By Michael E. Miller
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Joanne won the Hot Import Nights show in Orlando in July 2007 and in Miami this past December. She knows her attention to detail has garnered the respect and notice of show judges. She's philosophical about the future. "Nothing may come out of this," she says. "I may never get in a car magazine or a commercial, but at least I know I did it, did something that no one else did, and that I'm a woman who did it."
Back at the car show off Okeechobee Road, two guys stop and stare at Samantha's pink Celica. "That's a girl's car," says Jorge Chongo, dressed in baggy jeans and a T-shirt.
"That's owned by a woman?" replies Marcel Jarvis, wearing a white tank top and white pants. "That's sick."
"I think it cost about 50 grand," says Jorge, who adds that he saw the car win Best Toyota at the Hot Import Nights show in December. They inch closer to the Celica, which is the only one roped off with a white plastic chain, like at a club. The pair peers inside at the white interior with rainbow-colored Louis Vuitton logos. "Damn," says Marcel. "Is that leather?"
"No," Jorge replies breezily, as if he's the expert on the Celica. "I can't remember the name of the company that does that. Gucci or some shit." The guys nod seriously and wander off.
Meanwhile, Samantha is a few feet away, sitting in the shade under a tent and watching everyone gape at her car. About a dozen car shows ago — she's not sure exactly when; she goes to so many — she strung the plastic chain around the car to deter people from scratching the paint or denting the doors. She worries that haters — or incompetent people — will damage her baby. "One time in Daytona, these girls came off the beach and they were all sandy, leaning against my car," she snorts. "People have no respect."
Maria Roche has a willowy build, straight dark hair, and brown eyes accentuated with black liner. The 33-year-old Puerto Rican looks every bit like the suburban mom she is: comfy jeans and casual white tank top. She and her husband Joey own a modest house in the Hammocks neighborhood of Kendall, and it's decorated smartly with earth-toned furniture and photos of their 18-month-old daughter Breanna. In the living room, there's a large soft-focus photo of Maria on her wedding day; she wears a veil, a white Cinderella-like gown, and a shy downward gaze.
Beneath the gilt-framed portrait are two dozen trophies, some taller than Maria, who's about five feet in height. They say things such as "Best Dressed Import," "Best Female Ride," and "Best Neon." The majority of the trophies are awards for her 2004 Toyota Celica, while a few were bestowed on Joey, who, along with Maria, is a member of the StreetStylez Car Club. "All I wanted at first was some rims," she laughs. "Some tinted windows. A bit of color. It kind of got out of control."
Although Maria grew up liking cars, she had no plans to spend tens of thousands of dollars on one. She and Joey met in 1994 when they were both working at a car dealership. They married in 2000. Two years later, the pair was riding on his motorcycle one Sunday in May on the MacArthur Causeway. Another bike cut them off as they accelerated from a light, and Joey lost control. Maria was thrown off the back. "The only thing I remember was the sound of the cars screeching to a stop behind me," she says.
She regained consciousness on the asphalt. The force of the fall had been so great that her left hand flew up and hit the space between her lip and nose, embedding her diamond wedding ring in her skin. Maria also broke her left femur, while Joey nearly lost his right foot. For three years, they underwent dozens of surgeries. Maria was afraid to drive. Still, she loved going to car shows and looking at all of the tricked-out rides.
On their fifth wedding anniversary, Joey casually asked his wife if she wanted to go test-drive a car. "She had no idea what I was planning," he says.
Thinking they were there just for fun, she tried out a sporty new silver Celica. Afterward, he steered her to the salesman's desk. "Next thing I knew, he said, 'We'll take it,'" she recalls. "He told the salesman that this was his anniversary gift for me, his wife."
"I was like, 'Ohhh!'" Maria says, opening her mouth and eyes wide.
A couple of months later, she bought $80 worth of purple racing stripe stickers — called graphics — for the car. Then tinted windows. Then a carbon fiber hood scoop for $100. Then rims. In 2006, she got the idea to paint the hood a grapelike purple — it's her favorite color, one she often paints her nails — and widen the body.
Now, three years and $25,000 later, she has modified the engine (custom-painted compartment covers, purple wire kits, platinum battery terminals); the suspension (rear sway bar, front strut tower bar, custom powder-coated purple brake drums); and the interior (purple race pedals, carbon fiber dash kit, fiberglass door panels). The car also has a nitrous tank that, with the touch of a button, shoots purple smoke out the front end. Some of the modifications were done with sponsors' help — companies have donated parts or service — but Maria and Joey have paid for almost everything.