Lowriders today reflect their Latino origins--often, a dime ride will feature a hood airbrushed with religious icons like Catholic imagery or buxom Aztec goddesses. Some murals narrate entire chunks of history--at a lowrider exhibition last year in Hillsboro, for instance, the best art I saw depicted the Spanish conquistadors' invasion of Mexico and destruction of the indigenous Nahuatl people.
As with any localized/culturally specific art form, though, give it time and it will blow up massive. Over the years, lowriders have crossed over, especially with the aforementioned MTV show Pimp My Ride and the Lowrider magazine-based Playstation 2 videogame. (Appropriately enough, Playstations are a common accoutrement in a lowrider, often replacing the glove box on the passenger side and, scarily, boasting two controllers in the front seat. When I ask Ralph Fuentes, editor of Lowrider magazine, if he's ever seen anyone actually playing and driving at once, he responds, "Thank God, no!")
Fuentes, who also runs the shop Homies Hydraulics and owns 23 lowriders himself, says the lowrider's increasing visibility in mainstream culture is important. "Granted, there's still no way to experience the adrenaline rush you get behind the wheel 'hittin' switches,' but [shows like Pimp My Ride] give better opportunity to see and hear more about the vehicle, and expose the myths and stereotyping lowriders get."
There's probably no better place to check out the hottest lowriders in the region than at Lowrider Magazine's Evolution Tour. Stopping off in 15 cities, it's probably the biggest touring lowrider car/bike/trike show and contest this year--attracting throngs of people and their banging rides, partly because Lowrider is America's longest-running (since 1976) and best-loved lowrider magazine, and partly because of the dough: they're offering huge amounts of prizes and tropies. Distinguished by the era in which they were made and subdivided into categories like "Original," "Street Custom," and "Radical Custom," cars can also enter the contest in several mini-categories, like "Best Mural," "Best Pearl," and "Best Metal Engraving." Best in show receives $1000, but the highest-ranking vehicles from 15 cities enter a larger contest in October--the Quaker State Championship Cup, which doles out a whopping $10,000 grand prize for "Lowrider of the Year." $10,000 will get you a shitload of spinners.
For the uninvolved spectator-fan, this is pure eye candy: ordinary rides modified with the most regal of materials. Velvet, chrome, bronze, neon, sub-woofed, candy-coated and shined to full gleam. Exhibited with mirrors on the ground, so you can get a good look at its painted-and-detailed underbelly. The amount of labor (and money, for that matter) sunk into a contest-ready vehicle is astounding--as the Lowrider contest entry form guidelines describe it, "If you were competing for Best Paint award, the finish job would include multi-colors, doorjambs, inside hood, etc." There are no open ends; the best lowriders speak in minute detail.
And then there's the hop contest. Maybe you've already hopped your ride on the Lowrider video game, but there's nothing like watching the real thing.
YOUR LOVE TAKES ME HIGHER
SEE! Man-made vehicles defy gravity! MARVEL! As they soar from earth's pull, then drive away unscathed!
Lowrider chassis are lowered mere centimeters off the ground by using a hydraulic suspension system. Fuentes articulates the magic of hydraulics, as he remembers the first lowrider he'd ever seen: "I was watering my parents' lawn in Lynwood, CA, a neighboring town to Compton. I knew what lowriders were, but I'd never seen one go up and down with hydraulics--most had cut coils or a ton of 'junk in the trunk' to weigh them down for a lowered stance. But to see one move at the touch of a button--it was amazing to see it scrape down the street."
One of the benefits of hydraulics is that, not only do they make the body of your hooptie shake it like a salt shaker, they can make your lowrider do a sort of messed-up hop in the air, owners propelling the vehicle off the ground via remote. It's super dramatic and hands-down the best part of any lowrider contest. Incredibly, this tour features a "Street Car Dance" contest, in which the best hopped entrants will not just get vertical, but dance around in figure-eights and crazy steel choreography. This showy kind of competition takes a minimum of about four hydraulic pumps and eight batteries (you can also make a three-wheeled trike hop by adding a battery and hydraulic pump). A hop contest isn't easy on a car frame, so usually the sweetest pieces are left for the exhibition and a jankier style of vehicle is used for the jump.
AND NOW, FOR THE NEFARIOUS PART
Commentary, Part A
By now, the dirty stench of corporate dough (nee "sponsorship") is an expected aspect of any event of this large a scale. The stankiest money, though, comes from just one of the Lowrider Evolution Tour sponsors: the United States Army. In the same way they target African Americans by advertising in hiphop magazine The Source--and driving an airbrushed army-recruiting Hummer through African American-focused events, from NAACP conventions to BET's Spring Bling--the US Army is using Lowrider and lowrider culture to specifically target, and recruit, Hispanic Americans. They've even changed their slogan to read "Yo Soy El Army"--a selective employment of Spanish, considering the government's historically unwelcoming attitude towards bilingualism. The racial make-up of the Army is already 13% Hispanic--about 129,000 active troops--whereas the Hispanic population in America currently sits at 12.5%. According to the Department of Defense, 17.5% of those troops killed in Iraq have been Hispanic.
Commentary, Part B
There will be a bikini contest. There is no good reason for a bikini contest, or nearly naked women to be associated with the ogling of lowriders. A car is an object; a woman is not. There'll be more than enough vehicular eye-candy at this show without resorting to tiresome ladies-as-trophies exploits. (There's a hardbody contest for the dudes, too, but objectification is objectification no matter your gender.)
Lowriders, keep your eyes on the prize.