car city, usa
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Car City, USA
March, 2013, Page 104
Photos by Mark Lipccynski
Bobby Labonte’s No. 47 Toyota Camry whips past the crowd at the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway last November.
How much does the Valley love its car shows, auto auctions and rubber-burning contests of daring and speed? Some say our car love is unparalleled.
It’s said that the first car in Arizona arrived via rail in December 1899 – a two-seat, steam-powered “locomobile” purchased for $600 by Dr. Hiram Fenner during a trip back east. Powered by a muscular two-cylinder engine, the locomobile terrorized Tucson-area pedestrians and coachmen with speeds in excess of 15 mph.
Unfortunately, Fenner was no Mario Andretti. Incapable of managing the locomobile’s hair-raising horsepower, the good doctor crashed the vehicle into a saguaro cactus shortly after hundreds of his neighbors gathered to see its debut. “It’s kind of funny, when you think about it,” Arizona historian Marshall Trimble muses. “Fenner not only had the first car and the first license plate, but also the first wreck.”
Trimble notes that Fenner subsequently sold the car to an acquaintance, who promptly demolished the vehicle for good when he overheated the boiler tank, causing it to explode. So, instead of becoming a timeless museum piece, the locomobile became scrap. Presumably.
From these inauspicious origins, the automobile rose to assume a unique and prominent role in Arizona’s collective imagination. From the fabled northern Route 66 towns of Ash Fork and Winslow to the cruising mecca of Phoenix, the car is singularly suited to the state’s four-lane sprawl and top-down sunshine. We’re home to one of America’s elite car-hobby cultures, and host an exotic car auction scene second-to-none – the flurry of auctions in the Valley every January is “the Super Bowl of the industry,” according to one insider. Phoenix has also become a stock-car racing hub, with two NASCAR race weekends a year and a constellation of smaller events.
So take a cruise with us on a tour of Arizona automobile obsession. You’ll see everything from multi-million-dollar Duesenbergs to frame-laying Subarus to logo-plastered Sprint Cup stock-cars. And it all started with a steam-powered trolly, put-putting through the Old Pueblo with saguaro-dented fenders.
Classic VW enthusiasts flaunt their wares at the Scottsdale Pavilions.
It’s the coldest weekend in a quarter century in the Valley of the Sun, but sub-40-degree temps have failed to persuade roughly four dozen young car hobbyists to sit this cruise out.
“This is actually a really poor turnout,” the owner of the graphite-gray Audi A6 with day-glo-green brake drums says with mild distaste, scanning the tundra-like range of parking lot near the McDonald’s at the Scottsdale Pavilions. “Usually, this would be one of the busiest weekends of the year, with Barrett-Jackson in town and all. But you know people in Arizona: We’re pussies about the cold.”
The Audi owner, who asked to be identified only as “Mike,” is part of the most recent generation of car-modification wonks that have ritualistically frequented the Pavilions every Saturday night for the last three decades. Known as the “Pavilions Car Show,” the weekly gathering – in which car lovers old and young show off their rides, trade tips and shoot the bull – is perhaps the oldest and best-known of the Valley’s so-called “cruise-ins.” And the Valley may very well be the cruise-in and car show capital of the country.
Devoted car nerds like Mike are Nancy Perry’s livelihood. Known as the “Queen of Cruise-Ins,” the former Playboy Club bunny and race car driver organizes roughly 200 events a year under her Nancy Perry Productions banner, including the twice-a-year Cruise on Central and the well-attended KOOL-FM Car Show at University of Phoenix Stadium. (Insiders say the Valley hosts about 40 cruise-ins per week, and more than 300 car shows a year.)
VW row at the Pavilions
Perry – who learned to drive as a 10-year-old, racing a 1963 Chevrolet Corvair around her father’s junk yard on Chicago’s South Side – got into the car show/cruise-in business after attending a handful of anemic Valley cruise events in the early 1980s. “People just sat in their lawn chairs near the cars and looked at each other,” remembers Perry, whose prize piece is a ruby-red 1937 Ford Street Rod. “It was just very, very, very boring.” To cure what ailed the Valley’s cruise-in scene, Perry prescribed a lively infusion of live music, food vendors and promotional tie-ins. She estimates that 600 to 700 people attend her weekly Mixteca cruise-in at 67th Avenue and Bell Road (“during good weather, anyway”) and more at weekly events at Mesa Riverview and Chilly Bombers in Glendale.
In essence, car cruise events are migrations – and as with any migration, the plumage tends to look different depending on the season and time of day. “The older guys tend to come earlier in the day, when the sun is out,” says “Josh,” a 39-year-old Fountain Hills resident who, like Mike, asked to use only his first name. “They have older cars, too, usually – old hot rods, Mustangs and Camaros, and touring cars from the ’70s, like Cadillacs. Then when the sun goes down they take off, to Country Kitchen Buffet or wherever.”
A quick glance around the Pavilions parking lot on a Saturday night confirms Josh’s analysis: Few of the young men and women are over 30, and few cars seem to predate 1990: Civic Si sedans with disproportionally huge “wing”-style spoilers; 10-year-old Subarus with 22-inch Lexani rims probably worth more than the cars; a blueberry Toyota Supra with door-length MVP Motorsports decals.
Famed Oregon auto artist Randy Grubb shows off his hand-built DecoPod scooter.
Every few minutes, one of these plastic automotive peacocks roars out of the parking lot, its after-market muffler tuned for maximum sound pollution. Often, you can hear them all the way out to the freeway, like distant 747s. “Only the douche bags do the loud-as-possible thing,” Josh says with a smile.
After-market modification is the entry visa of cruise-in scenes, especially among younger drivers; anyone driving an unmodified, factory-only late-model production car is by definition an observer, not a participant. Josh and Mike reside in the understated margins of the “mod” scene – they reject the most ostentatious car-hobby accoutrements, like bi-plane spoilers and black lights, in favor of orthodox touches like a performance-enhanced exhaust system, new wheels and lowered suspension – “nothing crazy,” Josh says, adding that standard enhancements can easily run $10,000-plus.
On the more radical fringe of the car-hobby scene are the low-riders. Born in the Chicano communities of Southern California in the 1960s and ’70s, this particular segment takes the “how low can you go?” ethos to sometimes comical extremes. “They call it ‘laying frame,’” Mike says. “It’s when you lower the car so much that the frame actually scrapes the ground, and you get sparks.”
Just as influential on cruise-in culture is the street-racing revolution spawned by young Asian-Americans in California in the ’80s and ’90s – a subculture enshrined in The Fast and the Furious. According to cruise-in regulars, authorities stamped out street-racing in Arizona following a surge in popularity in the ’90s, but its aesthetic legacy remains: small, high-revving, late-model cars; brash colors and accessories; ample electronic add-ons and stereo wattage.
According to Mike, Scottsdale authorities imposed a strict 9 p.m. curfew on the Pavilions Car Show for a few years, but “let up when they saw that everyone was chill.” Today, the cruise-in typically lasts close to midnight – “especially the El Camino guys,” he says. “They don’t even get here until 10.”
On the more staid side of Valley car culture is the car show, which typically attracts an older crowd and more refined vehicle. That said, there’s significant overlap between the two communities, especially in the classic car scene. “A lot of people will pay to go to the car show in the morning, and then hit the cruise-in the late afternoon to meet their friends,” classic car enthusiast Al Tracy says.
According to Tracy, who operates nationwidecarshows.com, the classic car community falls into two camps: the “survivor” car enthusiasts who endeavor to preserve the vehicle’s stock essence, from the paint job to the engine; and the mainstream modification clique, who selectively modernize parts of the car to enhance performance or appearance. Both can be gratuitously expensive for serious car restorers, whether it’s a “survivor”-restored 1939 Lincoln with custom-made, era-appropriate tires, or a 1968 Chevelle with a new liquid-propane engine. Tracy says serious hobbyists sometimes spend between $70,000 and $80,000 to restore a classic vehicle that will knock the judges dead at a car show.
Nowhere will such a collector have more opportunities to do so than in Arizona, according to Bill Gilmore. As Assistant Curator of the Scottsdale International Auto Museum and a car collector himself (prize piece: a triple-white 1969 Lincoln Mark III), Gilmore has attended car shows and cruise events all over the country. In his opinion, the Valley is Valhalla for car nuts: “The only place that has more car shows is Southern California, because of raw population. But L.A. is horrible to get around in. It’s like, pick one show and you’re done for the day. But the Valley is easy to get around in, and has almost as many shows. My record is five in one day... Any time you wanna do something with cars, there’s something to do.”
Saturday Mesa Riverview Cruise-In
: This car-hobby gathering lures low-rider and novelty car enthusiasts, including regular appearances by a Ghostbusters replica 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor. Saturdays 5-8:30 p.m; 1061 N. Dobson Rd., Mesa, 480-461-0050,
Cruise on Central
: This twice-yearly classic-auto confab has become the seminal cruise event in Phoenix, turning the midtown area near the Park Central Mall into an auto eye-candy playground every April and October. 3110 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-843-3545,
Goodguys Hot Rod Spring Nationals
: See more than 2,500 hot rods, muscle cars, trucks and classics at this swap meet and car corral at Westworld. March 8-10. 16601 N. Pima Rd., Scottsdale, 925-838-9876,
Spring Cup driver Travis Kvapil rolls out of the garage area at PIR.
NOT YOUR GRANDFATHER'S NASCAR
“I’m a sommelier,” the thirtyish fellow in the snap-neck Diet Mountain Dew racing jacket says. “I work in a restaurant in Las Vegas.”
It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. “Backhoe mechanic” seemed more likely. Or “cobra breeder,” or possibly “Bass Pro Shop tackle manager.” The notion that this stranger could pair my veal scallopini with just the right earthy Rhone blend seems wildly paradoxical on this blustery Saturday afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway, as the Great Clips 200 NASCAR Nationwide Series event storms to a rubber-burning, eardrum-splitting conclusion below us.
I say as much, and wine-pairing NASCAR aficionado Dan Linzer shrugs. “That’s the stereotype [of NASCAR fans]: rednecks chugging shitty beer. Watching a bunch of cars go round and round in circles. But that’s not what it’s about. There’s a lot of nuance and strategy that you don’t see with the naked eye. Storylines. It’s a great sport.”
I scan the grandstands for the Phoenix International Raceway publicist who must surely be eavesdropping. This sommelier character feels like a well-briefed plant. Because authentic or not, he’s verbalizing precisely the same branding message the folks at the track floated on several occasions leading up to this early November race-day: NASCAR is for all people. NASCAR is diverse. NASCAR is evolving. And Phoenix International Raceway – as one of the sport’s busiest venues – is on the transformative cusp of NASCAR’s newly-global worldview. The 67,000-capacity track in Avondale hosts two NASCAR race weekends a year: one in November (headlined by the AdvoCare 500) and another in March (headlined by the Subway Fresh Fit 500). Each weekend, there’s also a slew of undercard races, like the new NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series 75, which features Mexican drivers and is part of the family-run racing organization’s effort to crack the Latin sports market.
Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Brand rep Kim Coon of Orlando – aka Miss Sprint Cup – poses at the pit. • RVs stretch to the horizon at PIR. The raceway swells with more than 100,000 fans during each of its NASCAR Spint Cup weekends. • Nationwide Series superstar Danica Patrick
The PIR marketing team even added a VIP-only wine grotto to the grandstand area, to crack the effete-and-possibly-Democrat-wine-drinker market. In other words, me.
People like me have resisted NASCAR for a long time. As a boy raised on a steady diet of Big Three professional team sports in suburban Southern California, I never so much as sniffed a stock-car race. People didn’t really consider it a sport. There was no temptation to like it – even as NASCAR popularity exploded in the ’90s and the ’00s, making it the second most-watched sporting entity on U.S. television behind the NFL. My complaints are those shared by most NASCAR non-fans: NASCAR is repetitive and loud; the multi-tiered competition structure is confusing; and the rampant corporate-branding is off-putting, cloaking every phrase in Infinite Jest-style endorsement-speak (e.g. the “Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola”) and making every car, race suit and available surface space look like one of those old steamer trunks plastered with port-of-call stickers.
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