The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show is as big as it’s ever been, as the number of “industry professionals” at the show has jumped from about 140,000 in 2016 to more than 160,000 expected attendees in 2022. GM and Ford will sell you complete engines, transmissions, heck, even a whole track-prepped pony-car, and yet, tuner culture just ain’t hittin’ the same. Fast import cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution or Nissan Sentra SE-R used to be a mainstay in the cultural zeitgeist, but now, not so much. Rather than bemoan the death, or maybe, the evolution of import cars, watch this cool old video from MotorWeek from the ‘90s that highlights the budding import tuner scene of the time.
The year is 1996, before ”The Fast and the Furious” and before internet message boards and blogs hit full swing. Back then, the primary way to go fast was a tuned-up Chevy, Ford, or Dodge. Then, folks figured out that tuning, boosting, and adding nitrous to their front-wheel-drive (FWD) Civics could make them just about as fast as those big American engines.
In that era, bystanders were impressed with the performance from the souped-up imports, but the legend status just wasn’t there yet. To them, the FD Mazda RX-7 or EG Honda Civic Si are just more modded new cars. They were rightfully impressive, but they hadn’t yet built up the lore and history that made car geeks freak out.
When I was a kid in the early 2000s, I cut my teeth on “The Fast and the Furious,” “Tokyo Xtreme Racer,” and online message boards like Cardomain. These spaces were all about pitting imports against domestics. Pre-teen me, at least five years away from driving and unable to separate fiction from reality, ate that junk up.
It wasn’t until I turned nearly 13 that one of my uncles bought a 1992 Prelude Si. Up until that point, I was sure he was “anti-import.” After all, he was a big-block Chevy guy, crushing all those tin can import claptraps at the drag strip. Why the heck would he spend any time in some itty-bitty coupe?
Well, that was my turning point. I listened closer and realized that most of my uncle’s derision of the imports at the drag strip was out of respect. It was teasing, but they were impressed with the immense levels of power they were getting out of tiny engines. They thought out loud, “What if they tried an import build, or at least tried, building up a domestic DOHC four-cylinder? From that day on, I realized that most real racers respect each other.
Overall, this MotorWeek video reminds us that it’s all about racing, the craft, and the heart. Who cares about “domestic” versus “import?” Real racers respect all builds.
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