From the red carpet to the race track, Daniel Wu's car passion runs deep

Interview by Shayan Bokaie, Photography by Naveed Yousufzai

Feb 3, 2022

In the world of entertainment, Daniel Wu acts, directs, and produces. In the world of cars, he collects, builds and races. Multi-disciplinary to say the least, his work in both worlds has received critical acclaim, from the big screen to big automotive shows like SEMA. A committed collector, Daniel’s interests grew into building unique, character-driven cars, some of which with his co-founder, Sung Kang, in their lifestyle brand, Student Driver.

Then there’s racing. What first started as a casual hobby during quarantine has since turned him into an avid endurance racer. Clearly, the passion runs deep. We met with Daniel at his garage in Oakland, California to learn more about his automotive journey and take a cruise in his custom Lincoln Continental convertible.

Photographed by Naveed Yousufzai

Shayan Bokaie: You're a collector, racer, and builder. How did you first get involved in the car space?

Daniel Wu: When I was a kid, we had a family tradition where I’d get to choose the color of whatever car we got, which was such a special power to wield at that age. Then when my dad was retiring, he said to me, "I'm going to buy a Porsche." I didn't believe him. And then a couple days later we actually went to the dealership and I was like, "Oh shit. My dad actually wants to buy this Porsche." I picked the Cassis Red color and even spec-ed the turbo tail, though it wasn't really a turbo.

Then I ended up moving to Hong Kong for 20 years, and it was a lot more difficult to be involved in the car world there. There's limited space for storage, and any car imported into Hong Kong is heavily taxed. I got my dream car, a '61 Jaguar E-type, but it was a nightmare to try and maintain in that kind of a climate, with 90% humidity.

Moving back to the States in 2015 opened up an opportunity to deepen my involvement, because the car culture here is a lot more developed. My first entry into the custom car building world was my Datsun 510, the Tanto. When I was a kid, all of the cool, older skaters had 510s. It was the first hot-rodded car that I ever got to ride in, and I thought it was insanely cool.

When you're in there for two and a half hours, you really have to concentrate and eventually you enter this flow state where you don’t even need to think about your next move.

I was inspired to do my first build by my friend Sung Kang, of the Fast and Furious, and the Fugu Z that he built for SEMA in 2015. I commissioned it from Troy Ermish because I was incredibly busy with work at the time, and the result was awesome. We got third place in the Battle of the Builders that year, but I wasn’t totally satisfied because I didn’t get my hands dirty, so I decided to do another build.

Collector Profile: Daniel WuCollector Profile: Daniel Wu

I reached out to an old friend from high school who I knew was an excellent craftsman and said, "Hey, let's do a build for SEMA." There are thousands of cars at SEMA, so you want to do something that stands out. I chose a Honda S800 because I knew people would see it and be like, "Huh, what is that?" I took 8 months off from work for the build, and then we entered it in SEMA in 2019 and it was really successful.

Shayan: And it’s wonderful to see that Porsche is still in your collection today. You also started racing recently — how did you get your start?

Daniel: Some of it was by design, some of it was serendipity. I'd always been interested in track driving, but I'd never really done it before. I knew I liked speed and I needed somewhere to direct my energy, so I decided to give it an actual shot.

A family friend of mine is the instructor at Hooked on Driving, so I called him and asked how I could get started. He invited me to come to an event, and I was completely captivated after the first day. I got a Ford Focus RS as a starter track car and began cutting my teeth on it at High Performance Driver Education events, and eventually improved to the point where I was ready to take it to the next level.

Photographed by Naveed Yousufzai

This is where serendipity comes in. It just so happened that my garage is two blocks away from Patrick Ottis' garage, which is a really famous vintage Ferrari shop. We'd walk past it and admire it every day, but it was too intimidating to go in. One day, Tazio, his son, was standing out front so we exchanged greetings and he ended up giving us a full tour of the shop. As it turns out, he's also a Honda guy, and has actually won the 25 Hours of Thunderhill in a Honda Civic. He has a huge racing history, from karting to Formula Mazda in Europe and the States.

Eventually he bought a Honda Civic Type R race car from HPD and decided to run it in a campaign. He calls me up and goes, "Hey, I see that you're tracking and you're doing pretty well. Would you be interested in racing?" and I said, "Let's do this.” I committed to a whole season of racing with him, and we did the NASA WERC series. I did a season of endurance racing in the Civic Type R, and then a handful of vintage races in the Datsun 510.

Shayan: That's a pretty impressive climb. How were you able to improve so quickly?

Daniel: When I first started, I was very anxious and doubted whether or not I was ready, but I pushed past that and threw myself into the deep end. It became a matter of focusing on getting my times as close to Tazio as possible. He's the pro driver on the team, and I'm the amateur, so he's my coach.

Once you start talking with people and uncovering their history and their passions, you start to realize how similar we all are.

I’ve always been good at picking skills up quickly. I learned martial arts from a young age, which taught me a lot of discipline and focus. I actually like endurance racing the most because it’s very meditative. When you're in there for two and a half hours, you really have to concentrate and eventually you enter this flow state where you don’t even need to think about your next move.

Being an actor also requires that you learn a wide array of skills to a degree that’s convincing enough to look good on film. So I think with racing, I applied both of those aspects of my real life to this hobby and went full faith into it.

Collector Profile: Daniel WuCollector Profile: Daniel Wu

Photographed by Naveed Yousufzai

Shayan: Your collecting philosophy seems to be really grounded in experiences and relationships. Can you walk us through some of the other cars in your collection?

Daniel: My collection seems random — there's a Lincoln Continental, a 510, a new 2018 GT3 Touring — but the unifying factor is the emotional connection I have to each car. For example, the Honda S800 was an opportunity to build a car with my best friend from high school, and to really get to know each other again after I spent 20 years on the other side of the world. It was eight months of us reacquainting ourselves after so much time apart.

Then the Lincoln is a full family experience. My daughter had always wanted me to get a convertible, starting from when she was 4 or 5. One year I was at Monterey Car Week and went to an auction on a whim, and I stumbled upon the Lincoln in that rare black cherry color with only 47,000 miles. Driving back from Monterey, I was so impressed with how smooth the ride was. It makes no noise, it cruises over bumps, and it’s super comfortable. It's gigantic — it feels like this cool land yacht.

Now we take it on road trips to wine country, or we go fruit picking with the top down and we just cruise. That’s the aspect I love most about cars: sharing in a collective experience. It creates so many opportunities for connection, and once you start talking with people and uncovering their history and their passions, you start to realize how similar we all are.

Over a thousand people showed up, and we sold t-shirts and donated the funds to the Stop Asian Hate GoFundMe. I think we raised almost $20,000.

Photographed by Naveed Yousufzai

Shayan: Can you tell us a bit about your company, Student Driver?

Daniel: Sung Kang and I founded Student Driver during COVID. Since entertainment production was halted, we were both out of work at the time, and he called me up one day and was like, "Hey, let's start a car brand." We always admired each other and it became a way for us to bond together over our love for cars.

We started the brand out doing limited edition t-shirts and hoodies. On one hand, it's a satirical look at the ‘student driver’ sticker that you see on actual student driver cars. But beyond that, the idea of Student Driver is to always remain a student, no matter where you are in your journey. Don't ever think you've become a master, because then that's when you stop learning. As we started to grow, we realized that we were also building this amazing tight-knit community.

Around that time, there was a spike in Asian hate crimes. Our community has historically stayed pretty quiet about this stuff, and people weren’t sure where to start. A good portion of car enthusiasts are Asian, so we created two Stop Asian Hate Student Driver rallies — one in L.A. and one in San Francisco — and drove from one point to another to show our solidarity.

The one in L.A. was crazy. We met in Downtown L.A. and drove an hour out to David Lee's event, Cars and Chronos, in Walnut, California. Over a thousand people showed up, and we sold t-shirts and donated the funds to the Stop Asian Hate GoFundMe. I think we raised almost $20,000. It was a really special experience to give people the opportunity to stand up for their community and make their voices heard.

Collector Profile: Daniel WuCollector Profile: Daniel Wu

Photographed by Naveed Yousufzai

Shayan: Do you find any parallels between acting and your automotive experience?

Daniel: The creative part of designing a car is like preparing for a character, preparing for a role. What are all the elements you're going to put into this character? What is this character about? What is he? What are you trying to say with this guy? What are you trying to say with this car? Because to me, car building is not about just putting the best parts on it or the hottest, trendiest parts, or getting the most horsepower out. There's people that do that and that's totally fine. But for me, I always like to create a story.

When there's a cohesive idea, it's much easier to make decisions rather than it being just a hodgepodge of cool parts.

That's why I name the cars. The Tanto, Datsun 510 build for example, is named after the Japanese tanto knife. It's not as famous as the samurai katana sword. It's the small, little dagger that is still equally as effective. That's what I thought the 510 was. The 510 is this little, tiny, economy car that ended up falling into racing for some reason because it was a unibody construction, independent suspension, easily modifiable that could be turned into a race car. And that's why Paul Newman and Pete Brock had so much success with it — the unexpected race car. All the design cues, all the design elements come from the story.

And the same thing with the Honda S800. It's called the Chinpira, which means little gangster. The story of that was the original S800 is a very cute looking, classic, British-looking car. And my bend on the design was like, okay, imagine you were a Japanese, low-end gangster in the early '70s. It's not as cool or recognizable as a Toyota 2000GT or anything else of that era that was higher value. How would this gangster modify it to fit his personality? And so I created this whole story.

Photographed by Naveed Yousufzai

I think a lot of that comes from filmmaking. When you write a character or you have to make it interesting, you have to understand his backstory. All that stuff makes it a three-dimensional person that the audience can enjoy. And so I do that also with the builds that I do. When there's a cohesive idea, it's much easier to make decisions rather than it being just a hodgepodge of cool parts.

More about Daniel

You can keep up with Daniel on his Instagram (@thatdanielwu) and can learn more about Student Driver by checking out their Instagram (@wearestudentdrivers) and their website.

Meet our contributors

As an avid driver and collector, photographer Naveed Yousufzai (@eatwithnaveed) captures California's car culture from a true enthusiast's point of view for various automotive publications.

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