- For 2023, the Pit+Paddock SEMA Awards returns for its third consecutive year with presenting partner AST Suspension.
- Unlike other award shows at SEMA, Pit+Paddock honors two car builders who don’t necessarily have unlimited funds or are competing in Battle of the Builders, but still demonstrate an elite level of originality, creativity, and execution in the aftermarket performance world.
- The 2023 Pit+Paddock SEMA Awards wouldn’t be anything without its esteemed judges – Ryan Basseri of Rywire Motorsports Electronics, Mike Burroughs of Stanceworks and Coen de Korte of AST Suspension.
- Trophies are always unique and functional, this year’s being Pelican Air Travel Cases hand-painted with the Pit+Paddock and AST Suspension logos.
- The winners of this year’s Pit+Paddock SEMA Awards are Dom Tucci with his 1989 Mercedes-Benz 190E and Tim Hicks with his 1977 Datsun 280Z.
- In this article, we interview Dom Tucci of Tucci’s Hot Rods in New York to learn about his story and how the EcoBoost-powered 190E with EVO II bodywork came to be.
FOR THE GRASSROOTS BUILDERS
Not many folks will remember what exactly took place at the 2014 SEMA Show, bu I was lucky enough to be one of the first three judges of SEMA’s Battle of the Builders. After the lights of the Las Vegas Convention Center would shut down, David Freiburger of Hot Rod, Fred Williams of 4-Wheel & Off-Road, and I spent hours evaluating 125 vehicles to determine the top 10 builders. With it being the first year of BOTB, there were a lot of kinks to work out for the now-successful SEMA competition; however, it was being a part of “Battle” that made me realize how there isn’t a proper program out there to recognize the talented builders among us in the performance car and tuning community. Seeing this void in the industry is the reason why the Pit+Paddock SEMA Awards was born, and for 2023, we couldn’t have awarded two of the best builders of the year without the support of AST Suspension.
ESTEEMED JUDGES PANEL
A big part of what makes the Pit+Paddock SEMA Awards special are the influential icons that make up the judging panel. The first year included RJ de Vera, a former Battle of the Builders judge now the VP of Marketing for SEMA, and well-known digital artist and visionary Jon Sibal. Year two welcomed professional photographer and content creator Larry Chen along with our very own drift champion and pro driver Dai Yoshihara. For ‘23, we were excited to have Ryan Basseri of Rywire Motorsports Electronics, a current Battle of the Builders judge, Mike Burroughs from Stanceworks, who took home Top Honors at last year’s SEMA, and Coen de Korte, the mastermind and CEO of AST Suspension, our presenting partner of this year’s Awards.
DTM HERITAGE WITH HOT ROD SPIRIT
After three days of scanning the SEMA Show, we asked our trio of judges to narrow down their top two vehicles. It was a clear and unanimous choice that Dom Tucci of New York would receive one of our two Pit+Paddock SEMA Awards with his incredible 1989 Mercedes-Benz 190E.
On the outside, there’s nothing not to love about this iconic Benz sedan, that is, if you’re a fan of Euros and DTM racing. While it’s not a real 2.5-16 Evolution II “homologation special” that’s worth half a million dollars, it carries itself like a champion in its own right. The widebody fenders are authentic EVO II parts sourced from the UK. It also wears the same OEM Blauschwarz Metallic paint found on the EVO II with a little twist. Take a peek inside the interior and it looks just as fresh as it did in 1989 with Recaro seats and materials used throughout. Both the interior and exterior look period correct and museum quality – an incredible feat considering this 190E once started as a bare shell; however, it’s underneath all the flash that reveals Dom’s experience designing hot rods with his dad.
There are parts intended for the Subaru STI and Ford Mustang that contribute to the vehicle’s balance and performance. Then, pop open the hood to find a twin-turbocharged 3.5L EcoBoost V6 pulled from a Raptor truck! Dom’s 190E is such a unique build that appeals to both old souls and new kids on the block, which is why it landed as a Top 12 finalist at this year’s Battle of the Builders, and why we’re delighted to present him a Pit+Paddock SEMA Award presented by AST Suspension.
INTERVIEW WITH DOM TUCCI
Tell us about your history and how got started in the family business – Tucci Hot Rods.
I pretty much grew up in the shop. When we put our main shop up in ‘97, I was 5 years old, and it seemed massive at the time. Every day after school, I would come back to the shop. My mom worked, and still works, in the office and I had my own little desk set up as well. I was in the shop pretty much every day, working on my own projects. I would try to emulate what my dad was doing and try to learn as much as possible. I learned to weld when I was 7 and would practice metal shaping when I was 10 years old. I also began learning 3D modeling in middle school. Then in high school, I ended up teaching most of my classmates how to use the different CAD programs. I went to college at Syracuse University in 2010 for Industrial Design. That program seemed to mesh with my love of drawing, hand fabricating, and 3D modeling. Throughout my time there, the goal was to go work for a design firm or end up somewhere like Nike or Apple. But I could never shake the feeling that I belonged in the automotive space. In the summer after my fourth year of school, and getting home from an eye-opening semester in London, I came back to the shop in the middle of a ‘70 Mustang giveaway vehicle that we were building for the Syracuse Nationals. We had a rendering done for it but weren’t super happy with the direction. My dad asked me to give it a shot to come up with something cool. I designed what appealed to me, using some Euro and Japanese influences and that ended up being exactly what we built. We took that car to SEMA 2014 and displayed it in the Optima Batteries booth. We also competed with it in the Optima Street Car Invitational. This was my first time really taking the helm of a project and it worked out really well and I think lit a fire to continue to push. After graduating college the following year, I came back home to help in the shop. I didn’t really have a solid plan. I still felt like I needed to do my own thing and not fall back on the safety net that was working at the shop. Little did I know, this was exactly where I needed to be. My dad was a huge supporter of me joining full-time and gave me the creative space to push the boundaries of what we are building. I give him a ton of credit, after being incredibly successful doing his thing, to let me come in and co-design with him. He’s a great designer in his own right and I owe a ton of where I am and how I see things to him.
What are some of the other notable builds and accomplishments that have come out of Tucci’s Hot Rods?
In 1999, my dad built a pretty wild ‘39 GMC pickup that really pushed the hot rod boundaries and blended different styles. That truck pretty much launched the business. Along with the success of that truck, came more customers that wanted ‘30s and ‘40s cars built. Once you start down that road, you get sort of pigeonholed until a customer comes along and lets you build something different. That came with the ‘70 Mustang we built for Syracuse Nationals. That changed what the industry thought about what Tucci Hot Rods was. Then in 2016, we began our relationship with Ford and built a Fiesta ST that garnered a lot of attention. I think it hit differently because we came at the project from the hot rod side where the design and engineering are there but the fit and finish and attention to detail are also present. This sent us down another path that saw us build five more partner projects with Ford, showing our range of styles and genres. I think that I’ve always looked toward Japanese and Euro cars because I was always around American cars growing up.
Which brings us to this 190E… I believe you mentioned that this is your personal car. How did this project come to be?
Yes, this is my personal car and it’s something that I’ve been working towards for 7+ years. The plan from the beginning with this car was to build something that I could put a ton of miles on. The idea of how we would get there was to use as many off-the-shelf parts as possible and remove the hard-to-find Mercedes parts. Also, the factory suspension, brakes, and driveline would not hold up to the power we planned on making. While I love the look and history of the Euro cars, I don’t have the knowledge base of what parts work well and are easy to find for a project like this, so we went with what we do know. For the rear suspension, we landed on an STI subframe and differential that we narrowed to accommodate the track width. This lets us use an off-the-shelf brake kit from Wilwood and billet suspension parts from ISC. For the front, we went with all tubular suspension from QA1 that we grafted in to fit. The basis of the geometry is from an SN95 Mustang. We went with this because there would be brakes, wheel bearings, and steering parts all available off the shelf.
What was the thought process behind going with an EcoBoost motor from the Raptor? Was it more to incorporate the relationship you have with Ford, or did you just feel it was the perfect power plant for the 190E?
We always try to do something that we’ve never seen before but also make it look like it was meant to be there. The 3.5L EcoBoost was always the motor choice for this car. We built a ‘32 Ford Coupe in 2019 that had one and I fell in love with the motor. I think there is so much potential with that power plant and we are working with our partners to make a package to swap into different projects. I think it definitely stems from our long relationship with Ford. They have been awesome to work with through the years. The other side of it is that the EVO II’s original engine had a head designed by UK tuning company Cosworth. Ford also has a long history with Cosworth from rally, all the way to Formula 1. My thought process was, “What if Ford and Mercedes worked together under their common partner Cosworth to develop a specialty vehicle?” The engine has been visually backdated with Cosworth-style valve covers, remote-mounted coils, and an engine cover that is designed to pay homage to the Cosworth GBA V6. When it’s tuned, we’re looking to make 700hp to the rear wheels.
What are some of the other details about the build that the average person might not catch?
Because the EcoBoost 3.5L never came with a power steering pump, we used a remote-mounted Volvo hydro/electric pump that gave us the flexibility to place where we wanted. The dash and instruments remain very factory-looking but have all been updated. The main and accessory gauges have been built by Dakota Digital using faces I designed. The climate control has been completely redone and 3D printed in-house using parts from Vintage Air. We wanted them to look like the controls used on the EVO II but modernized. The head unit is a Blaupunkt Bremen piece that looks straight out of the ‘80s-90s. For the engine bay, I looked at a bunch of DTM cars of that era but I wanted a very finished and high-end version of that. The exterior color is something that we worked up with our partner American Icon. I started with the original Blauschwarz Metallic EVO II color and brightened it and added a bit more blue. I wanted it to feel like a color that belonged on the car.