheels/tires and made minor tweaks to the chassis prior to the event. With Tyler McQuarrie behind the wheel, we ended up taking First Place at the event with a time of 1:48.829, which was really quick. We decided from that point forward thanks to some major sponsors, including Brian Crower of BC that we would be running the rest of the season. That same year, we managed to set new records at every track we ran and made history at Super Lap Battle in 2008 with a new class record in FR Unlimited with a 1:45.07, just a hair short of the fastest lap of the day delivered by Tarzan Yamada in the Cyber Evo.

IT: Think back to a project that was so frustrating you literally wanted to just throw in the towel and call it quits?

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GC: [pausing for a few seconds] The ARK Design Skyline R32 GT-R we built for the World Time Attack Championship taking place in Australia in August of this year. I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I signed up for this project. Initially, Eric Hsu (team leader) and I discussed how to attack the project and at first flirted with the idea of dropping a VR38DETT R35 engine into the chassis. One other option was dropping in a G35X VQ35HR engine, which would have been more complicated and time consuming. Guess what engine setup we chose! We exchanged ideas in November of last year during SEMA with no initial plans of building the car.

IT: When was it finally given the green light?

GC: We began in late February with a deadline to finish in mid June to make our container shipment date to Australia. We methodically reworked the front suspension/geometry/arms, engine, and aero. Basically everything we threw at the R32 was a crazy idea; even the turbo positioned inside the cockpit on the passenger-side floor was mind-boggling. We basically changed everything on this car. Looking back it was definitely a cool build, but even as I speak it's not done. We're heading out to Australia to finish what remains of the car and shake it down at the track.

IT: Think you guys have what it takes to bring home the championship?

GC: I think that's the only reason why were doing this. You don't build a car to win Second Place. We're confident that we have a well-prepared car, a strong/reliable engine that Eric Hsu developed, and a superior driver in Tarzan Yamada to podium and take what's rightfully ours.

IT: Let's talk about some of your other builds such as the iVTEC system you developed for the Honda S2000 F20/F22 series engine a few years back. What was the whole idea behind such a revolutionary system?

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GC: It was a matter of holding both a K-series and F-series cylinder head side by side to make comparisons to see if either cylinder head would mate up to each other's block. I really like the F-series block, and I feel it is built a lot better than a K-series. Of course, many individuals dislike the F-series FRM cylinder sleeves, but I feel the complete opposite. I love them and think they are awesome. Why do I prefer the F over the K? The pistons are stronger, and the stock engine is more robust. It was unfortunate this engine didn't possess the technology that many of the newer cars had, including iVTEC. That was where Design Craft came in and gave the engine a revision by installing variable cam timing and was able to make a ton of horsepower over the factory setup.

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IT: You've had your hand in numerous drift car projects, including the RSR S2000, Scion tC, Falken Saturn Sky, FD3S, and most recently serving as head chief mechanic for the three-car Achilles Tires team. Is it true that the RSR S2000 you built was using a FD3S steering rack in place of the OEM electronic setup?

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GC: I just so happened to be helping my friends on the A'pexi FD3S drift car the night before setting up the RSR S2000. I happened to take some measurements of the steering rack and acknowledged that it would fit in the Honda. With some custom modifications, we were able to retrofit the unit with the added bonus of increase steering angle. The Mazda steering rack gave the S2000 the ability to drift on an otherwise undriftable chassis.

IT: Perhaps you didn't know but you're quite the legend in the Subaru community as well, mainly due to the fact that you built your daily driven bugeye WRX into the first Subaru STI in the United States.

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GC: I built the car back in 2002; even before the first Subaru STI was even released in the United States. I was fortunate to get my hands on a 2.0L STI Spec C engine from Japan along with the six-speed transmission, Brembo brake package, and complete drivetrain assembly. The wiring was modified to work with the engine's AVCS and was a blast to drive.

IT: You teamed up with IT, Five Axis, and driver Dai Yoshihara to build and race through the streets of Downtown Los Angeles in the 2011 Red Bull Soapbox Derby. The soapbox you built was anything but your typical build, yet you took your imagination to the next level and built an intricate tube chassis frame that grabbed the attention of the judges and fans at the event. So we have to ask . . . what was the reason behind the overkill setup, Gary?

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GC: Yeah that was kind of over the top. After running the event I realized it was bit overkill. But to tell you the truth, we were out there representing for all the tuner guys, and the last thing we wanted to do was build some piece of crap. There were some teams who used ladders for their frame and that's something I would never showcase or put my name on. Not even once did we consider simplifying the build and taking the easy way out by purchasing a Radio Flyer wagon and sticking an FR-S chassis on it. That's straight ghetto and doesn't showcase anything as far as talent.

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IT: You recently wrapped up a major build with a Hyundai Elantra for AMC's hit show The Walking Dead for Comic-Con.

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GC: When I started this build I had no idea how popular the show was or how much pressure I would be under to execute the perfect build to please both the creator of the comic and fans across the world. The Hyundai Elantra was built in a short span of five weeks and unveiled at Comic-Con in San Diego as The Walking Dead Zombie Survival Car. The concept car was a huge success with the comic creator Robert Kirkman and all the fans in attendance.

IT: Where do you see our industry going within the next five years?

GC: As long as the OEM manufacturers keep building decent cars those enthusiasts can tinker with; the scene will always be here. The FR-S/86 was a smart move on Toyota/Scion's part to deliver a car that offers a good platform to start with. It's funny but every time a new part is introduced, such as drive-by-wire throttle bodies for example, the tuner industry immediately began griping and yelling, "That's the end of the tuner industry!" It was the same when cars started using returnless fuel systems. I think the industry simply needs to be smarter and more creative rather than fighting changes.

IT: What are some of the future projects in the works?

GC: We're currently in the early stages of discussions, but hopefully by the time this article goes to print I will be working with Brian Crower to build a Bonneville R35 GT-R. Of course, the Team America ARK R32 is an ongoing project with plans to bring it to Super Lap Battle this year to break the track record.

Quick Six

Favorite car manufacturer:
Honda

Favorite engine:
F20C

Most disliked engine:
Subaru boxer

Favorite all-time import model:
Natasha Yi

Forced induction or naturally aspirated:
Turbo, without a doubt

Money or pride:
I don't know . . . that could constantly change [laughing]. For now, I'll say pride. If you have the tools and the mindset to do something you should be confident in knowing you can get it done.

By Scott Tsuneishi
247 Articles

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