The legend of import tuning in America began during the late '70s in Southern California when a small population of car enthusiasts began exploiting the potential of lighter and more affordable cars from manufacturers like Toyota, Nissan and Mazda. These enthusiasts were mostly young Japanese and Filipino immigrants who needed a diversion from the various socio-economic problems that plagued their local neighborhoods. They began lowering these Japanese cars, replacing the factory wheels with some shiny rims, hanging fuzzy dice on their rearview mirrors and cruising around the neighborhood streets, similar to what the Latinos did with their lowriders. It was a mere shoestring hobby relegated for the weekends and to share among friends.
It wasn't until the mid '90s, when the entire nation and the major corporations began looking deeper into the world of import tuning, that a young man named Frank Choi created an exclusive event where these cars and the street racers that loved them so much could hang out and race. Frank's event not only set the foundation for this multi-million dollar industry that has produced movies, books and shows that span the entire globe, but it also produced the first crop of celebrity racers mostly unknown to tuners today. Frank and these racers are the group of men we like to call the pioneers, the trailblazers of this industry, and the event was called the Battle of the Imports.
In the early '90s, street racing was at its peak on the streets of Southern California. There was a drag race every weekend, where a person could watch Honda CRXs run against Mazda RX3s and Toyota MR2s would battle it out against Nissan 240Zs at now-famous spots like Maria Street in Compton. Frank was one of the many who raced on these weekends but grew tired of being chased away by the police and wanted to test his car out on a real track. He entered his '77 Mazda RX3 at sanctioned races at local drag strips but was quickly denied. "I didn't know if they were turning me away because of the car I had or because I was Asian," he explained. "It seemed like they were automatically stereotyping us. I thought, 'What if I was to hold an event with all my buddies from the street races and I had the chance to make the one guy with the small-block Chevy turn around and go home? What if the shoe was on the other foot?'"
So he started an organization called the Amateur Import Race Association (AIRA) and began holding the Battle of the Imports that featured small street cars from Japan and Europe, having them race bracket style down the quarter mile. His first race was held during the summer of '90 at the Los Angeles County Raceway in Palmdale, CA. The turnout wasn't spectacular, but it was a place where racing was safe, friendships were made and Japanese cars weren't discriminated against. He continued to hold the event intermittently throughout the following years. In the spring of 1993, the media began taking notice and the word quickly spread.
"When we did our first event, I didn't see a future in it. I did it out of personal spite," Frank laughed. "Racing made me happy. I would go back to my regular job and everything was great until I started getting phone calls. Guys asking, 'Hey, when's the next event, where's the next one?' So I thought about it, put a little more effort into it and that was it. From that point on, it skyrocketed."
The guys who would always go to Battle of the Imports came from car crews across Southern California, like Redline Racing, Cyber Racing, Team Precision and Split Second Racing. These crews were mostly composed of friends who lived in the same neighborhoods and shared the same passion for street racing. They would help fix each other's cars and represented by placing the team's logo somewhere on their rides. These teams belonged to the second wave of street racers that helped change the street racing culture, while the original racing clubs like Shoreline Racing, Street Image, Black Magic, 8-Ball and Horizon were mostly inactive during the mid '90s.
People loved to follow the cars during each Battle of the Imports. Out of each team, there was a standout racer who always represented with the fastest car. They were Junior Asprer from Redline Racing, Tony Fuchs from Cyber Racing, Myles Bautista from Team Precision and Archie Madrazo from Split Second Racing. In later years, street racers like Dave Shih from Wicked Racing joined the mix. Each one either set or broke quarter-mile records for front-wheel drive cars and rose to celebrity status during the golden age of import tuning. In fact, their cars were more popular than they were as each developed and established his signature style, like Archie's famous yellow front bumper or Tony's white Acura Integra.
They entertained the ever-growing crowd of spectators with their record breaking cars, and they did it all with their own money, their own technological innovations and their undying love for the sport. Kids like me idolized them as they helped popularize the industry from a mere trend in Southern California to a phenomenon that gripped the hearts of young gearheads across the country. Though the records they set are no longer relevant and they've been mostly forgotten, their importance and the impact they left on an industry that continues to grow should always be remembered. I sat down with them, along with Frank, to talk about what they did for this industry.
Super Street: What is the one thing you did for the industry that you're most proud of?
Frank Choi: Opening the eyes of everyone that's part of this industry, which at one point was dominated by domestic V8s. It's flattering that a company like NHRA recognized the sport we started and wanted to be a part of it, even though it's unfortunate with the way things ended.
Tony Fuchs: I was one of four drivers who got to race at an NHRA domestic event in front of thousands of fans, and I broke the world record there at 10.61 at 134 mph. We changed the minds of all the domestic fans once we ran our import cars. We made history and made lots of friends and opened lots of doors.
Myles Bautista: Holding the mile per hour record for Honda several times before corporate stepped in was special. I also have a couple of good friends that I helped mold into car nuts who are now heads of big companies like Kenji and Mike from GReddy. To see them run a big company like GReddy is a big accomplishment. Then I also have a couple of guys who I am proud not to be proud of. I won't say any names but some of these guys use you for parts, knowledge and food then they make a name for themselves and can't even say, "Thank You!" Let's just say I am proud to have helped them and not proud to have met them.
Archie Madrazo: I'm proud that I helped prove that you can actually make front-wheel drive cars fast! I ran a 12.2 at 135 mph on a 1.6L single-cam motor. Not twin-cam swaps or big-bore motors. And it was daily driven!
Junior Asprer: I will not take all the credit for this one. This would have to include the entire Redline team. Thus, I would have to say Redline introducing numerous front-wheel drive racing concepts that seemed odd back then, but are still being used today. Special thanks and credit goes out to the OG Redline members: Orly Alcalde, Kali Nahaku, James Zaldua, Paul Lee, Ian Guerrero, Leif Guerrero, Dave Alcaras, Rex Landero, Calvin Courtland, Mike Davis and Rommel Asprer.
SS: What is your favorite memory of back in the day?
Myles: It would have to be the camaraderie and friendships I have built. I have two guys, Allen and Jonathan, who have been with me from the beginning. We would stay up all week with no sleep just to finish a race car. And this is back when there was no money, no corporate sponsorships involved. Just so we could take home that $20 plaque from Battle of the Imports.
Junior: Witnessing the Battle of the Imports crowds multiply in numbers year after year to the point where it was 110-percent capacity. This was a big milestone for import drag racing.
Dave Shih: All my friends back then thought Archie was god and everyone wanted to be him. And my friends said nobody from NorCal can take him on, and I wanted to do it, so I did. That's what started it all for me.
Archie: How well organized the races were, whether on the track or on the streets. Everyone was able to race all night long and had no problems at all. Getting our cars ready for race weekend, going city to city battling anyone-those where the good old days.
Tony: All the friendships and, of course, all the hot import models. It was fun going to Battle of the Imports to see who was the fastest. Myles and I always helped each other at the street races and at the track.
Frank: The rivalry between Cyber, Redline and Precision. The camaraderie out at the events. Being a part of history as front-wheel drives broke into 14s, 13s, 12s, 11s, 10s and 9s. All these moments happened at Battle.
SS: What do you consider your lasting impact on the industry?
Archie: That all of us-Myles, Junior, and Tony-started something that was a weekend event and turned it into what it is now: big! I know not a whole lot of these racers nowadays know me like they know the rest of the guys, but everyone knew the red CRX with the yellow bumper from Split Second Racing. That in itself is enough of a lasting impact.
Junior: Redline Racing, along with the other pioneers, forever changed the notion that imports didn't belong on the track. Imports were now something to be reckoned with.
Myles: When they thought that a 100 cube Honda motor could not run such a big turbocharger. They said it couldn't be done. My motto is, "We can't find out unless we try." This is how I became successful building turbo manifolds. I have a degree in criminal justice; who would have thought I could design turbo manifolds that the Chinese and other manufacturers would one day copy?
Tony: We just paved the way for import racing and helped other racers go fast with our research and development. When we went out and raced, it was all about friendship and fun. We made a lot of good friends out of it. Now it's all about corporate sponsorships. It wasn't about that back then. We did it all for fun. We just didn't put tens of thousands into our cars to just win 50 bucks. There were bragging rights and just plain fun.
Frank: That I founded sport compact drag racing. Shaped and molded all of the competitive classes used today by other racing organizations. But a lot of credit should definitely go out to the people sitting here, who I call the original racers who really made a good foundation for what we see today. Everything from the concept of putting a different engine into a car to not listening to someone telling you, "Oh, this is the turbo that you need for that size engine." All that stuff was being done in the early '90s. It's unfortunate that a lot of the new guys out there perhaps never heard of Junior or Archie or Tony. I'm sure everybody wants to know where the roots were.
SS: What are you doing now and what have you been doing since we last saw you in the industry?
Tony: I own a car repair shop called Mid-Valley Auto Repair. I love fixing cars. I've just been working and building cars for time attack and drifting.
Myles: I'm managing the motorsports department for DCH Autogroup in Temecula, California. People are going to start hearing about DCH Motorsports because we'll be building a few cars for time attack, drag and rally. I've traded my racecars for two beautiful daughters, Katelyn and Makayla. It's the best accomplishment I've done, better than any records I've broken.
Junior: I'm a senior systems analyst at JPL/NASA. To this date, I continue to focus on my family and career. However, in my spare time, I continue to build new projects of my own. The most recent being an AE86, which was featured in the November 2006 issue of Import Tuner magazine.
Archie: As of now, I'm a truck driver doing western states. It's cool to travel somewhat. In '03 I built a single cam for a '00 EK turbo charged that was a daily driver and did 11s all day long. I think it's the best single cam car I've built so far. Then I crashed and never did anything after that, but right now I'm working with Lokwerks Fabrication in South El Monte on a twin cam B-series motor.
Frank: I'm the National Event Director for Battle of the Imports. I'm still active in the industry.
SS: Did you guys expect that you had the potential to race professionally, or were you guys doing it just for fun?
Myles: For me, it was bragging rights.
Junior: When we were racing, we were all working. Some of us were in high school, most of us were in college. Everything we got, we didn't look at it as a profession. We looked at it as a weekend activity, to meet each other. But we didn't think about being marketable or getting on the national stage. And because of that we got taken advantage of.
Archie: Amen on that!
Myles: Junior was the first guy who spit out a T3 turbine out of a turbo. What does that tell you? Turbos were too small. Tony was the first guy who brought drills for his nitrous jets. He made it work. He went with nitrous against the turbos.
Junior: Everybody's talking about JDM. We didn't even call it JDM back then. We had Mugen back then. I bet you bring up Mugen right now, it's worth a million bucks. We had it all. But do we get any credit? No.
Archie: We just want people to recognize that we started this big trend. If you look at the stuff tuners are doing now, we did all of them back then.
SS: Why did you guys stop racing?
Myles: In my case, I was taken advantage of by some companies and people can't be original [staring at Dave].Dave: Myles is always sad because he was always behind me. When we were building the tube chassis cars, all the manufacturers were your friends, and when it didn't perform as planned, they all pulled out. That left a real sour taste in my mouth. It's all about having fun. Don't let it take control of your life.
Tony: When we were all doing it, we were doing it with every paycheck and with money we'd make at the street races. We'd put it on the cars and the cars would get faster. Then I got a sponsor and they'd tell me, "We'll give you anything." But once I wrecked it, they went away just like that. When NHRA got involved, it ruined everything. They picked and chose who came in, who could race and who would get sponsorships.
Junior: I ruined my Civic by spending a lot of money on it by changing it to a tube chassis. We gathered up all our own money to do this. When the chassis was 80-percent done, then all the sponsors came in. They didn't pay us back. "We'll provide your transmission at cost," they'd say. At cost?! We built 80-percent of the car already. Why can't you provide the transmission for free? At that point, we were all tapped out. I spent $80 grand and we were all college students. We only had $20,000 on each of our credit cards with 25-percent interest. They're crazy when we put 80-percent of our hard earned money into the car and they tell us they can only provide us services and products at cost. Nowadays, these companies are providing it for free.
SS: What do guys think of the industry now?
Tony: Nobody builds anything cool. They come into my shop and all they want is to lower the car, put rims and tires on it. That's it.
Junior: I want everyone to know that not only are we old school, original tuners; this group could be classified as the OG JDM'rs. We had the headlights, the side markers, Mugen exhausts and wheels. Before today's "JDM" terminology, there was "old-school".
Myles: If Junior saved all his Mugen stuff and he had a lot of it, he'd probably buy another house with it. Let's just put it this way: If you never had carburetors in your Honda, you are not old school. You are not OG enough.