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"I guess my competitive side came out," she shrugs. "What's the point of doing it if you can't show off?" Maria actually drives the car; she's not a so-called trailer queen who puts the vehicle on a flatbed and tows it to shows. But it's not easy getting to the grocery store in such a pimped-out ride. Curious men have followed Maria home, and guys constantly try to get her phone number at stoplights.
The Celica — which Maria calls "TRD Girl," for Toyota Racing Development — now has its own website (www.myspace.com/trdgirl) and a six-page resumé detailing all of its modifications and awards. The latest project: a custom-built purple fiberglass seat for Breanna. "I have a baby and she's part of my life," Maria says. "I wanted to incorporate that into my car."
As the car show at Countyline Raceway winds to a close, Samantha talks about how her hobby became a passion. She grew up around wheels — her stepfather owns a tire shop in Sarasota — and the Celica was her sweet 16 present from her mom. Not until Samantha turned 19 did she decide to paint it pink. "I wanted to make this car as girly but as bad-ass as I could make it," she says.
The first shop she approached kept her car for six months and charged her for work that was never completed (getting scammed by slacker body shops is common, female tuners say); then she took the car to a family friend in Sarasota. She used the money she earned from doing makeup and designing leather fetish wear (chaps and masks, mostly) in Fort Lauderdale to pay for the faux leather designer seats, the pink custom dashboard, and the powder-coated paint job. She has spent money on professional photos of the car, and hired a model to pose in a bikini top and pink schoolgirl skirt alongside the Celica. "I think I'm going to hire a hot male model next time instead of a hot girl," she laughs.
Her car has won several show awards, including trophies at Hot Import Nights (twice), Dub Miami, and Funkmaster Flex in Daytona. The Celica has its own MySpace page (www.myspace.com/thepinkcelica) — with 839 friends — and a slogan that says, "This chick doesn't need a man to hook up her car!!! Keep hating, bitches, ur makin' me FAMOUS!"
She's also been an inspiration to other women. After Arelsie Cruceta, a spunky 20-year-old Florida International University student from North Miami, saw the pink Celica at a show, she tweaked her '95 Toyota Corolla from a drab, daily ride to a metallic green and gray carbon fiber monster. "I saw Sam's car and I thought, This is what I really want to do," says Arelsie, who works at a bank. Her next project: installing "Lambo doors" (they open upward, like on a Lamborghini).
Arelsie and Samantha are both in the StreetStylez Car Club and often compete against each other in shows. But they are friends, which is rare in the female tuner world. "There's a lot of drama in car clubs," says Samantha. "Why are you talking to this other club? Why are you fraternizing with the enemy? The guys are sometimes bigger drama queens than the girls."
Samantha, who has won dozens of awards, knows her Celica is almost played out — she has to constantly make changes in order to keep winning awards — and she's already looking ahead to her next project, tricking out a Nissan Altima. She's hoping her boyfriend, 27-year-old Louis Ramirez, will help her this time. The two met while the Celica was under renovation, but he's not as passionate about cars as she is.
"I like the cars, but it's just not my hobby," admits Louis, a painter who works at a clothing manufacturer. He accompanies Samantha to shows and often ends up taking care of the details, such as folding towels (she puts fluffy white towels on the seats when she drives the car; dark-wash jeans stain the white Louis Vuitton pleather) and wiping down the car with a duster (Samantha, who sports long, often wildly decorated nails, doesn't like to get dirty the day of a show). "I think it's a pain in the ass," he says. "It's very time-consuming, but you know, I have to support her."
The shows not only consume time but also can be boring. During the Car Show King event, Samantha and Louis sit under their tent for eight hours, laughing with friends, eating sandwiches, and making sure no one puts their hands on the vehicle. "A lot of people don't really like going to the small shows," says Samantha. "You sit around all day for the trophy. But I socialize and mingle and have a fun day."
Shortly after 5 p.m., while the sun still rages and the heat radiates from the asphalt, show organizers begin to announce the winners. All but two of the 50-plus cars are owned by men, and Samantha and Arelsie wonder if they'll be recognized. Then come the results. First place in the Toyota category: Arelsie's Corolla. Then, best in show, import category: Samantha's pink Celica.
Arelsie, Samantha, and Louis take turns hugging each other.
Samantha's trophy is nearly five feet tall. She and Louis spend a half-hour wedging it into the pink hatchback, making sure it doesn't rip the seats. Then they drive off, slowly, so as not to ruin the lowered suspension.