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July 2023 Vehicle Care RockStar: Luke Wilson

Wilson has achieved rockstar status in the engine building world.
Luke Wilson
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Loyalty, passion and persistence are three of Luke Wilson’s most valued traits. These may not be traits of a “typical” rockstar, per se, but they’re a big part of what makes Luke the rockstar he is in the engine building world. In every aspect of his life, whether it be Luke’s family, friendships and business dealings that he is so loyal to, or the engines, racing, boating, and fishing that he is passionate about, or his more than 20 years as co-owner of 4 Piston Racing with business partner Josh Klein that he has been persistent with, Luke demonstrates why he is being recognized as a Vehicle Care Rockstar through all of it.

We recently spent a full day visiting Danville, IN, where 4 Piston Racing is headquartered, to get to know more about Luke Wilson and what makes him tick. For starters, he was a kid who had a dream and didn’t let it go. We’ve all been that younger version of ourselves dreaming of one day becoming famous as a rockstar, an athlete or running a business, but the large majority of us let those dreams and aspirations fade away. Not Luke.

Legendary Beginnings

Luke and Josh Klein first met in high school, but didn’t get to truly become friends until they took a nine-hour car ride to Atlanta together to check out a car event. Little did they know a brother-like friendship would form and a successful business/shop would be the fruit that friendship would bear.

“He was 15. I was probably 16,” Luke Wilson says. “We ended up going to a car event in Atlanta and we were in the same car together for nine and a half hours and we talked cars. The friendship just evolved… and we always obsessed over engines. We wanted to race and we couldn’t afford it. That’s why we started getting into this business because we had to do it ourselves. We funded that with all kinds of stuff like street racing and cylinder heads. We had a knack for it.”

Josh remembers it much the same way, saying, “That trip to Atlanta was really the first time we had ever sat down and had a conversation. It was a nine-hour trip, so obviously we got to know each other pretty well. To see the passion that Luke had for cars even at that time was exciting. When we were down at that car show, it was hard not to love it and just really get into it.”

Luke Wilson, Josh Klein
Luke Wilson (left) and Josh Klein (right)

Luke and Josh took that passion and knack for engine work and sought jobs within the industry to learn all they could about running a shop and performing next-level engine work.

“We have had some great mentors,” Wilson admits. “We worked for a man named Jim Stewart at Stewart Racing Engines. He really helped us get our race program going and taught us how to build engines properly. Jim has since passed away, but he taught us how to do it right and how to not cut corners.”

After getting his feet wet, Luke saw a future in using CNC machines to help machine and build performance cylinder heads, but others didn’t see it the same way. Convinced CNC was the right way to go, Luke and Josh started 4 Piston Cylinder Heads in 1999.

“We started building engines in a garage here in our hometown,” Wilson says. “Today, we have 12,000 square feet and 13 employees and we’ve been growing. We do 90% Honda stuff. We do over 1,000 cylinder heads a year and close to 300 engines a year, which is mind blowing to me. I remember a year when we did four engines. I remember the first year we did cylinder heads and we were so proud we did 10.”

Hype for Honda

Indeed, 4 Piston Racing has come a long, long way from those days in a garage to now one of the premier Honda engine machine shops in the entire world. To understand what that means to Luke, you have to understand what racing has meant to his life.

“Racing is a way of life in Indianapolis and I grew up in that,” he says. “My family wasn’t involved in racing. We didn’t have race cars because we could never have afforded that, but my dad and my uncle, every Thursday night we were at Indianapolis Raceway Park for Thursday Night Thunder watching Midget and Sprint Cars. Back then, there were some legends running around that track. Today, it’s Dirt Midgets. That’s the big circle track thing that’s popular now. “I’m also into the Indianapolis 500. I’ve missed only one in 37 years when my daughter was born. I’ve sat in the same seats every year. It is a tradition and a major thing in our family.

“My first taste of competitive racing was really RC cars. That’s all we could afford to do, but I got a taste for winning. What really got me into actual automotive racing was engines and a love for engines. I love cars and I love driving. I still run my car at the road course and at the drag strip, but really, it’s always been about horsepower and the intricate details of trying to find a little bit more than the other guy.”

That obsession with engines and with motorsports in general is what lead Luke to pursue Honda engines when he and Josh started 4 Piston Racing.

“Hondas were a popular thing, so we gravitated to that,” Wilson says. “We quickly learned that Honda is a motorsports company, period. Right now, they’re the top of Formula 1 and IndyCar. They are in the top echelon of performance. They’re involved in lots of different racing. And, if you’ve ever been inside a Honda engine, you see the stuff from their racing that transfers over into a streetcar. There’s a lot of racing technology that’s been put into the everyday, average car you drive to work.

“Also, there’s a huge following and a huge global market for it. We’re putting these engines into $1 million carbon fiber monocoque race cars and into Honda Civics that run down the drag strip with 2,000 horsepower. There’s a wide variety of use. Our engines are sold worldwide. We ship a lot of overseas engines. They will end up in a USAC Midget, an Autocross car, a dirt buggy, a boat, a jet ski, an airplane, and a lot of streetcars and track day cars. We also have engines in open wheel cars from Indy Lights (Indy NXT) to Japanese Super Formula to hill climb cars in Europe. There’s just such a big global Honda market, it’s fantastic for us and it really diversifies us.

“Our business is probably 85% endurance race and road race. Drag racing is a small piece of it, but it really does fuel our interest in our development. We find a lot of things and push the limits on parts and find those limits because of drag racing, and then, we can really tone things back for an endurance setup.”

Products and engines from 4 Piston Racing are often seen by customers as the cream of the crop for high-performance Honda. To help keep those high standards and reputation good, Luke ensures his team follows specific processes, and he has filled the shop with quality machinery.

“Everything that comes in goes to a disassembly area and we have a team of guys whose job it is to get everything disassembled, cataloged, cleaned and organized so that when we’re building an engine, all that stuff is easily accessible to the engine builders,” he says. “They can then get to it, sort through the stuff, inspect and do a final clean.

“Now, we are getting into casting our own cylinder heads because this stuff’s hard to get. That’s been a big step forward for us. Porting cylinder heads is a big part of our business and so is speed and efficiency. With over 1,000 cylinder heads a year, we can’t mess around with tinkering on a head for a week. We do use a Centroid 5-axis CNC to machine. It’s a good piece of equipment and we haven’t had a single problem with it. We also have some Mazak equipment showing up soon. Those machines will help us get into new parts and speed things up a little bit.

“In addition to that, you have finish work on cylinder heads, so we learned on all kinds of machines. We grew up on a Sunnen VGS and evolved to Serdi equipment to try to be faster. We’ve since gone to a single-point Newen CNC valve job process for better repeatability. The Newen takes some of the human element out of it.”

In addition, 4 Piston utilizes a chassis and an engine dyno to aid in development work and squeeze every last ounce of performance out of their engines.

“You have to be constantly developing in order to stay on the cutting edge,” Wilson says. “We have a pretty good reputation for knocking it out of the park on horsepower production. I focus on that a lot. I focus on a part of the power curve that maybe doesn’t sell engines, but it’s there. You’ve got to find the power all the way through.”

Finding a Work/Life Balance

To continually build and grow 4 Piston Racing into what it has become, both Luke and Josh spent long hours away from family and friends in an effort to get work out the door. However, they saw the burnout settle in and didn’t want that for themselves or the employees of 4 Piston today.

“Through those early years, we were burning the midnight oil at both ends of the candle,” Wilson says. “We were in here early in the morning, late at night, missing kid stuff and missing stuff with our wives. It takes a toll burning the midnight oil. I always wanted to not have that for the people who work for us – you can’t sustain it forever. You can lose interest and burn out. That’s the good thing about having a business partner like Josh. When the wind would get out of my sail for a brief second, he’s there to keep it going. If that happens to him, I’m there to keep it going. We push and we have a lot of motivation. We want to win at everything. It’s the competitive spirit of motorsports.

“We really, really value the workday. We are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. You will not see us here after that, before that, or on the weekends. We want that for our people. We want a regular job to show up to and not always in turmoil, because that’ll drive you nuts. You’ve got to have that work/life balance or you’re not productive at work in the time you’re there. If you’re organized, you can be extremely productive in the eight hours that you get. We are always trying to figure out little things that can improve our process. There’s a lot to be gained still, and that’s a good challenge.”

Speaking of a work/life balance, Luke practices what he preaches and leads by example. When he isn’t at the shop or spending time at the racetrack, he is with his wife and three kids and often satisfying his ‘blue mind’ by getting out on the water — either boating or fishing.

“I think it’s important to have a balance of things so that you don’t burn yourself out and can come back to work refreshed, so you can tackle new ideas,” he says. “I do have some hobbies that I’m very passionate about. One of those is fishing. I’m a fishing nut. I carry a fishing pole in my truck everywhere I go. I will pull off on the side of the road and fish a stream. When I say I have a fishing pole, I have my waders, all my tackle, all my gear — I can walk down a creek anywhere in the country, wherever I’m driving — I will pull over, buy a fishing license on my phone and I’m fishing.

“I’m a boat fanatic too. I have some boats and I’d rather be on the lake than anywhere in the world. When I’m at the racetrack, I’m there. I’m racing. I love it. But I think part of why I love it is because I’m not there 100 percent of the time. Same thing with the lake. It’s my reset button, so it’s really important to me.”

A Diversified Business Portfolio

While Luke is known for engines and his passion of boating and fishing, one thing he’s lesser known for is his second business venture, Bio-Response Solutions. Like many rockstars, diversifying their portfolio with side projects and other passions is important. In Luke’s case, he diversified the 4 Piston Racing business with something pretty unique, and the two companies have been growing alongside one another for over 20 years.

“I was working in pharmaceutical and biocontainment and I lost my job and I had to figure out what I was going to do,” he says. “We were racing and porting cylinder heads, but that wasn’t a business yet. I had to plant a seed to figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I started 4 Piston with Josh and another business at the same time and both snowballed. I couldn’t get further away on two different businesses.

“The other business is called Bio-Response Solutions and the process is called aquamation. It is basically a water-based cremation that dissolves your body and your proteins – it breaks the peptide bond in the protein and puts you into your basic building blocks – like natural decomposition – just in a few hours. There’s nothing left after except for a skeleton – just like a regular fire cremation. They take the skeleton out and grind that up and that’s the ash you get back. We have the same thing, but it’s a water-based process and it’s green, so it’s 1/20th of the carbon footprint of a fire cremation.”

Bio-Response Solutions doesn’t offer or perform the water cremations themselves, but rather sells the tank or chamber-like equipment to do the process. Funeral homes purchase the patented equipment for their businesses both here in the States and worldwide.

While water cremation might not be a well-known process, it is gaining momentum. Currently, here in the United States, 26 of 50 states allow for it, while legislation is still being approved in the remaining states.

“We’re not pushing the legislation or lobbying,” he notes. “As funeral homes and businesses become interested, they go to their state reps and talk about it and it goes from there. It’s been good growth for us. We have 65 machines in process at all times that are sold for customers. It’s as fast as we can build them and get them out of here.”

4 PIston Racing

Running two growing companies keeps Luke plenty busy. In fact, according to Luke, the 12,000 sq.-ft. is no longer enough space to house 4 Piston Racing and Bio-Response Solutions.

“We’ve outgrown our britches here, so we’re building a new facility for 4 Piston out front, and we have another three acres to the side, so we’re going to try to keep growing,” he says.

Aside from the future physical growth of the shop, Luke and Josh are also planning to get more into manufacturing and development work, while still maintaining the current 4 Piston Racing work we’ve all come to know and love.

“Manufacturing is definitely the direction we want to go in,” Josh Klein says. “Some of the products that we purchase right now, we just purchase too many of them and there’s no reason for us not to make the stuff ourselves. I would also like to focus more on just engine development instead of the day-to-day of processing engines that need built. That’s where we want to go – development and manufacturing.”

Just like the brothers they’ve become, Luke agrees on that future direction, saying, “Manufacturing and developing products that make life easier for customers and make life easier for our engine builders is something you can see us doing in the future. Just constantly expanding one piece at a time. We are all about slow growth, steady growth and maintaining a really good reputation.”

Having achieved that growth and good reputation over the course of 20-plus years, we asked Luke where he envisioned his and 4 Piston Racing’s legacy being in the long run. One thing he knew for sure – he’d be working at the shop until the end.

“I hope that my kids [or Josh’s kids] are interested in this, but if they’re not, that’s okay,” Wilson says. “We don’t know what path our kids are going to choose. I’m going to do this until I die. I sometimes look forward to retirement, but I’ll be at work every day. I’ll probably work to an old age and I hope to be at the racetrack like one of my heroes at 88 years old, AJ Foyt. I hope at that age I’m there listening to race cars running around the track with my engines in them. That would be icing on the cake.”

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