Les Wong's car looks like something straight out of the Fast and Furious movies. The bright red 1993 Mazda RX-7 has a giant blue panther leaping along the passenger side, a tweaked 348-horsepower engine under the hood and an elegant winglike spoiler off the back. Wong, who has spent close to $60,000 customizing his car, could be a classic "import tuner" _ a young, car-obsessed street racer with a souped-up compact. Except for one thing: He's a 35-year-old dentist with a wife, two children and a house in Sacramento, Calif.
Meet the new tuners: men and women over 30 who trade notes on intercoolers and superchargers while trying to figure out just who or what Ludacris and Outkast are besides misspelled words.
Some "mature" tuners, like Wong, who says his car is akin to a woman's designer shoe collection, look to show off their own personal style. Others say they are reliving or extending part of their youth, when they raced big V-8 American cars. Though their younger counterparts flock to car shows such as Hot Import Nights to ogle models, dance to hip-hop and show off their customized Hondas, Mitsubishis and Subarus, older tuners tend to settle for a little friendly competition on the streets.
"All I have to do is stop at a red light and have a youngster pull up next to me," said Barbra Craig, a 54-year-old Detroit office manager whose $16,000 Ford Focus has $10,000 worth of add-ons, including a turbocharger, custom 17-inch wheels and Recaro racing seats.
"I wouldn't want to stand around and look at my car," she said. "I just want to drive."
The tuning craze began more than a decade ago, among young men in the Asian-immigrant communities outside Los Angeles. The car of choice then was a hand-me-down Honda Civic, with the four-cylinder engine modified, or tuned, to boost the horsepower and turn a cheap Japanese import into a street racer capable of hitting 60 mph in less than five seconds.
Unlike pre-electronic age hot-rodders, tuners didn't get their hands dirty to raise power and speed. Instead, they hacked into their cars' computer-chip brains, modifying the algorithms controlling the fuel injectors, and added items like turbochargers and new exhaust systems to increase the amount of air and fuel going into a car's engine.
They didn't stop there: Tuners lowered the cars to make them more aerodynamic, added rear spoilers and side skirts to make them look cool, painted them wild colors and changed the standard head and tail lights for xenon or LED lights. Before long, carmakers like Honda and Mitsubishi started catering to the subculture, by giving so-called after-market companies early looks at the cars so they could create new parts to appeal to tuners. More recently, the cars got a boost from movies like Fast and Furious and the Grand Theft Auto video games.
But for older tuners, it's not always a comfortable fit.
Brian Callahan, 60, isn't interested in hanging out in a 7-Eleven parking lot at midnight with Detroit-area tuners or motoring down the city's famous car-cruising street, Woodward Avenue. "I listen to jazz and classical music," Callahan, a computer consultant, said.
Still, he recently bought a $25,000 2003 Subaru WRX, then spent another $7,000 to get more than 300 horsepower out of the four-cylinder engine. And on a recent afternoon, he couldn't help the grin that spread across his face as he stepped on the gas just as a light turned green, quickly shifting from first to second. The car growled and shot down a suburban Detroit thoroughfare.
"That was zero to 60 in second gear in under five seconds," Callahan said.
Mixing a tuner obsession with family life can make for odd juxtapositions. Wong's Web site, for instance, is filled with photos of his kids at Disney World, at Christmas and playing in the snow.
Then there are the shots of his car, hood up, engine gleaming, miniskirted model smiling in front at events like Hot Import Nights or on the set of a Ludacris video.
"I pretty much stay home and take care of my kids," Wong said, except, of course, for when he's exhibiting his Mazda at shows.
The car companies, from General Motors' Saturn division to Mercedes-Benz, are hoping to cash in on the older tuners, many of whom are willing to spend the more than $15,000 or so a classic tuner subcompact costs.
The new Mercedes AMG performance versions of its usually sedate sedans come with twin-spoke wheels and 450-horsepower engines _ and cost five times what a typical tuner car goes for. While Ford's Focus is still fairly cheap _ the base price is about $13,000 _ the carmaker is betting it will add some performance gloss to its family-sedan reputation.
Among the events at recent Fun Ford weekends: legal versions of the late-night street racing and fancy burnouts that the younger tuners have been known for. At a Focus Frenzy race in July in Norwalk, Ohio, Craig put her souped-up car up against the competition on the drag strip: doing the quarter-mile in less than 15 seconds, good enough to place third.
"Not bad for a grandmother," she said.
Many older tuners are looking for legal ways to enjoy their cars. When Thomas H. Limpo, 35, moved to Detroit from Southern California eight years ago, he figured he'd leave some of the outrageous tuner behavior behind. His new club, Redline Motorsports, strictly prohibits loud engine revving and using nitrous oxide to boost speed (illegal in some states). "We're just a bunch of old respectable guys," Limpo said.
Even his car is different: He drives a 2002 Honda roadster, not a subcompact. Still, he admits that Redline has tuner tantrums.
"Before you know it, somebody has thrown down the gauntlet on the message boards," he said, "and there's a race to see whose car is better or faster."