Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series. For the first part, view the Aug. 9 edition of The Pajaronian.
WATSONVILLE — In the eyes of Darren Hicks, calling the dozens who gather at the Overlook Shopping Center street racers is not accurate.
“That’s not really what we are,” he said. “Are there some bad apples that go out and do dumb stuff? Sure. But I’d say most people out here just love cars. They have a passion for putting time and cash into their car, and then showing other car enthusiasts their hard work.”
Hicks, 30, is one of the more recognizable names in Watsonville’s modified car community, and one half of the brain trust that organizes All That Slamness, a new annual car show at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds that in mid-July drew more than 400 vehicles from across the Bay Area.
Hicks and business partner Kortland Kusumoto said they started All That Slamness in 2017 to bring the local car community together and to show those on the outside looking in that the modified car community is not a nuisance, but a group of people that loves cars.
“We kept the event family-friendly — I made sure of that,” Hicks said. “I wanted to mold all these car guys together to show everyone that we’re not that different. I tried really hard this time to bring some of the old guys out and give us a shot. The old guys like to think that we’re just a bunch of cocky, annoying kids, but that’s not it.”
Hicks and Kusumoto have also tried to diversify the car community that gathers at the shopping center by starting Hot Wheels meet-ups on Fridays in front of Starbucks. Car enthusiasts bring their modified miniature toy cars — some featuring custom paint, wheels, bumpers and windows — for a small-scale swap meet and exhibition on replica showroom floors.
A few modified Hot Wheels have sold for as much as $40. Hicks also raffles off some of his more intensive projects — such as a Porsche 993 GT2 that he worked on for roughly four days — to fund his “best in show” awards for each pocket-sized meet. First, second and third get Starbucks gift cards.
The first meet in May drew only six scaled-down cars, but on July 26 roughly 50 visited the tiny homemade displays and about three dozen people, some from as far as Gilroy, cycled in and out of the meet.
“It’s bringing a whole new group of people out here,” Hicks said. “All I want is for people to not have a bad perception of the car community. Come showcase your stuff, have a coffee with me and talk cars.”
Hot Wheels meet-ups, coordinated by Darren Hicks, have started to draw a new crowd to the Overlook Shopping Center in Watsonville on Friday nights. — Tony Nuñez/The Pajaronian
Hicks and Kusumoto met like many in Watsonville’s modified car community do: in a race.
Nearly a decade ago, the latter followed the former out of the Overlook Shopping Center and the two “ran ‘em” in an empty straightaway on the outskirts of the city. Kusumoto admits that he lost, and sped off after tasting defeat.
“I remember him saying, ‘damn, that thing’s fast, we should hang out,’” Hicks said.
They’ve been friends ever since that duel, which was also Hicks’ last. Around that same time, he was caught street racing on the way home from In-N-Out Burger in Gilroy around 2 a.m. and received a $1,300 speed contest ticket, which also came with two points on his license and a sky-high insurance rate.
He was 19 at the time.
“That definitely taught me a lesson,” Hicks said. “It was rough.”
Hicks and Kusumoto said they had regrets about the street racing they used to do when they were younger, but acknowledged that they would not have found the “family” they have today without attending the weekly communal meets.
But they said that the community has recently started to change with the introduction of social media and the influx of a younger crowd. The lure of internet fame — primarily on Instagram — has led to more dangerous behavior that is often seen at East Bay “sideshows,” in which cars shut down entire intersections and roads to perform automobile stunts such as donuts and peel-outs.
“All this acting crazy, I’m done with that,” Hicks said. “It is annoying and there’s a lot of kids doing this, and one day someone is going to get run over. Do you think he’s going to stick around? No way. That’s a hit-and-run waiting to happen.”
A group of friends at the Overlook Shopping Center on July 26 also felt the same way. A few members of that group agreed to talk to this publication on condition of anonymity, for fear that they might be targeted by police in the future.
That trio agreed that a showy, younger crowd has warped the perception of what they called a “bonded” community that treats each member like “family.”
“There’s a crop of young’uns that give us a bad rep,” said a man who identified himself as Freddy. “They’re out here flexing, trying to show off, revving their engine, they’re doing that because they’re trying to impress people. That’s not everyone, but they kill it for the rest of us.”
Added another man who identified himself as J.D.: “No lie, there’s people out there that do dumb stuff, but most of us are just hanging out. We’re not violent. We’re not drinking. We’re not doing drugs. We’re just hanging out in the only place we can.”
All three admitted to street racing in the past, but said there’s a code that most follow. The most important rule: no racing in the city.
“We don’t want to hurt anyone, honestly,” J.D. said. “When we know we’re going to race we leave the city and go to the boonies. We wish we had a place to go, but we don’t.”
Added Freddy: “Most of us throw down at least $5,000 (of modifications) into our cars and we want to have fun with our toys. Let me put it to you like this, if you bought a Ferrari, invested all that money into it, how would you ever know what it really feels like unless you push it past 65 or 70? You think we want to risk getting pulled over and getting a $1,300 ticket? We’re just trying to have fun.”
One of the biggest reasons why dozens of car enthusiasts meet in public parking lots, and race on deserted roads surrounding the city is the lack of a location to do either legally.
Laguna Seca in Monterey does not open its track to the public for open track days, but car and motorcycle clubs routinely rent out the track to allow their members to speed through the world-renowned course, according to the track’s website.
Marina opens its airport to car events once a month, but there is no drag strip element to their open track days.
Sacramento Raceway Park is the closest drag strip, but the Elk Grove Citizen in mid-May reported that the track, which has operated since 1964, could close next year.
For several local car enthusiasts, the three-hour trek to the state capitol is out of the question.
“It’s risky,” J.D. said. “You go up to Sacramento, beat the crap out of your car and then drive it back to Watsonville. If your car breaks down, you have to pay for that tow, or you can get a ticket just for the way your car looks.”
Several members of the modified car community on July 26 told this publication that the City of Watsonville should build a quarter-mile drag strip and charge an entrance fee for both cars and spectators.
“That would make so much money because this is bigger than Watsonville,” Freddy said. “You’d have the entire 831 come to Watsonville to race and watch. Salinas, Monterey, Santa Cruz, everyone would come here.”
Watsonville City Manager Matt Huffaker said that idea has been presented in the past, but that the City is limited in its building opportunities in both space and funds.
“It’s not a terrible idea, but we’re space-constrained,” he said. “We’re only 6-square miles and already pretty well built out.”
By 9:35 p.m. on July 26 there were three WPD patrol cars posted at the exits of the Overlook Shopping Center waiting to shoo away the dozens of vehicles parked at the southernmost portion of the parking lot. And at 10 p.m. — Target’s closing time — one patrol car called on the group to disperse into the night over its loudspeaker, as all three cruisers inched their way toward the group of cars.
Asked where the group would go, J.D. said: “Some of us will try to go to another spot, but most of us will just go home.”
Added Freddy: “There’s nowhere else for us to go.”