A crowd gathered around the shimmering dark blue Nissan 350Z with the Batmobile-like doors.
With a Red Bull drink in one hand and a Virginia Slims cigarette in the other, Gina Papadopoulos thanked the admirers at JDM Up's Little Tokyo Night Show. The car show, hosted by a Riverview car part importing company, drew hundreds of car fanatics to the parking lot of the Riverview Lowe's on a recent Saturday night.
Though Papadopoulos' car was at the edge of the show, the black widow spider details, the glow of custom lighting and the embroidered suede door siding drew dozens of people who dropped their jaws and took photos.
She gets a lot of comments on her custom body kit, imported from Portugal. For a while, it was the only one of its kind in the United States.
"Nice car," one man said. "Who did the doors?"
"I did," she replied.
She put on the Lamborghini doors, which can raise up, not just out, herself. It's just a hinge kit, she said, not a big deal when you love working on cars and have grown up around them.
Papadopoulos, was born and raised in Brandon, where she now lives with her husband, Dimitri Papadopoulos. Her father, Armand Grassi, was the president of the Sunshine State Camaro Club, based out of Brandon, and she went to many car shows with him.
"The Camaro Club was awesome," she said. "The members they were all friendly. They all felt like family."
Grassi now judges shows, and Papadopoulos takes her black widow car to shows from Atlanta to Miami. It's not her everyday ride. That's a burgundy 350Z. This one is just for show.
She won third place in the "wild" division at the Little Tokyo Night Show, and she knows her father is proud.
"I'm kind of carrying on his passion," she said. "And it's also mine."
There were other unique cars at the show, ones with colors that aren't just blue or white. They're custom painted in "midnight candy blue" or "diamond pearl white."
Many of them have been modified to hit speeds that aren't legal on any Florida highways. But that's what race tracks are for, said Edward Fitzgerald, 18, who has a 350Z that can easily reach 150 mph.
Some cars are straight out of MTV's Pimp My Ride: lowriders with giant subwoofers, wild paint jobs and custom rims.
Blue flames jump across the body of Sean Lacaille's Scion RC. He was looking for a new car a year ago, and the dealership clinched the sale when they painted it.
Lacaille then got a new grille, rims, Lamborghini doors and a sound system. He estimates he's put about $10,000 into it, but it's his passion, he said.
"I love cars," he said. "It's just something I love to do."
And unlike some of the car owners at the show, Lacaille, a mechanic from Bradenton, drives his car every day. It's not just for show, he said.
Still, driving anywhere in his car becomes a bit of a show.
"Every time I park, I get four or five people who see me and come over," he said.
On the other side of the spectrum is the VIP car, custom-made with pricey parts imported from Japan. There's one sitting under a light pole in the parking lot, its pearly paint sparkling in the light.
It looks so luxurious that you'd expect it to roll up to a red carpet and let out movie stars or business tycoons. But this one belongs to Shawn and Cassandra Manspeaker of Clearwater.
They've got four subwoofers, an Xbox 360 and glowing blue lights in the trunk.
The car can be raised or lowered, the paint had to be done in three stages and the custom wheels took three months to make. They rarely drive the car.
"It's just a hobby," Cassandra Manspeaker said.
"An expensive one," her husband added.
They've put thousands into the 1999 Lexis GS 300, enough to warrant a security system for their garage. But they both love it.
"It's luxurious," she said. "It's more based on classic, clean, elegant looks."
There's custom, two-tone leather upholstery, a DVD player in the back and "puddle lights" that glow under the side of the car, so passengers can avoid puddles.
Some items are just for show, like the little table extending from the dashboard that holds a martini glass and shaker.
Awed car showgoers take photos of the Manspeakers' car.
"That's VIP status right there," a man says.
They won first place in the VIP category at the car show, but to Cassandra Manspeaker, the best payoff is when people ooh and aah as they walk around the car.
"We really pride ourselves on being original. What's that saying you have?" she asks her husband.
"Go big or go home," he says.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.