Picture it. It's sometime during the early '90s, you're living somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area, and you want to go racing. More specifically, you want to go drag racing. But you can't. You've thought about visiting one of the then many drag strips but soon realize that you don't own a Mustang. Or a Camaro. You're the guy with the late-'70s Toyota Celica GT, the rotary-powered Mazda RX-3, or the '87 CRX Si. Sure, you know there are places you can race legally, like the South Bay's nearly forgotten Brotherhood Raceway or San Diego County's Carlsbad Raceway, but then you remember that it's still only 1990 and that the guy with the CRX would be all but shunned from such locations. Besides, neither of the two tracks offer any type of sanctioned competitive drag racing and are little more than redneck fist-pump-fests where mullets and flannel tank-tops are equally as commonplace as racing gasoline and slicks.
By now you should be smart enough to figure out that this is how street racing as we know it was born. But you also should be smart enough to know that this isn't another story about street racing. Twenty years ago, Battle of the Imports founder Frank Choi set out to turn the world of organized drag racing upside down. After he and his Mazda were turned away from one too many domestic-only events, Choi created his own venue, one that catered only to import and sport compact car owners. It was all but unheard of in its day.
The original Battle of the Imports was small-arguably no bigger an event than any number of street races that likely took place the night before. Still, more than 500 fans filled the stands to watch nearly 60 imports help inaugurate Choi's first Battle. And properly inaugurate it they did. In just five years, the Battle of the Imports chalked up more than 15,000 fans at each event who watched the hundreds of competitors blast down the 1320 at the venue's initial de facto racetrack, Palmdale, California's Los Angeles County Raceway. Ah, Palmdale. The dust, the dirt, the dry air, the obligatory gusts of wind strong enough to push a Civic hatchback into the wall. It's where racers like Stephan Papadakis, Bisi Ezerioha, Tony Fuchs, Myles Bautista, Lisa Kubo, Ed Bergenholtz, and many, many others made their early appearances, earned their stripes, and played their own roles in putting Honda on the performance map. Of course, many of the aforementioned went on to set a number of single-digit records, helping further ensure Honda's relevancy among enthusiasts for years to come.
Choi's Battle of the Imports arguably hasn't garnered the fanfare it deserves. It should, though. After all, it was the first import/sport compact series to branch out nationally. It was the first to be televised, airing on Speedvision in 2001. It was the first to host its own car show. And it remains the longest-running import/sport compact series to date. Choi's Battle of the Imports was also the first to introduce Japanese super tuners like TRUST, JUN, HKS, and A'PEXi to American drag strips. Early Battle goers will remember Top Fuel's legendary Nissan Fairlady Z and, perhaps more importantly, its turbocharged CRX that went head to head with SoCal's hometown favorites, like Tony Fuchs and his non-VTEC-powered DA Integra. Of course, there's also Signal Auto's infamous chop-top EK Civic, which helped further cement JDM styling cues among American enthusiasts early on.
Today, Choi's Battle of the Imports stretches its arms across Southern California into the Pacific Northwest, through the Midwest, the Northeast, even the Southeast, and consists of seven classes ranging from an entry level Sportsman division all the way up to its Pro Import class reserved for full-blown drag cars with up to six cylinders and two power adders.
The Battle of the Imports is import/sport compact drag racing. It's where it began. It's where it was. And it's where it's at. The brainchild of Choi, it started as an answer to his being turned away by the domestics one too many times. Just a few short years later and Choi was turning them away.