Alcohol is not served on the premises, and registrants must face a pat-down and a metal detector before entering the convention. "Good, good," a female guard says every time someone makes the grade, like a mom trying positive reinforcement techniques. Still, the security guards are visibly tense.
"We don't have anything to protect ourselves except for these," says one small guard as he waves his walkie-talkie around. "We're expected to kick these gangbangers out of the convention? Expected to risk our ass for five bucks an hour?" He shakes his head.
But despite the tension outdoors, the mood inside the Cow Palace is festive and easygoing. Beautiful Latina women with thin gold chains twinkling at their midriffs don dark shades so that they can "check out the hot dudes"; young fathers kneel next to their children, posing in front of spectacular chrome-plated shocks; sun-soaked men with muscular chests and bluish tattoos sincerely excuse themselves for bumping into you; members from dozens of car clubs, including USO, New Life, Sabor, Endless Dreams, and Oldies, make their rounds of the competition cars.
The event features a "car hop" contest, in which autos fitted with hydraulics vie for the most bounce to the ounce. In another, owners pit their booming stereos against each other in a "sound-off challenge." Scheduled to play the supporting Latinpalooza III concert are locals Rappin' 4-Tay and Spanish Fly, but we're too busy checking out the rides to catch the music.
Out back, the parking lot-cum-showroom is dazzling, an ocean of glimmering surfaces: chrome-plated engines, gold-plated rims, sparkle-paint bodies, mirrored hoods -- but shine is just the beginning. Many of these classic cars, some of which took up to six years to customize, are now equipped with Nintendo, VCRs, velour-covered swivel chairs, and gadgetry that would put James Bond to shame. The most extravagant ones recall the inside of a casino, sporting built-in fish tanks, champagne racks, poker tables, and sexpot showgirls airbrushed across the sides.
Steve Bastress, a 48-year-old from Paso Robles, sits beside his '67 Olds Cutlass, an orgy of pale orange, purple, and blue velour that took five years and $17,000 to get right. Now, after hundreds of first-place prizes, Bastress is ready to sell -- but he will never give up the lowrider circuit. "I've been working on cars all my life," he says with a smile. "I do 160 shows a year, at least two shows a week."
Behind him, Gilbert Casares, the 55-year-old owner of a golden '54 Chevy truck, stands near his dream machine. He completed his creation for under $15,000 and has won over a hundred first-place trophies. He notices my interest and pushes his card into my palm: L&G Detail, Watsonville.
"We don't get your paper in Watsonville," he says.
Showcased along the perimeter of each room are the lowrider bicycles and choppers, a lesser-known, but no less exceptional, aspect of the competition. They look like miniatures, but are fully loaded and fully functional. Profit and Deborah, a thirtysomething couple, display their 1995 model, a silver-and-white number equipped with a cellular phone and running lights. Their first bike and their first show, they are clearly excited. "Do you think we have a chance?" Deborah asks. Profit kneels on the ground, carefully shining the forks.
Nearby, a child of about 8 tends his family's display of two 1970 street custom pedal bikes and a tricked-up '70s tricycle. He polishes the handle bars and brushes away any dust that collects on the tile under the gleaming beauties. Noticing us, he considerately moves out of the way so that we may get a better view.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. "Hey, mind if I take your picture?" asks a smiling man with a beard and a camera. "I'm from Low Rider Magazine."
My photographer, David Duprey, and I glance at each other nervously. The tables have been turned. Suddenly, we are on the receiving end of the lens and it's pretty unnerving. "OK, get closer together," the man says. "Pretend like you know each other." David and I smile at the familiarity of the words.
"Well, that proves it," David laughs as we make our way between the rows of lowriders. "We stick out like a sore thumb."
By Silke Tudor