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The Car Guy's Car Guy: Remembering John "Kiwi" Kiewicz, 1970-2015

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 1/23/2015 Edward Loh, Motor Trend Staff

Former Car Craft and Motor Trend staffer John Kiewicz passed away on January 6, 2015 in a motorcycle accident in Malibu, California. "Kiwi," as he was known, started as an editorial assistant at Car Craft in 1993 and took on several roles before transitioning to the position of photographer/senior editor at Motor Trend. He left publishing in 2007 for a public relations job at Honda Motor Co. and stayed in the world of corporate communications until his untimely death.

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John Kiewicz is survived by wife, Michelle; three children, Daniella, Noah, and Connor; his parents Ed (Georgia) and Joyce (Gary); his brother Michael; and step-brother Matthew Richards.

Kiwi is remembered as a friendly, helpful, relentlessly curious prankster with a passion for hot rods, fast driving, running, fart jokes, and the Sierra Nevada mountains. A car guy to the core, John was a great friend to many in the high performance world, including HPA, Shelby American cars, and John Hennessey, with whom he set many landspeed records. He was also noted for being an exceptional mentor to many young photojournalists, including many current Motor Trend staffers and freelancers. What follows are several recollections from the friends, current and former colleagues who knew him best. -- Edward Loh, Editor-in-Chief, Motor Trend

John Kiewics Memoriam© Provided by MotorTrend John Kiewics Memoriam

I knew John about as well as anybody. I met him while he was a senior in college. He and his dad came out to Pomona Raceway with NHRA's Steve Gibbs on a random day. I was editor at Car Craft Magazine and was testing some cars on the dragstrip. Steve went to high school with John's dad, Ed, and I've known Steve since I was a kid. Steve introduced us and said John's ambition was to write for a car magazine. I gave him my card and told him to look me up when he graduated.

About a year later, in the summer of 1993, I got a call from the eager young Kiewicz. He said, "I'm here." I didn't understand and asked him what he meant. He said he had moved to the Pomona area and was living in a weekly apartment. His plan was to hang out until he got hired by one of the car magazines. I, of course, was the only magazine guy he knew, so he started with me. I explained that it wasn't that easy. He really needed some experience before he could expect to get hired by one of the big car mags. I invited him over to the Petersen Publishing office for lunch. He arrived driving a 1980-ish Plymouth Champ with the Twin Stick transmission. I was amazed, not by what a piece of crap he was driving but by the fact that he was driving a tiny, slow econobox and expected to get hired by what was and still is the greatest muscle car magazine on the planet. Where's the blown Hemi and street slicks, I wondered?

We were joined at lunch by John Pearley Huffman, who was a staff writer for Car Craft at the time and one of the best writers I've ever known. We went to the local Mexican spot and learned from John that he had a killer small-block Nova at home in his Dad's garage in Carson City, Nevada. I started to rethink the part about him not being a real car guy. By the end of lunch, we could tell that this kid knew his stuff, even though we weren't sure his mom knew that he was living in some flop house waiting for his dream to come true.

The Car Guy's Car Guy: Remembering John "Kiwi" Kiewicz, 1970-2015

But the day really got interesting when I returned to the office and Huffman walked in and said, "I quit." Shocked, I asked him why. He proceeded to tell me that although he loved writing about cars, his heart wasn't in the job any longer. He went on to explain that he really wanted me to "hire the Kiewicz kid because I currently hold a job that should really be his." Later that day, I called Kiewicz in for an interview and went downstairs to convince our executive publisher, Leonard Emanuelson, that I wanted to give this kid from Carson City a job even though he had zero experience — all based on the fact that during our lunch over tacos, I could tell that Kiewicz was a genuine car guy. Besides that, he needed a break to get his career rolling.

I tell this story not because I'm the guy who gave Kiewicz his first break in this business. That distinction actually belongs to Huffman, who stepped aside to make room for Kiewicz to begin a life of driving, writing, and photographing cool cars. This story is a great reminder that we should always chase our dreams, even if it means moving to Los Angeles with no possible chance of landing a job. Sometimes things just have a way of working out.

Chuck Schifsky, former executive editor, Motor Trend 1998-2002; editor in chief, Car Craft, 1993-1998

John Kiewics Memoriam© Provided by MotorTrend John Kiewics Memoriam

When I left Car Craft magazine in 1993 I gave three months' notice so that management would have time to find a replacement. The person they quickly found was John Kiewicz. Born in 1970, John was the first person to write for Car Craft who had no personal experience of the 1960s. I worked alongside him those 12 weeks.

Kiewicz was a quick learner, an instantly capable writer, a keen-eyed photographer and a calm, steady hand when it came to driving at insane speeds. When I finally left, the magazine never missed me at all.

But the best thing about Kiewicz was his eagerness to dive in and help even when there was no personal reward in it. When it came time to chemically strip the paint off my Camaro for a Car Craft story, it was John who spent two days doing that awful job with me. I bought him lunch, but he deserved more and never asked for it.

John's death makes me rage against the Universe. I hope God gives him a solid '66 Nova to work on, puts him in a fantastic shop, and lets him watch his children grow into great adults. Rest in peace at 200 mph, John.

John Pearley Huffman, Feature Editor, Car Craft Magazine, 1990-1993

John Kiewics Memoriam© Provided by MotorTrend John Kiewics Memoriam

It was somewhere north of 110 degrees when John Kiewicz announced that he was going to jog down to the bottom of Death Valley's 777-foot deep Ubehebe volcanic crater. None of us on that particular Motor Trend road trip needed to ask why. Hey, it was Kiwi. This was the same guy who had stomped through the sweltering desert looking for the right photo vantage point above our column of SUVs … until his beat-up boots started melting apart in the intense summer heat. Kiwi thought it was all a great adventure.

John grew up California's Sierra Nevada, and he knew every point of interest, no matter how obscure. And he loved it all. On one long comparison test drive, he insisted on a detour to a fish hatchery near Lone Pine, California, so that all 10 of us could stand and look at trout. Kiwi thought it was awesome. The rest of us cynics couldn't figure out why we were there, burning daylight for this.

That was the same trip where John showed us the castration rig that a relative of his owned, on a cattle ranch up near Carson City. With great excitement, Kiwi told us that the bull calf walks in one side, and about 30 seconds later, a really confused and profoundly unhappy steer staggers out the other side. John wanted a human volunteer to climb into the thing to pantomime how it worked. Nobody stepped up. So Kiwi climbed into the "squeeze shoot," wearing the appropriate bull calf facial expression. There's a photo of that moment someplace. Wish I could find it.

Same trip: Kiwi took us to a legal bordello near Carson City that all the locals knew about (we stuck our heads in the door around brunch, or at least that's what Kiwi told us it was) and to a set of giant Very Large Array radio telescopes in Owens Valley, tended by a scientist that at the time also raced dirt track cars for fun on the weekends. John even arranged for us to go in and climb around inside the giant base of one of the massive dishes, among drive gears the size of locomotives. John, why are we in here?

Fifteen years later, I think I get it. John was a person who saw the wonder and fun in things that the rest of us just numbly sailed past. Here was a guy who found joy in just living. Engaged, always smiling, always paying attention. John used his limited years well. We should try to do the same.

Jeff Karr, Motor Trend editor in chief, 1990-1993; editor at large, Motor Trend, 1993-2001

John Kiewics Memoriam© Provided by MotorTrend John Kiewics Memoriam

Adventurer, daredevil, instigator, giver, and trusted friend with lightning-quick wit, Kiwi was exactly the man you wanted at your side, whether breaking bread or speed limits. Through the years, I was blessed to join in numerous vehicular escapades that he orchestrated and then documented with his photographic gifts. None were more memorable than an "extreme road test" in a pre-production Hummer H2 that took us from Alaska to the southern tip of Florida and many twisted places in between. Traversing desolate Alaskan wilderness, he led us to lodge at an Inuit homestead; traverse a surprisingly deep, way-too-risky river; skulk past bears to use the rest room at an oil camp; and swim in the Arctic Ocean. He even traded a ride in the Hummer with a traveler whose name is pronounced "Jock-itch" for a chance to traverse the legendary dirt Dalton Highway on a motorcycle. But perhaps the best part was his insistence on performing daily mitzvahs, which had us helping people across the country, often adding hours to our day. Kiwi was a rare character that enriched lives all around him, setting a powerful example to inspire those fortunate to have known him.

Jeff Bartlett, Motor Trend online editorial director, 1995-2005


KIWI: A Life of Surprises

When I first met John Kiewicz, he was a skinny kid from Carson City, Nevada. He had a freshly minted college diploma in one hand and unbridled enthusiasm in his heart. His favorite daily driver was a 1966 Nova with a hot small-block and 4.88 drag gears. When I asked him if it was a long drive from Carson City to L.A. with such low gearing, he said, "Naw, it was only turning about 5,000 rpm at freeway speeds."

That's our kind of car guy.

Chuck Schifsky's story covers the details of our first meeting with Kiewicz. John didn't know anything about the magazine business, but he loved muscle cars and was just too irreverently funny to pass by. He was hired as Car Craft 's newest/lowliest staffer. And he immediately became known by his truncated last name: Kiwi.

Oh, there were other nicknames, too. "Stick Boy" (because his physical build resembled a toothpick) is the only one we can print. In those days, joining the staff of a car magazine such as Car Craft was akin to being the freshest pledge of an Animal House fraternity. There was considerable hazing, practical jokes, crass humor, and insanely long-hour work assignments to endure. To Kiwi's credit, he not only survived those incidents, but he also added a few of his own for the next pledge to suffer through.

Jump cut to 1999, and I'd already hired Schifsky as Motor Trend 's executive editor. Shortly thereafter, we pilfered the Car Craft staff again, to steal Kiwi. With that, the MT editorial "A-Team" was complete.

During my time working with Kiwi, he never missed a deadline, never feared a challenge, and never failed to surprise. On a group road trip with a bunch of convertibles in 2001, he sprung it on us that we'd be stopping at the Nevada governor's mansion … to meet the Governor. HUH? Kiwi waited to tell us this until we were about two blocks away from the destination. Yeah, that qualifies as a surprise. Most of us were wearing clothes grubby enough to be turned away at a Goodwill store, and I remember embarrassingly explaining to Governor Kenny Guinn and his wife that we don't usually wear jeans with holes in the knees and T-shirts with crass sayings on them. To the governor's credit, he welcomed us like long-lost friends, and his wife gave us a tour of the mansion.

The next surprise that day was a stopover at the Kiewicz Ranch, where we got to see Kiwi's dad's cache of barn-find classic cars. That was followed by a trip to the Carson City Fire Department (Oh yeah, John's dad was the fire department captain … surprise!) where Kiwi had secretly arranged for a fire truck to test the weather-sealing abilities of each car's convertible top by spraying it with water at full fire-duty PSI.

Follow that up with a surprise side trip to the Ponderosa studio ranch (where the 1960s TV series Bonanza was filmed) near Lake Tahoe, and then stay up past midnight to do some insanely creative car photography with colored gels and spotlights (who needs Photoshop?), and that was about half of what we'd come to expect during any Kiwi-orchestrated road trip.

One of the best comments about a Kiwi surprise was by our off-road adventure expert, actor Perry King, who (after Kiwi out-gassed several fetid blasts of flatulence inside a Death Valley abandoned mine we were exploring) yelled "Kiwi, if you do that one more time, I'll f-ing kill you!" John just laughed and let 'er fly again.

Good times.

C. Van Tune, Motor Trend editor in chief, 1994-2001

John Kiewics Memoriam© Provided by MotorTrend John Kiewics Memoriam

The first time I met Kiwi he came to Houston with a group of MT editors to do photography on our first Venom 800 Twin Turbo Viper. This was around 1999-2000 and was a cover story in the magazine. We had an issue with the car, so he returned a few weeks later by himself. We took the car to the dragstrip thinking that it might go a 9.9. The best I could get it to run was a 10.3. Then the "photographer" told me that he was a pretty decent driver, and he jumped in for a quick "trophy dash," as he would say, and he promptly ran a 10.0x. I went and bribed the track owner to stay open another hour. We let the car cool down, and Kiwi jumped in and clicked off a 9.99 quarter-mile run!

We headed back to Houston to do one more test. I had told Van that I thought that the car would also run 200 mph in a standing mile. I had a test road where I thought that I could drive to this speed. Kiwi went out with me early in the morning. We trailered the car to the location, got out, and began to unload the car in a business park parking lot. I was in the truck doing something while he began unstrapping the car. I then heard a pump shotgun get a round chambered and a guy say, "People get shot for that around here." I looked over, and some guy in his bathrobe was standing there with his shotgun. Kiwi politely said, "We will be on our way; sorry we woke you up." I finally get in the car and get ready to make the run. Kiwi takes the truck and trailer and heads downrange to help look out for "traffic." I've got a two-way radio and cell phone in my car, and Kiwi is going to let me know if I need to be "aware" of any problems downrange.

I get out on the "test road" and run through the gears, get up to right at 200 mph, and begin slowing down. As I am slowing down, I noticed a motorcycle coming onto the highway. I was going very fast and realized that this bike might be a member of law enforcement. So I speed up as to not impair his ability to get on to the highway. I blast by Kiwi, and a few seconds later he sees the bike cop chasing behind me but without any lights on. I hear him on radio trying to tell me something important. I don't have time to answer. He then starts blowing up my phone.

Eventually, I found a safe place to pull off the road and called Kiwi to tell him where to come and get me with the truck and trailer. He answers all excited. "Hey, a bike cop was chasing you!" After he let me talk, I told him, "I had no choice but to pass the guy." He loved it, and we were instantly bros, as he would say.

We experienced/survived a lot of other stuff like this over the past 15 years. Kiwi loved adventure and discovering things. We loved eating at cheap Mexican dive restaurants or enjoying some of Denny's finest nachos. I am really going to miss Kiwi.

John Hennessey, Hennessey Performance


John Kiewics Memoriam© Provided by MotorTrend John Kiewics Memoriam As a young, car-crazy high school kid, I decided that the only career I was interested in was one that allowed me to work at a car magazine. John Kiewicz was the guy that made that happen for me. He and I were from the same hometown, and my mom knew his stepmom, so she got me his phone number. One day I nervously cold-called him. I told him who I was and that I really wanted to do what he did. He heard me out, thanked me for calling, and told me to finish college and to keep in touch. A year and half later he arranged for me to spend a summer in L.A. interning at Motor Trend under his helpful guidance. He took me under his wing and exposed me to so many things that I hadn't yet experienced. He taught me about the fundamentals of magazine making, automotive photography, press deadlines, work ethic, jumping cars, power oversteer, triple digit desert runs, landscape photography, the principles of Judaism, balancing relationships and work, exploring California's deserts, the joys of Taco Bell cuisine, how to drive all day/night without rest, and most importantly how to have as much fun on the job as possible.

He had such a zest for the adventures of life and huge desire for cars with lots of horsepower that could be driven really, really fast. More often than not I was awestruck and inspired by him.

I cut my teeth in this business under his close supervision, and many of the plans, principles, methods, and logistics I use today are all deeply rooted in what he imparted on this fellow kid from Carson City. He was my friend and mentor, and I am going to miss him dearly. Thank you, John, for being such a great guy who did so well teaching others all about the things you loved.

Brian Vance, manager, Visuals Department, Motor Trend, 2002-presentJohn Kiewics Memoriam© Provided by MotorTrend John Kiewics Memoriam John Kiewics Memoriam© Provided by MotorTrend John Kiewics Memoriam

John Kiewics Memoriam© Provided by MotorTrend John Kiewics Memoriam
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