From Honda to Top Drivers,
How Chris Hawks Has Built A Performance Juggernaut
Story By Tyler Tate
Photos By Savannah Rose
Chris Hawks is no stranger to the UTV world. Taught by his father how to wrench on their own machines, Chris began to dream of working for Honda. At 20 years old, he accomplished that goal and worked at Honda for 11 years.
“I had lots of great experiences and learned a lot of things,” said Hawks, “I was fortunate enough to go to a lot of places, but the longer I worked there, the more they owned my time. I realized I wanted to do something for myself. With the encouragement of my wife I quit an unbelievable career and ventured out on my own.”
Having already started Benchmark Performance on the side, in 2006 Hawks realized it was all or nothing, and went for it.
“I commuted 120 miles each way to Honda for 9 years,” said Hawks. “I was looking for a job closer to home so I became a service advisor at Mercedes and worked there for a year. I discovered that I did not have passion for it at all. My old job at Honda was still open, so I went back to Honda, eventually leaving there again after two years.”
When you grow up in Ramona, California which is close to Glamis, off-roading was a way of life. When I was younger, I built a turbo methanol s2000 engine for a buggy, which led to starting Benchmark Performance to build engines for buggies. Somewhere between 2006-2008, buggies were becoming less popular with the arrival of UTVs and the popularity they had, so naturally as an engine and performance parts maker, I had to follow the direction of off-roading.
That change of course for Chris has brought him to where he is today at Benchmark Performance as the subject of this month’s Campfire Chat.
USM: What was your first introduction to building UTVs?
Hawks: My brother-in-law Todd Arthur had bought a Rhino to go along with his trophy truck. I thought it would be fun to make it a prerunner, so we built suspension for it. Back in 2006, there was a race put on by Podium Productions at Lake Elsinore, that had a UTV race, so we went! Our ride literally had cardboard door panels on it, because it was NOT a racecar. Todd won his first race in that with a stock engine and built chassis. Shortly after that people started showing up with modified engines, we realized we needed more performance. Being that I was an engine guy, I figured I can work on these things, so I started working on the engine and it just absolutely took off from there. Over a period of time I stopped working on buggies and went to just UTVs.
USM: Describe how your shop operates today.
Hawks: Benchmark Performance is a couple humble hard working guys who are passionate about these vehicles. We try to help and support people with real information and not try to sell things just to make money. We are here to help solve people’s problems and steer them towards products to achieve their goals. Helping people has served us well and we have a big client base that’s almost all word of mouth.
USM: Being in Ramona, a 5 stoplight town, is it hard to find support for what you do?
Hawks: Currently there are no OEM dealers in Ramona, so we have to travel down the hill often. Ramona is a small mountain town. North County Yamaha is a huge help along with Escondido Cycle Center. We are thankful to be somewhat close and have their support.
USM: What might people find that is a little out of the ordinary when they come to your facility?
Hawks: It is actually 70 acres of ranch property that used to house animals. We have two buildings where the main office and the other that we do tuning in, but it definitely has the ranch feel to it. Right now it’s myself and Landon who I trust with all aspects of the shop.
When I started doing UTV modifications, I was only working on engines. I started working out of my garage with limited space so people would bring me just the engine. As time went on, I grew out of that space, so I moved into HRT motorsports shop, a 3k sq ft race shop, and people started bringing whole vehicles. It was only a matter of time till I outgrew my partnership with them and moved to this current space. Benchmark Performance evolved from working on just engines to whole cars. From 2011-15 we also did fabrication too. We kinda got disenchanted with the fabrication stuff and went back to the mechanical stuff. Currently we do everything but shock tuning in house.
USM: How did you get the name “the flying banana”?
Hawks: It was a nickname given to me by Dave Arnold. I dont have the stats but we had a crazy 80-90 percent win ratio in that car. We raced a Yamaha and a Kawasaki Teryx.
USM: What was your decision to go the Talon route for your son Kendall?
Hawks: A multitude of reasons. I’ve got Honda blood flowing in my veins still from working for Honda when I was young. I had the privilege to work with Johnny Campbell and legend Bruce Olgelvy. Honda runs strong in these veins! The other part is to be different from everyone else. I think we’re the only non Polaris vehicle in the class. We love Polaris’ at the shop, we work on a ton of them, but we wanted to do something different. Plus, we thought this car might get some attention and stand out from the crowd a little bit. We’re really excited about the DCT transmission vs CVT and the fact it doesn’t have a belt.
USM: Benchmark Performance works with some high end clients, tell us about them.
Hawks: We are blessed to work with a lot of talented people including some who have grown into incredible drivers. The list is long and starts from the early days: Sheldon Creed, NASCAR trucks, Jared Brooks, Brandon Arthur, Myles Cheek and Seth Quintero, we are super proud of him. We also have a ton of the little rippers kids like; Travis Salee, Chase Mankin, Ethan Groom, Kaden Danbury and Casey Simms. All of these drivers are incredible and we love watching them race and their careers grow.
USM: What are the next goals for Benchmark Performance?
Hawks: We’re happy with the way the company is and what we are doing as a team. That being said, time is at a premium and we’d like to have some of our own exclusive products to offer. And right now we have the capability, but not the time. Eventually that will be a feature of Benchmark Performance. We’re thankful to be crazy busy this year. In March we slowed down for two weeks making us wonder what the year would be like. Then the flood valve opened and we’ve been slammed since.
USM: What do you do for downtime?
Hawks: We love to play. We love the dunes, mainly Glamis since it’s close by. We went to the Idaho dunes over the New Year holiday and had a great time. A surprise we found there was the destination riding that we did not expect. There was a 100 mile ride to a lodge. Highly recommended. We’ve been to Mammoth and we like the river too. At the end of the day, we wish we had more time to enjoy it.