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.
Joanne might be the only local who loves to maneuver through traffic. "It's just me and the road, me, the road, music, driving," she muses. "I love being in the car."
At first she wasn't interested in buying the Scion because it looks like a shoebox on wheels (xB owners affectionately refer to their vehicles as The Box). But the shape began to grow on her, and she realized she could do anything she wanted with it. "It's a canvas," she says, "an artist's canvas."
Her mother, Pam Braga, a Miami Police officer, says, "I was definitely kind of shocked that she wanted to get into the cars. But she's always been doing things that guys do."
Being a graphic designer, Joanne decided to transform the car into the vehicle version of Sesshomaru, a Japanese anime demon-creature, when she purchased it in 2005. She's crazy about anything Japanese; she even designed the intricate tattoo of a blue koi fish that graces her left forearm.
Like most male tuners, Joanne didn't have the tools or space to do the physical work herself, so she penned some sketches, took the car to an auto body shop in Miami, and explained her idea. Sure, they said, we can do that. But after six months and several thousand dollars, the shop had done nothing but gut the interior. Angry, Joanne took her car back and found another mechanic.
Eventually a guy named Jaime Hernandez of Tuner Solutions in Fort Lauderdale morphed the car into her dream. Joanne wanted the car's suspension lowered — or, in car lingo, "dropped" — two inches. She also wanted the body widened. She installed $1,000 headlights from Japan, a 1,200-watt sound system, six-by-nine-inch speakers, custom-embroidered seats, DVD screens in the visors, and 18-inch rims.
Initially the xB was a grayish silver, but she had it painted a silvery gray-lilac hue (Joanne, who is slightly color blind, says the official name of the color is "maple") that shimmers and changes in the sunlight.
The best part, in her opinion, is in the front: a custom fiberglass fitting that makes the car look like it has three bumpers. Head-on, the Scion appears to have a large, toothy grin. The car's entire front end — bumper, headlights, grill — was made in Japan and took six months to be shipped to the United States. It is modeled after the front of a Nineties-era Nissan Skyline R34 (which was sold only in Japan). "No one has ever done this before," she says proudly. The vehicle's rear is also custom-built to "look aggressive and angry," Joanne says. She dubbed it the "Nisscion," a hybrid of a Nissan and a Scion.
The interior is spotless. That's because Joanne cleans it once a week when it's in storage. On weekends of a car show, she spends nearly six hours buffing, dusting, polishing, and spiffing up every possible inch of the vehicle. "I use a toothbrush on some areas," she says, "and a business card to get wax out of the cracks."
There's no eating or drinking in the Scion, ever. "That's taboo," Joanne says, narrowing her eyes. Like other women who have chopped, cut, and rebuilt the bodies but not the engines, she doesn't drive the car over 65 mph. Uneven asphalt, stray rocks, or bad drivers could damage it. "I drive the xB like an old lady," she admits.
She doesn't sound like an old-school gearhead when she coos upon seeing a black Plymouth Prowler on the street. "Oh, look, how cute!" she gushes. "I can be kind of girly about cars."
To get from her apartment in downtown Miami to her job as a graphic designer at Tiger Direct, a computer superstore, Joanne drives a Honda 2000, a red convertible with a black stripe down the middle — which gives some motorists the subtle signal she's open to street racing. On a recent day, while she's cruising the Palmetto Expressway with a reporter, a silver Volvo pulls up. The driver, a Latin guy in his twenties, nods at Joanne. "He wants to race us," she says, adding she won't with a passenger in the car. "If I'm alone, fine," she says. "I once went 142 on I-95."
In many ways, Joanne is like other 25-year-old women: She works, has a husband, and hopes to have kids someday. But the car obsession has taken over her life. She keeps the Scion in a storage unit in West Miami-Dade, more than a dozen miles from her home. She drives it only when she's going to shows. "I haven't bought new clothes in two years," she confesses. "I don't believe in $500 shoes or a $500 purse. I do believe in $1,000 Skyline headlights. They are the Prada of the car world."
Joanne is unsure how much longer she can sustain her love of cars, what with the monthly car payments and insurance. She wonders whether she should give up the Scion, as her parents suggest, and save for something more practical, like a house.
Still, she longs for national recognition and seems to be on the verge of getting it: Scion asked her to participate in a commercial — but it was filmed in Nevada, and she didn't have the money to haul the xB there. "She's put all of her heart, energy, and money into this," says Pam. "I tried to raise her to know that she doesn't need a guy to do anything — that she can do anything she puts her mind to."
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.
"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."
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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.