The annals of Honda history are filled with predictable firsts. The first nine-second pass, the first use of wheelie bars, the first gathering of racers under the guise of Frank Choi’s Battle of the Imports. Poignant milestones, all of them. Sometimes, though, it’s the people or events you’ve never heard of who’ve made the most significant contributions. Sometimes, it’s the people you’ve never heard of who matter most. Gary Kubo’s contributions to the Honda performance community aren’t few, aren’t always recognized, and date back more than 20 years. Undisputedly the first to transplant Honda’s twin-cam B series into the then newly released ’92 Civic, Kubo went on to devise one of history’s first truly street-driven, race-capable turbocharged Hondas and, later, along with his wife Lisa, campaign one of the turn of the century’s quickest and most competitive drag Hondas on the planet. Despite Kubo’s accomplishments, he remains admittedly quiet. Until now.
HT: How did you first become interested in Hondas?
GK: You know in high school when your parents get you a car? That’s the car I ended up with. I was actually heavily into skateboarding. I almost had a career doing that. The car stuff came out of nowhere.
GK: Yeah, that’s what I did since the fifth grade, in ’84–’85. I skated for Vision Skateboards during ’90–’91 and had a 12-foot vert ramp that I built in my parents’ backyard.
HT: So what led to your involvement with racing Hondas and ultimately owning one of the quickest, most competitive FWD drag cars?
GK: I didn’t even know who the true OG Honda guys were, like Orly [Alcalde], Myles [Bautista], or Joe Morgan. I knew nothing about it. A friend of mine, Ben Shapiro—I used to skate with him—he had a Datsun 510. He used to go to all the street races, and one night he was like, “Hey, you wanna go to Sylmar?” After that I got hooked. It was weird; I took auto shop to get enough credits to graduate, but I kind of took a liking to it.
HT: When was that?
GK: That was in ’92, so I was 18.
HT: The Civic was supposed to be a stock commuter car?
GK: Yeah, it was a ’92 DX automatic. They didn’t even have them here in the States at that time. My parents got it and had it shipped from Canada as a graduation present. When I got it, everyone was like, “What the hell is that?” Once I went to that street race with Ben, next thing you know I’ve got an exhaust on the car, then an air filter, and then I lowered it. A friend who I went to school with talked to me about nitrous oxide [laughs]. He says, “There’s this new system called ‘the dry system’ that just came out. You ought to put it on the car. It’d be a sleeper.” It worked well for a few runs down the street, but we ended up hurting the engine right away. I was like, “Oh, my God. It’s a brand-new car; it only has 11,000 miles on it.” Obviously, the D15 with those small rods, it didn’t survive the straight 100-shot, but we didn’t know back then.
HT: A dry 100-shot on a stock engine?
GK: Yeah [laughs]. The car hauled ass, but it didn’t live. The car got parked, but I still went to the street races and, through another friend from high school, ended up meeting Myles Bautista. My friend told me, “You ought to talk to Myles because he might have an engine to get your car running again.” We started talking, and Myles goes, “Well, I’ve got those engines [D15], but I’ve got one engine, man, if you can get it in that car, it will haul ass. It’ll be the fastest thing around.”
HT: He was talking about the B16A, right?
GK: Yeah. This was early ’92, when the B-series VTEC didn’t exist [in the U.S.]. I was like, “Will it even work?” He goes, “Yeah, in Japan they had them in the older hatchbacks and CRXs. I’ll tell you what, if you buy it, I’ll help you get the components for it.” Back then, I didn’t know what to use. He didn’t even know. So I bought the engine and brought it back with no clue of how to put it in. It took about a year of me just looking at the car going “How do I get the motor mounts to work?” I ended up going back to my high school metal shop to make a pedal assembly and some motor mounts—real crude stuff.
HT: That was the only way, though, since the hydraulic-clutch-type B-series transmission, which everyone now knows bolts directly into the ’92–’95 Civic, hadn’t been invented yet, right?
GK: Yeah. I eventually got it all in the car and then, next thing you know, the computer’s different. The timing was a coincidence—the ’92 GS-R had just gotten released. I took a gamble and went to Sierra Acura in Alhambra [California] and bought an ECU. Next thing you know, bing, it fits right on. I knew nothing about electrical—nothing. I just bought a manual, kept looking at it, and eventually got the car wired up. I got the lights to work first, got the door lights to work next, got everything else to work. I’d ripped a lot of stuff out of the car that I didn’t have to. I didn’t know back then, though. I took it to Terminal Island [Raceway], popped the hood, and Myles was like, “Oh, crap! You’re the first one!” Nobody had done a B swap into a ’92 Civic yet.
HT: That was truly a rare sight back then. What happened next?
GK: I had that running normally aspirated for about two years and then decided to turbo it. That’s when I met Herman Chan and Steve Kwan from Drag [Competition Products]. He [Chan] said, “There’s this brand-new, big back-plate turbo that I’m coming out with that will be the hot ticket.” So I saved up some money and bought it. I didn’t have enough money to buy an exhaust manifold so I ended up making one. I pretty much looked at what he’d done with the intercooler piping, too, and fabricated my own. Before you know it, the turbo kit’s done. I ran that for about three or four months without any idea of how to get the fuel enrichment done.
HT: You obviously had no type of aftermarket engine management, but no rising-rate fuel pressure regulator either?
GK: Nothing. We didn’t know about Vortech FMUs [fuel management units]. Nobody had fully investigated them yet. Just researching through the HKS catalog, I saw the AIC, the Additional Injector Controller. I bought it, took a chance, and welded four bungs on top of the intake manifold and, with some experimentation, got it to work. With just a couple of runs down the street with a K&N air/fuel meter, I figured it out. If the car’s pulling, it must be right.
HT: You don’t see engine management technology like that anymore.
GK: It was just a knob. There was a “gain” and what rpm to start it at. K&N came out with the first air/fuel gauge. That’s what I used to tune with. Next thing you know, we ended up taking it to Battle [of the Imports]. I think that was in ’95. It ran 12.20 right out of the box without any nitrous, no dyno tuning, or anything.
HT: How long were you the only one with a B-swapped ’92 Civic?
GK: I think right after mine Charles Madrid did one. Until the ’94 Integra showed up, there was no direct way to get the engine to drop in because the motor mounts were totally different.
HT: That’s when Honda engine swaps began to explode.
GK: Yeah, and Charles Madrid was, at that point, the one to immediately do them.
HT: What was your involvement with Pro-Motion, the small retail shop that’s grown into one of the largest wholesale parts distributors?
GK: There was Eugene Inose, Jeff Louie, and one other partner. They started a small accessory shop in Montebello right off of Montebello Boulevard. With hard work and business smarts, they made that thing grow really big. They became distributors for a lot of larger companies, like DC [Sports] and Stromung, back in the day, and K&N. A friend of mine, Eric Valdez, who was working at Pro-Mo—the friend who introduced me to nitrous—said, “You should consider running your car at Battle.” I was like, “Yeah, but I don’t have the money.” So he said, “Well, let me see if Eugene and Jeff wouldn’t mind helping with some of the components.” They did. We got the car running, got a new nitrous system, some suspension, and some slicks.
HT: So Pro-Motion was your first real sponsor?
GK: Yeah. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have made that race in ’95.
HT: Weren’t you later involved with a shop in Santa Barbara, California?
GK: Actually, that was a shop that I owned with a guy named Daisuke Hashimoto. We called it Zeroyon. This was about a year after we ran at Battle with my Civic. He had a red del Sol with a Drag turbo kit on his single-cam. We tore everything out of it, put a B16 in it, and built it just like the Civic engine that I had. We tried driving it and didn’t do very well, so we had Steph [Papadakis] drive it, and it ended up running an 11.20 at its very first event.