Things I learned at the Kings of the Street car show in St. Petersburg last Saturday:
1. Buying grandpa's boxy, rusted-out hooptie and spending $10,000-plus to pimp it out is not only a hobby, but an emerging trend in Southern car culture. And Tampa Bay is quickly becoming one of the scene's hotbeds.
2. A tricked-out 1971-1976 Chevy Caprice or Impala is a "donk." Later models are called "boxes" and the most recent Chevys are "bubbles."
3. Big chrome or aluminum testicles on the back bumpers of cars and trucks are not just for rednecks anymore.
4. There is actually a bumper sticker that states: "I luv my Chevy ho's."
5. It's not about how much you buy your car for — it's how much cash you put into it afterward.
If you were heading south on 34th Street last weekend, you couldn't miss it: 30-year-old roadsters jacked up 3 feet off the ground, pimped-out rides with three-hue paint jobs (called "licks") and flashy ghetto cruisers all gunning their engines, blaring hip-hop from their speakers and attracting throngs of people (like me) curious about all the commotion.
It was as if all the cars that roll through my neighborhood on a daily basis — bass thumping, engines roaring, tires squealing — had assembled in one place: the Maxi Mall parking lot at 4301 34th Street S. In fact, I recognized many of them: the green Crown Victoria that always has Paul Wall pumping through its deafening stereo system, the deep blue Buick LeSabre with a jagged hole in its trunk (most likely caused by the gargantuan subwoofer in the back) and the rim-a-licous black Impala that always seems to be parked in front of the vacant lot next to my house.
But this wasn't just a chance gathering of the city's flashiest jalopies — it was an event, the first of its kind, put on by local car enthusiasts St. Pete Mafia and East Coast Ryders, a Miami-based car show promoter, to recognize Tampa Bay's emergence as one of the South's epicenters of custom cars.
"We really didn't expect this," says Mark Vantuyl, one of the organizers from the East Coast Ryders crew, when I approach his tent full of Kings of the Street DVDs. "When we got to the show [at noon] there were only 15 cars!"
Now, two hours later, he's estimating 200 cars are parked in the lot, many of them not even registered in the Kings of the Street competition; scores of people just pulled up in their 'hood-mobiles after seeing all the other cars.
And what cars they are. All manner of donks, boxes and bubbles complete with wacky paint jobs and larger-than-life rims. Some are classics, others barely a decade old, but all are outfitted with custom seats, chrome steering wheels and high-powered speakers.
"I care about my life more than the car, but that's all," Clearwater resident Chris Melt tells me while showing off his '72 Chevy Impala, with Lamborghini doors, custom painted with Gucci prints all over the car's body and riding on some 26-inch Bellagio chrome shoes.
"I couldn't sell it, man," he confides. "This is something you could keep forever."
But the most stunning rides on the lot are the cars on raised suspensions, lifted one, two or even three feet into the air. Forget lowriders — these are hi-risers!
"You pull up with something that's lifted old school, and it gets people's attention," says Nolan Joins, perched atop his sky blue '84 Buick Regal, jacked up 2 feet off the ground atop a set of shimmering 30-inch rims.
Joins says there's probably $25,000 invested in a car he bought for $2,000, but that doesn't stop him from cruising along U.S. 19 on the weekends with his top down and Lamborghini doors up.
It's not all about licks and dubs; donk enthusiasts tell me you have to roll with pure audio omnipotence if you want to be recognized.
I sneak next to a candy red 1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass — the make and model of my very first car — and marvel at the amount of sound coming from six bullet tweeters stuck in the car's doors. It's in fierce competition with a green Silverado truck 4 feet away that looks like a roving arena on gold-plated spinners.
"We got four 12-inches [speakers], 13 8-inches and four 10-inches," says the Silverado's owner. "It's hard to drive with them all on."
That's especially true in Pinellas County, where noise ordinances are strictly enforced. Many of the car owners tell me stories about being targets of police, racking up stacks of tickets and unable to gather in an empty parking lot without fear of a half-dozen police cruisers showing up.
"Everybody thinks it's going to be a crazy situation — fights, guns — but we've never had a problem," Vantuyl says about the 10 shows held in Florida and Georgia this year. "We were out here [at the Maxi Mall] six months ago and with a tenth of the cars, and the police came and raided us. The cops were flipping out about it."
But what is it about Tampa Bay, and St. Pete in particular, that brought all these cars to one place?
"We have a lot more black people," quips Chico Gonzalez from his orange and red '72 Buick Skylark convertible on 26-inch floaters. "We're doing it bigger than anybody else. Not Miami. Not Tallahassee."
But it's not just the African-American community that is getting into the customs craze; white and Latino men own some of the ill-est rides at the event. Even a few women showed up with their cruisers.
East Coast Ryders President Daniel Perez says Tampa Bay has waited a long time for some recognition of its donk scene.
"I have been out here before, and we have a great following," he says. "There are a lot of good custom shops here building these cars. I've been to 19 cities this year and St. Pete is one of the best."
Perez says for too long the West Coast, with its Lowrider magazine and the infamous West Coast Customs shop (popularized on MTV's Pimp My Ride), has gotten credit for customizing old rides. But since he started East Coast Ryders in 1999, he says, things are moving south.
"It's actually not an East Coast thing, it's a South thing," he explains. "It came from the lowrider scene. We just took all the hydraulics out and put some big wheels on."
Then the trend spiraled into crazy paint jobs, off-the-hook upholstery and flashy accessories like digital dashboards.
"It's about making your car as unique as possible," Perez says. "It's about bragging rights."
Bragging rights is exactly what the Kings of the Street winner receives, along with a trophy, when the competition ends. A young dreadlocked man, calling himself "2K," and his dollar-bill green 1985 Monte Carlo — with Lamborghini doors, 24-inch dubs and real dollar bills incorporated into the upholstery — takes the prize.
After the announcement, the 200 cars start their engines and head out of the parking lot, making sure to crank up their speakers and hang out the windows to shout bragging rights for the on-scene film crew shooting footage for King of the Streets Vol. 5. One of the cars, a flaming red Caprice jacked up on 30-inch rims, pulls into the adjacent McDonald's drive-through line, riding almost 2 feet higher than the ordering speaker.
And I head back to my black 1996 Geo Prism, factory stereo and 14-inch rims — from Wal-Mart.