Published on July 7th, 2011 | by mrgrumpyninja3
Still D.R.E after all these years, STM’s Andre Simon
About 10 years ago, I was standing on a cold, windy street in Wellington and to the left of me was Todd “NFORCA” Wylie, now the editor of NZV8 Magazine, on the other side of me was “Beano” who was another well known Wellington car identity back in the day. ”You met Andre yet man?” says Todd, ”nah man, who’s that?” was my reply. Conversation stopped as we were interrupted by the sound of a turbo charged 20v Toyota engine firing out a side exit exhaust, barking into life. Around the corner rolled a Grey primered DX , and the owner did the oddest thing I’d ever seen and asked 4 extra people to pile into it to give the car extra grip as it “tested acceleration” in a scene somewhat like something from the Fast N Furious ……. “that’s Andre!” said Todd , “and that car will be FAST” he said with a smile. He was right, as the car popped and banged on the rev limiter and spat flames heading down the road, it was fast…. and that was my introduction to Andre Simon.
Skip forward several years, and that same Andre Simon is now one of the most respected tuners in the world, a successful business man, a mentor and educator, regular magazine contributor and above all else in my opinion a good b@stard, who has tried to give something back to a world that has given him a lot.
This is my attempt at trying to give you an insight into an Andre that perhaps you haven’t seen, inspite of his living in a relative spotlight for many years, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did putting it together.
Andre, Dr Dre, or “The Raccoon” to the old skool, for those who have been living under a rock for the past 10 years, who are you and what is your business?
I’m Andre Simon, owner and director of Speedtech Motorsport (STM) in Wellington. STM has been in business now for about 10 years and has grown from a one man band (just me) to a team of 5. In a nutshell, we specialise in making cars go fast – really fast. If it has an engine then we are interested although my personal passion is drag racing, and this is probably the area where we are most well known. I’m also a tech contributor for NZPC, NZV8 and Zoom magazine which takes up anything that resembles spare time.
Lets go back…way back…you’re a degree holder, not just a mechanic who learnt “in the trade” so to speak?
Actually, not even a mechanic! I have always had an interest in cars and engines in general but never really had any desire to become a mechanic. It was more the engine and electronics side that interested me and this turned into a passion for high performance tuning. I left school and did a Bachelor of Technology at Massey University. I graduated with honours and was studying for my Masters back in Wellington when I started tuning.
My old man had a BMW which had been fitted with an early G1 Link ECU and he hated how it drove. After reading the manual I decided it didn’t look like rocket science and re tuned the car in my spare time. He was stoked with the result which led to me tuning a few more BMWs for other guys he knew. I was also doing a few turbo upgrades and conversions in my spare time for mates and somehow ended up tuning a bunch of rally cars too. At some point my spare time was eating into my study time and I made the decision to give it a go full time and I started STM.
You told me once about an early lesson involving an egg…and a Daihatsu I think it was? ( I think it went in the radiator, may have been a whole tray…or you were just talking shit on the bourbons)
When I was living in Palmy, I ended up with a pretty sad looking KP60 Starlet that needed to be relocated back home. The only problem was the radiator resembled a sieve with water pouring out almost as fast as you could fill it up. When I was younger (yea ok that was a while back now :P) I used to watch Macgyver and I remembered an episode where he had fixed a leaking radiator with an egg. Figuring I had nothing to lose I gave it a crack (pun intended). I decided my sieve (radiator) was in worse shape than Mac’s, so dropped in a full dozen. Believe it or not it actually worked (although the car smelt like an all day breakfast for the whole trip). *photo for illustrative purposes only, neither the writer or STM endorse this :)*
Gray primer DX corolla, 5 up…airport…not really a moment of pride I guess, but something we all did?
Ah the DX, I miss that car! Yea back in the day I admit that I got up to some stuff that I probably shouldn’t have. My DX was fitted with a 4AGZE/20V turbo combo and an early Link ECU. It had never been near a dyno but was probably punching out around 300 hp I guess? In a light RWD chassis that was plenty back then. The trick was it had more power than traction so if I wanted to get anywhere in a hurry it was actually quicker with 5 people in it. This confused a lot of people in the Wellington scene as I would pull up with a fully loaded car while everyone else was stripping out spare tyres, back seats, their girlfriends etc to reduce weight.
I have to say though that I don’t condone street racing. I grew up in a time when street racing was really big in Wellington and it was just before the huge media/police/public crackdown on all ‘boy racers’ (anyone with a Japanese car fitted with an exhaust basically). I saw some real dumb shit and I’m thankful I got through it and lived to tell the tale. Maybe it is only something that you can say with the benefit of experience and age though? The problem is that cars are getting faster and roads are more crowded. The room for error is less and the consequences are higher so I’m happy to save it for the track.
You then went through the “pink hair” phase as you established STM….. toughest or best lessons you learnt?
Pink hair and then the ‘racoon’, yea possibly not my smartest moves ever [MGN – your wife told me she wouldn’t have touched you with a barge pole ]. On the business front though, yes there have been several huge lessons learnt over the years. When I started STM if I’m totally honest, it was really just a means to fund my racing with DOCILE. I also had never worked for anyone else so I was finding my way as a business owner and a boss. The biggest lesson probably came when I retired DOCILE and decided to focus on actually growing the business. This was a total shift in focus and a real steep learning curve. It has been exciting and rewarding to see the changes that we have implemented actually work though.
The second lesson has been trying to make it in an industry which has such a poor reputation. The automotive industry has more than it’s fair share of dodgy operators and this has soured and tainted the entire industry. There is a general lack of trust from customers and the general assumption is that everyone is out to screw them. Ben and I have really focused on turning this around and implementing strategies to build trust. Our pricing promise and our satisfaction guarantee are two examples.
Lastly I have learnt you need a thick skin if you want to survive. NZ suffers badly from ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and if anyone is seen to be achieving then they inevitably attract haters ready to cut them down to size. I learnt to ignore the haters, and continue smiling and doing what we do. Nothing pisses a hater off more than continued success.
You are perhaps best known for Docile, which we will get to later, but lets talk about other racing/motor sport, you dabbled a bit in hill climb and I think Rally?
Yea I have dabbled in a few different types of motorsport over the years. I was originally racing karts back before I had a drivers licence which is something I’m still keen to get back into. After I got my licence I got involved with local hillclimbs around Wellington and dual car sprints at Manfield. I was just racing my road cars (first an AE82 Corolla with a 4AGZE and then a Charade Gtti with a massive turbo), but was still pretty competitive. A few years later I was tuning for Karl Robinson who was running a V6 STi in the NZ Rally Championship. I got the opportunity to co-drive for Karl at a non-points round in Taupo which was awesome. If you have never been in a rally car beside a skilled driver, you just can’t believe how fast it is possible to go on loose gravel. It was an eye opener.
I got into drag racing as I see it as the ultimate test of engine power and that’s really my thing. Many people just don’t get drag racing and from the outside I can understand why. When you get that one pass that comes together perfectly though, there is nothing in the world like it. It is a shame that we spend more and more money to spend less and less time in the drivers seat though.
Guess we better talk about the old blue girl, that must have been a real love/hate relationship, but you clearly learnt some important lessons from that car?
Haha love/hate doesn’t come close to doing it justice! DOCILE, I guess was what built STM’s reputation and we set and held a world record for close to 3 years after we retired her so it wasn’t all bad. I think the biggest thing we learnt from the car was to keep it simple. DOCILE became too complicated and difficult to work on (changing a clutch was about a 10 hour mission thanks to the tube front end), and I was always trying to get more power. When we built DS9 for example, everything we did was focused on making it simple and easy to work on. The car had only what it needed to get the job done and rather than focus on outright power (dyno numbers don’t mean shit on the dragstrip), we focused on getting every bit of power to the track – DS9′s world record says it worked!
I was lucky with DOCILE as we were one of the first Import cars to start running on methanol fuel. This gave me the chance to gain a lot of valuable experience with the tune-up and kept us ahead of the competition. I think we were also not afraid to try out turbos that everyone else thought were too big. These days most people are running the sort of stuff we had 3-4 years ago. In the end we had so much experience with the 4G63 that it was easy to apply it to our customer’s cars so our customers benefited from DOCILE’s development – Hence the number of 8 and 9 second Mitsi drag cars we built or tuned.
How did you feel about the “hype” that would surround Docile running, people sorta expected you to come out and run PB’s every time yes?
It made it hard and in the end less enjoyable to go to the track. Because the car had a lot of publicity there was an expectation that we would PB every time. Developing a car like that in the public eye is hard because sometimes the stuff we tried didn’t work. It was a rolling test bed and if you don’t try new things you get left behind. Other times the car just broke – It’s frustrating but I don’t see anything wrong with occasionally breaking parts when you are trying to push over 1200 hp through what is essentially still a production engine/drive train.
In a way I wish we could go back and do it all again since applying what we know now, I have no doubt the car would be in the 7′s and probably with much better reliability. The rolling shell is still on display in our showroom so it may make a return to the track in years to come. Maybe as a nostlagia car?
Lets talk about some of your favourite cars, people know about DS9 (altho Bam claims that), Simon Steffeks Mirage, what have you really enjoyed working on, that perhaps people don’t instantly think of?
Let’s get away from cars for a minute. Two of my favourite jobs looking back were tuning a Subaru EZ30-R engine in a home built plane and a jet sprint boat running an 850 hp Nissan V8 with twin turbos and methanol fuel. I like anything where I can do something unique or unusual and push the boundaries. An engine is just an engine so to me it doesn’t really matter what it is fitted to and variety as they say, is the spice of life.
Graham’s plane will always stick in my mind though because it almost killed me! I had tuned the engine on the ground and following his first solo flights I went up with him to confirm the tune and make any changes necessary. We had done a few circuits and landed to make some changes. We went to take off again and I remember thinking ‘Hmmm doesn’t seem like we are going very fast?’. Figuring Graham knew what he was doing, I shut up and watched the trees looming at the end of the runway. After what felt like an eternity we finally got airborne, missing the trees by what felt like inches. Graham turned to me and said ‘Shit that was close aye? Probably should have aborted that!’ – Thanks for the confidence booster! It turned out his variable pitch prop had jammed, not allowing the engine to get into it’s power band. For some reason I just couldn’t convince Bonnie to jump in for a flight after that?
STM is often seen as a big family, how do you manage a team that are also your good mates? The boys were in your bridal party for example.
Yea STM is not your typical workshop and I see this as one of the reasons we are a success. I had been friends with Bam and Ben for a long time before they actually started working with me, and I feel that our whole team get on much better than most work colleagues – I really wouldn’t have it any other way. The whole STM team also regularly hang out on weekends or heads out for meals and it really helps keep everyone feel like they belong. Ben and I have a very stringent recruitment process which attracts the sort of people who we want to work with. Just being able to do a job well is not enough for us and I want to employ people who share my passion and drive. I want STM to be more of a lifestyle than a job and if we can create this kind of workplace then the results will follow.
It can be difficult being a boss and a mate so I try to not let a work problem become something more personal. I’m not perfect but I think for the most part I get it right.
Whats behind the STM seminars, and the magazine articles, aren;t you just doing yourself out of a job?
The courses and seminars came from us all getting sick of seeing cars coming into the shop which were rolling disasters. We had customers who had wasted money on parts they didn’t need or with unrealistic aims for their budget and we wanted to improve the situation. I guess I also came to realise that I have a bit of a passion for teaching and it is a great way to give something back. A few people have asked me why I would give away my secrets but that is just the point – there are no secrets. Tuning is not magic, nor is it a black art. It is science and technology and it can be taught and it can be learnt. I find most of the people who attend our courses do so because they want a better understanding of how EFI works, not necessarily because they want to do their own tuning. While our courses do teach the tuning fundamentals, they are still not a replacement for 10+ years experience either.
As a tuner and workshop owner, I would rather deal with a well educated customer who understands what we do and what they are trying to achieve, and that is the aim of our courses and seminars – educating the automotive enthusiasts.
Lets move away from cars, apart from Ice Skating, how do you get away from the day to day grind?
Haha that was a cheap shot… the broken arm is healing well though thanks for asking!
I’m not sure I ever really get away from the day to day grind? When I was doing my degree I loved snowboarding and that is something I have promised myself I’m going to get back into this year although after seeing how much impact my broken arm had on life and business I may rethink things?
I love travel and I’m intent on exploring more of the world when time allows. Bonnie and I spent our honeymoon in Hong Kong and then Phuket last year and we both loved it. I would love to explore more or South East Asia as well as spending some time in the States and Europe (I’m hitting SEMA this year with Ben and G). Then there is the usual hanging out with friends and talking shit over a bourbon or five. With a bunch of car-nuts for mates there is never a shortage of conversation or tall stories once a few drinks have flowed.
You’ve got a big challenge coming up to….how are you intending to tune that? (baby…if your a little slow :P) Does that mean taking a step back from the busines
Yea Bonnie is due with our baby girl any day now and obviously life is going to change. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I will be taking a step back from the business, but my involvement is going to change. I have a team of really smart guys working at STM and they don’t need to rely on me for every decision that needs to be made. Our new tuner Chris has also shown he has what it takes and I’m sure in time he will prove to be a worthy successor.
I’m intending to focus more on the direction and growth of STM which can be quite hard when I’m stuck on a dyno for 8 hours a day. Ben and I have some really big ideas for STM to take things to the next level and I’m excited about what the future holds for us. All I can say right now is watch this space.
* thats actually my baby in HD2′s engine bay, but it seemed appropriate
Finally, is there anyone you need to thank for helping you get to where you are? (Lets face it…ditching the cargos and rugged sharks was a positive )
Well that list is getting longer all the time! STM is way bigger than just me, and everyone that works with me deserves an equal share in our success. I do need to say a big thanks to my wife Bonnie for putting up with the late nights and weekends away (actually that goes for all the STM wives/girlfriends really). It would be impossible to do what we do without an understanding and patient wife. In particular I want to thank Ben for his drive in helping to transform STM into what it is today, Bam for his evergrowing list of mechanical and fabrication skills, Doug for doing such a great job of making STM a great experience for our customers, and Chris for moving his life (and fiancee Jess) all the way up her from Dunedin to follow his dream and become a world class tuner. STM would not be what it is without these guys and I’m glad they have chosen to be a part of it all.
So there you have it folks…….and incase you we’re wondering…..Still D.R.E…. well he started off being about DX’s, Racing and Emerging………. and now hes moving to Daddy, Re-investing and Established…..
Still D.R.E after all these year.
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