RYAN PILLA IS KNOWN HEREABOUTS AS THE CAR DOCTOR, CUSTOMIZING SWANKY CARS FOR A SUPERSTAR CLIENTELE. BUT HE HAS KILLER SKILLS BEHIND THE WHEEL, TOO, LAYING DOWN TRACKS AT DAYTONA AND SETTING A LAND-SPEED RECORD
Ryan Pilla is a guy who wears several hats and, among them, he’s accumulated quite a few feathers — while traveling about 100 M.P.H. at all times. In his day job as the Car Doctor out of Water Mill, Pilla is technician to an impressive list of well-heeled Hamptonites. Trained as an engineer, he is a commercial-grade, instrument-rated jet pilot and commutes to Connecticut in a Cessna Citation to help mind his other “store,” Pilla Performance Eyewear, the family business he started with his father, Carlo, and brother, Philip.
Pilla, 47, agreed to slow down, if only for a few minutes, and share some amicably brash talk. The thing is, judging by his record, he does a pretty good job of backing it up: As a competitive driver, he’s won multiple national titles and counts among his proudest achievements winning the GT class pole position at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2006, a first for a Ford Mustang. In his Mazda MX5, he has won national titles and set a world land-speed record, on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2011. Recently, he raised eyebrows by coaxing over 1,000 horsepower out of a street-legal Porsche 911 Turbo. And he’s not discouraging rumors of a reality TV show in the works.
You’ve said that for you it’s always been about going fast in anything with an engine.
That’s right. I’ve got a thirst for speed. It’s in my blood. Whether it’s in a car, a plane, on a boat, I love becoming one with the machine.
Is it also about being competitive and “playing to win”?
Success is the reason you participate. And unless you get to experience that, to me the competition is useless.
How much of winning a race is about car prep, how much is driver skill, how much is luck?
A great driver can make a mediocre car look great. A mediocre driver can make a great car look like crap. Skill will always trump the car, but to win you need both — and a little bit of luck.
Pilla and his girlfriend, Cindy Herbst, with a pair of Mokes. The shades are Pilla Performance Eyewear.
How does auto racing compare to other sports?
It’s like boxing. You size up your competition for 14 rounds and in the 15th you lay them out. Everything happens in that last lap. That’s been my experience.
What makes a great race car driver?
You’ve got to be part wheel man, part technician, part daredevil. Usually, with strategy, it’s the daredevil who grabs the checkered flag.
What are your strong suits as a driver?
I understand what a car can and can’t do from an engineering standpoint. Then, put me behind the wheel and I feel like I can take a car to its limits. It’s surprisingly rare — having a technician who’s also the driver.
You compared yourself to a fine wine that just gets better with age. But at some point every athlete slows down. When does that happen for a car racer?
As we get older, we lose all that tenaciousness and attitude of “no fear” we had when we were 18 or 20. But we supersede it with more focus and intelligence. Slowing down is a matter of mental fatigue, not physical. I raced against Paul Newman at Lime Rock. He went from a wheelchair into the driver’s seat, with help from three guys. Once that flag dropped, his age, his reflexes slowing down, never played a role in the ass-whipping he put on the entire field. So, with a little help from the gas pedal, race car drivers don’t ever really slow down.
Tell us something unknown about your background.
I grew up in an intense entrepreneurial family. You eat what you kill. But when you go through someone, you always reach around and help them up.
Your father had car dealerships and was a Jaguar test driver in the 1960s. How did he influence you?
My dad has always been my best friend. There was nothing he couldn’t teach me; he’s the mastermind behind who I am today. At the age of 80, he still works a 10-hour day. Everyone loves him. They can’t get enough of him on the phone talking about our eyewear.
Some of your public statements seem very confident, even to the point of being cocky.
To me, confidence is strength and cockiness is weakness. It’s like in Back to the Future. Biff was cocky and Marty had confidence. In the end, Marty ended up with the girl and the pickup truck. Now who was waxing the car in the driveway?
Can you talk about some of your famous clients?
Yes, Jimmy Fallon. He’s the coolest dude I’ve ever met. We recently collaborated on the first and only Ford F150 pickup truck that can drive down the road and make fresh popcorn with the flip of a switch.
How about a favorite restoration job?
We totally redid a 2009 Mercedes G550, customized and reconfigured it to be the most remarkable G wagon on the road. The woman who’s driving it is probably more remarkable than the car.
Is it true you prefer to call your business an “auto salon” instead of a garage?
A garage is where you go if you want to step in oil and get your tires rotated. An auto salon is where like-minded people experience cars. It’s also a mental approach: We are true enthusiasts.
Years ago, you worked out of a small wood-paneled office behind the gas station in Amagansett. Now your place in Water Mill looks more like a St. Tropez lounge with a licensing deal from Ferrari.
After our move from Amagansett, I wanted to create an atmosphere that put a smile on my face every time I walked through that door in the morning. So, yeah, it looks kind of like a movie set.
What do you like most about this area?
I’m old school. It’s more rural, and I love the country. Driving your prized possession, which in my case is my Mini Moke with a 300 horsepower motor in it, with the top down two miles to the south or the north and getting to the water isn’t so bad.
At this point in your life, what gives you the most satisfaction?
Being in love and loving someone at the same time. Looking for the next exciting life experience with that person.
Other than going fast in cars and airplanes, do you have any hobbies?
I’ve never sat on the couch with a beer and a bag of potato chips. You get one shot at life, so make good use of it. I kite surf, I heli-ski, I’m a dive master and I cave-dive. I love the jet-set lifestyle, trying to live more on the edge, anything and everything to the extreme. Amen.
Top: Pilla at work on a 1972 Chevrolet K5 Blazer. He recently customized a Ford F150 pickup so Jimmy Fallon, its owner, could make fresh popcorn with the flip of a switch. Photographs by Matthew Charron.