Lowrider car show a celebration of culture, creativityby William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul's west side is spruced up and ready to host the region's largest Cinco de Mayo festival today and Saturday. Along with the jalapeno-eating contest and the headlining musical act from Mexico, there'll be a hundred or so entries in the lowrider car show.
This is the tenth year a car show has been part of the festival and organizers estimate 30,000 people will be there to admire the customized vehicles.
St. Paul, Minn. — Many car enthusiasts are captivated by the quest for speed, seeking the thrill of winning a race or just going fast.
But there's another kind of car culture in which speed is not a priority. Enrique Alcocer explains that group's three-word credo this way:
"Low and slow. Just taking it easy," Alcocer said. "Go for a cruise and, I guess, enjoy the scenery. It all depends on wherever you are - whatever you cruise around to."
Lowrider is a term that refers to a car and to the person who drives it. Lowriders cruise in order to see and be seen, and slow speeds give everyone a good look. Enrique, who's been customizing them for nearly 20 years, said a lowrider is a car with a suspension that's been modified to allow it to ride lower than normal.
"A lot of people, the lower the car is the better for them. There's a little bit of competition to see which one goes the lowest," Alcocer said. "A lot of people - especially those that have hydraulics or air bags - you can drop it all the way to the ground so you cannot drive it."
Of course driveability is usually preferred, and so owners of lowriders developed systems to adjust the height of their vehicles at will, using hydraulic pumps or suspension air bags controlled by a toggle switch. This allows them to perform tricks -- raising just one side or one end of the car, sometimes even lifting wheels off the ground. Once equipped with this ability, most lowriders then focus on personalizing the looks of their car through custom paint jobs, upholstery, wheel rims or other decorative touches.
There are some, though, who focus instead on what the car can do. With enough hydraulics - and batteries to power them - vehicles can actually bounce two wheels several feet off the ground.
Some of these "hoppers" will compete in a Hydraulic Showdown at the Cinco de Mayo festival. A variation involves vehicles that "dance," by moving laterally or even in circles. Hopping takes a toll on a car, so Enrique said lowriders who've worked hard on the look of their car usually avoid hopping. Although some, he said, try to have the best of both worlds.
"A lot of older people, they'll put in four pumps which means the car will be able to hop or to dance," he said. "But they don't hop it or dance it because they just want it for display. Just for display. They show that they have what it takes to do it, but it takes just a little bit of craziness to do it because there's a lot of money invested in the car."
On this day, Enrique has donned a welding mask and rolled under a Ford pickup to work on the suspension system he's modified. Enhanced springs now coil up through holes he's cut in the bed of the truck. Later, he and his friend Sergio Maldonado, who owns the truck, will install four hydraulic cylinders in the bed.
In the cab, the seats have been removed to make room for the eight high-voltage batteries that will power those pumps. Even the engine has been removed because this truck is for hopping only. It will arrive at the Hydraulic Showdown on a trailer, and Enrique said he hopes to wow the crowd by reaching a new frontier in hopping: getting all four wheels off the ground at once.
"I'm gonna try that. I've never tried it before, this is my first one. And I know I can do it, he said.
As Sergio returns from an errand to the auto parts store, his '81 Chevy pickup settles to within a few inches of the driveway before he turns off the ignition.
In the late 1980s, Sergio moved to Minnesota from Texas, Enrique from California. They met when each noticed how low the other's car was riding. They've worked on lowriders together since then, traveling to car shows around the country.
Some critics have linked the lowrider lifestyle to criminal gangs, but Sergio feels strongly that it's a good hobby, especially for young people. He said the work involved requires a certain industriousness, the individualism allows for creative expression and the cost encourages financial discipline. Plus, he said, kids just think it's cool.
"Like I told Enrique, I'm building this more for the kids," Maldonado said. "Because they go to the lowrider car shows and there's a lot of kids that say 'Wow!' And they go back to school the next day and say 'Man, this truck went up five feet.'"
Sergio and Enrique are hopeful that on Monday St. Paul schoolkids will be able to report seeing a truck with four wheels airborne. The lowrider car show runs from 4 to 9 p.m. today, with the Hydraulic Showdown at 6:30.
- Morning Edition, 05/01/2009, 6:50 a.m.