Underground Diaries, Part 15
I got more outraged comments on my import scene articles than I have for maybe anything I’ve ever written. Some of it was actually coherent. Ish. It bugged Josh enough to inform one naysayer that I’d likely done more homework on tuners than the commenter had done on any subject in his life. Josh had a point. Most of the critics had clearly ditched the bulk of their English classes…presumably in favor of Auto Shop.
When it comes to Asian fusion, Wolfgang Puck has nothing on the import scene. By which I mean the custom car culture mash-up of Japanese cool, cars and motor sports, homegrown hip-hop and throbbing speed metal, drift cars and drag racing, tricked-out spokesmodels and homeboy car clubs, crotch rockets and rice burners, wide-body show cars, rampant commercialism, cosmetic body kits, pumping adrenaline and raging testosterone.
Not necessarily in that order.
For a sense of the scene, think The Fast And The Furious movies—unless you’ve seen them, then forget them if you haven’t already. Past American car cultures revolved around domestically-made hot rods and muscle cars, or home boy-built lowriders. The import scene marks the Asian invasion of American custom car culture.
The scene’s weapons of choice are affordable Japanese cars and motorcycles. Once tricked out, they’re often referred to as “rice burners” and “crotch rockets” (respectively if not respectfully). Drifting, a street-smart Japanese import involving powered skids and style points, is the scene’s dominant sport. And young Asian Americans are its poster children, shredding the “studious and nerdy” stereotype like a cheap set of drift tires.
Here, they’re the cool kids, breathing new life into tuner culture. And everyone’s along for the ride: Latinos, blacks, whites, girls. The import scene is the new United Colors of Benetton, or would be if the United Colors of Benetton were spending all its hard-earned cash on body kits and better suspensions.
I found myself wondering which came first: custom parts makers or the scene. The Hot Import Nights car show and D1 Drift vs. Grift events I attended were thick with the booths, banners and buffed-out semi-trailers of auto, tire, and car parts makers. The companies’ decals and cellophane wraps were ubiquitous, as were their products and propaganda. Companies passed out shwag like it was candy and ran video simulators hoping to—I don’t know—hook ’em young?
While we’re on the subject of blatant commercialization, Hollywood’s law-breakin’ street racin’ depiction of the scene owes as much to marketing as reality (um, duh). Illegal street racing casualties are down in SoCal, credited to laws that allow cops to arrest spectators and impound participants’ cars.
Most of the fast and furious illegality now seems to involve engines and exhaust systems switched out for more power (violating laws such as emissions standards). At the 2005 Hot Import Nights show in L.A., cops reportedly stopped cars leaving the show to check that engines matched vehicle ID numbers. Several rides were impounded.
The cops skipped the HIN show I attended, though the National Guard was in the house. So were the Marines. Not to enforce the law, mind you. They were recruiting. I was stunned when I saw kids lined up for a chin-up contest at a Marine booth. But I guess a hi-octane event thronged by young thrill junkies and crack mechanics that features scores of virtually naked go-go dancers is as good a place as any to go looking for kids sold on the idea of defending our car-crazy, fossil fuel-guzzling way of life.
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