Rest assured, wherever cable TV star Lou Santiago goes, sparks are sure to fly.
He’s lived in the South Bronx, Long Island, Gulfport, San Diego and (now) North Carolina.
He’s worked in 17 countries, from Thailand and Bahrain to the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.
He’s also hosted three wildly popular car-building shows — on not one but two cable networks.
And yet, despite his globetrotting legacy, Lou Santiago isn’t the type of celebrity who has a chauffeur and jet at his beck and call. In fact, he doesn’t fly at all if he can avoid it.
Instead, Santiago’s a man who, at 54, is finally settling into a comfortable groove. As a husband and father of four. As an adjunct lecturer at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina. And as a master car builder working out of a backyard shop whose interior resembles the testing site for a nuclear blast.
“I’ve racked up lots of mileage over the years,” he confesses. “But these days, that shop is my favorite vacation destination.”
It’s an August day in North Carolina, and the air is sultry and the wind is slack. The ravages of Harvey and Irma throughout the Southern states are still a few weeks in the future. Santiago’s shop feels like the inside of a kiln because, well, it’s made of metal and isn’t air-conditioned. It does, however, boast two television sets which (depending on the time of day) feed Lou his daily dose of the iconic fantasy series, Supernatural, or the equally iconic animated comedy, SpongeBob Squarepants. Tools are everywhere. Absolutely everywhere.
“I especially love chassis work because not many are doing it, especially here. I have this info trapped in my head about where I want to sit in a vehicle, how to make it not ride like a logging truck. The minute someone says to me, ‘You can’t do that,’ I need to show them that yes, I can.”
Born in the South Bronx and raised on Long Island, Santiago has worshipped cars and trucks pretty much since the day he first climbed into one. He fondly recalls his ironworker dad purchasing a light-blue ’58 Chevrolet Delray. “It was amazing,” he says, “but then some guy hit us underneath one of the elevated railways. Dad decided we’d just remove the license plate, leave the car there and ride that subway home.”
That episode taught Santiago that if he wanted to have a car — a really cool car — he’d have to construct it himself. So at age 13, he teamed up with a street-racing buddy to build budget cars and explore the wild, woolly world of creative fabrication. His unstructured approach to education eventually gave way to his joining a two-year program in diesel mechanics at Uniondale High School.
But it was after high school, when he joined the U.S. Navy, that he discovered his true passion: working on heavy equipment.
“For 16 years, I was a Seabee mechanic servicing the equipment used by Navy Seal Team Eight,” he says. “My world was earth movers and cranes. Cars were just a hobby. And my custom-fabrication background came in handy, since parts were often hard to come by.”
Back surgery brought Santiago’s Navy career — and his work with heavy equipment — to an end. But it didn’t end his connection to rebuilding things. He relocated his family to North Carolina and started rebuilding his muscle-car fabrication business. And thanks to earning a degree in human behavior from Central Piedmont Community College, he went from rebuilding the engines inside big rigs to rebuilding the ethics inside little kids.
“I wanted to go into nursing, but couldn’t pass chemistry…”
“I wanted to go into nursing, but couldn’t pass chemistry,” he says. So he took a job at a school for at-risk kids as a behavioral management technician (or as he puts it, “the muscles a kid had to contend with if he hit a teacher”). Especially memorable: The day he persuaded six students to relinquish the knives and shanks they’d brought to class as part of a plot to take over the school.
Santiago then accepted an internship at a juvenile justice center, where he met an 8 year old with a troubled track record. “This kid would show up at the juvie jail carrying his clothes in a trash bag,” he remembers. “Turns out, he was getting into trouble because his mother wouldn’t take her medication and he was making all the decisions for the family.”
One might think dealing with delinquents and death-row candidates would harden Santiago’s spirit. It had the opposite effect.
“I deal better with people now,” he says. “Growing up, I was prone to violence, but working with those kids softened some of the edge, made me more compassionate.” And he’s not entirely sure that’s a good thing. “Because too much compassion can get you killed,” he says, suddenly animated. “Because how you react in the first 10 seconds of a dangerous situation dictates whether you survive. I don’t ever want to be off my game.”
Fortunately, Santiago tends to land on his feet even when he’s not “on his game.” Consider the almost accidental way he became one of cable television’s most popular hosts. He was in his shop, searching online for a four-link calculator he could use to determine the angles required for the suspension of a car he was working on, when he spotted an ad for a TV host. “I answered all the application’s stupid questions and it wouldn’t let me go to the next page. So I punched ‘enter’ and forgot about it. A week later, I got an email from some company whose name I didn’t recognize, so I ignored it for a month.”
Turns out the email was from the production company that had run the ad. They’d received his application after all, and they wanted him to shoot a five-minute video and travel to Tennessee for a screen test. He got the job, and within months, he was becoming one of television’s most recognizable and popular personalities as host of Spike TV’s MuscleCar. Santiago rebuilt classic muscle cars from the ground up, and explained their original fabrication, alongside co-host Jared Zimmerman of the Illinois-based automobile fabricator Rad Rides by Troy. Before Santiago had finished filming his final episode of MuscleCar, people were calling him the car world’s automotive
No one was more surprised by the accolade than Santiago himself.
“Everything I know I’ve either researched or figured out on my own,” he says. “I’ve never considered it voodoo. Once, I told Jared, ‘I’m just some guy in a shop who builds cars.’ He replied, ‘No you’re not, Lou. What you produce is what we produce at Rad Rides by Troy’.”
Santiago has subsequently polished his reputation as an opinionated but accomplished car-builder on Discovery Channel’s Ultimate Car Build Off and Car Fix, in its seventh season on the Velocity Channel. He’s become a fixture in an industry he once was suspicious of and still avoids as entertainment.
“So many car shows are about the fake drama and deadlines,” he says, “with a host who’s more of a TV guy than a car guy and a producer who’s more about showing sparks than delivering quality information. They’re better now, but I never watch them.”
Millions of people, however, do watch Santiago on Car Fix. Matt Allegretti, the show’s director and producer, believes there’s a growing appetite for authenticity that explains Santiago’s huge popularity.
“Lots of hosts try to prove they know more about cars than the viewer,” says Allegretti. “But our viewers want a relatable host — someone who really knows cars and can stroll into a neighbor’s garage and make car work fun to watch. That’s Lou.”
Allegretti adds: “The show isn’t scripted and he’s all organic. He’s even mentioned on-camera some product detail he overheard us discussing prior to filming. Our viewers really appreciate that spontaneity.”
On the side, Santiago teaches a restoration class at Central Piedmont Community College. His co-instructor, Casey Smith, agrees that the Lou you see on television is the Lou you get in person.
“We joke about how I thought he was an outlaw when I met him because of his bandana and tattoos,” Smith says. “Turns out, he’s someone who connects with you whether you’re 18 or 80. And he has this amazing way of making suspension work seem simple. He flips switches in people’s brains the way other people flip light switches.”
There’s also his laugh — a deep, never-ending eruption of hilarity that sounds like a semi barreling full-throttle downhill. It’s a laugh you can’t escape or ignore — and why would you want to?
“When he’s teaching, Lou cracks jokes, so you get a lot of his big laugh in the classroom,” says Henry Bennett, former chair of the college’s collision repair program. Bennett and Santiago met at an auto fair. Santiago offered the college his help, so Bennett brought him in to teach a welding class.
“Lou’s style is relaxed, but his knowledge is incredible,” says Bennett. “I tell people that if they think they know it all, to go talk to Lou. And yet, although he’s a celebrity, he came to my retirement party. He’s that type of guy.”
Sitting in Lee’s Sandwich Shop near his home, and munching on a hickory bacon cheeseburger, Santiago insists he sees no retirement party in his immediate future. He thinks he’s got an abundance of car-building knowledge left to share — with college students, the car enthusiasts who visit him at Garageinsidertv.com and his many television fans.
“I want people to understand there are at least a hundred ways to do something, not all of which are right,” he says. “I want to help people learning from me not just what to do, but also what not to do.”
And although he’s slowed down, “I still have a deep need to build,” he says. “These days, my inspiration comes from wanting to do my trade better.”
And he’s yet to fulfill his lifelong dream of owning a really cool car.
“Someone stole my first cool car, and I lost the second one somehow,” he says. “I got a third when I started MuscleCar, but I used it to pay a debt. Right now, my Moby Dick is a 1967 Impala.”
Should he acquire that car, it might very well put him back on the road and have his fans wondering yet again, “Just where in the world is car man Santiago?”
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