LOS ANGELES -- It's another illegal quarter-mile street race in Ontario, south east of Los Angeles, on a Friday night, another illustration of the newest face of hot-rodding.
It's not just that the cars are all souped-up Japanese imports. The import-car culture is a '90s fad.
What's different tonight is the driver of the green Integra that wins the race. The hundreds of spectators start cheering. Even the flagman runs after the car, hoping to get the driver's phone number.
Whether it's furtive street races, legal races on area tracks or car shows, women have moved from the modeling role to the driver's seat in Southern California's network of import-car-racing "crews."
"They're becoming more of a standard, and now it's pretty welcomed and accepted," said Willy Yee, 24, sales specialist for HKS, one of the biggest auto-part companies in Japan and a sponsor of some female racers.
The phenomenon of racing and showing compact hot rods started as an all-male, all-Asian enterprise. Until recently, the only women involved with Japanese cars were the ones posing atop them at car shows.
Mark Arban, 19, a show assistant at Mainstream Productions in Torrance, which sponsors import-car shows, said a lot of his male friends still go to the shows primarily "because, well, the girls there are like thong to thong, thong, thong."
Yet, if 200 import-car racers were to gather on a given night, 50 would probably be women, said former Ontario street racer Jonathan Tung, 22. This, despite the fact that police routinely break up street races, sometimes from helicopters, writing tickets or impounding cars at a cost of up to $800. Some of the "crews," officers say, take on characteristics of street gangs.
The physical risk of illegal racing is a lure to some women, a warning sign to others. "There's a lot of drama out there; it's not all sun and roses," said Leslie Durnst, 24, of Long Beach, who said she used to compete in street races but now races only legally. "It's actually very dangerous."
The heightened number of women drivers is a reflection of how the Japanese import scene, now solidly integrated, is appealing to a wider group of enthusiasts, said Craig Lieberman, director of the Los Angles-based National Import Racing Association.
"We wanted to show them that we are the same," said June Shih, 20, of Yorba Linda, who owns a 1995 Acura Integra and is part of the team GirlRacer, a group of young women who both show and race their cars. "We wanted to show them that women are more than just a body, and we are not just driving our boyfriends' cars. Now guys actually compliment our cars and say that they look better than theirs."
Danelle Doernbrack, 22, said that she first visited street races to meet guys three years ago because the ratio was in her favor -- about 20 to 1 -- but she soon grew fascinated with racing. She won her first street race in her 1995 Civic, and has been loving it and racing ever since.
"A lot of the guys are actually afraid to lose to a girl, and when you beat them, all their friends make fun of them," said Doernbrack, an Anaheim Hills resident.
Many women name as their inspiration Lisa Kubo of Rosemead, the first and fastest female import racer -- the only female Japanese-import driver to race a quarter-mile in under 10 seconds. "A lot of girls use me as a platform to build their cars," said Kubo, 26, who began racing five years ago. "They see that if I can do it, they can do it."
Kubo said that when she was first introduced to her husband, Gary Kubo, a professional skateboarder, she told him about her dream of becoming an import-car racer. Gary was worried -- nobody knew of any women drivers on the import circuit. Eventually, she talked him into modifying her Honda Civic. To afford the work, they ate only 35-cent tacos for a summer and quit buying clothes. They've spent more than $35,000 modifying the car, tearing it apart to install an Acura Integra motor and custom parts. Gary, who rebuilt the car, works full time as Lisa's manager.
Kubo said that women fans can always spot her car because it looks feminine. Her Civic is fluorescent orange, pink and green, which matches the Honda logo tattoo on her left shoulder, as well as her orange fingernails, pink toenails and orange racing gear.
Reiko Petzold, 25, of Lomita, who works in sales and marketing for Battle of the Imports, a company that organizes legal street races across America, said car shops are giving women more respect.
"Before, it had been hard to go to a shop and ask for something. The auto mechanic would say, 'Are you here with your boyfriend, does your boyfriend need help?' " said Petzold. She has spent more than $25,000 on her bluish-purple 1995 Honda Prelude to add a custom body, paint job, a PlayStation and a DVD player.
"Even when I drove my car out, and there would be a guy in the passenger seat, people would like my car, but they would ask the guy, not me, about the car," Petzold said.
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Companies see the recent influx of women as a new market. More mainstream sponsors like Castrol Oil and Mobil are going after drivers of imports, offering them thousands of dollars to put promotional stickers on their cars.
Import-car clothing companies have also sprung up, developing clothing lines just for women, and hiring them to promote the lines. Autocannon, for example, says it will come out with Racerette clothes to promote a new sense of girl power. The New Jersey-based Girlie girl line targets women with its racing-related Ts, tanks, halters and accessories, and hires women drivers to advertise its motto: "I'm a Quick Chick."
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