Back in 1996, I had bought the seminal vehicle that would shape my life for the next few years, the Honda Civic. It was beautiful. Red, shiny, manual transmission, and the entry-level car into rice rocket folklore. My girlfriend at the time was Japanese, my car was Japanese, I was into Japanese cartoons (anime), and totally into Japanese air fresheners. Fellow import car enthusiasts will know what I’m talking about.
Much like the main character in The Fast and The Furious film of 2001, I worked in a car shop that specialized in ricing up, or fixing up, or modifying imports (there were many names for what we did). Though, the focus seemed to be Hondas and Acuras because most of the kids doing this kind of thing could only afford those cars.
Meeting some of the car clubs, I was led to the illegals. These were races that took place mostly in industrial areas that had long straight-aways and no prying eyes. Bets were taken, egos bruised, and accidents often occurred. We were—are talking Asian drivers. Time doesn't erase slanty eyes. Kidding aside, anyone who had partaken in the illegals was at risk because it wasn’t just the drivers but the bystanders who gladly crowded the sides and watched the loud raspy motors speed down the road. When the police showed up, hundreds of people rushed to their rides and escaped the wrath of tha popo. The routine would be to find the next meet up and continue the races. Often, this would continue into the early morning hours of the next day, and the crazy thing was we had wanted the cops to come because the excitement of the escape added to the rush of the illegals. It was impossible for them to catch most of us because there could be hundreds of cars winding through the streets away from the few who got caught.
Most of the illegals occurred in the South Bay, what most people know as Silicon Valley, and it got so bad that a special task force was created by tha popo to try and subdue the races. Undercover cops dressed as racers would report where the races happened, and a tactical force would block all the escape routes. I know this because my friends and I were caught one time and were forced to pop our hoods open. The cops ticketed for every mod that was done, increasing the fine, even if the parts were street legal. We were a little more intelligent in that we always observed and never raced, and we had gotten wind of a task force trapping our fellow ricers, so we brought a stock car, a car that wasn’t modified. As a result, we were let go. Obviously, what the police were doing didn’t really avert the racers, so they started to give out tickets to the observers as well, even if they had brought a stock car. I stopped going to the illegals at that point, as with most of my passions, my love for hot imports dwindled and died.
Before that happened, the shop that I had worked for sponsored my car, which led to other sponsors, and off I went on a tour of the import shows that had imbued California at the time. I’m not sure how popular they are now, given the economy, and most tuners of that time have grown up and spawned kids, not to mention the wives. Despite my engine being stock internally—no work was done on pistons, bore, etc—my rice rocket edged closer to a rocket. I had all the bolt ons—cold air intake, header, cat back exhaust, suspension, body kit, etc. I even had stickers on my car of all my sponsors along with graphics to liven the color scheme and joked that it added five more horsepower. However, my Civic was transformed when I introduced it to force induction, an Eaton supercharger. It was like driving a real sports car.
So the natural next step was to see how fast I could go. I had a friend at the time who had a supercharged Integra GSR, so we decided to go to Sacramento and run the quarter mile. On the day that we were supposed to go, a Ford F250 Super Duty truck decided to kiss the ass of my car, hard, like French kiss it. The truck hit my car so hard, the impact broke the rear wind shield into the back seat. Anyone sitting there would have been seriously hurt. I don’t know if the universe was telling me it was time to move on, but that ended my import car days, and unfortunately, my red hot Civic.
One of my fondest memories of those years was meeting Paul Walker. Many of us had heard whispers of a movie being made based on the huge tuner scene, but we didn’t know who was involved and what the story was going to be. Along my tour that led me to Southern Cali, my friends and I were walking around, checking out all the modded cars. We happened upon one, a Nissan GT-R R34. At the time, GT-R’s were the Holy Grail of sorts because they were only sold to the JDM, Japanese Domestic Market. One wants what one can’t have. I couldn’t afford one then and was left to drool on this particular one that had been imported from the motherland, Japan. On the window was a blurb describing who the owner was and that Paul Walker was starring in the upcoming The Fast and The Furious movie.
Having little filter, I said out loud, “Who the hell is Paul Walker?” I looked over to a table next to me, and this good-looking guy, six foot two, was signing a poster for a fan.
My friend said to me, “Ask him where the Asians are.”
By then, we had seen trailers of the new movie and my complaint was Where are all the Asians at? I wasn’t a writer at that time, so ending a question like that with ‘at’ was all right. Most of the attendees at these import tuner shows were Asians of all kinds, hence the term rice rocket—aside from the fact that they were modding Japanese cars.
Nervously, I sauntered up to Walker and said, “Where all the Asians at in your film?”
He smiled and said, “They were cut,” then shook my hand. Man that guy was tall.
He spent the next ten minutes talking to us about the movie, when the sequel was being filmed, and allowed us to take a picture of him next to his GT-R. He was incredibly gracious.
Rest in peace Paul Walker.