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Remembering Shaun Carlson

Evan Griffey
Jan 11, 2010
Photographer: Jay Canter

October 5th, 2009 will go down as a dark day in the sport compact industry, as Shaun Carlson, one of its best and brightest, was taken from us far too soon. Only 35 years old, Shaun had recently been diagnosed with Brugada Syndrome-a genetic disorder that disrupts the heart's electrical system-but upon being given an implanted defibrillator, reportedly told his condition would be manageable. It was unclear exactly what caused his passing, as of press time.

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After years served in this industry, any chance I found to BS with Shaun at events and industry functions were a big part in keeping them worth looking forward to. Although we missed each other through much of 2008, he always set aside a good chunk of time so we could reconnect and talk about cars, racing and everything else that's been going on in our lives-no matter how busy we were, we would always catch up like time hadn't passed. SEMA was always a good place for this; I try not to think of how much quieter this year's show will be without him.

Shaun started his import performance odyssey at Turbo magazine back in 1997, where he became a staff editor and our best photographer. I shared a cramped office with him and we worked long, hard hours, as committed people with vision and purpose usually do. It was an exciting time; the scene was in transition, growing into a legitimate industry and we saw our efforts as being the tip of the spear, bringing credibility and respect to what was so often described back then as merely "kids with small cars and big mufflers." It was an uphill battle at times.

We were shooting a Mustang one evening, when the owner's son and a friend who drove the car to the shoot started hating on Sean's import, asking him about muffler bearings and what he thought the best valves for a 13B would be. Shaun was spoolin' up and ready to body slam the boneheads, but held his cool for the sake of professionalism. I wasn't so reserved. I asked Shaun for his film, ripped it from the canister, told the Mustang kids where they should store it, and informed them that daddy's car-nor any of his customers' cars-would never appear in our magazine. Shaun was shocked, and worried about me getting in trouble. But he was there shooting for me, and on the front lines, you stand up for your guys. I suggested an early dinner and we spent a good chunk of time just talking. It was one of the few times he didn't run home to weld something. We talked about my daughter, about him moving out on his own, about how we had a hard time spending money on ourselves for stuff like shoes when we could use the cash for something useful, like parts or tools. We also touched on where the emerging import scene was going, and he surprised me with some of his product ideas, the Honda Block Guard among them. I stayed quiet and let his train of thought carry the conversation, the gears in his head turning almost frantically, a precursor of things to come.

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Shaun was only 23 years old at the time (and looked like he was 13) but his fabrication skills were far beyond his years. On several occasions, people couldn't believe his work was his own, and that shook Shaun's rafters to no end. He was building his "World's Fastest 1.5-Liter Honda", when he started working at the mag, a CRX project he and cohort Jason Whitfield collaborated on, and his immense talents needed little justification once we ran that series of articles. In one of the more popular installments, he explained how he painted it in the front lawn of his parent's house. The paint was flawless. What emerged at the end of the series was a truly timeless build that combined form and function as only Shaun could. Heck, the car would still pop retinas today as it did when it appeared on the April '98 cover of Turbo.

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He was on staff when Import Tuner was born, shooting some of the very first covers, and though he really had no time for it, even stayed on as Editor-At-Large while he got his new fabrication shop, Nuformz, up to speed. No one will forget the first project that put him on the map: Stephan Papadakis' tube-frame Civic, the world's first front-wheel-drive vehicle to break into the single digits down a quarter-mile. Or how he crew chiefed Sam Hubinette's drift team to champions in 2004 and 2006, while building the Meguiar's Focus and Mopar Neon dragsters. The latter two Shaun drove himself while subbing for injured Pro Stock driver Darrel Alderman, even winning a few Wallys in 2004 in the process.

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Shaun went all-out in everything he did. Guided by his own natural innovation, his efforts rarely took the easy route; his destinations were always a few stops farther down the line than the rest of us. I saw him as the ultimate CNC machine-he didn't need CAD/CAM blueprints, soda straw models or scribbles on a napkin. Shaun would take an idea right out of his head and execute it with a precision that could scarcely be distinguished from computer-navigated machine work. Lexus' slogan, "The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection", must have been thought up by someone watching him fabricate.

At his memorial service, it was interesting to see his friends gather, based on where in Shaun's life they intersected; the magazine people and import drag racers, the drift crowd, those associated with his Mopar efforts, and his friends and family. I thought it a great honor that the reception was held at the NHRA Museum, and the NHRA has my appreciation for stepping up and opening their doors for the occasion. At the service, I noticed a conspicuous black aluminum box that I had to ask about. Shaun's friend and fellow fabricator at Nuformz, Rob Miller, explained that it was a true billet aluminum urn that the team CNC'd for Shaun, with his initials and Nuformz logo lasered into it. More than 40 hours were invested into it by the Nuformz team. I asked Rob if there was any welding involved and learned there wasn't. We shared a laugh and agreed that it was probably a good thing-Shaun would have been picky about the welds. I got the impression that Rob had already considered that.

Managing more projects-and stress-in any given week than most of us could in a year, Shaun Carlson accomplished more in his short time than most will ever dream of. Yet behind it all, his dedication to work and the people in his life kept him approachable, humble and down for a good time with friends at a moments' notice. That there was still so much more potential to be fulfilled in his craft and his personal life only deepens the tragedy. Selfishly, I want more. I want to hear about his new projects. I want to run into him at the next Formula D event and bust his chops while he's busy doing a million things; I'd even secretly been planning for him to meet my son at next season's Seattle event. I wanted to be around for all the big, grown-up changes that Shaun would make before becoming a father himself.

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What makes Shaun's passing so painful, yet bearable at once, I think, was that he was one of our dearest friends. The type that saddens us deeply when they leave, but only makes us smile when we remember them.

Evan Griffey sat as Editor of Turbo & High-Tech Performance magazine from 1992-2005, and served as Editorial Director when Import Tuner was created in 1998. He worked with Shaun Carlson from 1997 until he gradually moved on to greener Nuformz pastures.

Freelance photographer Jay Canter has documented the tuning industry for years. Having first met Shaun Carlson in 1997, he has been an inspiration to Jay, both professionally and personally, ever since.

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Large and in Charge

What you might not have known about Shaun Carlson

1 Began his journalism career at Turbo Magazine in late '96, early '97.

2 Was the president and founder of NuFormz Racing, a fabrication company that builds aftermarket components and custom race cars.

3 Debuted Stephen Papadakis' Pro FWD tube-frame Honda Civic at SEMA in '98: the first sport compact drag car with a tube chassis.

4 That same Civic became the world's first FWD to run a 9-second quarter mile, with a 9.89 @ 149 pass on March 27th, 1999 at Battle of the Imports. And if that wasn't enough, it became the first FWD vehicle to break the 8-second barrier, with an 8.93 @ 164 pass at Maplegrove Raceway on May 14th, 2000.

5 Built the "World's Fastest 1.5-Liter" project car (10.2-second Honda CRX); cover feature for Turbo Magazine's April, '98 issue.

6 Shot the first two covers of Import Tuner in '98, featuring the Remix Twins, followed by Francine Dee.

7 Designed and debuted a revolutionary Honda cylinder-wall reinforcement called the "Block Guard" in '99.

8 Built and campaigned the Ford/Meguiar's Pro-class Focus dragster in '00.

9 Unveiled the Mopar/Nuformz Dodge SRT4 at SEMA '02 and set a new NHRA FWD class records for ET and speed in May '03, at Gainesville: 8.22 sec @ 181.70 mph, the same event in which he captured his first NHRA victory.

10 Took to the NHRA as a backup driver for Darrell Alderman in '04 Pro Stock competition.

11 Returned to the NHRA, piloting the Team Mopar/SRT Dodge Stratus R/T for Don Schumacher Racing in the NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Pro Stock Class for the '06 season.

12 Joined forces with Samuel Hubinette, constructing the Mopar Viper Competition Coupe that won Formula D championships in '04 and '06.

13 Continued ties between Nuformz and Mopar/Hubinette in '08, with the release of the Dodge Charger drift machine that debuted at SEMA the same year.

Shaun Carlson tributes:

Frank Choi
Founder, Battle of the Imports

"I met Shaun a long time ago, when he called me asking for a press pass to shoot a Mini Truckin' cover at a BOTI event at Los Angeles County Raceway. I think my words to him were, 'You want to put a mini on the starting line? WTF for?' It was then that I noticed what a talented photographer he was and our friendship began. Soon enough, Shaun ended up working for Turbo and Import Tuner, and our paths crossed regularly. Those were good days. I remember cruising around with him, dropping off his famous Nuformz Block Guards, and I knew this guy had something special to offer our industry. He was definitely ahead of his time when it came to ingenuity, creativity and work ethic. Simply stating that he'll be missed doesn't even come close."

Ken Miyoshi
Founder, Import Showoff

"When anyone recalls Shaun Carlson's name, words along the lines of 'true pioneer' are inevitably spoken by someone in the group. Everyone can say he was a great photographer, racer, entrepreneur, builder, team manager, but the one thing that stands out the most is that his actions spoke louder than words. From the Showoff trophy I awarded the CRX that he and Jason Whitfield built years ago, to his magazine cover shots and his work on drift and drag cars over the years, no one could top the attention to detail Shaun would pride himself with, but never boast. A true pioneer, he will be deeply missed by us all."

Ron Bergenholtz
Co-founder of Bergenholtz Racing

"The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Shaun Carlson is 'crazy'. Everything he worked on was a work of art. He went all the way on every project he undertook. When you looked at a Shaun Carlson car, you could stare at it for days, never even realizing the small details Shaun likely lost sleep over-the finished product was always that clean. His ingenuity and craftsmanship were just plain sick, and the automotive industry benefited from his ideas before it even knew what hit it. I miss Shaun Carlson already. I miss competing against his and Steph's Civic back in '99. I miss asking him how to build a Pro-FWD car. I miss racing against his Dodge Neon in NHRA Sport Compact competition. I miss rooting for him in the NHRA Powerade series. I miss asking him how to begin a drift team. I miss competing against him in Formula D. But more than all that, I think I'll miss just talking with my friend the most."

Samuel Hubinette
Driver, Nuformz/Mopar Formula D competition cars

"I got to know Shaun for the first time in 2004, when I started to drift for Team Mopar. With him and his crew from Nuformz, we achieved two championships and so far, the most victories awarded to any single team in Formula D history. Having a master fabricator as a team owner was always a big bonus for us. Every time I came out to an event there were some new updates to the car. I have to admit, they weren't always things I thought were necessary, but that was Shaun: the eternal perfectionist. He loved to keep things top-notch for style. Our success and popularity as drift competitors are largely thanks to his efforts. It's amazing how closely Shaun has stuck by his team throughout the '09 season, despite suffering three heart attacks and losing sponsorship with Mopar due to the Chrysler bankruptcy. For all of us at Team Nuformz 2009, thank you so much. You will always be in our hearts. Rest in peace, bro. We know you're in a better place."

By Evan Griffey
272 Articles

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