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.
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:
IT: Tell us how it all began?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.