Ken Miyoshi Founded Orange County's Import-Car-Show Subculture—And Wants to Refuel It

Ken Miyoshi Founded Orange County's Import-Car-Show Subculture—And Wants to Refuel It
Photography: Timothy Norris | Design: Dustin Ames

Anaheim, 1997. The convention center was packed with young Asian American men, their hair spiked like Street Fighter characters and clothes spritzed with Cool Water cologne. "C.R.E.A.M." by Wu-Tang Clan blared through the speakers. At every turn, camera flashes popped at girls wearing cleavage-baring minidresses, sky-high heels and colored contact lenses as they posed next to cars that glimmered under display lights. Inside rows of canopy tents, vendors talked about body kits, three-piece wheels and power exhausts that could make any vehicle louder, stronger, faster.

In the middle of the frenzy, Ken Miyoshi stood next to his baby, a 1991 Honda CRX he had been perfecting for months. It was a work of sheer brilliance, a supercar that could fly across a drag-race track and still make it back in time to wash up and win a beauty contest. Showgoers crowded around the customized ride, gawking and snapping photos of its low-slung body, turbocharged V16 engine, candy-coated tail lights, hidden push-button door handles, aluminum tinwork and aqua-blue paint job that sparkled like the sea.

Guys walked up to him, awestruck, and asked what it was like to drive.

Ken Miyoshi
Timothy Norris
Ken Miyoshi
Ken Miyoshi’s original Honda CRX
Courtesy Ken Miyoshi
Ken Miyoshi’s original Honda CRX

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Miyoshi recalls his response. "It's better than sex," he had said with a smirk.

The 25-year-old DJ and nightclub promoter had created Import Showoff just three years earlier and beamed at its success. More than a car show, it was the premier gathering place for new-generation Asian Americans—DJs, skaters, rappers and anyone else who wanted to be seen. "It became an outlet for Asians, a place for them to show off their appeal," Miyoshi now says. "'If you want to prove your skills on the turntables, go ahead. If you think you're pretty and want to pose next to cars, go ahead. If you think you're the best dance crew and want to show off, go ahead!"

Nearly two decades later, Miyoshi looks at a photograph of his legendary race car splashed on the cover of an old Turbo Magazine, one he dug out of a dusty cardboard box at a Rancho Dominguez storage unit filled with memories of past events. He glances at the headline in bold block letters: "CR-Xcel: Wicked Power, Wild Looks." Glossed onto the hood of the car is the show's yellow-diamond logo with the motto "The first. The original. The finest. Showoff: Since 1994."

It's a declaration he still clings to. Now 40 and living in Huntington Beach, Miyoshi is the godfather of the import-car-show scene, a Southern California-bred subculture that has sped into the mainstream, spawning films such as the Fast and Furious franchise, the import modeling industry (as depicted in the reality web series Roll Models), a crop of tuning companies and a car-show formula that is still followed today. He also claims he was the one who introduced the motorsport phenomenon known as drifting to the United States. Miyoshi has weathered legions of imitators, rejection, financial hardships and disillusionment to arrive at his latest mission: refueling an era, one he believes is fading away.

This Saturday, he hosts his next show, Nisei Showoff, at which 300 cars will gather in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo. But that's only the beginning.

"I'm gonna put this thing back together," he says of his old CRX, now disassembled, with parts scattered throughout the storage unit. "I may not be the fastest, but I'm bringing back history. It'll be like Michael Jordan coming out of retirement."

The endeavor is one of personal redemption. Showoff celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, and Miyoshi is now rallying old-school fans to remember the good ol' days—and keep them going.

He's in the driver's seat once again.

"I'm going back to the roots," he says.

*    *    *

Compton, early 1990s. Around midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, they'd congregate on Maria Street, a seemingly endless strip of asphalt sandwiched between vacant industrial buildings. Nearly 600 cars from Little Saigon to South Bay to the San Gabriel Valley would roll in with amber lights and tinted windows tattooed with logo decals, ready to hurtle down the makeshift track at heart-stopping rates. Some guys raced for wagers, others for bragging rights. All did it for the love of speed.

Corolla GTSs against Mazda RX-7s. Toyota MR2s battling Nissan 300ZXs. Two vehicles at a time. Machine vs. machine.

From the starting line, they'd zoom into the darkness, their tires squealing and engines buzzing like angry locusts, leaving behind a puff of exhaust and a hollering crowd.

Miyoshi first experienced the insanity as a 15-year-old kid riding shotgun with his older brother, Shige, who drove a Datsun 200SX injected with nitrous oxide (a gaseous liquid that increases horsepower that's also known as "juice," "squeeze," "fast gas," "spray" and NOS). Attendees would stay out until they saw sunshine or sirens—whichever came first. A volunteer holding a CB radio was in charge of looking out for cops and alerting the masses when to escape to nearby Ana Street. "When you'd see one guy scrambling into a car, you'd suddenly see 600 people scrambling into their cars," Miyoshi recalls. "It was crazy. You'd get a natural high just being there."

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