In a span of eight years, during what could be considered the glory days of Sport Compact Drag Racing, Lisa Kubo won over 35 events, all while also racking up an impressive list of championships. In 2004, she went undefeated in the NOPI/NDRA Pro Outlaw FWD class in a car equipped with less computational power than the smartphone in your pocket. She was the first FWD driver in history to break into the seven-second zone. To say she’s fast, consistent or supremely professional would be a cliched understatement. She’s humble about her achievements, but, as they say, it’s not bragging if you’ve done it. And has she ever!
CAREER BEST ELAPSED TIME
7.722 seconds >> 2004 NOPI/NDRA, Richmond, VA
CAREER BEST SPEED
197.62 MPH >> 2004 NOPI/NDRA, St. Louis, MO
Obviously, we had to ask the legend herself about her trials, tribulations and what exactly it takes to run a seven-second FWD car. Kubo kindly answered. A bonafide champion is about to give you free advice. Take heed!
PAS: Are you still doing some racing or do you find your interests have changed as you’ve grown older? How has your life changed today?
LK: I’ve been quietly involved as much as I can in the sport of drag racing, and I’ve done some work over in Formula Drift for a couple seasons and enjoyed it as well. My passion and true love is drag racing without a doubt! However, the responsibilities of being a responsible adult are ever growing. As the years progress, my priorities are a lot more diverse to prepare for the future.
Who were your primary drag (or track) racing influences when you were younger?
The biggest and only impactful influence I had, and still have today, is Shirley Muldowney. When I was a young girl in the 1980s, I waited in line to get her autograph and saw how she was so interactive with the crowd and confident. You could feel how much she truly loved what she did. I still think about that daily. She was and still is a beautiful person, innovator, champion, excellent role model — a life-long impression she will leave me with.
At your peak, did you have the feeling you were onto something remarkable, or were you focused on that next event or next race?
I never thought I was onto something remarkable, my head was always in the game and focused during the events. I am sort of what you can call a perfectionist when it came to my cars. I’d always say, ‘How can I better myself? How can I make myself as close to perfect as possible?’ I wanted to become an unbreakable machine during my final season racing my Civic with consistency; not miss any gears, qualify at the top in every event, set records and become the third overall and first female to run eight-second ETs in a front-wheel-drive, win races and championships. When I moved into my Saturn Pro FWD car, we were determined as a privately backed team representing the Saturn flagship to become the first ever front-wheel-drive to run a seven-second ET in history, which we did in April 2004 at NHRA in Moroso, Florida.
Did you face any challenges in dealing with sponsors who were unsure about sponsoring a female driver in what is viewed as a primarily male sport?
Absolutely! Back when my car was still in progress, a good friend and competitor of mine was sponsored by a company and suggested that they should get me on their team of cars to add to some diversity. But to my shock and disbelief, the expression on the sponsorship recruiter’s face was kind of like, “Are you kidding? For real?” It was like it was a joke that my car was going to be a top runner one day. I was a little disturbed by this incident, but I knew it was going to be an uphill battle and I was going to have to push myself beyond the limits of the average pro driver of that era. Just winning some races was not good enough; I wanted to dominate the industry and leave an impression.
Can you walk us through what it was like staging and racing one of the fastest FWD cars in the world? What’s it like when the steering wheel is spinning violently?
Staging both race cars was basically the same. I had set up what is considered to be a three-step rev limiter controller, my crew guy would get me to about a foot before the pre-stage beam and I’d hit my first rev-limiter (pre-stage rev-limiter) at wide open throttle, which was set to about 3,000 rpm. This way the car was just about to go into boost as I lit the pre-stage bulb.
I’d creep the car in with the clutch loaded and I would modulate the hand brake to keep the suspension loaded and compressed. Mind you, my staging brake locked both front and rear wheels to allow me to load the clutch to the point where I had zero air gap while maintaining this clutch engagement position. I kept creeping the car to stage as shallow as possible.
Next, at that exact moment when I was fully staged, I’d let go of the pre-stage limiter, which activated my two-step rev-limiter, which was set up to disarm when I disengaged the clutch pedal. Note: I have engaged wide open throttle starting a foot before the pre-stage beam on a staged rev-limiter. I wanted consistency and this allowed me to focus on my staging procedure rather than randomly blip the throttle and hope to God you are in the correct rpm range and launch boost levels.
This also gave me the extra measure of accuracy and consistency when people would play staging games with me. I knew subconsciously that if I maintained wide open throttle that I was okay, allowing meto focus on the lights and to stage as shallow as possible.
Loading the clutch, as mentioned, allowed me to barely take my foot off the clutch pedal, allowing the car to leave or make a move immediately without blowing the tires away. Mind you, back in the day there was little to no use of traction control, boost versus wheel speed or anything fancy like what is commonly used in today’s high-tech systems. We all had to drive our cars by feel to run the numbers and mold ourselves with repetitive runs to become consistent. Keeping in mind that track and conditions always varied, experience played a huge role in success in what I consider the Golden Era of sanctioned sport compact racing.
How much of the wrenching did you get do on your cars? Did you have input into how the cars were set up to meet your preferences, or did your team do a great job of giving you cars which were perfect to drive?
During the very beginning years of my Civic I had no choice but to physically help work on the car. It was only three of us total, and we weren’t traveling at that point, so my team was local guys and girls. I knew I had to put in the effort to follow my dream. Once we got to the competitive professional level, it wasn’t time efficient for me to work on the car anymore. There was sponsorship interaction, media, PR, budgeting and logistics.
Racing was the only source of income. Every penny counted and every minute of the day was dedicated to keeping an air tight system. How the clutch and staging brake were set up was my input. After every run, I’d relay feedback and they would compare the data and make changes if necessary.
Did you have any pre-race superstitions or good luck charms?
I’m not one of those racers that didn’t like the color green or anything like that. My superstition was before I got on a plane or left on the road, everything had to be pristine clean; my apartment, my house, my cars, the race car, the front and backyard had to be perfect. Did I mention I like to think of myself as a perfectionist? And I still have all my good luck charms! People would come and zip-tie money onto my roll cage and I’d never touch it.
Cool story: We had met these two guys from the islands who gave me $200 to take my team to eat. We all decided that it was tradition and money was a good luck charm, so we zip-tied it to the cage. We even told the guys this was going to be the good luck charm to run eights and the next day we ran an 8.94 @ 161 mph at Bradenton, Florida.
It’s been said that the way to get a little fortune in racing is to start with a big fortune; between winnings and pay, how much did you earn as a professional driver for 12 years?
That is so true! We started with a small “fortune” that was from me working four jobs and selling my street car to put funds into the Civic. And to make this very clear, there was zero financial help from any parents or family members. This was a very grounding experience. I didn’t have unlimited resources or funds to make unlimited mistakes! Eventually, with the help of sponsors and the industry in general, I did well enough to be able to follow my dream.
What influences in your childhood do you feel were responsible for your interest in going fast? Was it a family thing passed down from a parent or older sibling?
Being very competitive by nature since I was a child, starting from first grade until ninth grade, I was a top track runner. I was a 50-yard and 100-yard short distance sprinter. My family started me out at the street races at two weeks old! As I got older, it became impossible to get me out of the car when my father lined a race up, so instead of fighting a screaming child, he buckled me in the backseat, put a helmet on me and raced. (As a responsible adult, I would never condone this today.)
How much time did you have to spend on the road “back in the day” traveling with your team?
In the Civic days I lived on the road. I lived in Virginia with my team. I lived in Texas with Kenny Tran of Jotech Motorsports, Drew and Willy from Deepstage Motorsports and Alex from Hocuspocus in Houston. Darrell Cox of Phatridz Motorsports in Eden, North Carolina let us park our rig in their lot. It was very touching because people believed in us so strongly, and they offered whatever assistance they could to allow us to make it to every race for the racing series and to continue on for our championships!
Who were the key members of your team; the indispensables who made the hard bits and pieces?
My team consisted of Gary Kubo, Mike Kim, Charles Schafer, Jeff Tirado, Arthur Armendariz and Michael Spraker. The beginning days of my Civic build was Mike McNutt, Charles Cha, Renee Cardenas, Robert Kwan and Masina Reyes. And if no one knew, in 2001 Myles Bautista and Lisa teamed up and formed MBLK, which consisted of Lisa, Myles and Tony Fuchs.
What advice do you have for our readers who share your interest in drag racing?
What I would say today is the same thing I told people back in the day who would ask advice, male or female: Don’t listen to the bullshit or haters; follow your dreams! Remember the law of attraction, if you attract constant negativity and failure, you will get exactly what you asked for.
There you have it; the answer to life, the universe and everything. If your universe includes drag racing, you now hold one of the keys to a 197-mph run in your hands. Use it wisely. The other keys may be somewhat harder to obtain.
Photography by Jay Canter, Shaun Keenan