Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fast, But Not Furious: The Flip Side of Imports@UCI

By Susan Muramoto

It’s a chilly February night at 7 PM, and a group of 24 UCI students have come out of the warmth of their homes to gather at SEII 1304, one of the larger classrooms on the campus. People sprawl on their seats, legs hanging over the chairs in the row in front of them and arms dangling over the sides of their chairs. There are two sets of couples, lovebirds leaning comfortably against each other as they wait for a meeting to begin.

"Okay guys! It's week 5 and this is our third meeting of the quarter," announces a scruffy 5'8" Asian guy at the front of the room. He has a mole just under his right eyebrow that hovers somewhere above the inner corner of his eye, and a messy hairstyle that suggests he rolls out of bed every morning like that. He has a timid, but friendly, smile that welcomes everyone in the room.

This is Andy Bai, president of Imports@UCI. A fourth year social ecology major, he’s been in the club since he first arrived at UCI in 2006 as a freshman, and says that being involved in it is basically his life.

Imports@UCI started at UCI in 2003, when a group of friends with a common interest in cars decided the campus needed a club for car enthusiasts. The founders all drove imported Japanese cars, hence the name Imports@UCI.

The club runs in a standard, organized format every other odd week of the school year. Officers have PowerPoint presentations they show to the members, which include information on upcoming models of cars, any news that pertains to cars, a tutorial, and an interactive game to bring all the members together at the end of the meeting.

Vice President Remington Brasga, a third year Computer Science and Engineering major, stands at the front of the room. He’s one of the taller members in the club, and one of the very few white guys. With his stark, pale skin, and brown-blonde hair, Brasga stands out in the sea of Asian faces. He introduces some new models of cars that are being released, and then hands it off to a stocky guy with dark, tousled hair and fair skin, who goes on to give a tutorial—there’s no new car news to talk about today.

The stocky guy explains the basic workings of a suspension and its purpose, in terms that someone without any car-knowledge can understand. Basically, he says, suspensions are what make car-rides smoother.

“Now, if you wanna get girls, the air suspension is definitely the way to go,” he tells the club members with a suggestive raised eyebrow, and a laugh ripples through the small crowd. An air suspension provides the smoothest ride possible, impressing girls with the car owner's comfortable and—hopefully—aesthetically pleasing car.

He goes on to explain more about the mechanics of suspensions, making it easy for the members to understand by simplifying and watering down all the technical car lingo. After his presentation, the officers announce that it's time for fun and games.

"Here's how it's going to work," explains Christine Alanis, the club's secretary. A short girl with glasses and bangs that fall in her eyes, she’s one of the shyer-looking people in the club—but surprisingly, she speaks confidently and her voice projects all the way to the back of the room.

"Andy's going to go around and place a post-it on your back. Walk around, talk to people, and try to guess what the post-it on your back says. You can't look! Ask yes or no questions to the other person to guess what your post-it says, and if you guess first you get a prize! Oh and all the words are car-related." People start turning to their neighbors, some of them strangers—but everyone is welcoming. I know there are a couple other new members here for their first time today, and I see the older members talk and joke with them as if they are old buddies. People even turn to talk to me, although I have already taken the post-it off my back. Some people had more simple words like “engine” or “headlights” written on their post-its, while others had terms that were more car-lingo than common knowledge—like “spoiler”, or my word, “subwoofer”. A spoiler is a device that is placed on the back of a car to improve the car’s aerodynamics, and usually looks something like a square wing on the trunk area. A subwoofer is a loudspeaker that people add to their cars to add more bass to the music system. People are most likely to see subwoofers put into use by the obnoxious drivers who blast their music to the highest volume, windows rolled down, causing the cars and ground around them to vibrate and shake.

When everyone has guessed their car-related word, the officers of the club hand out posters of cars as prizes. The meeting concludes with the announcements of upcoming events, while a happy buzz reverberates in the room as all the members engage in conversations of excited chatter.

This is the real Imports@UCI –but not everyone has seen it.

“Our name is “Imports@UCI” so people think of imported, foreign cars, say ‘Oh, so you don’t like American cars? European cars?’” says President Andy Bai. The club is actually open to any and all cars, American to European to Asian, but this exclusive stereotype is definitely not the worst the club has seen. Bai himself has had first-hand experience with negative treatment from UCI students, as he tells me a story from Imports@UCI’s 3rd annual car show last year.

“Our racer alumni guy brought his car to our show and this [other] guy said ‘Why does his car look like that?’ and his friend said to him ‘Oh it’s built so a street-racer can die’,” Andy tells me, shaking his head. “It was so mean.”

Urbandictionary.com defines street racing as "An activity popular among the import crowd that involves meeting and racing cars late at night on deserted roads," but nowadays, racing has migrated to more dangerous locations. Evostreetracers.com, a site that claims to be dedicated to “reducing illegal street racing”, has conducted studies on illegal street racing and says that 43% of this kind of racing occurs in commercial areas. Even more concerning, it says that 54% of street racing occurs on the highway or in the country—so the chance of injury to other drivers is even higher.

The "import crowd" includes foreign cars that are imported to the U.S., such as Honda, Mistubishi, Mercedes, and Lexus, to name a few. The street racing scene might look something like a bunch of young men gathering on a road somewhere, with souped-up cars with modified engines to maximize their chances of winning with triple-digit speed. The stereotype of most street racers is characterized by a blatant disregard for their safety and the safety of those around them, mostly by the addition of illegal modifications to their car to increase its horsepower and their participation in races held in public areas.

One of the main differences between the student population’s perception of Imports@UCI and the club’s actual identity is that people seem to categorize Imports@UCI among the street-racing, import-car driving, and life-endangering group of drivers. In reality, the club is strongly against illegal racing and makes a point of stressing this to students. And although some members have added horsepower-increasing modifications to their car, they claim that these modifications are only put to use in safe environments. Bai, for example, says that he added a strut brace and sway bar to his car, which improves the car’s performance when it turns by keeping the car’s frame more rigid so it doesn’t flex or lean during cornering. Andy likes to race at professional racetracks, so he says he has no need to speed on residential roads and only utilizes these modifications in the safe and secure environment of the tracks. These modifications alone, which look like plain, thin strips of metal that cover his engine under the hood, cost him around $450.

Even though there are people like Andy who only race in secured areas, it’s still no wonder why the public—UCI students included—is under the impression that car interest equates to street racing. “Street Racing”, by Kenneth J. Peak and Ronald L. Glensor, is part of the Problem-Specific Guide Series for police, and says that

“The American street-racing tradition dates back to the 1950s, and has long been a staple of Hollywood movies, including films such a ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955), ‘American Graffiti’ (1973), and ‘Grease’ (1978). But no movie did more to boost the popularity of street racing than […] ‘The Fast and the Furious’.”

Although “The Fast and the Furious” movies have included American cars, the majority of their mechanical cast is foreign. “The Fast and the Furious” movies have features such cars as: Toyota Supra Turbo, Acura NSX, Mazda RX-7, Nissan Skyline, Honda S2000, and Mitsubishi Eclipse. These are all foreign, “import” cars—so the student population’s association of “imports” with “racing” is understandable, especially with the popularity of movies like “The Fast and the Furious”.

However, the presence of street racing has made itself known in the real world as well. In an article by Nick Miroff in the Washington Post, called “Shadowy Racing Culture Extends Across the Region”, Miroff says that the racing culture has become more elusive to cops and more dangerous to the public. “In the phantom world of the region's racing scene, location matters less and less, as text messaging and Internet-enabled cellphones allow racers to quickly converge and vanish just as fast”, says Miroff’s article. In addition to this, it includes information from the Nationality Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for the years 2005-2006, “that show that the number of people killed nationwide in street races increased from 111 to 150—or 35 percent.” Street racing is no joke, and Imports@UCI knows this. Their Facebook group even says, “We look down on street racing, and we educate people on why it's terrible. Just one of the many ways we serve the public.”
Imports@UCI has worked hard to change their image from a mere street-racing car club to an established, knowledgeable car-interest organization with the larger goal of ending illegal racing. They advertise that the club is open to any person with the slightest bit of interest in cars, and with any level of knowledge about cars in general. Their mission statement says that they “strive to create a safe environment where [people] can test and improve the performance of [their] cars as well as [their] driving skills. Highly discouraging street racing, Imports@UCI gives members the opportunity to go to the race track to satisfy their high performance driving needs.”

They mean it, too. The club has events for their members to attend that allow them to “satisfy their high performance driving needs”, such as activities at Buttonwillow Raceway in Kern County for racing with real cars or K1 Speed in Irvine for go-karting. Some members take it a step further, like Andy Bai. He is in the process of getting a professional license, so he also autoraces at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, and California Speedway—where NASCAR races.

“It’s my dream to be a racer,” says Bai, “But I’m too old to start because racers usually are already racing professionally by the time they’re our age.” But this doesn’t stop him from sharing his love for cars and racing legally with the members of Imports. Always trying to share the enthusiasm for cars with the school’s population, the club has been working hard lately, organizing their 4th annual Imports@UCI car show at UCI that was held on February 27. It was held in Lot 16H, a large parking lot on the UCI campus. It was a gloomy day for cars to leave their garages, but almost 200 drivers showed up to showcase their cars at the event anyway.
Over eight rows of cars, parked at angles side by side, filled the large parking lot. Spectators walked up and down the rows, studying the cars and shaking their heads in either approval or disgust at the interior/exterior changes the cars had undergone. Edgar Pizana, a second year Biological Sciences major, attended the car show.

“It’s pretty fun,” said Pizana. “It’s really chill. I just like cars.” When I first saw Pizana, he was crouching beside a red Honda S2000, checking out the body kit the owner installed on the car. Body kits are additions to cars that allow owners to change the exterior look of the car, whether it is by adding scalloped side skirts, differently shaped bumpers, or larger spoilers to the car—just to name a few of the many variations body kits come in.

An article appeared in the OC Register about the event, titled “UCI Students host car show” by Alex Bergjans. “Despite the storms and gloomy weather, more than 180 cars and hundreds of students and Orange County residents gathered to talk (auto)shop, exchange tips and stories, and show off their rides” reads the article. A link to this article was posted on the Imports@UCI Facebook group, which elicited some happy responses from club members and friends.

Eric Park, a third year Business Economics major, also attended the car show. “Yeah, I don’t know too much about the club,” said Park, “but I heard they’re really legit. They like go to real racetracks and do car stuff like that.”

It’s looking like a good year for Imports—they were featured in the OC Register, they’re becoming a stronger presence on campus with their successful 4th annual car show, and it seems that the image they’ve been striving for is finally getting across to students. They even have branches at UC San Diego and Cal Poly Pomona, two colleges that actually approached them first about starting up their own Imports club. Bai is happy that the fruits of his, and his club members’, labor, is paying off.

“I want our club to be like the ‘go-to-guy’ so if anyone has a car question at school, they know they can come to us,” says Bai. It seems that the street-racing image the club has battled with for years is finally starting to deteriorate—but that doesn’t mean Imports@UCI will let up on its campaign against illegal racing. The tagline on their Facebook group?

“Keep it on the track.”

Reporting Notes:
-Lengthy interview with Imports@UCI president Andy Bai
-Two short interviews with car show attendees Edgar Pizana and Eric Park
-Racing statistics from evostreetracers.com
-Article about the Imports@UCI carshow from ocregister.com
-Information on racing movies' impact on street racing in the real world from http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/pop/e10042575.pdf
-Statistics on deaths from street racing from article from Washington Post, found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/23/AR2008022300699.html
-Information on the cars in "The Fast and the Furious" from rottentomatoes.com
-Sat in on an hour-long Imports@UCI meeting
-Attended the Imports@UCI carshow

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