Tuning Japanese

Import tuners, once kid brothers to small-block chevys, have grown up.

Donate the Deuce Coupe to an auto museum and put the GTO up for sale: The hippest, hottest hot rod in America is now an Asian import with front-wheel drive and a turbocharged four-banger. Humble Honda Civics with stock unibodies and custom everything else have clocked sub-9-second quarter-mile passes, with top speeds approaching 170 mph, and it's not uncommon to find street-legal econorockets fast enough to humiliate a Corvette Z06. Note to outraged Detroit iron loyalists: Deal with it.

So-called rice burners began infiltrating the Los Angeles underground street-racing culture about 10 years ago. By the mid-1990s, slammed Hondas with stainless-steel exhausts were rasping around both coasts, and by decade's end, import car shows and sanctioned drag races were drawing huge crowds. Hollywood came late to the party, but when The Fast and the Furious was released in 2001, its mix of fast cars, babes on parade and enough nitrous oxide to anesthetize the entire city of Pomona brought the import tuner scene to middle America.

Like their predecessors, the new hot rodders have split into show and go camps. The look-fast crowd flocks to mega-decibel Hot Import Nights car shows; picture a street-rod car show by way of the House of Blues. For these guys, the scene is more than a lifestyle; it's their whole life. "They spend all of their disposable income on their cars," says Michael Meyers, president of NOPI, a giant Atlanta-based parts distributor. "They build their personalities around their cars."

For go-fast types, it's all about straight-line, quarter-mile performance, largely because drag strips -- unlike twisty road-race circuits -- are accessible to all comers. "You can drive up to Palmdale (home of the Los Angeles County Raceway) on a Friday night, pay 15 bucks and you're on the track," says Craig Lieberman, technical advisor to The Fast and the Furious, who also runs one of the four professional import drag racing series inaugurated in recent years.

The import tuner crowd couldn't care less about road racing, but that hasn't stopped them from appropriating its trappings, from superwide wheels to rear wings the size of coffee tables. Many of these components are pricey Japanese-spec imports. Japanese domestic market (JDM) devotees will spend $500 to $1,000 for J-spec headlights. Raymond Fong, general manager of VeilSide USA, had a customer who dropped $14,000 on a body kit. "And to install it," Fong says, "he had to pull out the gas tank and put in a fuel cell."

The ultimate JDM icon is the Nissan Skyline GT-R, a budget supercar that developed a cult following in the States through the Gran Turismo 3 PlayStation 2 game. Under its rather bland bodywork beats a turbocharged engine that can be tweaked to produce nearly 450 hp without
any heavy breathing. "In Japan, it's known as Godzilla," says Ken Takahashi, sales manager of MotoRex, a firm in Los Angeles that imports the right-hand-drive beasts.

Another bit of import tuner exotica is the sport of drifting. Ever power-slide around a snow-covered parking lot? Imagine doing it on a racetrack -- for style points. That's drifting, and there's a professional series devoted to it in Japan. Tommy Chen, whose SpeedTrialUSA organization occasionally runs drifting sessions in Southern California, now calls them "car control" events. "One track owner tried to throw us out when he heard we were drifting," he explains. Then again, it wasn't that long ago that imports weren't welcome at drag strips either.

Nobody's calling Asian hot rods rice burners anymore. Car companies are clawing for a piece of the compact car performance market -- a $2 billion industry served by dozens of magazines, hundreds of speed shops and countless suppliers. Factory hot rods such as the Mazdaspeed Proteg, Dodge SRT-4 and Ford Focus SVT cater to customers who want their quasi-customization to come with a manufacturer's warranty. But as the cars on these pages show, factory hot rods barely scratch the surface of the technological sophistication and obsessive attention to detail that characterize hard-core import tuners.

TOYOTA SUPRA

The Toyota Supra is the Lamborghini Diablo of Japanese sports cars -- oversexed, overbuilt and over the top. Last available in the United States in 1998, the Supra is renowned in aftermarket tuner circles mainly because its stout inline-six is said to need nothing but a few basic performance upgrades to create obscene amounts of power. (Obscene in these circles means up to 900 hp.)

But Keith Ta, who owns the Speed Force Racing tuner shop in San Diego, wanted to push the envelope. He upgraded the pistons, rods and a host of engine internals before installing not one but two massive turbochargers, a twin-core intercooler to cool the air compressed by those turbos, and custom manifolds and tubing. Using a refined sense of overkill, Ta rigged up a nitrous oxide system to further produce a short-lived power spike. With the boost from the turbos cranked up to a whopping 34 psi, Ta says the engine should develop 1,000-plus hp at the wheels -- figure 1,200 at the crank -- while the nitrous fix adds an extra 80.

On the cosmetic front, Ta combined off-the-shelf body kit components with his own custom pieces to produce a uniquely sleek Supra. The car rides on colossal 19-inch wheels, 12.5 inches wide at the rear, a choice made partially for looks and partially because it helps to have a lot of rubber on asphalt with 1,000 hp underfoot. (Ta had to fit smaller-than-stock rear brakes to accommodate his racing tires, steamroller-like 345/35s. He compensated with race-quality 14-inch drilled rotors up front.) Inside, the Supra features a steering wheel fitted with a bright red button to squirt some nitrous. Excess weight, apparently, is not a concern: There's also a mini TV. "I can't watch it on the street," Ta admits, "but it comes in handy when I get bored at car shows."

TOO MUCH IS NEVER ENOUGH

Keith Ta's riddle: How to get 1,200 hp -- more than double the output of the stock Viper's 8.3-liter V10 -- out of a 3.0-liter inline-6? Answer: Use more air. Take a pair of mega-turbos (1a), the doughnut-shaped assemblies to the left of the carbon-fiber spark plug cover (1b), and blow 34 pounds of air pressure into the intake manifold. Unfortunately, Ta was awaiting the arrival of new nitrous oxide bottles when this photo was shot. The nitrous is usually mounted just aft of the fuel cell (2), which is more for show than for extra power. There isn't much left of the original Toyota Supra body. The bumpers (3a), side skirts (3b), carbon-fiber hood (3c) and fender flares (3d) have all been reshaped and brake ducts (3e) added, while the intercooler fills the wide-mouth grille (3f). Speaking of looks, Ta didn't miss a trick on the interior, from the beautifully bent rollcage (4a) to the suede seats to the aluminum pedals. Also note the carbon-fiber instrument panel insert (4b) and the television-equipped Alpine entertainment system (4c). The steering wheel (5) has been fitted with two buttons, one on the left to spray nitrous for instant grunt, the other to activate the line-lock transmission device used to launch the car at dragstrips (or stoplights). The forged Fikse wheels (6) are works of art in their own right. Look closely and you can also spot the gargantuan 14-inch drilled rotors and six-piston calipers of the road-race-developed front brakes. How do you keep the tires on this beast from breaking loose? Fit the biggest set of street-legal, high-performance meats known to man. Ta stuck with Pirellis at the front but went to Michelin 345/35 rear tires (7) to take advantage of their 14-inch-plus-wide girth.

WHERE'D THEY GET THE GOODS

Car 1994 Toyota Supra

Engine 2JZ-GTE dohc inline-six

Pistons Arias

Connecting rods Carrillo Industries, 949-498-1800

Camshaft HKS

Ignition HKS

Fuel injection MSD Ignition

ECU Advanced Engine Management, 310-484-2322

Turbocharger Innovative Turbo Systems, 805-526-5400

Intercooler Spearco/Turbonetics, 805-581-0333

Intake manifold Speed Force Racing, 619-441-1359

Exhaust manifold Speed Force Racing

Nitrous oxide Nitrous Oxide Systems (NOS), 714-545-0580

Exhaust HKS

Clutch Advanced Clutch Technology

Wheels Fikse USA, 253-872-3888

Front tires Pirelli, 800-747-3554

Rear tires Michelin, 800-847-3435

Front brakes AP Racing, +44-24-7663-9595

Suspension AFCO Racing Products, 812-897-0900

Seats, Harnesses, Pedals Sparco

Gauges Blitz North America, 714-777-9766

NISSAN 240SX

Some things just get lost in translation. The Nissan Silvia, for example, went from wild to mild when shipped overseas. In Japan, the potent, well-balanced rear-wheel-drive coupe was prized as the perfect car for the extreme sport of drifting. But in the U.S., the 240SX -- as it was known here -- unjustly got a coarse four-banger derived from a truck engine instead of the slick J-spec turbocharged engine, and the Silvia morphed into the nice girl nobody wanted to dance with.

Sometimes that nice girl grows up to be a supermodel. Non Fujita pioneered the now popular swap from the
American engine to the Silvia's SR20DET at his Los Angeles tuner shop, Enonvativ Force. But not just any SR20DET. Fujita created a full-on race engine. Besides boring out the cylinders, he installed aftermarket pistons, rods, crank; replaced the stock turbo and upgraded nearly every other part of
the drivetrain. The lil' lady now pumps more than 450 hp.

Fujita's 240 looks even more impressive when the carbon-fiber hood is lowered. Fujita shaped his own rear bumper and wheel arches, and fashioned the front end out of a Nissan Skyline R-33. Inside, the ambience is positively luxe, from the suede racing seats to a 400-watt entertainment system featuring a television and a PlayStation 2.

After five years of work, Fujita insists that he's still not
finished with the 240. So what's next? "I can't tell you," he says. "Too many people copy this car already."

Car class: Show. Though it can bust off the line with authority, the meticulousness of the J-spec conversion is most properly exhibited standing still.

Most demented improvement: The engine, torn out of a Japanese Silvia, then rebuilt as a race engine and imported, reportedly cost over $10,000. And that's just for the block and head.

Headturner: An air dam installed from a Nissan Skyline, another not-on-these-shores forbidden object of desire among the tuner crowd.

J-SPEC GENESIS: NO DETAIL TOO SMALL

Non Fujita's Nissan 240SX is a study in obsessive attention to detail, from the Nismo shift knob (1a) to the laptop computer (1b) he uses to download performance data. Detach the quick-release steering wheel (2a) to inspect the Stack data-logging system (2b) more commonly found in open-wheel formula racecars. Fujita has modified the body so extensively it bears only passing resemblance to the original car. Worthy of special mention is the slick scoop integrated into the carbon-fiber hood (3a) and the colossal brakes, originally designed for Ferrari's F40, peeking out of the wheels (3b). But inside the engine bay the car becomes unrecognizable to anyone familiar with a stock 240. Fujita replaced the mundane U.S.-spec engine with a turbocharged screamer (4a) plucked from the Japanese Silvia. The engine's most interesting parts are hidden, like custom-forged pistons pumping inside bored-out cylinders. The carbon-fiber bar crossing over the powerplant (4b) is a strut-tower brace used to increase torsional rigidity, handy when you've got an HKS turbocharger (4c) powering you out of a turn. If cars have a face, then Fujita's baby wears an evil grin. The intercooler (5a) provides most of the attitude, but Japanese domestic market junkies will fixate on the reworked Nissan Skyline air dam (5b). The NONS14 license plate is a J-Spec joke -- the S14 refers to Nissan's internal designation for both the 240SX and Silvia. Fujita showcases his attention to detail in this understated, elegant and outrageously expensive carbon-fiber mirror (6). He says it's from a Formula 1 racecar, but declines to say which one.

WHERE'D THEY GET THE GOODS

Car 1997 Nissan 240SX

Engine SR20DET dohc inline-four (Japanese-spec, bored out to 2.1 liters)

Connecting rods Tomei/AEBS

Camshaft Tomei/ AEBS

Ignition HKS USA, 310-491-3300

Fuel injection Tomei/AEBS

ECU Tomei/AEBS

Turbocharger HKS

Intercooler HKS

Intake manifold GReddy

Exhaust manifold HKS

Exhaust HKS

Clutch OS Giken/Enonvativ Force, 310-320-8891

Differential OS Giken/Enonvativ Wheels Yokohama Tire, 800-722-9888

Tires Toyo Tires, 800-442-8696 West Coast, 888-442-8696 East Coast

Front brakes Brembo, 800-325-3994

Suspension HKS

Seats Nismo

Harnesses GReddy

Pedals MOMO 949-380-7556

Gauges Stack, 888-867-5183

HONDA CIVIC

Eleven years ago, when L.A.'s tuner scene was taking shape, Paul Ho was a punk kid street-racing a crude-but-wicked Honda Civic. Today, at 26, he's in charge of R&D at Injen Technology in Pomona. He still drives a hot-rodded Civic.
But now it's the ultimate expression of the import tuner ethic -- fully customized, it's docile enough to drive on the street, powerful enough to blitz a dragstrip in under 11 seconds.

The first step to a fast Civic: Junk the engine. Ho replaced the stock four in his 1994 Si in favor of the more powerful B18C, a 1.8-liter twin-cam VTEC found in the Acura Integra GS-R. This easy swap is so popular that the B18C has emerged as the small-block Chevy of this new generation of hot-rodders (and, dubiously, has also led to Integra theft rates 2.5 times as high as any other vehicle). Ho blueprinted, balanced, ported his engine -- the traditional go-fast hocus-pocus. But the only way to make real power from 1.8 liters is forced induction. Ho's weapon: a giant turbo mated to an exhaust manifold he designed and welded himself. On the track, boost dialed up to 26 psi, the car makes more than 600 hp.

Ho wanted a sleeper -- a wolf in lamb's clothing, and opted for a restrained JDM look built around a J-spec body kit. Aside from the panoply of gauges and the gutted rear of the cabin, the interior is as subdued as the exterior. As he explains: "I wanted a car that made a lot of power, but still looked really clean, very subtle, almost stock." Close enough.

Car class: Front-wheel-drive dragster. Ho's goal is to create the fastest street-legal Civic in the world, and he will sacrifice anything, including the ability to carry other passengers, to meet that goal.

Most demented improvement: An exhaust manifold Ho designed and welded himself in the hopes of more efficiently powering his turbo. He has
succeeded.

Headturner: Ho wanted a "sleeper" -- fast as hell but you'd never know from the exterior -- but his wicked intercooler instantly blows his cover. Then again, the decals and rear wing don't help much, either.

CUSTOM TO THE CORE

If Non Fujita's 240 is a show car built around racecar components, and Keith Ta's Supra is a show car being transformed into a racecar, then Paul Ho's Honda Civic is a racecar that's sweet enough for the show car scene. The intercooler (1a) and carbon fiber hood (1b) are standard equipment in this company, but Ho also added a carbon-fiber rear wing (1c) and J-spec headlights (1d) for that authentic JDM look. The 1.8-liter VTEC engine (2a), reworked after being lifted from a friend's Integra, has emerged as the de facto engine of choice for Civic tuners. The gargantuan turbo (2b), mated to Ho's custom exhaust manifold (2c), dials from 14 psi of boost on the street to 26 psi on the track. Ho designed, fabricated and welded the exhaust manifold (3) -- the ultimate in customization. He bent mild-steel tubing into equal-length runners, welded the tubes into place, and treated the exhaust headers with a ceramic coating. If serious about your drivetrain, it's not uncommon to mount extra gauges -- water temperature, oil temperature, oil pressure and fuel pressure -- in front of the passenger seat (4a). The ignition box is mounted on the floorboard (4b), as is the launch control (4c), which allows Ho to set his engine speed for racing launches. The turbo boost controller, meanwhile, is hidden inside the glovebox. Ho tracks the boost, air-fuel ratio and exhaust gas temperature using the gauge cluster to the driver's left (5a), though as a practical matter, he doesn't have time to consult them when he's speeding toward his shift-point redline of 9,800 rpm. (That's why God created shift lights.) Note how the rollcage (5b) is artfully routed through the dashboard instead of bent around it.

WHERE'D THEY GET THE GOODS

Engine Honda B18C dohc inline-four (swapped out of an Acura Integra GS-R)

Pistons Arias Pistons, 310-532-9737

Connecting rods Crower Cams & Equipment, 619-422-1191

Camshaft WEB-CAM Racing Cams, 909-369-5144

Ignition MSD Ignition, 915-855-7123

Fuel injection RC Engineering, 310-320-2277

ECU ACCEL, 248-380-2780

Turbocharger GReddy Performance Products, 949-588-8300,

Intercooler A'PEX Integration, 714-685-5700

Intake manifold STR Power

Exhaust manifold Injen Technology (custom), 909-839-0706

Exhaust Injen (custom)

Clutch Advanced Clutch Technology, 661-940-7555

Differential Quaife America, 949-240-4000

Wheels Volk Racing/Mackin Industries, 562-946-6820

Tires Toyo Tires, 800-442-8696 West Coast, 888-444-8696 East Coast

Suspension A'PEXi

Seats Sparco Motor Sports, 800-224-RACE

Harnesses Sparco Gauges GReddy

Preston Lerner, a contributing writer to Automobile and author of the motorsports history Scarab, prefers to race his own Nissan 240SX on tracks with curves.

by John B. Carnett

Juan and I had a great time talking about his welding (I just learned to weld about a year ago). In this frame, Juan is welding a support bracket; the shot was taken just prior to his first flight for my cameras. His workshop is very small, but he has it very well organized.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Here Juan is making his final flight for us. The sun was setting, and the neighbors were looking out their windows at us. The sound is incredible when he lifts off. Larry and I just couldn't get enough of it.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

What makes this picture so absurd is my plastic clogs. I mean, yeah, I always fly my rocket belt with my slip-on shoes†I got to wear the pack for a while. The tanks were empty, though, so all along when I thought I had "the feel," I really never had the full weight on. I can tell you that when you're wearing that pack, you just want to set the thing off and head for the sky. My adrenaline was pumping.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

After a flight you can clearly see the incredible heat coming off the converter. But it held up to the abuse.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

John Gilhooley, my assistant, made this picture of Larry and me with Juan next to his pool. It was the first time that the two of us got all geared up-the 70 pounds really does feel like something on your back. I was ready to go try and fly the thing at that moment.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

I placed a black background on the wall in Juan's second-floor lab. As he stood for my portrait, it was clear to me that he was very proud of his work. He's been working on this project for years, and Larry and I were the first real outsiders to see it all.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

I like the balance between the natural light and my strobe lights in this shot. Juan really pops out with his red jumpsuit.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

The first night Larry and I were with Juan, we got a demo of the raw power of his distilled hydrogen peroxide (it's almost 90 percent pure). Juan took a small piece of leather, poured the H202 on it, and then threw it onto a concrete walkway. As the liquid evaporated, the leather exploded into flames and spun around in a circle for about a second. You don't want to get this stuff on your skin!John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Juan has designed a still to make his own hydrogen peroxide fuel. The most clever part is the glasswork-it's custom-made by an artist in Mexico City.John B. Carnett

by John B. Carnett

Juan hovers in the same spot for just a moment-he's still getting a feel for his controls. When I watch him up there, I think about the day that he'll be free-flying. It makes me smile, thinking about all that time and effort spent working on something that he dreamed of as a kid.John B. Carnett