Of all the people we've interviewed in our ten-year, somewhat sordid, past, and of all the people that we may in the future, none are or will be as influential to the tuning industry as these two people before you. None.
These two men took a hobby, and without knowing it, changed the way America saw Japanese cars, resculpting the automotive aftermarket landscape forever. At a time when domestic gearheads largely scoffed at imports with respect to performance, Frank Choi sought to prove them wrong and took his fight to the now defunct Los Angeles County Raceway and started the import exclusive drag racing series, aptly named Battle of the Imports, that forever legitimized select Japanese makes as the modern day muscle car.
On the other side of the tuning fence is Ken Miyoshi. A club promoter with a similar interest in cars, Ken took the lifestyle elements of the burgeoning scene-cars, girls, music, dancing-and put all of it under one roof; thus, Import Showoff, and the car show recipe that seems so formulaic now, was born. Two men. Two visions. One Passion. One Legacy.
2NR: Frank, how did you get into imports?
Frank: When I was about 14 or 15, just starting off in high school, a lot of the older kids were into imports. I remember one in particular; an '85 Celica, slammed on 15s. Luckily for me, that guy had a younger brother, who I became friends with. The older brother would let us tag along to the street races, and for the most part, was pretty chill. "Shut up, don't say nothing, don't look at anybody, and just sit in the back seat," he used to tell us. I was like, "No problem." The more time I spent at the street races, the more I started to appreciate racing. It made me want to work hard and bust my ass all summer just to be able to afford a car I could build-up and race with the rest of the guys.
Fast forward a few years, my dad helped me buy an Integra, and from there I modified it with the basic bolt-ons, to the point where it was fast for the time. And I remember one day, driving to school, some guy pulled up to me at a light in this P.O.S., revved, and looked over at me like I was stupid. So I thought, "Alright, I can take this thing..." But when the green light dropped, he smoked me so bad, it wasn't even funny! Later, I learned it was an RX-3, and decided to get one of my own, and it just escalated from there. I ended up going past the point of no return with the car, supercharging it, and street racing it so much that it came to a point where no one would race me, so I ended up going to the race track, up in Palmdale.
2NR: When was that?
Frank: Around '87 or '88.
2NR: So, when all our readers were born [laughs]?
Frank: [laughs] Right, so the first time we all went to the track, we couldn't race because the events were "domestic only". We ended up going back a few more times, but were never allowed to run. We were so pissed at the track managers for being so anti-import, that we complained to one of them, and - because I think he felt bad for us - he offered to let us rent the track for a fee. "As long as you pay, you can have a picnic, play 'race' with all your little friends or do whatever it is you do," he told us. So, to spite him, in July of '90 I arranged to rent the track and have an import-only event.
2NR: How did it go?
Frank: The first event was only promoted at the street races. I printed a ream of flyers, handed them out at the big spots, and the first event had probably a couple hundred people, and maybe 60-70 cars. All the street racers got to see their legit times, race without worrying about cops, and just have a good time. But mainly, we had our personal satisfaction of turning away the V8s that night.
2NR: When did the vendors get on board?
Frank: A lot of the big guys who are still in the industry today were there almost from the beginning. AEM was there, thanks to John Concialdi, Scott Kanemura from TRD, Oscar Jackson, and the HKS guys.
2NR: What was the fastest E.T. from the first event?
Frank: Well, I think the fastest cars were Richard Van Wellos, 'Z man', and his 240Z, and Johnny Alameda, who drove a Fiat 600 with a rear-mounted 13B. Both those guys were running in the mid 11s. Back then, 90 percent of the racers were old-school RWD rides, like 510s, RX-2s, 3s, first-gen RX7, Cosmos, and some Corollas.
2NR: Hondas weren't running back then?
Frank: Well, that's the thing. There were only a few, but once Oscar Jackson's turbocharged '84 Civic officially ran in the 13s in 1990, that really seemed to set everything off. That was the catalyst with all the FWD racers pushing to break records. You would see their times drop at every event, and the RWD guys were slowly giving up the spotlight to the FWD guys. Once word spread by the second event or so, it was about 90 percent FWD cars, and only a few of the RWDs. Attendance was up, and all the vendors and companies who were a little reserved about supporting the first few events began fighting for a presence at the track. I quit my day job as a computer programmer and organized Battle events full-time.
2NR: Did computers pay well back in those days?
Frank: Hell yeah. I was a 19-year-old kid making about $52K a year. ...But I blew it all on racing and blowing up engines. I probably disappointed my parents, but here we are, almost 20 years later; I'm married with a kid, a house, and have had a very fun 20 years. I must be doing something right.
2NR: Your turn. How did you first get into cars?
Ken: Well, growing up as an Asian American kid from Cerritos, I basically had friends who were either Filipino, or other Asian Americans. The Filipinos were into music - DJ-ing or going to clubs, and the other Asian Americans were into bodyboarding, skating, or working on cars. Like Frank, when I was 14, my older brother used to take me street racing in his Datsun 200SX on nitrous. A couple years later, I was heavy into the club scene, so between my interest in cars and partying, and seeing how car guys were cruising in front of the clubs, "showing off" their cars, talking to girls and listening to music, I thought, "why not put all this together?"
2NR: What were you driving at the time?
Ken: With the money I saved from DJing and working at Wells Fargo as a merchant teller, I was able to buy a new Supra when they came out in '92. I dumped all my money into it, and a week later it got stolen by a gangster "friend" of mine who was so high, he didn't even know he took my car.
2NR: Did you get it back?
Ken: No, but when the insurance company covered the losses, I debated whether to dump my money back into another car, and be paranoid that it would get ripped off, or put it toward this plan I had of creating a club-type car show for the import scene.
2NR: And that's when you started Showoff?
Ken: Yeah. I remember printing up fliers and passing them out at the Palmdale events Frank was running, back in 1994.
2NR: And was it a hit like Battle?
Ken: More or less, but on a personal note though, it cost me my girlfriend. She was pissed that I was putting so much time into it that she broke up with me. But that only made me think, "Fuck it. I've got nothing to lose, now," and want to do Showoff even more. I began scoping out venues for the first one, and that was pretty much it.
2NR: So, you had flyers before a venue?
Ken: Yeah, well the flyers only mentioned that there was going to be an event and provided an address for shops and car owners to get vendor info and to pre-register for the show.
2NR: Who was your first reply from?
Ken: It was from a car show contestant. R.J. DeVera, actually.
2NR: R.J., huh? He really is O.G., after all.
Ken: Yeah. I still have his original entry form that went into a proposal I used to help lock down the venue. His and all the others I got back in the first few months: vendors, shops, race teams, DJs...
2NR: How hard was it to lock down a venue?
Ken: I had enough money for a deposit, and that got my foot in the door. But I had to give presentations to boards full of 50-year old guys in suits...and I had never given a presentation in my life! I was a kid, wearing regular clothes, and had no idea how to, you know... carry myself [laughs]. They probably thought I was just some punk.
2NR: How many venues did you try before you finally got one?
Ken: I approached the L.A. Convention center, which was charging a ridiculous amount of money, Long Beach didn't want anything to do with me... and finally Pomona, because they had the L.A. fair going on in '94 and I thought, "I could imagine a car show here." I had all the board members convinced it would work, except for the lead guy, who wasn't budging. When I asked him why he wasn't going for it, he told me about some lowrider show they had there three years before, where there was some stabbing and a few people died, which I didn't know about... did you know about it?
2NR: I heard about it...
Ken: [laughs] ...Because you're nodding your head! I guess it was big news, but I didn't know. Anyway, they were so paranoid that they screened all the cars; no Impalas were allowed [laughs]. I even had to buy metal detectors... The whole event cost me a lot more than I had planned, but I was really driven to make it happen.
2NR: So how did the first show go?
Ken: It was in April of 1995 at Pomona, and about 1,600 people and 175 cars came through the gates. We had GReddy and a few other big vendors - all the local heavy hitters. ...We couldn't get HKS, though [motioning to Frank].
Frank: [laughs] We barely got them!
Ken: [laughs] But you did! Anyway, the first show was big enough that I made my money back, so I was happy.
2NR: So how were you getting around? Did you buy another car after the successful first show?
Ken: [laughs] Yeah, well... I bought a really cheap '86 CRX, just to get around in, and work the clubs as a promoter. I wanted a fast car, but had all my money tied up in Showoff, so I eventually bought an '82 Supra shell and dropped a 7MGTE into it, and that's when I started doing a lot of racing.
2NR: At Battle, or on the streets?
Ken: Both, but mainly the streets: Sylmar, Railroad Street...Right when I was doing Showoff, to try to make some extra bucks. I raced it at Battle in Palmdale, but only got a 13.8 or something shitty. I thought it was faster [laughs].
Frank: Yeah, there was a big misconception about how fast street racers thought their cars were, versus how fast they really were [laughs]. We'd be like, "Oh shit, so-and-so's nine-second whatever is really only running 15.70!" [laughs]. Made us wonder what a real nine-second car felt like.
2NR: So what were the next few years of Showoff like?
Ken: I did Del Mar the second year... I think; I'm getting old.
2NR: [laughs] Memory's starting to fade there, Ken?
Ken: [laughs] It is! I'll get back to you on when Del Mar was, but I promoted it in L.A. and San Diego, so it turned out to be really big. From there I went to NorCal, then Chicago, because Nitto came in and wanted to see us expand.
2NR: Both of you guys talk a lot about street racing. Any crazy stories?
Frank: Two come to mind. We were at a spot in Walnut one night, picking on this nerdy White cat to race us. I was in my RX-3, and he had this beautiful blue Nova - and I'm not big on domestics, but this thing was beautiful - and they were kinda' chillin' at the spot we were at. I asked him to race, and he didn't want to -- said he was just in town for some restoration show, or whatever. My crew and I kept haggling him to race, and eventually he agreed, but didn't want to race for money. I was all, "Just in case something breaks, we get our cars impounded, or whatever... there needs to be some money to make it worth our while." He offered $50. So I said, "Alright, it's getting late, let's make it an even hundred and the winner gets to go to Denny's." He agrees, and we all loaded up our cars on the trailers and took off to the racing spot. I actually convinced him to give me five or six cars and the move, because he didn't know what the hell these cars could do. I had the bottle turned on, we staged, and I was thinking 'this is going to be a quick race'. But then he fired up his car. Oh... my... God! I couldn't even hear my rotary! [laughs] But I've heard plenty of uncorked V8s in my time, so I wasn't worried just yet. But by the time he passed me... I swear his wheels were in the air! I cruised down the rest of the track, ashamed. I got conned! It was a very humbling experience. He let me keep my money, and we all had a good time.
2NR: Lesson learned...?
Frank: That no matter how much game you think you got, there's always someone out there with more. Don't get too cocky.
2NR: The second story?
Frank: When I first raced Scott Kanemura, back in the day. And don't even laugh, because I know you guys are pals, and that Scottie told you his side of the story--that it didn't happen or whatever--but it's B.S. [laughs]. He had his RX-7; I had my RX-3. I raced him; I smoked him. He didn't lose very often back then, so he doesn't like to admit when he did, but I beat him. And then, to make it even better, I raced him again about five years later, in Gardena. He was in his Integra, and I had my friend's GTi, and we smoked him again.
2NR: So you beat him twice?
Frank: Oh yeah, and it was great [laughs]. And Scott: I know you're going to read this and deny everything, but now that it's being immortalized in print... I'll be looking forward to sharing it with my kids [laughs]!
2NR: [laughs] Your turn, Ken.
Ken: It was the time I raced this 323 GTX. I drove out to Ontario, looking for this crew called Demonic Speed, because I knew they were pretty fast, and I was from a crew called Pacific Power. So we all went up there, found the guys, and my whole crew pitched in about $500 for me to race one of their guys. I didn't even know who or what I was racing, but when they rolled out this 323, I remember asking the guy, "Do you feel lucky, tonight? Because I'm gonna take this." [laughs] And I don't know why I was feeling so cocky, but it worked out and I got him.
2NR: You won?
Ken: Yeah, but it was pretty close. The other one was in Sacramento, right after I finished the CRX. I really only knew about Toyotas and rotaries, not Hondas, so it was my first race with the car. Anyway, we got there and two Wicked guys, Charles Madrid and Viet Lam, were trying to race me. I knew we were all running about the same times-mid 11s-so I was down. Then, right before we went to race, Viet asks me, "Do you feel confident?" And we had just finished the car-I hadn't slept for three days prior, because we were finishing it; I remember thinking, "I never said I was confident!" Then to make matters worse, when we were staging, Charles says, "I can't believe I'm going to race a car show guy." But I ended up running an 11.01 to his 11.18, so we collected the $500 and went to Denny's.
2NR: Free Grand Slams for everyone!
Ken: Something like that [laughs]. But then I got into racing more, and even became an honorary Wicked member.
2NR: How do you guys think shows and races became so different?
Frank: Well, back then, Battle and Showoff were the only organized events we had. Once the other race and show organizations got into the game, the import scene just fragmented. You had all these other guys, who all want a piece of the pie, trying to force our scene in a direction it wasn't meant or ready for. By pulling enthusiasts in all different directions, they ended up diluting the scene to the point where the grassroots or sportsman racer didn't have a chance. When NOPI and NHRA came in, we were still there; three major sanctioning bodies, and only a handful of pro racers. Very few racers made enough money to compete in all the series, and most got left in the dust.
2NR: Battle fell into the shadows for a while, how did you manage to survive?
Frank: While the other guys were marketing from the top down, we kept marketing from the ground up. We were always in it at that grassroots level. While the other guys were busy trying to push import racing into some mainstream light, and convince a few top guys they could be big-time, we were still providing a series for the regular racer; the local hero - for lack of a better term - the guys like Ken, who would wrench for three days in some dude's garage just to build a car to beat the rival crews with. We support the racers who were where we came from; working a day job with a regular salary... basically, your open-trailor, borrowed-pickup-truck, in-it-for-the-love racer.
2NR: What are your thoughts on where the show scene has gone these days?
Ken: I think the underground allure the scene shared back in its beginnings was part of what made it so successful. It was a very underground thing we all shared. Back then, and still today, there's definitely an Asian influence at work behind the successful shows. Not that Asians are the only ones in the scene, but certain shows really seem to unify the sort of 'underground' community that import guys seemed to share. Like Frank, I always wanted Showoff to keep true to those underground roots; true to form. And it worked.
Back in the day, I got a phone call from some Hot Import Nights higher-ups, asking to sit down and talk business. We went to P.F.Chang's in Irvine, where the three HIN guys sat me down and said, "Ken, it seems like we're putting a dent in your program. We're planning to do a day show, and since we have better backing, either you let us buy you out, or we'll smash you." It was the most insulting thing that had ever been said to me. But just to entertain them, I asked what their offer was, and they replied with some ridiculously low amount. I declined. Two years later, they abandoned their day show program, and Showoff is still here. That proved to me that if you stay true to your roots, the grass roots will see that and support you. Period. The true enthusiasts know the difference between what's candy-coated and what's true-to-form.
Frank: I agree. The whole industry was built from the ground up, at a grassroots level. And once the big-dollar companies came in and started sponsoring $100K-plus cars, it got to the point where the regular guys just couldn't compete. Everyone wants the big-dollar sponsorships and whatever else, but the chances of getting one are slim-to-none. No one ever offered me 100Gs [laughs]!
2NR: What was it about the early days that transformed our scene from an underground, L.A. subculture to pop culture?
Frank: You guys. The magazines. You guys helped it explode, made it die-off, and now it seems like some of you are helping to bring it back, again. Back in the day, there was no Internet, and Cable TV didn't give a shit about us. Magazines were all we had to get information from. And having your car featured in the mags was like finding the holy grail.
Ken: They were our Bible!
2NR: What was it like, working with the mags back then?
Frank: The kids reading the mags back then got a good taste of the grassroots of our scene that they don't get today. That's what I think helped spawn big-time import drag racing and shows. But on the flip side...
2NR: Oh no, here it comes [laughs]...
Frank: The minute drag racing and event coverage left the books, they left our scene, and everything took a dive. And I understand that the Internet beats out print on event coverage, but there's a certain tangibility and permanence of print that gives the mags an authority the Internet doesn't have. You guys are the voice and the validation tool. And now that some of you are starting to get back to your roots, I think we're looking at a brighter future.
Ken: Another thing our scene had back in the day, was that people and companies were very specialized. Everybody focused on what they were best at, instead of one company trying to control everything. That, along with more roundtable-type communication, could be really good for the scene.
Frank: A good example of that was NIRA. They were tied to a very popular magazine, and in order to race in their circuit, you had to be in good with the magazine and their advertisers. But, then, what if you raced NIRA? Maybe NHRA wouldn't want you, or the other mags wouldn't want to give you coverage. From the business standpoint, you had companies that wanted to support NIRA, because of incentives they could offer that the other guys couldn't, despite it being a series with very limited experience.
2NR: What were Battle's and Showoff's roles in helping the scene take off?
Frank: Obviously, the FWD racing was started here, and after Oscar broke into the 13s, everyone was battling each other for the next drag racing milestone: 12s, 11s, 10s, etc. The Bergenholtz brothers inventing the traction bar for FWD cars, the incorporation of tube-frame chassis, and whatever else all spawned from that. The cars got faster, and more companies and parts got onboard. (pauses) I've always had a good relationship with GReddy and Trust in Japan, and when I went over to meet Mr. Hiyakowa, and convinced him to let Battle bring over some Japanese cars to compete, that turned out to be a big deal.
2NR: I remember the blue R32. I missed that Battle, but everyone in L.A. was talking about it.
Frank: Yep, and we brought over the Top Fuel race team for a while, the JUN Hyper Lemon. And it just started from there. There was a rivalry between the Top Fuel CRX and Tony Fuchs' car... all that pushed the U.S. racers with new competition, and in turn, pushed the whole thing further.
Ken: The first Showoff winner was Non Fujita's FD RX-7, which was built to Option magazine specs - which he drove to the shows - which helped spark the clean, JDM street car trend that Import Showoff came to be known for.
Frank: After a trip to Osaka and meeting Drifter X, Komatsu, and experiencing drifting, I knew I had to find a way to bring drift to the US, and so Drift Showoff was born at Irwindale's parking lot in 2003. Also, it was on one of those trips to Japan that I met Daijiro Yoshihara, who eventually introduced me to Jerry from Pac Rim.
2NR: Show and drift pioneer! Looking back, what were some of the wack trends that you look back on and think, "What were we thinking back then?!"
Ken: colored vinyl seats, for sure.
Frank: Carter, didn't you have those on your DC2 [laughs]?
2NR: Never! Stop spreading vicious rumors [laughs]!
Frank: But seriously, just adding things to a car that don't have a function. Chrome undercarriages, vertical doors...
2NR: Can't stand the lambo doors, Frank?
Frank: No. I can't. Fake wheels, too. I hate fake wheels. I remember one show in Florida where Eddie from Mackin got into an argument with some kid who had Volk decals on fake TE37s. It was hilarious [laughs]! The kid honestly believed that the wheels he bought were real, even though Eddie was telling him they weren't.
2NR: Eddie had some K-fury [Korean fury] going on [laughs]?
Frank: It was funny. We were all laughing.
2NR [laughs] Yeah, well I can't stand fake wheels either. What about you, Frank?
Frank: There were a lot in the drag racing world, to be honest. We did a lot of things to try to go faster, especially back before there were any parts around. A lot of it looks stupid now, but it helped us realize what we actually needed to be faster.
Frank: I remember when the Bergenholtz brothers first came out with the traction bars, and seeing everyone's reaction, like, "What the...?" But when they actually saw the lower ETs, everyone was like, "We've got to get these things on our cars!"
2NR: What kind of advancements do you see in race and show these days?
Frank: Without a doubt, the rate at which street-class racers are progressing. Sure, the milestones aren't as big as breaking into a new second barrier, but these guys are progressing much faster than we ever did back in the day. Especially the naturally aspirated cars. They would smoke all the fastest turbo cars from back in the day - with full interiors!
Frank: Today, it's all about attention to detail, and keeping your car clean. Back then, it was about making your car crazy, but now its about making it better overall.
2NR: In closing, where do you think the industry is headed?
Frank: I think the industry is in good shape, despite the overall economy. This is an enthusiast industry, and as long as there's disposable income and people interested in building up their cars, it'll be around. We just need to find a program that supports the street guys, but still has a place for the pros to make a living. We have some big plans for next year that will help Battle be better for everyone involved.
Frank: I... have a little bit of a different opinion. I think the market is smaller, and the public image of imports as "rice rockets" is pretty strong. But the overall diehard core of our market is still here. And that's the good thing. The outsider companies and fly-by-night, rip-off manufacturers who never really cared about our scene are starting to leave, but the enthusiasts are still there, and they're who will keep it going.