Young men have been transfixed with tweaking and tuning cars since the days of American Graffiti. And Southern California has long served as the mecca of wheels, its open roads symbolizing a pathway to freedom, sex and glory. But the Asian American guys living in middle-class suburbia never yearned for Chevys and Mustangs or the "bajito y suavecito" lowrider cruisers built by Mexican-Americans in East Los Angeles barrios. Instead, they were souping up Japanese imports—Honda Civics, Acura Integras and Toyota Supras. There was something alluring about the economy sport coupes, once scoffed at by industry professionals as roller skates with engines. They were blank canvases spilling with potential. As one enthusiast on online car forum wrote, "It was the underdog that the under-the-radar enthusiast would buy because they knew the car had the potential to beat out the supercars at a fraction of the price."

The obsession began in the late 1970s with a clan of Japanese American boys who'd drool over the pages of Option, a Japanese-language car-tuning magazine that could only be found at a few bookstores and markets. "That was the Bible, even though most guys couldn't even read the words," Miyoshi says. They'd follow car-modifying trends in Japan, where hot-rod tribes known as hashiriya roared across highways and expressways. In the States, cars and parts imported from Japan were referred to as JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) or simply imports. Outsiders often called them rice rockets or rice burners, though some JDM fans believed those terms to be derogatory, as "rice" described garish modifications that had nothing to do with actual performance (think coffee-can-sized mufflers and eight fog lights).

Miyoshi—tall and stocky, with a booming voice and laid-back street style—was born in Japan and raised in the Philippines until he was 12 (his father made a living exporting frozen cuttlefish), when his family settled in Cerritos. In junior high, he had a friend whose older brother was a member of Shoreline Racing out of Long Beach, one of the first import-car teams to emerge. Miyoshi would drool over his Toyota Celica. "I idolized him," he says.

American Graffiti, this ain’t
Timothy Norris
American Graffiti, this ain’t
A 1998 flier
Courtesy Ken Miyoshi
A 1998 flier

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At 17, Miyoshi got his first car: a 1984 Mazda RX-7 in gunmetal gray. His parents paid for half, and he scraped up the rest of the money by working as a DJ. He joined a car team called Pacific Power and would spend many nights revving up racers from other parts of town—the Westsiders, which included South Bay groups, and Eastsiders, comprised of guys from San Gabriel Valley—on roads in Terminal Island near Long Beach, Sylmar, Ontario and beyond. "Back then, it was about speed," Miyoshi says. "It was kind of like a car gang, but not in a violent way. Basically, it was about who's faster."

In the early 1990s, the scene accelerated with guys who lived and breathed for their road machines, foregoing prom, parties and sometimes food so they'd have more cash for upgrades. (Miyoshi says he knew of people who only went to college so they could get a loan and use the money to buy more parts.) For many young men, some who had been caught up with drugs and gangs, the passion offered a sense of purpose and, for the first time, an identity.

"It gave the Asian American community credibility and something to brag about," says Eddie Kim, founder and owner of Dynamic Autosports in Santa Ana. "Every culture had its thing—blacks, Hispanics—yet we were always stereotyped as nerds or sushi chefs. Finally, there was an industry where we were the leaders. Other guys looked to us as role models and wanted to get our approval. They'd ask, 'Should I buy this? Is it cool to do this?' It was a turning point."

Kim's shop, which originated in Irvine, was one of the first in Southern California to specialize in aftermarket products for import cars (parts that don't come from the original factory), which previously could only be special-ordered from Japan. Guys from Los Angeles and beyond could stop in to pick up Neuspeed Race springs, GReddy BL exhaust systems, adjustable cam gears and short shifters while, at the same time, have their cars lowered to the ground.

Miyoshi was one of the die-hards, hanging out in garages when he wasn't in class at Cypress College or deejaying events. On Saturday nights, he worked as a promoter for nightclubs such as Variety Arts Center in downtown Los Angeles. Standing in the cool air on the balcony amidst cocktail-fueled flirtations and cigarette smoke, he noticed something happening down in the parking lot. Guys would roll up in their spotless, tuned-up cars and rev their engines until the crowds in line turned their heads. Then they would drive away and return at the end of the night, just as partiers spilled out the doors.

"I would see it every week," Miyoshi says. "I was like, 'Wait a minute. These guys drive by, hang out, try to holler at girls and be in the scene.' I was making money off admission at the door. I wasn't making money off them. So I wondered, 'How can I capitalize on this?'"

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