January 22, 1997, Wednesday, Home Edition
A TURBOCHARGED OBSESSION;
FORGET FORDS AND CHEVYS. TODAY'S STREET MONSTERS OF CHOICE ARE ACURAS AND HONDAS. IT'S AN INTEREST FUELED BY A GROWING NUMBER OF ASIAN AMERICAN CAR CLUBS.
D. JAMES ROMERO, TIMES STAFF WRITER
The cars are much smaller, the engines have half the cylinders. But with high-tech modifications, high-speed freeway racing and high sticker shock, this new, modern version of ages-old hot rodding is still a high stakes game.
Sometimes there's a brush with the law. Sometimes it's gangsters. Often it's street or show battles with other hot rod crews. But the thrill remains the same: speed.
Marc Fata, 21, a senior in international business at Cal State Fullerton, worked nearly six years selling shoes to buy and fix up his used '93 Acura Integra. "I didn't go to prom, I didn't go to parties," he says. "I set aside my social life."Now, however, he doesn't even drive it. The car that he has sunk nearly $ 35,000 into has been garaged for nearly six months while Fata finds a way to make it even faster. He ran 14 seconds on a quarter-mile drag strip, but he wants to cut that time down and still keep the car street legal. That means a serious engine rebuild, turbocharging and a nitrous oxide boost.
His obsession has a support group: Kosoku, a 30-member car crew of teens and twentysomethings charged with like-minded enthusiasm. "I wouldn't trade the experience for anything," says Fata, the son of an importer who fled Lebanon in 1985.
His yellow Acura is a centerpiece of Kosoku, one of perhaps 250 predominantly Asian American, predominantly male car clubs that have cropped up in Southern California during the last five years, providing social fabric for import street racing enthusiasts. Crews are spreading beyond Asian communities and throughout the Sun Belt, while the newfangled compact hot rods they have championed are hot from Hawaii to Florida, creating a $ 100-million domestic demand for custom import parts. Some dealerships, such as the Norm Reeves Honda Superstore in Cerritos, sell lowered, customized cars right off the showroom floor.
"It's transcending the Asian ethnic group," says Oscar Jackson, the pioneer in producing performance parts for Asian cars. He says half his customers are non-Asian, compared to a nearly all-Asian clientele only two years ago. "There's a whole generation out there learning to get into imports."
Kosoku, Japanese for "speed," is considered a model club. Born of high school friends in Santa Monica three years back, it is now run out of the West L.A. apartment of the De Vera family, a tight clan who fled the turmoil of the Philippines in the early '80s.
R.J. De Vera, a 19-year-old UCLA student, runs the club like a business, calling monthly meetings, lining up photo shoots with the car magazines and selling T-shirts with Kosoku cars imaged on the backs. Charlotte De Vera, 49, (a.k.a. "Moms") wags her finger at the 30-odd troops not to street race, but keeps her credibility with a slammed-to-the-ground, yellow-as-a-bee's-behind Honda minivan. R.J.'s half brother, Cito Cabale, 26, is a club deejay who rolls down PCH in a midnight blue '93 Toyota MR-2.
Kosoku is well-known as a "show" crew and took nearly half a dozen top trophies from the ultimate test of an import car's cosmetics, the biennial Import Show-Off in December in Del Mar. The crew's cars--mostly Honda Civics and Acura Integras but sprinkled with a Toyota here, a BMW there--are pristine and toylike, almost untouchable. Often monochrome and always wrapped with bottom-hugging, plastic "body kits," they represent the smart, sleek aesthetic of the import subculture.
Kosoku has a resident freelance mechanic, an amateur engineering consultant, even its own performance parts distributor (R.J. De Vera sells performance parts via mail order out of his bedroom office). But often the club members have to get their goodies professionally installed at one of the dozens of import performance shops that have cropped up in the last five years to cater to the scene.
A handful of magazines--Turbo, Sport Compact Car and Super Street--often display Kosoku cars. The mags have either cropped up in recent years or transformed themselves from muscle car mags to import boosters to tantalize the kids with model cars and engine add-ons.
Most clubbers can't afford Mercedes and Porsches. And moms aren't buying them Camaros, either. Mostly they get $ 11,000 to $ 16,000 Honda Civics. Then they spend $ 1,500 on European racing rims and another $ 1,000 on turbocharging and systems that boost engine combustion with injections of nitrous oxide--often out of their own pockets.
Of course, there are extremes. Some kids disassemble the brand-new, parent-purchased $ 20,000-plus Acura Integras, even $ 40,000 Mazda RX-7s, in the name of street racing. Elsewhere, crews assemble compact super-cars in the hopes that import racing will ascend to near Top Fuel drag racing status--a professional sport that features the fastest track times.
Wicked--a statewide club with as many as 150 drivers--is revered for its times at the Battle of the Imports quarter-mile drag races held three times a year at L.A. County Raceway in Palmdale.
Member David Shih drove a gutted-out, butt-ugly, turbocharged '88 Honda CRX down the quarter mile in a mind-boggling 10.87 seconds--a time that would beat many a Camaro or Corvette.
"We do have criteria for membership," says Shih, 25. "One of our main goals is that you never lose."
Alot of old-timers scoff at Asian-built hot rods. Some owners of traditional American hot rods, displaying both pride and ignorance, call the new-wave rides "rice burners" and even "rickies" (for rickshaws). They criticize dangerous street racing and look down on the subculture's fastest cars, which they say resemble trash cans with engines.
"You see the old-timers look at the kids today in these Civics, and they just can't stand them," observes Mark Vaughn, West Coast editor of AutoWeek magazine.
Respect comes in numbers, however. The muscle car mantra is that "there's no replacement for displacement"--in other words, the bigger the engine, the faster. What's more, traditionalists argue that drag racing a front-wheel-drive car, which most of the imports are, is illogical because drivers give up loads of traction and torque.
Yet import racers have proven that turbocharging and nitrous oxide boosting are great equalizers. And they love the stealth power that comes in such small packages.
Boys have been racing their toys since at least the 1920s, when the first hot rods--often stripped-down and souped-up Ford Model Ts--hit the streets. Early drag races took place along the dusty hills of the Appalachian South. The first car clubs began to crop up in the '30s, only to be detoured by World War II. After the war, Southern California street racing inspired the creation of the National Hot Rod Assn., which established safer drag racing on the track in 1953.
Peter Brock ran a '46 Ford in those days--a typical muscle car with the type of engine technology that has dominated drag strips since. But by 1970, the avid racer and car design legend found himself at the helm of an unthinkable prospect: racing Japanese cars.
Until that time, Japanese cars were utilitarian at best. At worst, they were derided as roller-skates with engines. Brock, now 60 and an automotive journalist, assembled a four-car road racing team for Nissan that went on to astonish the car world by winning the Trans-Am Series two years in a row against such formidable opponents as BMW and Alfa Romeo. His BRE (Brock Racing Enterprises) Datsun 510s, with their European-influenced styling and red-white-and-blue paint, became a model for Japanese sports cars to come.
By the '80s, Southern California kids were souping up their Japanese cars because they were the new generation of hand-me-downs. The first custom imports often hailed from Mexican American neighborhoods, where kids would cut the springs on their Toyota trucks, Toyota Celicas and Nissan Sentras. They would add racing rims, thin tires and aerodynamic body kits that made them look more like aftermarket BMWs than lowriders.
Asian American teens caught this latest strain of car fever about 1990, observers say, and began cutting down their imports as much for lowriding as for ground-hugging performance. The phenomenon borrowed from European styling; early enthusiasts referred to their rides as "Euros."
Clubs cropped up from Little Saigon to the San Gabriel Valley, and in the summer of 1990, the first Battle of the Imports drag race, organized by the for-profit Asian Import Racing Assn., was held at L.A. County Raceway. There were 75 cars--mostly old Datsun 510s, Mazda RX-7s and only a few Hondas.
Now there are three events a year, largely dominated by Honda and Acura. The latest, held in December, hosted 600 cars. Another group, the National Import Racing Assn., has cropped up to hold similar races in the Bay Area, while the NHRA began catering to import hot rodders last year with its Street Legal drag racing series as a way to appease Southern California law enforcement, which was asking for help to get these kids off the streets.
Import racers still cruise and stop for impromptu battles across Southern California. The 1995 closure of the Brotherhood Raceway, a frequent weekend retreat for import enthusiasts on Terminal Island, put many racers back on the roads, observers say.
The streets of Sylmar were ominously quiet and invitingly wide on a recent Saturday night--marked with the burnout tracks and skid marks that are the stuff of teen glory.
Earlier this winter, police conducted roundups, blocking off roadways, trapping racers and watchers and citing them for everything from equipment violations (too loud, too low) to "engaging in a speed contest," which can mean up to a $ 400 fine and 120 hours of community service.
They also impounded a few cars, mostly from underage drivers who had to haul their parents into court to retrieve their rides.
While the street races are usually mild-mannered, they have occasionally gotten out of hand. Three years ago, a racer was shot to death in an incident police say was related to a feud involving an Asian gang. A few chance races on the freeways have ended in accidents and death.
And in the San Gabriel Valley, law enforcement contends that a few car clubs are connected to area Chinese gangs, drive stolen cars and steal parts that are peddled through shady aftermarket shops.
"We have a lot of gangsters who sport the lowered imports," says L.A. County Sheriff's Sgt. Jim Sulley, an Asian gang expert.
But many scene observers, including editors at the handful of specialty magazines, say the sport is not much different from hot rodding's glory days, though club members now complain that police often mistake them for gangsters.
"Police ask if we claim a gang affiliation , if we have tattoos, what's Kosoku," says Nathan Pagtama, 21, who drives a highly modified, parent-bought Acura Integra with a Kosoku banner stripped across his windshield.
Crime affects them, too, Kosoku drivers say. They live in L.A., and Pagtama's previous car, a Honda Del Sol, was stolen a few years back. And gangbangers shot up a car club meeting in the San Fernando Valley (mistaking them for rivals, perhaps), putting holes in R.J. De Vera's car and nearly hitting his mom.
But if there are car crews out there gangbanging, most import enthusiasts, many of whom are college students, say they want no part of it. They'd rather have their cars featured in the magazines--sans bullet holes.-
Story notes: These kids in lowered Hondas would roar up to the parking lot and dive into a brasserie I frequented in West L.A. I started to ask what they were all about, and they said they were part of a car club - a new movement in hot rodding. I took the idea to my editor at the Times, Charlie Waters, and he bit. Vibe magazine later went back to the same characters and did a similar story, which was then optioned as the basis for the Fast and the Furious.