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    The culture of chrome

    Lovers of lowriders congregate at the state fairgrounds to show and gawk at customized cars.

    [Times photos: Ken Helle]
    A pair of fuzzy dice dangles from a 1964 Chevy Impala. The lowrider culture started in the 1940s.

    By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 22, 2002

    TAMPA -- Rod Caceres considers himself an artist, and his latest canvas is the smooth metal of a 1985 Chevrolet Blazer.

    It took Caceres nearly 18 months to lovingly paint the Blazer. The deep, shimmery blue on its roof and hood fades to a lighter color called "candy pagan gold." A geometric print is airbrushed onto the side.

    What isn't painted is covered in shiny chrome.

    "Every single piece on this car has been touched, prepped, redone," said Caceres, 21, who lives in Miami and owns a custom car shop with his brother. "I can go under that car right now and lick it; it's that clean."

    Add four, 10-inch Pioneer speakers, two 800-watt amplifiers and a hydraulic system that makes the vehicle bounce from side to side, front to back and on three wheels, and the SUV is a machine to covet.

    On Sunday, the SUV was parked in the center of the Health Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds, competing in one of many custom vehicle categories at Lowrider magazine's Scrapin' Tour. Nearly 6,000 people, many of them 19-year-old guys in baggy jeans shorts and Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts, came to gawk at the glittering vehicles. On a makeshift stage, a disc jockey spun hip-hop beats so loud that the chrome on at least one Chevrolet vibrated.

    "A lowrider show is an event," said Rudy Serna, who helps manage the tour. "These guys put their heart and their soul and what little money they have to create a work of art."

    Consider these works:

    M.J. Vega's 1982 Buick Regal. It has white leather seats, crushed burgundy swirl velvet trim, two televisions, one DVD player and a 10-switch console for the hydraulics. He bought it for $1,000 from an elderly woman near his home in Deltona and put $8,700 into it.

    John Budrevic and his 1992 Jeep Cherokee. It contains draft beer equipment mounted in the vehicle, swivel bucket seats and a heated, lit compartment for his pet snake, named Coustic. It has been lowered 9 inches. But Budrevic's claim to fame is his stereo system. It has 2,800 watts of power, something that has not endeared him to his neighbors. He has received nearly as many noise ordinance citations from police as he has trophies in stereo competitions (about 50). He doesn't drive it at all now, he says, and only hauls it on a trailer to shows.

    Robert Espinoza's 1964 Chevrolet Impala, the current Lowrider magazine champion car. The candy-brown car was the main attraction Sunday. Impalas are the gold standard of lowrider culture. Espinoza, who owns a custom auto shop in Pueblo, Colo., picked up the Impala when it was a "junker in a field" for $1,500. He has spent nearly $40,000 on customizing it, including 24-karat gold rims and bumpers. "We have a deal in the works with a rap star to sell the car for $200,000," said Espinoza. He won't say which rap star.

    Junior Cruz, 4, walks by "Scandalous," a customized Chevrolet pickup truck, after his father takes his photograph Sunday during the Lowrider magazine Scrapin' Tour at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

    But most people, of course, aren't able to spend $40,000 on customizing their cars. Many of the exhibitors own their own custom car shops and are able to do all of their own repairs. Nearly all got hooked on lowered, shiny cars when they were young, and unlike most car owners, they love the idea of getting their hands dirty and fixing their own cars. Or their friends' cars.

    "It's a big family thing," said Vega, 21. "I've never gone to the dealer. If I can't do it, I get a book and try to do it."

    The lowrider culture started in the 1940s in mostly Hispanic communities in Southern California, Serna said. As its popularity grew, the class and color lines were erased, he said. Now, the culture is nearly a sport; on Sunday, various cars "danced," or bounced with the aid of elaborate hydraulic systems, for the rowdy, cheering crowd.

    "It's a matter of see and be seen, to show your car off," said Serna.

    But for those at the show who weren't ready to plunge into a big car project, they could cruise the vendor aisle and buy a token of the lowrider culture. Among the items available: A toy replica of a 1964 Chevrolet Impala for $20. A CD of the Lowrider Soundtrack (Volume Nine) for $13. Or, for the slightly more serious car enthusiast, rent-to-own chrome rims for $88 a week.

    There's also an added bonus to having the best car on the block, Caceres said: Girls love it.

    "I have no problem picking up girls," he said, grinning. "They like to ride in it."

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