Back in the day, the pits were strewn with passenger seats, spare tires, lug wrenches and floor mats. They were all piled together with a collection of tools, a ghetto blaster and an E-Z Up canopy, if you were a player. The car owner's girlfriend was the lucky one sitting in the discarded seat and his pit crew was whatever gaggle of friends he could con into coming the 80 miles or so out into the high desert where this industry known as imports first walked upright. The place, SoCal's Los Angeles County Raceway, looked like a U-Haul convention with trucks and car dollies as far as the eye could see.
The early days of the import scene were powered by grassroots drag racing and the Battle Of The Imports was the epicenter of it all. Rivalries between car crews like Wicked and Cyber kept the buzz buzzing and it would not be uncommon for friends to pool money together to enter their fastest car in the race. There were no stickered-up 18-wheelers or catered meals in ornate hospitality suites; back in the day you were Golden if you had your own diesel pickup and a baby Weber barbeque.
The edgy, rebellious and committed enthusiasm of the mid 1990s was the adrenaline that propelled the scene forward. Some will say the drag racing scene evolved too fast. It seems what took the NHRA fifty years on the domestic side was condensed into five for sport compacts. In the span of three seasons, the import Pro RWD cars were turning e.t.s quicker than their Pro Stock counterparts. Factory involvement and big-money sponsors pushed the performance envelope but also pushed aside many weekend warriors, driving a wedge between the grassroots racer and competitiveness.
There are industry powerhouses that will lead you to believe that drag racing has had its run, enjoyed its last days in the sun. Don't be fooled. Going fast in a straight line is a patriotic rite of passage, and as long as Americans roll on wheels and there are stoplights, there will be drag racing. These naysayers usually have an ulterior motive or wish to throw their weight around and alter the perception, and thus, alter reality. The sport has split, that's for sure. Splitting is good for stock shares but not motorsports... look no further than the parting of the IRL and Champ Car for proof. The corporate/grassroots split in drag racing has effected its perception and perhaps even its reality, but does drag racing still work? It depends on how you look at it, who you ask and where you ask. Import drag racing has fallen out of fashion in Southern California but is bigger than ever in the New York/New Jersey, where 25,000-fan crowds are the norm. What about middle America, does drag racing still have what it takes or has time passed it by?.
Off the beaten path in Seattle, Wash., we went in search of the answer, talking to racers, shop owners and drag race promoters to ascertain the state of the (drag) nation. It should be noted that Nielsen Media Research tabs the Seattle/Tacoma area as the 13th ranked TV market with 1.7 million viewers so maybe Seattle is not so far out of the mainstream.
As the industry has morphed, the Battle Of The Imports has remained frozen in time. Yep, the granddaddy of them all is still in the game. Battle has retained that original Palmdale buzz, canned it, taken it on the road and is proudly celebrating its Sweet 16 in 2006. We caught up with founder and race director Frank Choi at the Battle In Seattle race at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash. He was quick to point out that the Seattle race was up 23 percent in racer count over last year, but Battle has never been a numbers game, it's all about vibe.
The Godfather Of Grassroots"It still feels like the heydays at Palmdale in the mid '90s. It has that fun, life celebration feel here," says Frank. "The enthusiasm is extremely high. The kids are not in search of dethroning Steph Papadakis or becoming the next Steph or looking to break some record, it's all about the personal experience. The technology up here in Seattle in terms of our industry may not be as current or the same as what is going down in L.A. Things like the K-Series swap, in Cali 'the K is the way,' up here the GSR/Type R swap is still popular. There are some decent numbers being laid down, but to see how these kids react and the energy they bring, I think sport compact drag racing is on solid ground. In spite of what anybody else may say, if they are focusing on just participation on the pro level, I can see why they may have a grim outlook."
Choi continued, "We tend to go to where other sanctioning bodies don't go because we know that drag racing has been around forever and will be around forever. The element that is street racing is an epidemic everywhere. We step in to bring organized drag racing with compassionate classes that cater to all the different types of cars so everyone can be in on the action. We plant the seeds and it may not be a home run on the first year but it will improve and evolve and we have watched a number of these seeds grow and then harvest them into great venues for us. Seattle is a good case in point and it's only our third year here, central Florida, through the Midwest, Central California... Bakersfield. Places where no one else is providing the stage."
"It would be great to go to E-Town and draw off the 7-8 million people they have 45 minutes away. But the fact is that it is so saturated out there that it is almost expected that you have the 20,000-plus gates." While Frank never brought it up, it should be noted that E-Town gets big chunks of gate and other revenues, which translates into less money for the sanctioning bodies.
"But you come here to Seattle's Pacific Raceways and pull a 6500 gate and you're walking on water, the best thing since sliced bread," says Frank. "As long as we do our job staying focused and staying true to the grassroots guys...the guys who have stepped up to head's up but on a street car level we will be solid. We are talking 387 street class racers here at Pacific Raceways. Of the 387 cars here let's say less than 5 percent are faster than 11.99 but they are happy with that. They take pride when their buddy takes his freshly swapped Civic and goes 13.0 out of the box then improves to a 12.80. He leaves in the 12s and he leaves a hero. Posting 12s may not be a big deal in Cali. I'm sure guys will say 'I've been running 12s for three years now.' But like I said, every market is different but the reason that the people keep coming out is the same; they love to go fast. To see how their car is performing and they want to be part of something, part of history."
"Battle was first and there isn't anything anyone can do to change that fact. I mean, sixteen years is a lot of history. These kids today were in strollers when you and I were beating the heat of Palmdale in 1992. Battle is a pipeline; the same enthusiasm back then is here today in the hot pits and the next generation of competitors are rolling around in strollers."
"The numbers today in Seattle are good and it proves that the kids don't want to come out and see 6 and 7-second cars, they come out to be part of something. But time will tell, these kids will graduate and move on even faster than the generation from the early '90s. It just a matter of time, and time is all we have, so we are excited about the first sixteen years and looking for sixteen more."
The Man On The Street
Frank points to a red Civic hatchback and gets on his soapbox. "Tye's car is the epitome of a street car, it's all glass, all metal body panels. It's got both seats, a CD stereo system, air conditioning and if he wanted to he could still daily drive the thing. That helps his tuner Intec Racing. I am not sure if there is some sponsorship there but retaining that street car status should translate better into action at the shop. Also attaining a car of the 7-second caliber is big dollars. These guys have full-time jobs and can't afford the luxury of loading up a trailer and racing full time, like Stephan, Abel or Kubo. Those are pioneers. They were at the right place at the right time and were recognized as the leaders and were offered the big sponsorship. They took it and maximized it and did very well for themselves. I would say that here at Pacific Raceways less than one out 10 racers would aspire to drop everything and become a full-time drag racer.
Tye J. Panzone, 31, hails from West Seattle, Wash., and he is one of those 'less than one out of 10.' He first got into the scene about eight years ago. His good friend, Jeremy, had a '91 Acura Integra LS with a few bolt-ons, wheels and some interior cosmetics. Tye picked up some import magazines and Bam! "I got hooked hard on this whole import scene," says Tye. "After going to a few local race shops to pick their brains, my first choice was the '92 EG hatch I run today. I started saving and buying parts, first it was all cosmetic...cause I had a non-VTEC single-cam D15 and didn't know how to do anything to make it faster. I bought all the classic rice parts; Z3 fenders, M3 mirrors, a bodacious three-piece wing, big-mouth body kit, extreme carbon hood."
He eventually got clued into the power game, swapped in a 1.8-liter LS and took that bullet to fully built, Frankenstein status with the addition of a VTEC head. After an initial turbo setup, Tye stepped it up and now flexes 550 dyno-proven wheel horsepower.
"I have street raced my EG quite often and have had the most fun with freeway rolling races against Corvettes, Porsches, and other high-end performance sport cars," says Tye. "But I like beating street bikes most of all, they don't get all pissed off when you beat them, they give thumbs up, no drama. Getting your $60,000 supercar spanked by a 14-year-old Civic must really torch the ego. I have done a lot of line-up street racing from lights and what not, but the cops really crack down on you hard for that, so I try not to do it too often. Plus the track is just so much safer."
"I guess my best night of street racing was a Friday night this summer. I left the race shop at about 1AM and as I pulled out, I was passed by about fifteen miscellaneous imports. A few slowed down and rolled up next to me and took off. The street was three lanes wide on each side and I had one car on either side. They both revved up so I followed suit. The light turned green I took off about a block down, they were both about half a block behind me...I love those kind of races cause I was just minding my own business and these guys thought they would punk someone and instead they got served. I would have thought that the huge intercooler sticking out my grille would have said enough, but I guess not. It was a lop-sided victory that made me appreciate the caliber of competition at the strip"
Tye continued, "My favorite thing about grassroots events are the people...both the hosts and the other contestants, we all have fun together. It's more like a bunch of buddies hanging out, having a good time with our cars, going out to dinner, going karting and partying. It's just a fun crowd. Big props to the Choi bros for keeping it going."
Talking about going pro, Tye says, "I would love to go on to the pro circuit. I already have a great EK chassis ready to race, built by some of the industries' great minds, but to do so I would need a lot of sponsor help." [The car is Jensen Oda's old racer, a white Civic with a bunch of Apex stickers all over it.]
"I am very much an enthusiast and I think I will always have a foot in the door of the import scene, we will just have to see if I can ever really push the door open. Right now, it's a matter of dollars."
The Tuner's Take
When Lawrence Ojas flew the coop from Hawaii and invaded the Seattle area in 1997, the import scene in Washington was a little behind the curve. He opened his shop Intec Racing at the urging of a friend. "I was used to the car level and knowledge that was happening during this time in the islands which was a little more in line with the California scene," says Ojas. "However, things have rapidly moved on since then."
"The street racing scene began here with your average enthusiast, having a import car with basic bolt-ons. Most of the cars ran about a 14-second quarter mile with the exception of a few cars. At the time, the local drag strip had no "Import Only" events. So, kids would gather in Chinatown and then roll to the industrial areas to race. I would say about 10-20 cars; not staggering numbers, but a beginning. The police weren't really aware of this and racing would go on until early morning. Soon the numbers grew to 50-60 cars and a crowd of cars like that definitely generates some attention."
Ojas continues, "With the crowds getting bigger, local website forums started to work with the race track to make an 'import' event. Soon, some people started to flock to the race track for a legal way to race. I feel that this grassroots move to the drag strip was what created the urge to make their cars faster. You see, at the street races, as long as you beat the other guy, you think you are fast, but after taking your car and seeing a 14- or 15-second time flash in bright lights, they started to realize that their fast wasn't fast at all. These guys were reading about the times that Cali, Hawaii and some East Coast people were running and had the fire to take it to that level. Locals looked up to racers like Stephan P., David Shih, Eddie B., and other average racers that made their way to big sponsorships, and the Northwest contingent wanted to be them. I feel this time was the most influential period on the growth of the import scene here in Washington. People started buying parts like crazy! Motor swaps, Drag turbo kits, NOS, you name it, it was flying off the shelves. It should be pointed out that theft of Civic Si's and Integra GSR's was at an all-time high. People just wanted to go faster. However, what kept Washington from being a national player was the lack of knowledge on the fine points of drag racing...things like the significance of 60-foot times and a lack of shops that knew what they were doing. What I mean by this is, parts are one thing, but tuning is the big thing and that 'next level' tuning was what we were missing. Installing parts wrong, making poor part combination choices, etc...not to mention simple things like smaller spark gaps on turbocharged engines, A/F ratios, getting rid of check engine lights...I mean at one time, many people thought a check engine light was okay and meant the car was running fast. Many people bought parts from local shops, but were disappointed at their quarter-mile times. Imagine spending large amounts of money and running slower. People started blaming the parts, but I say it was a lack of tuning knowledge."
Tye ended with, "Battle has been a strong influence for us. Not only do we look forward to it, but customers look forward to it too. Having their cars ready keeps us up late at night when Battle comes around. Battle has been a constant influence in the import scene. They cater to more of the grassroots racers and give the guy with the smaller budget a winning chance. Don't get me wrong, I love NOPI and NHRA, but in a customer's eyes, they can never compete at that level. However at a Battle event, there is a chance."
Regardless of the opinions floating around in cyber space, at the street level, drag racing is alive and well. This 'slice of Seattle' look at the local scene translates into most of the regional markets across the country, the names of the players are different, but the circumstances are pretty much the same.
Back in the day, the cycle was: get a Civic, passionately build it, race it, and crank on it more until it makes so much power it transitions into a stand-alone race car. Then buy a beater to drive every day and play with that. Today, the car is the same, the passion is the same, the power tricks are the same. The only component of the cycle that changes is the enthusiast...he'll always be a wide-eyed teenager or twenty-something.
The media and other 'people of influence' should spend more time educating, entertaining and embracing this enthusiast and less time preaching about the virtues or vices of show, drag, drift, car audio...it's all the same...don't hate, celebrate.