Worlds Collide: Hot Rodders And Hackers

When we think of the average hot rodder, we think of guys and gals that love anything on four wheels. They’re good with hand tools, fabrication and know the ins and outs of the internal combustion engine. Their tools of the trade are welders, grinders and boxed-end wrenches. But their knowledge of electric circuits doesn’t go beyond wiring up a 12 volt DC tail light. On the surface, the role of a hot rodder would seem quite different from that of a hardware hacker. But if you abstract what they do, you find that they take machines and modify their design to make them do something more than they were originally designed to do. When viewed in this light, hot rodders are hackers.

Today’s cars and trucks use highly sophisticated electronic controls to keep them running at optimal performance. Without a solid background in computer electronics, a hot rodder will be faced with a near impossible challenge when trying to make any substantial modifications to a modern motor vehicle. This is one of the reasons why they stick with older vehicles. As a general rule, a hot rodder wants nothing to do with a car or truck made after the year 1980.

As time marches on and new generations of hot rodders fire up their first TIG welder, it is inevitable that they will begin to be lured into our world with the hope of hot rodding more modern cars. Newer cars and trucks use a computer system called a Power Train Control Module, or PCM for short. PCM hacking groups have popped up everywhere and hot rodders are becoming more and more familiar with terms like CAN bus, EEPROM and FLASH. ROM burners and Bus Pirates are beginning to lay alongside wrenches and socket sets in tool chests across the world. This new generation of hot rodders are becoming electronics hackers by necessity.

Hot Rodders, Hackers and Reality TV

Richard Rawlings Source

It’s important to recognize the relationship between the modern hot rodder and certain types of hackers. We are all aware of the car hacking movement that attempts to break security and crack protocols. The typical hot rodder is not interested in this approach. Their interest lies in modifying the motor vehicle for performance enhancements and to make it do that which the design engineer never intended it to do. An example of such a case was recently played out in a reality television show called Fast N’ Loud.

Fast N’ Loud is a popular TV series that has been running on the Discovery Channel since 2012. It’s based on a real hot rod company in Dallas, Texas called Gas Monkey Garage. They make real hot rods, and have been doing so long before the Discovery Channel flooded the garage with camera crews. But because they’re part of a reality TV series, questions and allegations began to stir about their true capabilities. We all know how TV works, and we all know a lot of stuff is faked for entertainment value.

The Challenge

2015 Hellcat engine in 1968 Dart Full size

A little group of hot rodders who call themselves Roadkill attempted to out the crew of Gas Monkey Garage by challenging them to a build-off. I say little…they have a YouTube channel that averages 3.5 million views per episode. So they’re large enough to get their voice heard, but are not beholden to any television network or advertising conglomerate. They were real people making a real challenge to what they felt was a fake hot rodding outfit that was busy making a TV show, and not real hot rods.

The challenge was straightforward. They would each build a car and race on a eighth-mile drag strip. The fastest car would be declared the winner. The only rule was that the car had to use a 2015 Dodge Hellcat HEMI power train in an older body style car.

Poking the Bear

Aaron Kaufman Full Size

If the Roadkill crew had done a little homework, they would have found that the owner of Gas Monkey Garage, [Richard Rawlings], was no amateur hot rodder. He’s won the Gumball 3000 and Bullrun Rally twice, and holds the current world record for the Cannonball run, driving from New York to Los Angeles in 31 hours and 59 minutes. His sidekick, [Aaron Kaufman], is a highly intelligent mechanic and fabricator who grew up much like you and I – taking things apart and figuring out how they worked.

Needless to say, when the two heard of the Roadkill challenge and the attacks on their credibility, they took it seriously. Very seriously.

Hackers to the Rescue

Fuel pump and cooling jacket reveals professional work Full Size

Fitting a 2015 Hellcat power train into an older car was no easy task. Firstly, this was a drag race. So the car needed to be as light as possible while still being safe. [Aaron’s] approach to this problem was to strip all of the unnecessary equipment out of the car AND off the Hellcat engine. This presented a problem for the engine, however. Today’s modern engine PCMs expect to see things like the power windows and windshield wipers. You can’t just unplug the stuff and toss it. This was a lesson that [Aaron] and his crew at Gas Monkey learned the hard way. After they got the engine in and wired up, it would not start. Lacking the knowledge needed to program the PCM to ignore all the stuff they had ripped out, he was forced to call in help.

The team at a company called Diablo Sport was known for their mastery of all things Chrysler, including PCM programming. A team of their best guys flew in the Friday before the race, and after 6 hours of tinkering with the PCM, they finally got the car to start.

Roadkill had the same engine, so they would have had the same problem. Their method to resolve this issue was to stuff all of the unneeded electronics in the trunk and extend the wiring to the engine. The extra weight would be their downfall, allowing the Gas Monkey built hot rod to win the race by running the 1/8th mile in just under 6 seconds.

Witnessing the hot rodders hacking the 2015 Hellcat HEMI engine sheds light on a new breed of hacker. A cross between a bits-and-bytes hacker and a nuts-and-bolts hot rodder – a hot rod hacker. We in the hacker community welcome our hot rodder friends, and look forward to hearing about some more hot rod hacks.



Inline images.

59 thoughts on “Worlds Collide: Hot Rodders And Hackers

  1. I grew up around cars and computers and I’d consider myself a hacker in both aspects and have had my hand in many projects. I feel this article could have been MUCH MUCH more, but instead became an advertisement for a reality TV competition. So much wasted potential.

      1. exactly my thoughts.

        touting anything from fast-n-loud as a good thing only panders to an average demographic who tend to be interested in shiny bits that make noise, of which are rarely hackers in any extent–which makes me question why this article is even on hackaday.

        and to anyone who has an interest in motorsports, the cannonball is reckless, and the gumball 3000 and bullrun ‘rally’ are popularity contests fueled by rich pricks to feed their own ego’s. hardly serious events worth bragging about.

    1. “There was a time when we could watch and learn from documentary channels…” and not enough people watched to make it worth the advertisers money. Look, the tech based shows are nonsense, we all know this, but it has put those that work with their hands in a far better light than in the not so distant past. I’m willing to forgive them their many sins for that alone.

      1. “and not enough people watched to make it worth the advertisers money”

        Most likely there was enough audience, but the advertisers could make -more- money by catering to a lower denominator.

        1. Unfortunately that amounts to the same thing from the advertiser’s perspective. At any rate, in the long run, television (or video if you will) used for instruction, works better in ‘pull’ mode rather than ‘push’ mode, and thus can be delivered, on demand, via the web to those that want and need the information, when they need it, far more efficiently. Broadcast IS about entertainment first, and thus must be driven by the narrative, even when it’s so-called ‘reality television,’ and those telling these stories have to take liberties to make it work on that level. Sure most of the car shows are not depictions of how things really are in a working garage – so what – there are now a whole bunch of folks may have never known anything about the inner working of their vehicles beyond the fact that when they pushed the slanted pedal it moved that have a little better idea of what is going on. These same people also probably thought mechanics were barely literate labor working in and with filth, and that too is an attitude these programs changed.

          And this is true of the other fields that these stations cover and as such they do rise to their mandate of educating us, and if they make some of these occupations look a little more dramatic, or more romantic than they really are, well so be it – we’d all like others to see what we do for a living in the best light.

      2. Well I’m NOT willing to forgive them. Which is why these days I prefer to watch “boring” (quite literally) Youtube videos of craftsmen working on their lathe or mill (I did say it includes a lot of boring…) rather than the “character conflict” and drama that is sold these days on TV in the soap operas called “tech shows”. All they care about is all the yelling going on (actually, crews seem selected for shows exclusively based on the explosiveness of their temper) and there’s practically zero actual tech content (it’s limited to “they got it done in time after all”). Forgive them?!? Hell no. Screw the whole bloody lot!

        PS – and no, hot-rodders still couldn’t give less of a damn about any electronics attached to their beloved brand-name hunks of metal: they simply just make sure to have a resident dork with a laptop in their shop (holed up in a corner as far as possible from the camera) who’s job is to make sure the Wärtsilä they just fitted with a turbo will still turn on and hopefully not blow up at least until delivered. Most shops can’t even touch a non-electronic engine – it gets sent off for rebuild or bought as a package, gets bolted in, and if it doesn’t start right up it’s game over until the relevant specialist waltzes in. Sorry, no – all the TIG crew knows how to do is… TIGing.

  2. I watched a fair bit of Fast N Loud last year when my college roommate insisted on having cable. I had not heard of Roadkill’s challenge though, those 2 are die hard garage tinkerers that are all about making things work while FNL is serious high end car builders that took the “with blackjack and hookers” approach to creating a TV show. I feel like Richard has too much money to be in touch with the average car enthusiast.

  3. There are a few errors here the, biggest being the hellcat only rule is entirely false. Also it took them half of one day and a few hours the next morning to figure out the issue. The anti theft system looking for the rfid chip in the key in this case.

    1. In addition, Gas Monkey only followed one rule (using the Hellcat engine), ignoring all of the others and therefor winning by cheating. Had they followed the rules like Roadkill did, the race would have been a lot more even.
      Roadkill proved exactly what they intended to: Reality TV and everyone in it are all fakes.

      By the way, speeding across country in a short amount of time hardly qualifies someone as being a “professional hot rodder”. It usually only qualifies them as being a criminal.

  4. HAD is behind the curve on this one (no surprise since cars are seen as purely greasy-finger mechanical devices and HAD is deeply biased toward circuit-hacking).

    “Hot Rodders” are long since past the “cam, quads and headers” days and were playing with/bypassing engine computers before many of the HAD staff learned to ride a bike. In the late 90s early 2000s, they often relied on a laptop in the passenger seat to do the heavy lifting though there are other systems available now.

    The “hack” here is tricking the engine ECU into thinking it’s still in the intended platform (either by direct intervention or by simply piling the peripherals in the trunk and leaving them plugged in) and getting the $17,000+ mill to crank. No word on how they did on the track, but a `67 dart with a 700+hp motor sounds like a lot of fun.

    I can’t wait for HAD to discover experimental aircraft and/or boatbuilding….

  5. Those Discovery clowns shenanigans has nothing to do with both hacking or cars.. What are these creeps even doing here?

    What’s next? OCC featured for welding a handlebar together?

  6. So somebody said that gas monkey garage are a bunch of people with very little skills… and they confirmed it.

    Aaron Kaufman said he doesnt know anything about engines post 1950 and after watching some episodes, I believe him.

  7. Anyone who thinks this has nothing to do with hacking obviously has no clue what is all needed to make something like this work. This goes beyond connecting two off the shelf chipsets and then talking to them to make “tha nexttt gr8est projekt evar!111!!”.

    How many of you know actual fabrication skills, have reworked a wiring harness, and then tricked a modern ECU to work even though almost all of the other modules on the CAN line aren’t present (let alone know what a terminating resistor does…)

    This might not be a normal 3D printer hack that is usually on this website, but it most certainly a very involved “hack”.

    1. Most of the time I write software and design electronics. I do actually have very solid fabrication skills, am proficient will milling machines, lathes, and surface grinders. I have been known spin wrenches, Weld up frames, and make wiring harnesses (or in some cases rework old ones). I have in fact worked on a number of race cars, drift machines, and hot rods. Wicked powerful machines the lot. The modern pro-grade race machine is a very digital beast (especially if it moves sideways at speed).

      You are correct, the cutting edge, or even just the modern performance grade machine does represent some very clever hacking. And to be fair, I do not own a television, and had not heard of this program till now, over my morning cup of coffee. I think the over all point people are making is that this program is not really showing the technical side of what a modern speed shop does. Being a reality TV show, it probably makes the mechanics look like tools, which they almost certainly are not. The program is likely displaying what people think a speed shop should be, and providing no actual view of reality. Probably because the producers do not think it looks cool enough, lacks drama, and is dull.

      So while the modern speed shop is a hacker’s dream (they really are fun to work in), this program is not going to portray that aspect of it particularly well.

      1. Many, many times this.

        “Reality” Television is anything but. Fun to watch for entertainment, but all the value of excrement for actual education. The producers know that the legit educational stuff doesn’t sell adds… the over the top wowie-zowie stuff is what sells, and that’s what the shows are edited for.

        Any tosser can jack with their ECU and get a douche-bro paintjob and body package (with totals easily in the many thousands of dollars range) and be made to look like hot stuff on TV, but a quality hot rod build with proper engineering and professional care given to the materials and accessories used will deliver the kind of consistent and lasting results (in performance and appearance) that your run-of-the-mill poser douche-mobile can’t even fathom.

        It’s a shame that some professionals end up being portrayed as entirely the opposite in order to sell a Reality TV show, and it’s even more of a shame that the opposite also happens.

  8. This article is kinda disappointing in that it shows very little in the way of research into the subject. Roadkill is sponsored by Chrysler, is part of Motor Trend’s online network, and is hosted by the editor of Hot Rod magazine (David Freiburger – really great guy.) They know their stuff as well or better than the GMG guys (not dissing GMG either, there’s clearly some talent there if you look past the reality show bs.)
    Late model fuel injected engine swaps are commonplace, and you can even get kits for fuel injection and ignition controls (

    1. …and then remap the entire ECU for it to work across the entire flow/RPM range?

      …or just use the factory ECU and calibration to avoid having to be strapped to a dyno for hours on end when you can just use the Chrysler engineer’s hard work to do it all for you…

      1. Unless part of the contest rules were to use the stock fuel/ignition maps then they would in fact spend many hours on the Dyno to properly tune the engine, especially if the engine was modified in any way (including bolt-ons). You’d be crazy to enter a drag race with a stock motor against modified opponents.

    2. Finally someone else that realizes that Freiburger is not just some small time Youtube channel host. As well, anyone that thinks this was on off the cuff challenge is only fooling themselves. Roadkill and GMG were both sponsored by Dodge in this instance so the whole challenge screams ‘publicity’.

  9. I’m a big fan of Roadkill… To be nit picky, both hosts are employees of TEN: The Enthusiast Network and therefore are beholden to all the usual corporate crap like avoiding getting sued and making a profit.

  10. I used to enjoy watching Roadkill until Dodge got involved. I would have done exactly the same as the Gas Monkey guys. Not only do you get rid of all the extra hardware you get to tune the motor for race gas.

  11. how can you have a post about cars and hacking and not even mention megasquirt( this entire post smells of dirty money.

    as a hod rodder (under your definition) i swapped my first motor 2 weeks after buying my first car. then 6 months later i switched from Mechanical fuel management to electronic port fuel injection.

    Just because the strict hacker types don’t pay attention to cars, doesn’t mean that the car guys haven’t been upping their skillset. Using two produced shows to illustrate your point is counter productive as it shows how little research was actually done, Gear heads live in forums and garages, not on TV shows or watching overly produced TV shows. (this is not a knock to the skill level of anyone on a tv show, but they chose profit not passion.) at least with roadkill they admit to their lack of knowledge in the areas they lack knowledge in

      1. ms1 owner here, that I bought as a pcb from b&g on the first group buy and got my bom components from digikey and farnell etc. Still runs the efi on one of my streetbikes with the extra code flashed onto it, but do you know why its better than a factory tunable ecu? because I soldered it together and learnt a bunch of how things work for myself from the mailing lists etc.
        Have a ms3+msx with a bunch of other bits running one of the racebikes, boost/gear mapped water meth injection, per cylinder egt logging to sd + other nice stuff, turbo wastegate control and a bunch of other experimental stuff, stuff you don’t find on a remapped oem ecu.
        Some history…

        1. MS is a great learning platform for sure. I’ve just had more mega squirts fail on me than anything else. They can come in handy and do anything, but in a situation like this I feel OEM is still a better solution.

          1. Conformel is a friend because it isolates the board from vibration better, although I had to buy a disolvant to replace the injector driving transistor and repair the pcb a little after a magic smoke incident in the ms1’s second incarnation.
            The point is, you can replace the blown transistor and do a bit of kynar hookup repairs to the pcb, all the schematics and information are out there along with some amazingly helpful people who will help diagnose if you make the effort to do the basics in the manual.
            Ive always shied away from the microsquirt because its all potted in as a consumer product. Its a bit like windows vs linux, or vi vs notepad. Sure its easier to get rolling with and package on a bike, but…
            Lets not even discuss closed aftermarket variants.

          1. The 1100 streetbike isn’t blown, its also the 3rd vehicle the ms1 has been on/in. The big spinny thing is a mallory mag which is doing ignition duty and it was ok once I shielded the wiring to stop the emf pulse from messing with the efi.

            The ms3 bike is here, you can see the ms3 tucked up just behind the headstock. If it looks a over complicted nighmare, it is, gearbox is shifted by a pic with debounce on it too.. I have a ms2 on my 750 kawasaki turbo street bike too but thats poorly in bits after loosing a rod.

    1. The MS1 kit I built in highscool over a decade ago was my first intro to the EE world. ME barely won the tossup when picking my major, mainly for flexibility in the discipline.

      When i got my first bigboy job it had a lot to do with being able to blend ME and EE. After a few years I was able to sparky with the actual EEs and picked up a good amount of programming experience (PIC asm, embedded C, labview, and tiny amounts of matlab). I’m not saying I’ve made it or anything, but I owe a lot of my current success to Megasquirt and diyEFI. Hell without them I wouldn’t even be looking at this site.

  12. “As a general rule, a hot rodder wants nothing to do with a car or truck made after the year 1980”
    No offence, but that’s total rubbish. A “hot rodder” is just a term for a customiser/modifier or whatever you want to call them, and people will modify any car, of any age, regardless of the technology in it. A tuner civic may not get refered to as a “hot rod”, but it’s no different really. In some ways more modern cars are harder to modify, due to the electronics, but in some ways they’re easier; you can’t tune a ’55 chevy with a laptop and some software. That said, there’s always been a fair old whack of crossover; there’s a lot of people tunning classics with aftermarket EFI and ECU’s etc.

  13. Its not in the corporate sponsor sheet press release they used to write this but on the original challenge, both teams were supposed to observe a no chassis mods street car weighing no less than 3500lbs and driven by richard in the rules amongst others, GMG shook on the rules then turned up with a drag car with a full back end conversion with ladder bars to improve traction at the strip & weighing in at 2500lbs and richard didnt drive, completely against the agreed rules. But hey, bullcrap reality tv reins and HaD is now so sponsored press release they didn’t even catch onto the back story.
    Eyes wide open, don’t be spoon fed corporate press releases people.

  14. There’s lots of negative nelly’s commenting on this post. What GMG did was pretty cool. They took a hellcat engine that had never before had custom commands sent to the ECU and did just that. (After bringing in Diablo Sport)

    Regarding all the comments about “playing fair”… Bla Bla Bla In this case “cheating” actually created more ways for the car to go wrong. Being able to keep all the variables in check is what made the difference.

    For those that want to know more about Chrysler CAM hacking check out this thread…

    Here’s a company that creates a product that intercepts CAM programming and adds new features…

    Overall what GMG garage did was/is a brave new world for traditional muscle car guys. Doing it within a timeframe and on an engine that normal people will never get their hands on is pretty ballsy.

  15. The only thing louder than a drag car is Richards mouth. They take trash and turn it into more expensive trash. He can take a bad looking car ( and enough Bondo) and turn it into a better looking car ( from 50 feet away). I change the channel whenever I see him coming. The auto shows are always in some artificial crunch mode to get the project done on time, and nobody seems to be able to get along with each other. If you start sooner you finish on time.

    1. That’s not unusual, in the normal professional world. all projects have deadlines.

      In the hobby world where you’re putting time in for free you can afford to take as long as you like,

      In the real world, where engineers expect a pay cheque, jobs are forecast, costed and scheduled, time is money, in a garage environment having a project taking up space (that you pay rent for) that gets in the way of you taking in new work costs money.

      Proper deadlines are a fact of professional life, not just made up toss for the cameras.

  16. GMG really has nothing to be insulted by being called out, as anyone who remembers the spank my marketer thing went. Things you hear from people encountering them-The guy who does the work on the cars is nice, owns his own shop and is paid to come and work on the show and pretend to be employed by the one guy despite him hating Rawlings. Rawlings? He’s an unlikable, annoying, loud mouthed show off and a douchebag. He talks the talk and then cheats the walk, claims dubiously probable achievements and is just an overall ‘THAT guy’.

  17. I love electronics and computers a lot, but as a side thing, I had a 1928 Ford Model A with a 1963 Mustang GT350 Cobra engine and a ford 9″ rear end, it was fast and I did all the wiring myself. Very fun, had a lot more planned before i had to sell it.

  18. 1/8th mile ain’t a proper drag race. If the NHRA wants the funny cars to be slower, they just need to ban the streamliner bodies. When the first one was rolled up to the staging line, the officials should have had it dragged away and torched to drive home the point that no way, no how would violating the rules like that be allowed. ‘Course that’s how most kinds of racing that started out requiring cars to be built from real cars to be affordable come to be using special built race vehicles that cost more than Lambos and Ferraris – people cheat and instead of getting stomped on hard for it the cheats end up in the rules until when they’re all applied there’s nothing left of a real car. Instead of chucking it all and starting over, the class either gets eliminated or it gets redone so that the vehicles have to be built from scratch at huge expense.

    Funny car bodies should have to be completely stock shape from the axle centerlines up and the only stretching allowed between the base of the windshield and the front axle centerline. Then they’d be running slower and safer in a 1/4 mile.

    For Top Fuel there’s likely some combination of wing size and position rules to control downforce on the rear wheels to make too much power useless, which would slow them down.

    If NASCAR wants to get more butts in seats at the tracks (the past couple of years they’ve removed thousands of seats to make the stands look fuller on TV) they need to start a new class that goes back to the old ways. Buy a new car, rip out the interior and the only modifications allowed are for safety. Fuel cell, crash cage, fix the doors shut, perhaps replace the driver’s door with a welded in skin panel to give more room for the cage, racing seat, fire suppression system etc. Bring back win on Sunday, sell on Monday. Today’s NASCAR doesn’t drive car sales because what’s on the track has zero in common with what’s on dealer lots.

    Another thing NASCAR could do is some exhibition races to make up for races shortened due to weather, time limits, the “fuel crisis” in the 70’s etc. Adding up all the un-run Daytona 500 laps, minus ‘extra’ laps from green-white-checker finishes – NASCAR owes us more than a 500 mile race at Daytona, even more if we don’t count caution laps as part of the race. (Which they should not!) Gather up all those lost laps and have a race where only drivers who have never won or even finished in the top 10 in either of the top two NASCAR series are allowed to enter.

    I’d love to watch a 500 mile race where it’s guaranteed that all who finish in the top 10 will be there for the first time in NASCAR. It would give the teams a chance to find new talent without the ‘blinding glare’ of the top drivers overshadowing them. NASCAR should also recruit women drivers and pit crew members for that race.

  19. Sadly very few can hack the ECM and instead pay for a full ECM replacement with painless or other company. the real fun is slapping in a LS1 engine and hacking a 7730ECM to run the engine with a 4 bar map sensor for your supercharger.

    ECM hacking is still a dark art as there is no real books on it, you have to find people on forums willing to teach and you have to learn on your own. You cant just understand electronics, you need to understand ICE and everything else around it, and all the advanced math that goes with it.

  20. If a recall correctly from the episode, the guys from Diablo Sport really just screwed around for several hours and ended up plugging in the Body Control Module (BCM) anyway. Which of course will make it work. I have serious doubts a missing (or failed) power window regulator would stop an engine from starting, even in the most asinine of modern automobile design.

  21. Regardless of the copy on their web site, I don’t think he’s the current cannonball run record holder. The ‘official’ run ended in 1979. And Ed Bolian,Dave Black, and Dan Huang made the run in a verified-by-many-sources 28:50 in 2013….

  22. Cars and hacking go hand in hand. I built a company around that idea 14 years ago.. I cant even add up the number of hours I spent disassembling Mazda SuperH8 code for the SPEEDx platforms. Fun times indeed.I am saddened these days to see the demise of “auto shop” in the high-schools. I feel that this is a great way to introduce kids into the embedded systems world, and a terribly wasted opportunity.

  23. These guys aren’t mechanics look at thir hands and don’t tell me they use gloves.the show is staged as are the races.kind of like the nhra these days.with marketable faces like Courtney force the demonseed of the idiot who ruined the nhra,old meth head john force.

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