2001 Annual Meeting
Reinventing the Wheel: Import Car Racing and Asian American Youth in Orange County, California
by Victoria Namkung, University of California, Los Angeles
Southern California has always been associated with car culture, particularly cruising and hotrodding in the fifties and sixties. The American Graffiti days are over, so I spent two years conducting research in Orange County, California and studied the newest form of car culture: import car racing. Predominantly involving Asian American youths, import racing officially made its mark in 1991. It is different than the Chicano lowriding or Anglo muscle car traditions. This form of racing is unique because participants “fix up” or modify sub-compact, import cars in order to make the vehicles lighter, faster, and visually exciting. Many participants use their cars day to day, just “showing” rather than racing. The city of Irvine has become such a haven for import racers that local residents have nicknamed the University of California, Irvine (UCI) as “The University of Civics and Integras.”
Import racing is largely an Asian American phenomenon, which makes sense since Orange County has one of the fastest growing Asian American populations in the country. Import racers are typically Asian American males between the ages of 16 and 21. There are plenty of female racers and non-Asian American participants, but it is estimated that at least 50 percent of Orange County import racers are Asian American males. Some import shows and races in the southern California area draw up to 15,000 participants in one weekend. These events are interesting because there are different racing crews or groups who travel and hang out together. There is also a significant camaraderie within ethnic groups. While racing in general is multiethnic and non-discriminatory, there are car crews based on ethnicity or neighborhood. They may also be based on generation. Most import racers are 2nd generation, but there is a tendency for car clubs to be formed by social groups. Non-Asian American participants are accepted into the car culture based on their car performance or show ability as opposed to ethnic origin. Almost everyone involved will explain that “it’s all aboutthe car” as opposed to the individual.
Unfortunately local law enforcement and business owners view this culture by its participants as opposed to the cars. Since the modified cars are often flashy with stickers or clear lights, they draw attention on the road. In Orange County, it is commonly understood that, if one has an import car and looks Asian American, he will have problems with the police. There have even been documented cases of racial profiling involving Asian American young men and import cars in parts of Orange County. Some local residents see the car crews more as gangs— thereby labeling them as oppositional or deviant groups. The ironic part is that most import racers are college students and live with their parents in middle or upper class neighborhoods. The few instances of violence occur from the illegal drag racing that takes place completely apart from organized events. Asian Americans and Asian immigrants have large populations in Orange County, especially in cities like Irvine and Westminster. Since many of the local high schools now have Asian populations well over 50 percent, there is an anti-Asian sentiment from some parts of the community. Import racing highlights the significance of race, thereby causing discrimination.
Import racing is an expensive hobby. Participation depends on one’s socioeconomic background. Youths typically receive a car from their parents as a gift, but later they have to spend their own money from part time jobs fixing up their cars. It also involves time. While in school, many Asian American youths are not involved in after school sports or leadership roles, which leaves them plenty of time to work on their cars. Participants typically leave this hobby after college graduation when they begin their first job. When the racers leave home and start their career, it becomes difficult to keep up with the maintenance of their vehicles and lifestyle. Though they may still have an import car like an Acura or a Nissan, they will not fix it up enough to make a statement of identity. There is also less time to work on a car or go to events because many start full-time jobs right after graduation. While some complain that these participants spend too much time and money on their hobby, there is such a huge market for these cars that the sellers often end up profiting and putting that money into their future vehicles.
Import racing is a hobby, sport, and lifestyle to thousands of high school and college students in southern California. Racers will spend thousands of dollars on additions and modifications to make the car look flashy, sound louder, and race at a higher performance. There are chat rooms online like “O.C. Racerz,” where importers can network to trade parts or find events. You can find import car magazines at grocery stores in Orange County. There is also a connection with hip-hop and dance music and some of the import shows seem more like nightclubs with their strobe lights and loud music. These events also draw thousands of young women who are either there to participate, hang out with friends, or work.
As with any male dominated sport like football, boxing, or wrestling, females play a sidelined role that is typically sexual. Import racing is no different. Corporate sponsors like Budweiser and Toyo Tires hire scantily clad women to dance and pose with cars and participants. Flyers and ads for import events always feature a girl and a car to attract attention. Some of the women are Asian American, but most are Anglo. There are also female attendees (not hired to be there) who flash cameras and pose with cars. Several Asian American male import racers commented that they felt strange watching Asian American women play this role. While the Asian American males assert their masculinity, they often alienate and exploit female counterparts in the process.
On the other end of the spectrum are the women who race and fix up cars themselves. There are car clubs like “Go Gyrl Racing,” which are there strictly for serious racers. While female participation only makes up around ten percent of the events, judges have added separate female categories because of the high influx. The culture is currently hyper-masculine and hyper-heterosexual, but the female racers are shifting things over time. Like their male counterparts, female racers see these events as a way to meet and socialize with friends and new people. Many Orange County youths mention that they live in suburbia and are bored. Import racing gives them a chance to have fun and feel part of something important and meaningful.
Import racing is a reconstruction of a cultural form. When a few Asian American youths felt excluded by the V-8, Anglo dominated muscle car culture of the seventies and eighties, they decided to start their own events with their own cars. Ten years later, import racing has become the most distinct identity for Asian Americans in Orange County. In addition to being a sport and hobby for many, import car racing and its lifestyle culture has become a socializing tradition for Asian American youths. While import racing has no political agenda, I believe there are parallels to hip-hop culture and African Americans. Like hip-hop, import racing provides a sense of identity and empowerment for Asian American youths who typically feel marginalized from the mainstream. Import car racing made its mark in 1991 and shows no signs of slowing down. Unlike other Asian derived forms of popular culture like animation, Hong Kong films, or comic books, import car racing is clearly Asian American, and Orange County participants assure you that this is just the beginning.
About the author: Victoria Namkung received her master degree in Asian American Studies from UCLA in 2000. She has taught journalism at UC-Santa Barbara and currently writes for InStyle and Los Angeles magazine.