INSIGHT: Race engine builder and YouTube star Stephan Papadakis

Image by Larry Chen

INSIGHT: Race engine builder and YouTube star Stephan Papadakis


INSIGHT: Race engine builder and YouTube star Stephan Papadakis


With 460,000 YouTube subscribers and growing, Stephan Papadakis, the owner of Papadakis Racing in Carson, California, is a trailblazer in race engine building, and now a media dynamo as well.

He calls his YouTube success ‘unexpected’. “It’s been a windfall of exposure for everything we do, and that’s been great,” he says. “This started because we wanted to share a lot of the fun stuff we do at our company, and get people inspired to work on their own projects. I guess it caught on.”

There was no metric goal, just the incentive to share the engine, car builds and technology.

“I didn’t want to just hide it the way other teams tend to do,” he says. “I like to watch a lot of technical programs, how to do things and how things work, and I felt like there wasn’t enough of that in motorsports. So much of motorsports is about protecting the knowledge and not letting others know what you do on the track. I wanted to take more of an offense to that, not be defensive, show people what we are doing in terms of the technology and how we build the cars and engines.”

The most winning drift team in history, Papadakis Racing has an unmatched record of three Formula Drift Championship titles. Fredric Aasbo won the 2015 Formula Drift title, while Papadakis Racing scored back-to-back championships with Tanner Foust in 2007 and 2008.

Papadakis is a legend in sport-compact racing who began building his reputation in the 1990s with the first front-wheel-drive, tube-chassis drag car in the U.S. Before its successes in drifting, the team earned multiple records and championships in drag racing, turning in elapsed times and trap speeds previously thought unattainable in front-drive drag cars. The team has also competed in short-course off-road racing and other off-road disciplines.

Papadakis’ realization that something big was possible on YouTube started when the first engine teardown he uploaded to YouTube 18 months ago caught on. “It got to 30,000 views, and we were like, that’s a lot! And then it just sort of kept going,” he laughs. “I thought maybe we have something, or maybe it was an anomaly. I did some transmission stuff and another teardown, and some got even more popular and more viral. That’s when we had a plan to build a 2020 super engine and decided to do a whole series on it. That took the channel and the content up another level. As we are building this content, we’re becoming better at creating it as well. The production values have gone up.”

The production quality is, in fact, stellar; however, Papadakis says it is all shot and edited in-house. “It’s pretty much myself,” Papadakis says. “I’m filming, I’ve had a few friends come in and help. Just living here in Southern California, and having friends who work in entertainment production, I have some mentors I bounce ideas off. I’ve watched a lot of videos actually on YouTube about how to light things properly and use the camera properly. As I watch videos on technical content, I’m learning how to do better tech content myself.

“I learn the structure I like in the content I am consuming, so it’s a double win/win. Up until this point, I wasn’t able to completely articulate what I wanted in a video. But now I can articulate my preferred style, so I can see in the future that I could bring someone on to work on the shows.”

He currently uses Final Cut Pro to do his editing, which takes him about an hour per minute of video to complete. “The earlier versions I put up as soon as I edited them,” he says. “But the later versions I bounce off my small focus group. That’s been valuable for some re-edits.”

His approach to the creation of his team’s YouTube programming is to “tell a little story in each video. It’s very simple, a beginning, middle, and end, with sometimes a little cliff hanger as to what we do next.”

Papadakis makes no special effort to promote the programs. “We do some press releases, but not that many views that come from that,” he says. “It’s just the YouTube algorithm. Content is king.” On the channel, he notes “you want a thumbnail and a title that makes people want to click on your show. But then the content needs to deliver. We don’t want to be click bait-y without delivering on what they expect from the title and the thumbnail.”

Papadakis has found the best program length is between five and 15 minutes. “YouTube is the place for small-meal-sized content,” he jokes.

Recently, he live-streamed directly to YouTube from the SEMA Show in the Toyota Booth. “I didn’t film that one, we had a production team come in with three cameras and a switcher,” he says. “That was a high-budget deal for us, including what the convention center wanted for internet access. It was a test. We didn’t know what would happen, but people seemed to like it.”

Papadakis says he was happy with the number of views the stream received. “And, just getting out in front of the camera, doing it all live in front of people, was great. Usually the work is done in a quiet space, so I can concentrate on the small parts. It was an exciting challenge to get out there and physically do it.”

His YouTube Channel received 878,000 views of the dyno day for the 1,000 horsepower Supra; there was even a commercial for the show. But YouTube isn’t a revenue stream for Papadakis Racing – at least not yet.

“We do monetize the content, so you will see some pre-roll ads. There is some income from that, but it’s very small – we use it to buy more camera gear and that sort of thing,” he says. “I think there is definitely potential there, more to do with integrating brands and products into the content. But we are still at the point where building an audience in our own brand is the current goal.

“I think there is an appetite for technical content where viewers can learn about new topics on YouTube. I really like to watch that myself, programs that get directly to the point and deliver knowledge without a lot of talking around a subject, without a lot of summary. I like things that deliver the content I clicked on in the first place. And the feedback I get is that viewers appreciate the direct-to-the-point approach, too.”

Until now, Papadakis has created content about engines and transmissions; he says he wants to hit on other aspects of the racing vehicles and racing teams next. “We want to show the tech behind the scenes, go beyond the engines and get into other tech aspects of racing.”

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