Steve Dinan, performance tuning maestro, tells all
In 1979, Steve Dinan was a young engineering student in California with $5000 in his pocket and a head full of ideas for how to tune BMWs for better performance. Over the next three-plus decades, Dinan took these ideas and this modest nest egg and transformed himself into the preeminent aftermarket BMW specialist, developing a close-knit relationship with the Bavarian automaker in the process.
In 2013, Driven Performance Brands (which also owns Hurst Performance, Flowmaster, and APR) acquired the company bearing Dinan’s name. In 2015, Dinan departed the company and headed east to Indiana to work for Chip Ganassi (with whom Dinan had enjoyed a long partnership that included a win at the Daytona 24 Hours in 2013) as part of the legendary race team’s Ford GT racing program. To his consternation, however, Dinan discovered that his role at Ganassi was focused more on corporate liaison work and less on engineering. Dinan quickly came to miss building cars. It wasn’t long before he was back in California.
Fans of Dinan’s tuning expertise will be pleased to know that he is once again doing what he does best: wringing ever-higher levels of performance out of the best cars on the road. We recently sat down with Dinan to talk about his new venture, CarBahn Autoworks, as well as his background, his time at Ganassi, and the current state of IMSA racing (in which CarBahn fields an Audi R8 GT4).
You’re well-known in the automotive industry for your insistence on precision. Where does that come from?
My father was an electrical engineer for McDonnell Douglas, so I grew up during the space race of the 1960s. He worked on the Mercury capsule, the Gemini capsule, and then his last project was a heads up display and weapons delivery system. That was my engineering influence. My mother happens to be a pianist, so I got an art gene and an engineering gene. I try to mix the two together to make an artfully engineered product.
Growing up, It was a really neat household. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, and my mother didn’t work outside the home. She played the piano but had so many kids that she didn’t ever make a career out of music. She was quite good, though, and she played the piano everyday. She was very much into music and my father was very much into airplanes and spaceships, so it was an intellectual home. Debates were encouraged and we didn’t necessarily have to agree. We had both Republicans and Democrats in the house with Mom, Dad, Grandma, and the eight kids, but we could agree to disagree, get along, and sometimes even persuade each other to our viewpoints.
We were also required to read and do book reports when I was a kid, which my parents learned from the Kennedys. Every month we had to read a book of substance and give a report on it. In the early days, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was very influential for me, and then later when I was a teenager I got into Kurt Vonnegut and Herman Hesse. Not your average light reading, but I liked the philosophy in those books. I liked the different ways they looked at life and people, the way they tried to understand why we are the way we are. Now that I’m 66 years old, however, I have to keep up on technology and aerodynamics so these days most of my reading is technical papers.
After selling Dinan—and after spending time with Chip Ganassi’s racing program—why build another company? Why not kick back, take it easy, and re-read Siddhartha?
My wife asks me that almost everyday! We made enough money from selling Dinan that I don’t have to work again and could do almost anything I wanted to do, so I took a job with Chip Ganassi to help him with the Ford GT program. I was there for 11 months but I got bored, because it was kind of a corporate liaison job and there was no engineering involved. I went to Ganassi because I loved racing, but I wasn’t building or making anything. I just realized that I really missed the creative process. I’d sold Dinan to a private equity group and I missed tuning cars so we moved back to California and I started CarBahn.
I can’t use the “Dinan” name anymore because they obviously bought the brand, but they also had a different vision for that company. They’re a private equity group and their vision was to cut out all the expenses and maximize the brand name to make as much money as possible. In the process, they got rid of a lot of really good people who used to work for me and who I spent many years collecting. One of my art forms is recognizing talent and individuality, hiring those people, and then putting them in a room and stirring them up. A lot of good things come out of that because you can’t make everything yourself. They let all of those people go, so I hired them all back. Now most of the engineering and development staff at CarBahn are all those people who are left over from Dinan.
Talented people can also be headstrong. How do you manage such an environment?
My mother always told me that creative people who are really good at what they do—whether it’s playing the piano or acting, or whatever—are more practiced at their craft than anyone else, they’ve put more hours a day into it than anyone else, they think outside the box, and they work well with different and challenging people. What I learned early on in management is that you should hire people who don’t necessarily agree with you but who have a high IQ and who have enough intestinal fortitude to argue with you when they think they’re right and you’re wrong. I encourage people to challenge me.
When the new company took over Dinan they thought it was a crazy environment because they had all these people coming into the office everyday after I left to tell them they were doing it wrong. The new management didn’t quite know what to do with that, so instead of listening to them they just fired them all. They basically only wanted to keep around the “yes people.”
You obviously don’t want someone who’s just argumentative, but you need people to have opinions they’ve thought about and who will challenge you. I learn something from my people everyday. I have a lot of automotive knowledge and I’m very good at what I do, but I have a lot of people who work for me who’re as good as I am and that’s what made Dinan great—and what makes CarBahn great today.
Other than its name, how does CarBahn differ from Dinan?
The CarBahn concept covers not just BMW M cars, but also AMGs, Audi S and RS models, and Porsches—basically the performance models.
Instead of making all the parts in-house for the cars, we’ve decided that if we can find something that’s usable and available on the market, we’ll buy it instead of making it so that we can do more cars. There’s no point replicating something identical if it’s already available and good. Unfortunately, we do still wind up making about half our parts because we find that much of what’s on the aftermarket is just not good enough quality for us.
Back when I started Dinan, we couldn’t find anything of quality to buy. It was really that bad. The springs were bad, and the turbos had wastegate malfunctions, that sort of thing. The overall quality of the aftermarket has improved but it’s still nowhere near OEM level and we take pride in trying to make things to the quality level of an OEM manufacturer. There are a few things out there, like Forgeline and HRE wheels and Brembo brakes, that have generally been pretty good, but there have never been many people doing good suspensions or intakes or exhausts. That’s always been where the struggle is, especially with suspensions.
We do our own software now. We find that most of the aftermarket’s understanding of the technology of software isn’t that good. We also do our own engines and our own suspensions. We’re able to buy most other things, and we’re still selling Dinan intakes and exhausts in BMW land. We’re now buying turbochargers from Honeywell or BorgWarner, as well as compressor wheels from the aftermarket.
You’ve recently been showcasing an AMG C63 S build. How has all of this come to bear in that car? And why even tinker with a car like that?
I’ve always been that way. My wife says I’m pessimist, even if I think I’m a realist. Every time I touch anything—a machine, a motorcycle, a car, an airplane—I’m immediately drawn to what’s wrong with it. What did somebody not do right? What did they rush out because they had to meet a timeline? What was the cost consideration? Companies make decisions for lots of different reasons.
The C63 is really good-looking, has a nice interior, has a great user interface, and has a good powertrain, but the handling wasn’t up to our standard when we first drove it. It was so stiff in pitch that it shredded the tires every 5000 miles. Now, admittedly, I drive pretty quick but there was nothing left of them. We couldn’t find anything in chassis land that was good and the suspension bushings in the marketplace were all really poor quality, and the wheel offset and tire sizes on the market were mostly wrong so we had to have custom wheels made. Believe it or not, we actually made the car softer in pitch, making it both ride better and have better grip. It really came out well. It’s a great performance car and I really like it.
I like to go in and correct the things that were done not up the standards of the rest of the vehicle. I want to pick a good vehicle to start with, however—like a BMW M car or an AMG Mercedes—and fix whatever’s necessary to make a better car out of it. That’s where my success has come from over the years.
Your wife calls you a pessimist. In an age where electric and autonomous vehicles appear to be the future, however, what makes you optimistic about the internal combustion engine and the future of driving?
I do believe that in 20-30 years, half the cars will be autonomous. Half the people won’t even own a car – they’ll just order an Uber that otherwise sits in a lot plugged into a charging station. It’ll pick you up, take you where you want to go, and then go back and plug itself into the charger. Some people will own an electric or hybrid vehicle that they keep in their garage because they can afford to do so, and they won’t need to rent it by the hour. And that’s fine: People need transportation and a lot of people don’t care about cars.
But there’ll still be, say, 5 percent of the population who just likes cars for the fun of cars. That’s not going away. Because of the power density of the internal combustion engine and its fuel, which makes cars lighter and gives us so much power per pound, I don’t think the internal combustion engine is going away anytime soon. It may be a combination gas-electric hybrid (like a 918 or 919 Porsche, whether as a street car or race car) but it’ll still be a performance vehicle and you’ll still be able to tune it.
In fact, people always talk about the heyday of the automobile being back in the 1960s when I grew up and was a teenager, but honestly, I think we’re in the heyday now. The assortment of amazing cars we have now, and the performance of those cars, is just stunning compared to any other era. I’ve been doing this for 42 years and I’ve never seen so many great cars. It’s just unprecedented, so I think we’re in the best time of the automobile right now.
How has the aftermarket industry—and the people in it—changed since you’ve been involved in it? Have you felt these changes in the racing world as well?
It would be tough to get started now like I did when I started Dinan in 1979. I was 25 years old and had $5000 dollars. I was in college at night for engineering. It was a bold move, and I had to make money in the first month to make it to the second month, and in the second month to make it to the third month, and so forth. That would be hard to do now because cars are more complicated and the cost of making things is higher. That’s probably why you see so many people out there just buying and selling things—buying a turbo from one guy and a suspension from someone else, and then calling themselves a “tuner” by just bolting parts on cars. I’ve never liked that approach because there’s so much product out there that’s substandard and if there isn’t something made for your car, then how do you solve the problem? You don’t necessarily have to manufacture everything but you’re going to have make something if you truly want to make the car better. Most people in the aftermarket are just in the business of moving hardware around to make money, but they’re not necessarily into making the vehicle better just for its own sake.
Young engineers today are the same kids they’ve always been, historically: they like cars, even if they’re less car guys and more tech guys now. They also have a tough time comprehending what we old guys call “the good old days,” back when you could do anything. For example, we race an R8 GT4 in IMSA right now. Once upon a time, we used to build our own cars and our own engines, and I even used to drive them myself back in the day. Now it’s against the rules to build your own race car. You have to go buy a spec factory race car, like a GT3 or GT4 car, and you’re not allowed to change much of anything in it. You can’t take the engine apart and seal it; you can’t take the gearbox apart and seal it; you can’t touch the electronics because it’s encrypted. And so it just boils to adjusting the sway bars, shocks, alignment and tire pressure. And we talk about all the crazy things we used to do and the crazy stuff we used to build from scratch and they’re all just amazed at how much freedom we had and, yes, that was probably a lot more fun—and I agree that’s the case. But this is just the modern world we live in now.
IMSA racing can be a little frustrating but we recently finished second at Lime Rock and we took the points lead. If you know a lot about cars (and I’ve never raced a mid-engine car or an Audi before) you can still make a car better even with all the restrictions. That’s what I’ve always been good at and what I’ve always enjoyed. Teams will now spend inordinate amounts of time on microscopic changes. They might spend a week testing the ride height of a front splitter to optimize the amount of downforce, because the car is understeering, and even a half a millimeter can make a tremendous amount of difference. Once they find that right gap, they might wind up with 100 pounds more downforce on the front of the car. That translates to winning races.
The lack of freedom is a little frustrating but there are a lot of good things about it, too. For one thing, you don’t have to be a guy like me to build a race car. You don’t have to hire a guy like me to build a race car. You can just go buy a car and know it’s competitive when you get it, so it brings a lot more people in. The classes are a lot bigger because there’s more cars. The competition is a lot closer, and also the cost is lower because the cars are all tuned to be super reliable and you can buy and replace parts as they break. So the cars are a lot more generic but they have these good points. The GT3 and GT4 cars are really cool-looking, too, and they’re really fun to drive. But yes, the lack of freedom is frustrating.
Is there such a thing as work-life balance for Steve Dinan?
What I love to do is what I do for a job, so what’s the point of retiring? I’m a lucky person: most people have to go to work and it’s actual work. I’m not saying what I do isn’t work—it’s hard, it’s stressful, you have to worry about money, and all those sorts of things, but what I love to do is what I get to do everyday and have for my entire life. I don’t think life gets any better than that. I’ve come to the conclusion after attempting to retire, and after going to Ganassi and then coming back and starting another company, that I’ll probably retire the day before they put me in the ground.