Additional Photography Courtesy of Battle of the Imports
There's arguably no event more influential to the current state of Honda performance than the Battle of the Imports. Conceptualized nearly two-and-a-half decades ago, Frank Choi's Battle was the first ever legitimate, all-import drag race of any kind and helped pave the way for more than 23 years worth of import-specific venues of all types. Choi's first event, held at the now defunct Los Angeles County Raceway on July 8, 1990, drew a modest crowd that consisted mostly of a few hundred friends and fellow street racers. By 1995, though, the field grew to more than 800 cars and as many as 15,000 fans filled the stands. Choi's Battle had grown so large in just five years that, for the first time ever, LACR had filled to capacity and fans who made the long drive to that desolate corner of the county had to be turned away. As such, the Battle of Imports ultimately took its show on the road, introducing its unique formula of import drag racing to the rest of the country until 2009 when the economy and import tuning industry as a whole further withered. Choi didn't just create and nurture the first-ever import-centric drag racing series at a time when Japanese imports like Hondas were hardly revered as the performance vehicles they've since become, he helped legitimize cars like Civics and Integras in the eyes of a domestic-centric world. It began as a hobby for Choi—an excuse, really, to gather among fellow street racers at the racetrack and turn away what domestics might have shown up—but culminated into a movement, forever altering the way Americans would view Japanese cars.
HT: You're best known for creating the legendary Battle of the Imports. How was that first-ever, import-only racing series formed?
FC: As I became more and more actively involved with street racing, putting more money into [my] car, there really wasn't anywhere on the street that I could test a supercharged, nitrous-injected rotary engine. I [decided] to take it to the track just to see what it would do, so I drove up to Palmdale. I remember the first time I went there. The guy [who] was at the front gate looked at us like we were lost and said, "What are you doing here?" I said, "What do you mean? We have a trailer with a car on it. We're here to race." Well, that day just happened to be a private test session for another group. I was like, "Why don't you let us use one of the lanes because it looks like you have more than a few." He said, "Nope. If you ever rent this track, then you can do whatever you'd like, but this is a private event." We exchanged a few words, I made a U-turn, and drove all the way back to L.A. I called the racetrack the following business day [and] left a rude message saying that they needed to be more specific with their answering machine. A couple of weeks went by and we went back. The same thing happened. I began to think [that] it might be racially motivated, or because I didn't look like them, or because my car was unidentifiable to them. I thought to myself, this is getting a little out of hand so I decided to write a letter and call the owner of the racetrack. I explained the situation over the phone [and] his only response was: "What's your name again? Oh, if you want to rent my track and pay me your hard-earned money, you can do whatever with it [that] you please. If you want to have an event or you want to have a party, I don't care." Those were his exact words.
HT: It sounds like that made an impression on you, no?
FC: I was a little taken aback. I made an appointment, drove all the way back to Palmdale, and said, "OK, what if I were to rent your track and have an event that had nothing but imports?" I was [only] thinking about my friends at the street races. He said, "The track costs this much. I don't care what you do with it, but I don't know why you'd race those kinds of cars." By this time we had communicated so much that I think he was starting to feel sorry for me. He said, "Look, I'm gonna give you a chance." He gave me a date and said, "In lieu of rent, I'll do this with you as a partnership, so that way if you lose, you won't feel as bad losing only half." I said, "What if we end up doing good?" He said, "Let's just assume that, best-case scenario, you'll only lose half of what you plan on investing."
HT: That doesn't sound like he had much confidence in you. How did you promote the upcoming event?
FC: Back then I was working as a computer programmer, and I remember making up the first event flyer using a label maker and a copy machine. There wasn't any sort of graphic design software like there is today. I bought one ream of paper, used my office copy machine, took them out to the street races, handed them out to the people there, and they looked at me like, "What is this?" I said, "It's an event I'm going to put on at L.A. County Raceway [for] those interested in racing [on] a real track where you don't have to worry about police or who's cheating [who]. Little by little, the enthusiasm started to gain traction. I started to get a lot [of] phone calls. I remember the number-one question asked was: Do we have to display the [time] on the scoreboard? Next thing you know, the event day came around and we had about 50 or 60 cars. I knew every one of them. I even had a chance to race my own car. There were maybe 300 or 400 people. It looked like a packed weekend over at [the] Gardena [street races]. The event started at 10 a.m. and I think we were done by 2 p.m. It was very simple, and 90 percent of the cars there requested no time. It was the funniest thing because I remember going up to the tower just to see what people were doing and all of these guys who claimed that their cars were 9- or 10-second cars out at the street races were doing 13s or 14s. It was unbelievable. There were a few 12s and I think there was one or two who were doing mid-to-high 11s; those cars might have felt like 9-second cars at the street races. In the end, the event finished without incident and everybody went back to their normal daily grinds, including myself.
HT: Did you feel as though you'd accomplished something significant that day or was it just racing as usual, only now on a legitimate track?
FC: I felt vindicated. I remember I had the satisfaction of turning away more than a few V-8s that day that tried to come in for some test-only [passes]. I walked away from the event not losing any money, went back to my 9-to-5, and within a couple of weeks people were calling, [asking,] "When's the next one?" At first I was like, "I don't think there's going to be a next one." I wasn't planning on [that]. A couple of months went by and everyone was asking me at the street races: "When's the next one?" I gave it some thought, and eventually had one the following year. When we had that one, everything doubled—I think maybe even tripled—the number of race cars and spectators. I honestly felt I was on to something new.
HT: You really didn't think you were on to something after that first event?
FC: No, because my goal was to turn away V-8s. No one reimbursed me for my gas when I drove all the way to Palmdale twice only to turn around and come home. I can still remember some of the remarks they were yelling when they were pulling away from the front gate. So, yeah, I got what I came for, which was to race my car, which didn't do too well, by the way, and to see some people race. I think turning away V-8s was enough for me. Again, I had a regular job. It wasn't until the second event that I thought this could be the start of something new. All of a sudden I was getting calls from companies who wanted to display their products the next time. I was like, "Oh, wow, this is kind of interesting." After the second one I said, "You know what, I'm going to jump in with both feet." I gave up my nice job as a computer programmer and did this full time to a point where here we are 23 years later.
HT: How big of a challenge was it for to organize that first event?
FC: It was pretty simple because there weren't a lot of people. Palmdale wasn't a beautiful racetrack but it's what we had that was easily accessible. I mean, they had nine lanes. You spread nine lanes among 50 cars and it's not that difficult. Also, I had a lot of people who were willing to help, like my brothers and close friends. We made it work.
HT: Why Palmdale? Were there other tracks that you'd considered?
FC: I would have loved to have [had] the event at Pomona, but the amount of red tape involved—I mean, just to get someone to answer the phone and give me a straight answer was hard enough. Bouncing between the Fairplex office and the NHRA, I wasn't getting anywhere. Palmdale was the only other option besides Carlsbad, but the problem with Carlsbad was that nobody liked the burnout area.
HT: Moving back a bit, what was the Southern California street racing scene like before Battle of the Imports came along?
FC: When I was actively street racing there were no front-wheel-drive cars out there. I would say, predominantly, it was rear-wheel-drive cars—all old-school. You'd see a ton of rotary-powered 510s, RX-2s, 3s, 4s, 7s, 240Zs. This was during the mid-'80s. Imports were already out there. I remember going to the street races when I was a freshman in high school, which was in the early '80s, so they were out there. It was almost a proving ground: who had the best game to try to swindle the other person into giving the most amount of space and stuff like that.
HT: What did you race at that time?
FC: At first, I was more of a spectator; I didn't even have a license, but by the time I did end up racing it was with my RX-3. I was a big rotary fan. I still am today.
HT: When did you first begin to notice a Honda performance movement?
FC: The short answer would be at the first Battle of the Imports event in July of 1990. Out of all of the cars there, there might have been two Hondas. I remember them both. Oscar Jackson brought out one [Civic] and HKS brought out the other. Both of them were turbocharged. There were really no other Hondas, Acuras, or any other front-wheel-drive [cars] participating in the event. There might have been a handful that you'd see in the parking lot. It probably was a few years later that you'd start to see front-wheel-drive [cars] out there.
HT: At what point did you realize that modifying Hondas was here for the long term?
FC: Well, we could go all the way back to that first event where Oscar hit 13s in a front-wheel-drive [Honda]. At first I didn't look at it as anything other than, oh, good for him, because I was more focused on the rear-wheel-drive cars doing 11s. But from 1992 onward, we did notice with the Hondas that it was a race to see who would break into the 12s [and then] the 11s. I think that before Dave [Shih] ran 10s, like everybody else, I didn't think [anyone] could [do it]. When Dave hit 10s, it sent off a shock wave [to] everybody that it was possible. Making horsepower was not the problem. The problem was being able to get that power to the ground. [After that], I knew it was just a matter of time before they hit 9s [and then] 8s. I knew it was possible.
HT: It's been said that the Battle of the Imports laid the foundation for the entire import performance industry. Do you agree with that?
FC: Well, I would like to think the Battle of the Imports was a catalyst in the culture that has become what it is today. Back then, nobody really revered this industry or had any parts that were outside of generic applications. I mean, sure, you could put nitrous on a four-cylinder, but were there kits available? No. There was really nothing. After the second event I had the luxury of being able to call a lot of manufacturers, and when I could get somebody to take five minutes out of their day to talk to me, they'd [say], "You're racing what? Why? There's no point." Getting them to listen was the hard part. Eventually, by the mid-'90s, [they] began to listen. When I went to the SEMA show in the early '90s, it was 90 percent domestic display vehicles. There were no imports. Eventually, they started to realize that imports were owned by a generation that'd proven to have a very discretionary income, and they'd proven themselves as having a culture that was different than what the traditional performance manufacturer was used to. The culture, the way they modified their cars, the way they built their cars, the way they babied their cars was an extension of their personalities. The numbers spoke. I started getting phone calls from [companies like] MSD saying, "Hey, we'd like to come out to your event. We don't have anything, but how much does it cost?" [I said], "How much does what cost?" I thought to myself, oh, wow, they'll pay to come out here. All of a sudden, we had Nitrous Oxide [Systems] and K&N expressing interest in coming out. For [companies like those] to actually come out, I just felt like the ball was rolling. Little by little, we saw changes. There were more and more manufacturers looking for ways to increase part numbers and cover a wider range of cars without having to go through the growing pains of figuring out what's hot and what's not. It was a pleasure being a part of all that. GReddy, [for example,] when they first came here, at their first SEMA show, all they did was display stuff for cars we didn't have here. They came [to Battle] and saw the number of Hondas and front-wheel-drive performers, it got them thinking, and that's why they began developing a lot of their exhaust systems for front-wheel-drive cars. Ken Miyoshi was a racer at Battle before anything else. With his experience racing and his love of the industry, it sparked his passion to start [Import] Showoff. Eventually, it just snowballed from there with other people, like Extreme Autofest and Hot Import Nights, who came to the event [and] saw the potential and the need.
HT: Could all of this have happened without you? Do you think somebody else would've eventually come along and done something similar?
FC: You know ... it's hard to say. I think a lot of it had to do with the way I cultivated it, like a parent to their newborn baby. Whether or not somebody else were to take an idea and create some type of organization that would have a framework or system in place still remains a mystery to me. I don't know. I remember being interviewed one time by Autoweek magazine when [the writer] said, "You're the modern-day Wally Parks." I looked at him and said, "Who's Wally Parks?" Everybody laughed but I was serious. I didn't know who Wally Parks was. Eventually, he told me that he was the founder of the NHRA.
HT: Speaking of the NHRA, prior to their sport compact series, had you made any effort to partner with them on any events?
FC: There were a number of times I'd reached out to them and said, "How can we help? Take a look at what we have here and tell me if it's something that might be of interest to you." Unfortunately, it always fell through the cracks to a point where it never got off the ground. I just felt like it was something that they knew about but looked at as taboo, something that they weren't ready to deal with at the time.
HT: How long before the NHRA created its own sport compact series was that?
FC: Oh, well before that. It could've been 10 [years]. I remember I was talking to them because I figured that the only way to get the event into Pomona was to have them sanction [it]. But it didn't work. Other events got into Pomona. What's wrong with the Battle of the Imports? They weren't interested.
HT: So was that the end of any communication between you and the NHRA?
FC: Well, it got to a point where our event grew so big that we carried our own insurance policy. [My insurance agent] said, "Frank, if you'd like to get a break on your insurance and not have questions at the track, you need to submit your own rulebook for approval, which can be used in lieu of the NHRA rulebook." We let the racetrack do the tech inspections, but when it came to a front-wheel-drive car using slicks, [for example]; the guys at the racetrack would be like, "Oh, well, they need a driveshaft loop." They don't have driveshafts [laughs]. There was always a little bit of confusion. People [started] interpreting things their own way so I ended up drafting a rulebook with some folks who I became friends with at the SFI Foundation. We made this great rulebook, sent it to my insurance company, and they said, "This is fantastic, but you need to get it approved by the NHRA." I sent it to the NHRA and never got it back—not even an acknowledgement that they received it. I sent another one with a return envelope, just to make sure, and nothing. I was like, "Wow, they really aren't interested in what is happening or they don't like what we're doing over here." Eventually, they came out with the NHRA Sport Compact [series] with the same classes and rules that I had in my rulebook except they changed a few names. Coincidence?
HT: Aside from all of that, what did you think of the NHRA's newly formed Sport Compact series? Was it healthy for the import industry?
FC: It could have been. They definitely have the infrastructure and bandwidth to make it happen. But when the NHRA Sport Compact [series] came out, NOPI wanted to get into drag racing and came up with the NDRA series. Now there were three organizations, three schedules, and only [so many] racers. The number of racers who were pro were few and far between: [Craig] Paisley, Abel Ibarra, Vinny Ten, Lisa Kubo, Steph Papadakis, the Bergenholtzes. How were we supposed to put these racers in a tug-of-war? All of those racers started at Battle. I know every one of them. I've got everyone's cell phone numbers, home phone numbers, some of them even went to my wedding. I knew where their hearts [were] but I also knew what their passions and dreams were, so I did not give them an ultimatum or pressure them into them showing their loyalty to me by racing in my series. I tried to level the playing field as much as I could. I made a huge investment by televising our series. That's what the racers said we were lacking. With NHRA, they had ESPN2. I said, "Fine. I'll do Speedvision." We leveled the playing field in terms of television so racers could go back to their sponsors and say, "We'd like to go with Frank's series and you'll get just as much TV time." But that didn't happen. All of them followed NHRA. One of the things that I remember Wally Parks telling me when I had a chance to have dinner with him was, "Look, I know who you are, I know what you're doing, I know what you've done. The only advice I can give you is don't ever forget the grassroots racers." He was absolutely right. For example, there was only one Stephan Papadakis who could show up in a 9-second, front-wheel-drive car but I needed to focus on 12 more guys who could run 10s or 11s and make them into the next superstars. We decided at that point to not fight for Steph, Lisa or the Bergenholtzes; let's go out and make some new heroes. And that's what we did.
HT: So you would actively groom particular racers to become famous?
FC: If there was an opportunity to help, I would try. The racers did all the hard work themselves.
HT: Would you single out particular racers early on? Did you have criteria that you looked for in someone?
FC: Not really, but Shaun Carlson comes to mind first. While he was at Turbo magazine I had a chance to meet with him and he had this thing called a Block Guard, which I thought was a fantastic idea. I asked him where he got them and he told me it was from his side business, NuFormz. It was a fascinating idea. I was like, "If you can do this, why don't you do other stuff?" This was well before he built any cars for Stephan. He said, "Yeah, but I've got too many bills to pay." I said, "You know what, you look like you're almost wasting your time here, taking pictures for a living. You should be doing something else." I made an offer to buy his car off of him so he wouldn't have a car payment and, one day, he called my bluff, releasing him of a car payment. He quit, [focused on] NuFormz, and everybody knows the history of the cars he built [after that]. [Another example,] Ed and Ron Bergenholtz, totally different personalities, but Ron being the face of that team, I knew that that guy could sell his team and do good things with his program in terms of his partners' returns on their investments. If there was an opportunity to push him in the right direction, I would. Bisi [Ezeriohia], same thing. He was very intellectual, very smart. The best advice I gave him was that if he wanted to continue drag racing at the forefront, he'd have to get a new car. He did that and owns his own business now.
HT: What are some of the most memorable or spectacular Honda-related instances you can remember happening at Battle?
FC: Oscar Jackson running 13s in his wife's Civic at the first Battle of the Imports. Tony Fuchs racing against the Top Fuel Racing CR-X. It was kind of like a USA versus Japan [showdown]. I would also say when Stephan ran 9s at the same event. The Bergenholtzes, they did it in a non-tube-chassis car with the aid of their self-engineered and fabricated front-wheel-drive wheelie bar. The sheer number of Hondas and Acuras at the events was awesome.
HT: Did you help arrange sponsorships and support for specific racers?
FC: I tried as much as I could. See, that was the fun part. I was the first line for these sponsors who didn't know what it was they were looking for. I did what I could to put them in touch with certain racers [who] I thought could help. An example was Steph's brand-new drag car and its marketing partners.
HT: American Honda was pretty involved with supporting the world of import drag racing at that time, weren't they?
FC: Yes, they were, and we were blessed with their support. They were in the driver seat and set the trend for other OEMs to participate. They supported heavily in our contingency programs knowing that 9 out of every 10 cars that won was a Honda so they were paying out at every event. They paid out well and they paid out for a very long time. Their support was invaluable and helped legitimize the series.
HT: What did you think as Honda ultimately pulled back its support for drag racing?
FC: You're at an OEM level now so you've got to think big picture. Front-wheel-drive drag racing just isn't on their radar as much as what the general public may think.
HT: Tell us about some of the most infamous rivalries over the years at Battle.
FC: Looking back at [those], it was fun but, being there, I always felt tension. The rivalries were there between Wicked and Cyber and Precision but there were so many others. These were guys who raced at the track legitimately but also street raced. I'm not going to point fingers at anybody but there was a lot of tension.
HT: Let's talk about the events that led to some of the final Battle of the Imports events. What happened?
FC: Well, the automotive industry took a dump. We took a pretty big hit because we were doing work with a lot of OEMs at that time. The ones that did require bailouts or mercy, those are the ones that left us standing with a huge bill. Rather than looking at it from a legal standpoint, which would've been a waste of time and money, we knew that the industry was taking a turn, and it wasn't moving in the right direction. That year, 2008, was the same year that I ended up winning the SEMA Icon of the Year award. That's how I finished off that season. In 2009, I tried to ride out the economy, see what would happen, and we curtailed the total number of events down to three. All three rained out, including the rescheduled one. That was tough. The economy also wasn't getting any better so we decided to shelve [the series] and see what would happen. In 2010, [the market] was still soft. Picking up the phone and calling these companies that at one point had big marketing budgets and advertising budgets were now laying off people, tightening their belts, and trying to stay in business. We knew it wasn't the right time to try to continue any partnerships because it wasn't going to happen. If we couldn't make things economical, there was really no point in going out there.
HT: In light of other drag racing venues that seem to be successful, can we expect a resurgence of Battle of the Imports?
FC: Oh, absolutely. One of the things that's a challenge here on the West Coast, though, is the lack of venues. I'm not saying that drag racing is dead in any way, shape or form; it's been a part of over half my life. I still am very passionate about it. As far as the direction that we're thinking about for the future, we have some ideas. I just think it's going to have to change a bit to be more widely accepted, not just by [the racers] but by the potential sponsors.
HT: Any closing thoughts?
FC: I think the number-one question out there is: What happened to Battle? It's fairly simple. The economy at the time that we decided to shelf it was heading in the wrong direction. In spite of what all the self-proclaimed economists may think are signs of a recovering economy, the challenges we face today are real, and without support from sponsors, it is extremely difficult to host a Battle of the Imports series. As far as a hard date, I don't have one today. But know this: I have eyes and ears still out there, and my finger is on the pulse of our industry. I've got way too much invested in this industry. I'm not going anywhere.