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On a recent white-hot, windless Sunday afternoon, a pink Toyota Celica sits on a swath of asphalt on a drag strip at Countyline Raceway off Okeechobee Road. The car is wedged between an inky black Nissan Altima and a powder blue Mercedes in a long line at the Car Show King competition.
Sweaty people shuffle amid the parade of cars, trucks, and SUVs. They occasionally stop to peer at a 900-watt sound system or snap a photo of a particularly well-executed paint job. But for the most part, the heat slows them to a sleepy pace.
That is until they reach the pink Celica. For some reason — maybe it's that the car is the color of Pepto-Bismol, or that it looks like a Barbie-mobile, or that it has custom-designed white Louis Vuitton logo seats — people perk up when they approach it. One guy with sweat stains creeping across his gray T-shirt rolls his eyes and shakes his head while his blond girlfriend snaps photo after photo.
"You just don't like it because it's a girl's car," the blonde shouts. Her name is Yessy Peres and she's 19 years old. She turns to another woman admiring the pink machine and says, in a softer voice: "It just represents women, period."
The pink Celica is a girl's car. It's owned by Fort Lauderdale's Samantha Sunderman, who is quite possibly one of the girliest girls you could ever meet. The 21-year-old has long, curly dark hair and a devilish grin, and she used to design leather fetish wear. Samantha is among the growing number of South Florida women who spend tens of thousands of dollars to pimp their rides in hopes of sponsorship, trophies, and national recognition.
The 2000 Celica is her first car. Her mom bought it for her six years ago, but Samantha has spent close to $30,000 on modifications. It's become famous on the southern car show circuit, having won a garage-full of awards.
"No man helped me with this — I'm not a car ho," she says. She's kneeling on the hot asphalt and squirting a six-dollar bottle of Greased Lightning Orange Blast on a rag so she can wipe the minuscule traces of dirt off the car's custom pink and white 20-inch rims. "Guys don't usually take me seriously. But it's all mine. My concept, my work, my money."
She stands up and surveys the car, checking to see if she's missed any spots during three hours of meticulous cleaning. Samantha's Celica is one of two women-owned cars in the show, and she is gunning to take home a best-in-show trophy. Cash prize is $100, but bragging rights over the guys are priceless. Winning, however, isn't guaranteed. There's stiff competition from the powder blue Mercedes and a black and blue Ford Focus, plus a sea-foam green Chevy Impala with sick suspension.
A Countyline Raceway worker with the track's logo on his black and red shirt strolls up to her. His name is Denny; he's middle-age and sports a goatee. Denny eyes the Celica. He glances uneasily at Samantha, then at the car, and back at her.
"Is this," he pauses, "yours?"
Samantha beams. She's used to this question. "Yes," she says. "It is."
Car shows are unlikely places for feminist pride. Normally they are meccas for men of all ages, temples to macho chrome-and-steel behemoths. The soundtrack is usually loud and misogynistic — rap, hip-hop, or rock — and women are relegated to being girlfriends who stand around, bored. Or they're slim, teeny-bikini-clad models who bend over the hoods for sexy photos.
Men, of course, have modified their rides for decades. It began with hot rods in the Fifties and continued through hippie-pimped VW buses, Smokey and the Bandit muscle cars, and Fast and Furious imports. Women have only recently become involved as more than eye candy.
Miles Hasegawa, a producer for a popular nationwide car show called Hot Import Nights, traces female involvement in the so-called car tuner world to two California girls: Lisa Kubo and Ethel Rose Rivera. Lisa inspired a generation of women as the first prominent female drag racer; she won the 2000 Import Drag Racing Championship title in a Saturn. Ethel Rose was a Northern California girl who won Hot Import Nights' Best in Show in 2002 with a magenta Honda Del Sol. She competed against 500 guys and was the first woman to take the HIN title. Miles thinks these two ladies inspired a generation of tuner chicks.
"With women, the look of the car flows a lot better — it might be just the female eye," observes Miles, who says there are more female tuners on the West Coast than in Florida. "Girls do a lot of brighter colors and a lot more glitter. Guys want their car to go fast and to look good. Girls, they'll take it to a whole other level."
Indeed, Joanne Braga is obsessed with cars. The petite 25-year-old with shoulder-length blond hair that's usually in a ponytail has spent tens of thousands of dollars on her Honda 2000 and her Scion xB. She won't say exactly how much.
Joanne is not sure when the obsession began. She remembers that as a kid, she and her family would take road trips all over Florida. Her memories of those vacations are punctuated with the cars they saw along the way. When she attended college at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, she put the car curiosity on hold and focused on playing Division III hockey — as the goalie for the men's team. She excelled until injuring her hand in a car crash. After graduation, she returned to Miami and its crazy roads.