The Main Drag

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Then an adrenaline rush. A Miami-Dade police car with emergency lights flashing speeds up behind them. They hit the brakes, and the patrol vehicle passes on the left.

Finally they enter The Groves apartment complex near Kendall Lakes Circle, where Colón has lived for the past seven months. The Integra is untouched. False alarm. "I thought I was going to get pulled over when I saw the cop behind me with the lights on," says Fernandez, standing under the dim lights of the parking lot.

About fifteen young men exit their cars and congregate on the asphalt. They make up half The Firm's membership. They celebrate by doing what they do best: hanging out. One shows off his new Chihuahua, which he has named Taco Bell after the popular mutt that hawks Mexican fast food on television. Hernandez ridicules a Nissan Altima that drives by: "Drop it an inch. That's a four-wheel-drive car right there." And, of course, they talk about their own cars. "Faggot! Bitch! Dammit!" is Raul Jimenez's jealous reaction to the newly reupholstered seats in Colón's Integra.

Strict organization distinguishes The Firm, which Hernandez founded two years ago, from dozens of other Miami-area car clubs. The group has a hierarchy, mandatory weekly meetings, and rules; for instance, members who are late to an event are hit with a ten-dollar fine. A Website, www.thefirmcc.com, was started about a year ago. When members race as a club, they travel to Moroso Motorsports Park in Palm Beach Gardens, a rare location where they can legally step on the gas. "We are strictly going out there to show off the cars," comments the 27-year-old Hernandez. "Everybody takes pride in everybody else's car."

Minimum requirements to join The Firm, according to Hernandez, are that you lower your vehicle's chassis and that you don't act like an asshole. "When someone wants to join up, we look at their personality, not just the car," the president notes. The bottom of Hernandez's 1996 Mitsubishi Galant rides about three inches from the ground, making for a perilous journey across uneven pavement. He has replaced the puny, fifteen-inch factory wheels with shiny, twenty-inch rims on tires with skinny sidewalls. The combination makes for an extremely bumpy ride. "A low rider's worst nightmare is a ditch," says Hernandez.

Members must participate in a monthly drive. As many as twenty of them meet and motor in a line to a local hotspot like South Beach or Coconut Grove. Their weekly gatherings aren't exactly VFW or city council style, but they include dues collection and discussions of topics such as car cleanliness.

The group competes in car fashion shows throughout South Florida. Categories range from the best-looking engine to the best-looking interior. Trophies and the chance to boast are the prizes. Most meets are sponsored by hot-rod magazines and specialty shops that sell high-performance parts.

The group communicates in a distinctive language. Their low-slung chariots are divided into two categories: "low rider" and "Euro low rider." The first refers to older cars with extensive modifications like welded-shut doors and hydraulic suspension. Euro low riders are modern cars dropped three to four inches from the ground and souped up for racing. These Hondas, Toyotas, and Nissans dominate The Firm's ranks. A "dirty" auto is not one caked in mud, but one that looks good. To "bust dick" means to upgrade a vehicle so that it puts others to shame. (i.e., Jose's Integra is busting Danny's dick.) Injecting nitrous oxide directly into the combustion chamber to create more horsepower is called "spraying."

Most Firm members are young Hispanic males who live in South Miami-Dade. A passion for making cars go fast, look good, and sound impressive unites them. A high school education and a menial job are the norm. Hernandez lives at home and works as a supervisor at a medical-supply warehouse. He helps support his mother, who raised him on her own. The Firm also serves as an extended family for the majority of its members. They celebrate each others' birthdays, share their troubles, and console one another in times of grief. "I'm always hanging out with these guys," Hernandez comments. "I can't get away from them."

Colón credits the club with helping him stay straight. The high school dropout began devoting himself to the outlaw sport following a 1994 felony arrest for carrying hundreds of roofies. Three days in the Dade County Jail scared the then-eighteen-year-old straight, he says. (Colón later was sentenced to probation.) He purchased the Integra in 1995 for about $15,000, which he financed with $2000 down and loan payments of $400 per month. Odd jobs ranging from construction labor to computer sales paid for the go-fast parts. Colón had finally found an outlet for his abundant nervous energy. Time that he once spent dealing drugs is now devoted to giving his car more speed, pumping up the sound system's volume, and turning more heads than anyone else on the road. "I leave my wallet on the counter of my apartment and don't worry about it," he says. "We are a minority in Miami. Good people who like to hang around with other good people."

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Jose Luis Jiménez