The 1990s knew two kinds of Hondas: the purpose-built drag cars that made no apologies for their shoddy exteriors and no-nonsense engine bays, and the elegantly crafted show machines that seldom considered performance or proper vehicle dynamics. Jason Whitfield was among the first to meld the two worlds of Honda builds together in such a way that, 15 years later, has arguably been rivaled. Of course, no conversation of Whitfield can transpire without giving equal time to the late Shaun Carlson, one of the Honda performance world’s most gifted fabricators, founder of parts manufacturer NuFormz, and the brains behind numerous record-setting quarter-mile sprints. Together, Whitfield and Carlson redefined what it meant to build a Honda. For the first time, high-end, bespoke racing components made their way onto the show circuit while aesthetically pleasing details lent themselves to the racetrack. The duo’s efforts led to titles such as Turbo & Hi-Tech Performance magazine first taking an interest in Honda performance. Together, Whitfield and Carlson also assembled what was known as the world’s most powerful 1.5L SOHC Honda engine and paved the way for the industry standard that later became high performance paired with strikingly good looks.
HT: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you become acquainted with Hondas?
JW: Well, I started with a Volkswagen Bug that I’d built with my dad and sold for so much money that I was like, “Wow, I can get something cooler,” which at the time was a Honda. My girlfriend at the time had a ’90 Integra, so instead of buying my own Honda, I used hers. We did the three-piece Wings West wing, the Wings West body kit.
HT: Was that the extent of that car’s mods?
JW: We went to Robocar next and they got us for about $1,500 for an exhaust and a DC [Sports] header, $25 for a “Powered by Acura” sticker, and we thought it was the greatest thing ever. We ended up getting her a new car, and I kept the Integra. I went to Bill Gude and said, “Hey, how do I make it faster?” He gave me a set of cams, I bought the Haynes manual, and it went well. We took it street racing a lot, but when it finally blew up, it was like, “OK, now I’ve got to learn how to fix it myself.” We couldn’t tell anybody. I couldn’t tell her mom or my mom [grins]. I decided that if we were gonna keep messing with this Integra all the time, I’d need to buy a car, so that’s when I bought my ’95 Civic.
HT: You were among the first to partner up with the late Shaun Carlson. How’d that relationship begin?
Killing Time in its original state, just after being purchased from Speed Trends.
JW: Shaun and I grew up together. He was a year ahead of me, and it was cool to have the older friend. He was…man, that freakin’ guy, he could do anything. If you gave him a bicycle, he could ride it; a skateboard, he could do the tricks. He played tennis, he was great in school—just a smart guy. He was always building something. He was building mini trucks when I was still driving my Bug. You’d see him pull up to school one day and he’d have a lifted Toyota truck. I’d always called it the “Back to the Future truck.” You know when [Marty McFly] goes back home and gets that new black Toyota truck? [Carlson] had that truck. And I’m not even joking, we’d come back on Monday and that thing would be hammered to the ground, body-dropped, the whole nine. Two weeks later it would be on hydraulics. A month later it was lifted again. He was the guy you wanted to hang around. He taught me how to weld, how to bend material, pretty much everything. The first thing I ever welded was his parents’ sliding gate. He was like, “Hey, you wanna learn? Here’s the MIG welder, get to it.”
HT: Both you and Shaun played an integral role in getting magazines to recognize performance-based Hondas. Tell us about that.
JW: When I got the Civic, he started working at Mini Truckin’ [magazine]. He started building a Toyota turbo truck, and that’s when he gained the interest of the owner of Turbo magazine, Kipp Kington. Kipp was like, “Man, you’re [Carlson] pretty smart. Come work on my Mustang.” So now Shaun was leaving Mini Truckin’ at like six o’clock at night and driving over to Turbo. Turbo had an area where they could work on cars. Shaun was constantly over there, and I think that’s when the change happened, when he was like, “Oh, I’m kind of over Mini Truckin’.” He started shooting covers for them [Turbo], [writing more articles], and working on Kipp’s car. I got to hang out with him, and when Shaun needed extra help, I’d even get a little check here and there. I knew that if I got up in the morning and ran around with Shaun, then all I was gonna do was learn.
HT: You’re mostly associated with your CRX. Let’s talk more about the car that initially put you on the map, though, your Civic hatchback.
JW: We had the Integra, but we kind of grew out of it. That’s when I decided to buy the Civic. One thing with Shaun—nothing could stay normal. It just couldn’t. I don’t know how it happened, but within a week that car was turbocharged. We didn’t know anything about turbocharging. I remember Shaun opened up his cabinet and goes, “I’ve got Paul’s turbo right here. Let’s try it.” I was like, “Alright, let’s do it!” From talking about it to installing it to driving it, it was done that night. There wasn’t really an online source—not like now. It was like, “Call this guy, call this guy. Oh, wait, his Nova’s turbocharged, he’s gotta know.” It was the most hacked job, but it looked good. I can’t believe we did it.
HT: I heard there’s a funny story about that first “intercooler.” Tell us about it.
JW: We called it the “ghetto intercooler” [laughs]. It was 2.5-inch piping from the throttle body all the way to the turbo. We got some couplers from a diesel place nearby, then we took a big piece of four-inch aluminum tubing and ran it across the front so that air could hit it easier.
HT: That was it? Just a big piece of tubing sitting in the bumper opening?
Whitfield’s airbrushed nitrous bottle that took design cues from Carlson’s paint scheme.
JW: I swear to God! That was the ghetto intercooler [laughs]. At the time, you could only get a Spearco or maybe one other [brand]. You couldn’t buy cores, so you had to make things work. Later, we ended up finding an intercooler through Eddie [Kim] at Dynamic Autosports. He had one from some sort of factory turbo car and it happened to fit the Civic. [Shaun and I] were both just looking at it like, “OK, what do we do with this?”
HT: By now you were doing everything at Shaun’s house, right?
JW: Yeah, I was working nights at a Target warehouse, so I would go to work, leave my car at Shaun’s, and I would take his Mitsubishi wagon or Toyota truck. Something was always getting torn apart, so whatever was running I would take. The opposite car that wasn’t running, he would work on. I’d get it home in time for him to go to Turbo, and he’d give me a list of stuff to work on. It was crazy.
HT: Knowing Shaun, I can imagine you coming back to some interesting scenarios.
JW: I can picture it. He called me and said, “Hey, the [Civic’s] out front, just be quiet when you leave because it’s a little louder.” I was like, “It’s a little louder?” He said, “I talked to some turbo guys, and it’s gonna be fine.” As I make the turn and see my Civic sitting there—the Civic I’m still making payments on—I see the whole bumper cut out with a huge (I thought it was huge) intercooler. The hood was cut open, an air scoop was put on, and the exhaust was coming out the fender. My first reaction was, “Not good!” But then I got a better view of it and I was like, “That looks pretty good.” I pulled into his driveway and, of course, he was up even though it was four in the morning. He walked out onto his balcony laughing at me. I was like, “You cut my hood.” He was like, “It’s fine. You need air to the turbo.” I was like, “Alright, whatever.” The car felt totally different. It felt like it was making a million horsepower. It was the greatest thing ever. I got home and looked at it and saw that he’d used the brake light off of his Toyota Four Runner for the scoop.
HT: What sort of ancillaries made up the rest of that turbo system?
JW: Stock ECU, stock fuel pump. We went through probably five or six engines before we realized how to control boost, before we realized that the oil had to flow [through the turbo]. We thought it pumped [shrugs shoulders]. We killed that turbo. It was a catastrophe, but it was so much fun. We were learning a lot from Kipp’s Mustang, and he was like, “You guys are idiots. You need a fuel pump.” We bought an MSD inline, but where did we put it? We put it by the fuel rail. We didn’t put it in the tank [laughs], so we were only getting the fuel pressure that the tank was supplying. There were hose clamps on the steel braided lines, I mean, the whole nine [laughs].