Low-slung, high-sprung

The tailpipe of his '64 Chevy Super Sport snorted irreverently as Armando Sandoval accelerated into the arena. He parked on the plywood platform stenciled in Day-Glo orange: "Front Wheels on the Line."

Like a bullfighter entering the ring, the young Chicano stepped to center stage and squinted into the Concord Pavillion's colored spotlights. Staring back from the amphitheater seats were 2,000 spectators billboarding the names of the car clubs on their jackets and T-shirts: Low Downs, Devotions, Brown Satisfactions, Midnight Sensations, Street Life.

The crowd was rapt. It had waited six hours for Sandoval, who last month in Ventura had come within half an inch of the world's record, 23 1/2 inches, held by Ralph (Ragtop) Carrillo and his candy blue '63 Impala. Would Sandoval surpass Ragtop today?

Sandoval looked tired. He had worked late the evening before at his mother's Mexican cafe in Oxnard and then had driven all night on Interstate 5 to reach the Lowriders Custom Car Show by morning. He yawned whiled checking the connections on the seven boat batteries in his trunk and then fished out a 20 -feet electrical cord with a switch on the end.

The judges took their position by the Chevy's front wheels. One stood a yardstick on its end. The other flat on his belly as if he were trying to read fine print on the tire rims. Standing beside his car, Sandoval hit the electric switch. His baby blue Super Sport began to rock like a hobby horse. Each time the car frame lunged forward, he applied another spurt of electricity to the hydraulic pump over the front wheels. Soon the front of the car was airborne and hopping like a caged rabbit. Higher and higher -- 4 inches . . . 7 inches . . . 11 inches.The judge moved his thumb up the yardstick . . . 13 inches, 15 inches. The crowd was on its feet cheering "Higher! Higher!" . . . 17 inches . . . 18 inches . . . 18 1/2 inches!Sandoval finally released the switch and the crowd roared.Not the world's record, but high enough to win the three-foot first place trophy for "single-pump carhopping."

Evel Knievel once said that a promoter is a guy with two pieces of bread looking for a piece of cheese. These days, carhopping and its counterpart, lowriding, are making quite a sandwich. For young Mexican-Americans in California and elsewhere in the Southwest, lowriding is the hottest thing since the jalapeno pepper. It has become a national pastime among the youth of America's fastest-growing minority group, Chicanos.

In contrast to the "California rake" -- the souped-up, jacked-up hot rod of the '60s -- the lowrider's car, preferably a Chevrolet from the '50s, sits a few inches off the ground. If the automobile has an interior covered in crushed velvet, a multilayered custom paint job, a welded chain-link steering wheel the size of a salad plate, tiny wheels, and a $600 stereo system, it is referred to as a "clean ride," a "bad ride," or simply "firme" (firm).

Lowriders cruise; they never drag. Speed is of no concern to them. The premium is on engine chrome, not power. The object is to show off your "ride," which means driving in low gear, at a snail's pace. The lowriders' motto: "Low and Slow."

The tradition is said to have started in Los Angeles with Mexican-Americans called the "pachucos," best known for their zoot suits, long watch chains, and "tandos," or porkpie hats. To lower thier cars, the pachucos would throw bags of cement into the trunk. More recently, young Chicanos have taken to cutting a few links out of their springs or simply melting them down with a blowtorch. Others "juice" their ride by installing hydraulic pumps to raise the car frame when approaching a bump -- or a policeman. A car with hydraulics over the front and rear wheels is "juiced all around." Lowriding is technically illegal in California, which prohibits any part of the car frame being below the lowest point of the wheel rim.

Car clubs of "juiced" lowriders frequently travel in caravan, driving very slowly -- hopping, lurching, and scraping. The latest in lowrider paraphernalia is something called a "scrape plate," which is welded to the underside of the car frame. With it, lowriders dim their headlights, lower their cars to the pavement, and leave a spray of sparks behind them.

Behind the hydraulics, the wire wheels, and the $3,000 paint jobs is "a life style, not a fad," argues Alberto Lopez. He is a correspondent and "account executive" for Low Rider magazine, a San Jose-based monthly that sells for $1.75 and has built up a circulation of 102,000 in just three years.

"Our magazine is read in every barrio from California to Texas. We're the only Chicano magazine that communicates with the street life in the barrios. California school districts subscribe to Low Rider to teach young Chicanos how to read."

The magazine covers more than cars. Interspersed with ads for Tru-Spoke wire wheels and Andy's Hydraulics ("Your One Stop Lowrider Shop") offering specials on whammy pumps and 2 1/2-ton jammer coils ("$349.95 for complete hook-up"), the June issue of Low Rider had articles about police brutality, lowrider fashions and music, soaring dropout rates among Chicano high school students, wall murals in San Diego, and Chicanos in Austin who fought city hall's urban renewal plans, thereby saving their waterfront neighborhood from becoming an amusement park.

"Pinto" (convict) art by Chicanos is a regular feature in Low Rider, which recently held a contest for the best "anti- gang warfare" poster. The lowrider life style is repeatedly offered to young Chicanos as an alternative to joining a gang and becoming a "cholo" or "vato loco" (crazy dude). East Los Angeles, for example, the largest community of Mexicans outside Mexico City, is carved up by scores of Chicano gangs who defend their turf to the death.Every year, gang warfare in "East Los" is said to claim the lives of more than 50 teen-agers.

One Chicano "pinto" from the San Fernando Valley recently wrote to Low Rider: "Right now I am in the L.A. County Jail for murder and a few other charges. I have three brothers who also are pulling time. My name is Tudie. I would just like to say to the young dudes growing up, hope you don't start gang [fighting] just to show your homeboys that you can be bad just like your older homboys pulling time. I wish I had a chance to do my life over and finish school 'cause without that diploma you're just like the dude who is leaning against the wall, wondering where he's gonna get some bucks for the night. If you're smart, you'll try to stay out of trouble and just party."

"Lowriding brings pride and respect into the barrio," Lopez told me during the carhopping competition. He likens the cars to blankets woven by Indians, an outlet for creativity and self-expression.

"You've got to respect the time and money that goes into these cars. When you get into hydraulics, it's very sophisticated, almost scientific. Most of our cars are old because we couldn't afford new ones. But we cherry them out to the max."

Surrounding the Concord Pavilion that afternoon were 150 lowriders "cherried to the max," show cars with names like The Rose, Tony's '53, Sno Ride, Star Wars , and Midnight Hauler. They were decorated with murals of Azted gods, chrome tailpipes, chrome glove compartments, fender skirts, sun visors, "breezies" (red Plexiglas vents), "eyelids" (headlight visors), and fuzzy dice handing from the rear-view mirror. Some had portable Princess telephones and Sony televisions. Others were equipped with crushed velvet swivel bucket seats, the kind you expect to find behind an executive's desk, not behind a windshield. A pin-striped '56 Chevy was signed by the artist: "By Sal, Newark, California." Black satin car club jackets were draped over chain link steering wheels. White brass plaques in the rear windows broadcast the name of the lowriders' clubs.

Trophies were given for the "best interior," "best mural," "best solid paint job," "best multicolor paint job," "best engine," and "best trunk." Award-winning trunks were fully upholstered in crushed velvet -- right down to the spare tire casing, the first aid kit, and spare gas, oil, and water cans. Chrome-plated wrenches, tire irons, and jacks were neatly displayed beside the cars.

While most lowriders specialize in looks, a few go strictly for "lift." For a certain inner circle of lowriders, carhopping is an obsession. Hundreds of dollars and hours are spent trying to get their front wheels to jump an extra inch or two off the ground. Behind the Concord Pavilion are the "hop pits." There, hoppers prepare to compete: adjusting hydraulic pumps, tightening wires, recharging the batteries in their car trunks.

"At least half of the secret in hopping in is the switchman," Lonny Still tells me in the hop pits. A full-time car mechanic, Still is also vice-president of a car club called Street Life. He had planned to enter his lowrider in the competition but four days ago he was hopping on a new set of hydraulics and broke his car frame.

"The rhythm of the switchman, watching the tires land, is crucial. Guys are putting 50 pounds of air in tires that normally hold 28. Some put helium in their tires, which is illegal, but how are you going to check unless you want to suck out the air and start talking funny?"

The mechanic elaborated on other ways to get around the rules: "Some will put lead in their bumpers or hide an extra pump under the seat, which is illegal. I saw a double whammy pump sneak by the judges today. that '58 Chevy over there had 12 batteries hooked up, which is 2 over the limit. First place is $1,000 and a three-foot trophy; people get a little crazy."

Lowriders' custom car work comes in three calibrations: mild, semi, and full. Frank De Rosa is off the scale. Lowriders call his cars "radical."

De Rosa exhibited two cars in Concord. One was "the only chopped four-door Mercury Phaeton in the US." The other, dedicated to "car builders of yesterdays, " was his famous Sharkmobile, complete with simulated gills, fins, and eyes, and streamlined like the fish for which it was named. To create a "Sharkmobile," De Rosa had grafted onto a junked 1960 Cadillac parts he picked up at "swap meets": a '57 Packard bumper guard, light fixtures from a '55 Lincoln and a '65 Chrysler , a gas tank from a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The "teeth" were provided by the grille of a '55 De Soto. In the car's rear window was an ocean pageant of three rubber sharks swimming amid seashells and bits of coral.

"I'm into beauty. You might call me the Max Factor of car bodywork," De Rosa says. "I don't go for speed or hopping." He fears if he put a large engine in the Sharkmobile it might "rattle loose my paint job."

De Rosa, a Sicilian, has been accepted into the Chicano circle of lowriding -- a sensible gesture, since he was lowriding in the '40s, before most of them were born. They call him "Nonno," Italian for "grandfather." He enjoys his position as resident lowriding philosopher.

Says De Rosa, "Lowriding started in California because we have so much sunshine. You can design a car just the way you want it and not worry about the weather ruining it. Here cars are not just means of transportation, they are an attitude. In California, your car ism you."

Adolfo Sanchez, president of the Brown Satisfactions, has a crystal chandelier hanging inside his blue Impala from the overhead light, which most people would use to read road maps.

"Some people buy luxury houses with hot tubs. We do the same with our cars. When I fix up a car I show myself through the car," shouts Sanchez over the blare of "golden oldies" coming from the tape deck of a nearby Monte Carlo. Sanchez wears the club T-shirt, a pair of pressed chinos, and a black hairnet, which he later removes to walk through the car show.

Sanchez comes from Pittsburg, Calif., a small town with a steel mill, just over Kirker Pass, five miles from Concord. The town has a half dozen lowriding clubs, including the Brown Satisfactions (a Chicano club), the Juice Kings (a black club), Street Players (a Filipino club), Street Life, and the Imaginations (both racially mixed clubs). The Pittsburg police, while they appreciate the fact that lowriders cruising Railroad Avenue are relatively peaceful, continue to issue citations against these "unsafe vehicles."

Says a Concord policeman: "One cop on the force has given 32 tickets to the same lowrider because he refuses to alter his car. It becomes a sort of catand-mouse game between them and us. They know it's illegal, but they like the looks."

What's the point of the hydraulic pumps and the tiny steering wheel if you keep getting ticketed by the police? According to Sanchez, "Hydraulics give your car class, and on a bumpy road or when you approach the law, you can get out of it. Basically, it's to show off. The small steering wheels? I don't know. More legroom? The standard joke is that the small steering wheels are so Mexicans can drive with their hands cuffed."

Puncturing such racial stereotyping is part of the car clubs' objective. Increasingly, lowriders aim at respectability. With their family picnics, car washes, benefit dances, softball teams, and support of drug rehabilitation clinics, they are beginning to sound like Chicano versions of 4-H and the local Jaycees.

"People think we're a bunch of drunk Mexicans," says Street Life member David Huerta, leaning against his 1964 Lincoln ("Please notice the suicide doors") Continental. "Lowriders are no worse than the dragster dudes. They want to go fast. We go slow and low. We've got too much invested in our cars to go wrapping them around a tree. On top of all that, we get involved in the community and give young Chicanos something to respect."

Steve Camarillo works at the Spanish- speaking Cultural Center in Pittsburgh and confirms: "Lowriding definitely has a positive effect on the community. There's not much for kids to do around here, so they keep busy by perfecting their 'rides.' I see kids beginning to do things for themselves, they're finding something to belong to. The car clubs do fund raising for senior citizens groups as well as poetry and art shows at the fairgrounds. The Brown Satisfactions even talk to the kids about college."

Brent Licciardo approached me with a swagger. "Just got a new paint job on Candy Illusion. After the show I'm taking it down to the Concord bowling alley and see if I can draw a crowd." Licciardo is all of 14 years old. Candy Illusion, his low-slung bicycle with the crushed velvet seat, chrome chain, and whitewalls, hints that lowriding is providing role models as far down as junior high school.

"My dad and I put $200 into that bike." He points out the set of mirrors he has strategically placed beneath the bike frame to show off pin striping on Candy Illusion's underside.Like the older lowriders, Licciardo has surrounded his machine with potted plants and meticulously graded redwood chips ("to give it that natural effect"). "Did you see my cousin carhopping in today's show?" asks the 14- year-old, who belongs to the "Low Fantasy Bike Club" and dreams of having his own four-wheeler some day.

Lowriding has spawned not only bicycle clubs but Mexican-American women's social clubs bearing names like Night Angels, Los Suenos (the Dreams). Near the Concord Pavilion hot dog stand, I encounter four girls in uniform: black jackets , identical tank tops, black pants, and Chinese slippers. The lettering on their jackets identifies them as members of Ladies' Elite, a club from San Francisco's Mission District. The club president introduces herself as Anna, a 19-year-old telephone operator by day, who cruises Mission Street in her '79 Cordova by night. She is a self-styled expert on "cholo" and lowrider fashions.

"The classic cholo, the kind I like, is dressed in baggy pants with pleats, like their fathers used to wear," she explains."For shoes they wear Stacey's, you know, the cockroach killers. Then they put on narrow sunglasses called '64 s' and plaid Pendleton shirts with only the top button closed. Lowriders are more casual. You'll see a lot of starched khakis, T-shirts, corduroy slippers, and caps with the brims flipped up, like this." Anna reaches for my Red Sox cap and demonstrates by bending the brim back. She places it back on my head. "Now you're a regular lowrider. Well, almost."

How do lowriders with their turned-up brims manage to keep the sun out of their eyes? She replies with a smile: "Who said we had sun in San Francisco?"

After a day at the Concord lowriders' convention -- 10 hours of learning about double whammy pumps, mirror dust paint jobs, and how to leave a trail of sparks that would impress the local fire department -- I wander wearily through the parking lot to my own car. Surrounded by a fleet of freshly waxed Impalas, gold-leafed vintage Mercuries, and chrome-plated Bel Airs, my rusty white Volkswagen bus is as inconspicuous as a beached whale. It was slow but not particularly low, which I suppose, given lowriding standards, would mean it wasn't half a "bad ride."

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