SAN JOSE, Calif.—Think speed, think boutique and you could rev up your tire sales. Racing and street performance are fueling a demand to customize, personalize and soup up ``imports'' such as Hondas, Mitsubishis and that brightest star in the recent hit-parade of German-bred wundercars—the New Beetle.
There's a certain look that lets you know these aren't your grannies' Camrys—snazzy wheels wrapped with very low profile tires, bold graphics, large wings on the rear deck lid and single triple-chromed exhaust tips the size of sewer pipes. And of course, they're lowered.
Luckily for the tire trade, the first step these enthusiasts usually take is the one that is the most noticeable: upgraded wheels and tires. Especially hot are the 17-and 18-inch sizes. One notable size is 215/35R18. Or, for the guy whose car originally came with ``wimpy'' 13-inch tires, 195/50R15s.
Race on Sunday, sell on Monday. Yes, it's a cliche, but a cash cliche. Only this time, many of the buyers—typically between 18 and 30—may have grown up exclusively with import vehicles prized by their parents for engineering and handling or dependability and frugality. It didn't take a tire engineer to see what goes around, comes around.
Not convinced? The Specialty Equipment Market Association is.
On March 27 and 28, SEMA held its second annual Import Auto Salon in Pomona, Calif., to showcase aftermarket goodies aimed at the ``non-Big Three.'' Fittingly, the site was just yards from the starting line of the Winternationals, which last year for the first time had some leading import drag racers in the show.
Like National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag racing, import drag racing started in Southern California and has since spread to many of the 50 states, Canada and Puerto Rico. Ford Motor Co., hoping to capture more of the market, used the Import Auto Salon to create buzz for its upcoming sport compact—the Focus—a veteran of World Rally Car racing. It follows the Mercury line's re-designed Cougar.
``It's a growing market,'' said Sid Rotman of Municipal Tire and Wheel, a retail and wholesale operation in the Chicago area. ``We saw the market about three years ago as being a good niche market to get into. Not a lot of people were paying attention to it. We decided to research who's out there with these products—who's paying attention to this market.''
Mr. Rotman said he was impressed by Nitto Tires, which caters to drag racing with a quarter-mile version of its flagship performance tire, the NT555. The NT555R is DOT certified, yet becomes sticky after burnouts, providing the traction racers need.
Many of these race cars, like the Honda Civic, are front-wheel-drive and thus need all the tire traction possible, since weight is transferred off the driven tires upon acceleration.
Ironically, the NT555R has become popular with Mustang drag racers.
Nitto is also a major sponsor of what many consider to be the most recognizable car in import drag racing—the A*&*L Racing Mazda RX-7. And Nitto is far from the only tire supplier to zero in on a particular type of racing and try to make it theirs.
South Korea's Kumho Tire, for example, sponsors autocross and road racing. The cars include Hondas, RX-7s and Miatas shod with Kumho's V700 racing tires.
``Small specialty shops have embraced this kind of business and are doing well with it and not even thinking of mainstream tires and wheels,'' said Mr. Rotman.
``Also, mail order's been a big factor as far as competition goes, because for one thing, some of these people don't know where to find this stuff because tire dealers don't pay any attention to it.''
Mr. Rotman pointed out that, as taste changes, a set of high-performance tires can be a profitable commodity.
``It's fashion,'' he said. ``It's like jeans and shoes. Although it does enhance a car's performance—and that's part of it—it's also about being in a demographic. Your friends have this stuff and that's what you want to do.''
Style has become much more international, with many dealers turning first to Japanese and German auto magazines to find distinctive wheels.
``The Japanese came out with the styles first. American manufacturers are starting to pay attention to this market,'' Mr. Rottman said.
Another promising aspect for retailers: At the same time enthusiasts are demanding 18- and 19-inch wheels and tires, Nitto and others are considering producing a 20-inch tire in aspect ratios as ``extreme'' as 35. Automakers are using larger sizes too.
Anyone who's driven the 1999 Acura TL, for example, knows that the well-appointed sedan comes with 16-inch rolling stock, yet has a very smooth, comfortable ride. While zippy, it is hardly a racer.
Rob Cullen of Wheel Warehouse, in Orange County, Calif., said today's tire buyers are reaping the benefits of technology and timing.
``Tires such as Pirelli, Toyo, Nitto and Dunlop are extremely popular,'' Mr. Cullen said. ``Using computer-aided tools, tire manufacturers don't have to use the soft compounds, and over the past year or two, tires have really improved. They have higher performance, longer wear and lower cost. It's very exciting.''
To serve the import performance/racing market, dealers should attend races and car shows, which, as Nitto's Scott Kanemura pointed out, are now found nationwide.
Magazines targeted at this niche include Sport Compact Car, RPM Magazine and the pioneer in the field, Turbo & Hi-Tech Performance.
The latter maintains a list of races and car shows on its web site: www.turbomagazine.com.
Hideo Tomitaka, who develops bilingual web sites for American and Japanese companies, said it's helpful to mine the Internet for ``official information and valuable advice from end-users.''
Mr. Rotman added: ``Drive around. You have to look to see what's going on. We have wholesale customers. They're starting to look at this type of thing.
"There are people racing these small cars, taking them to drag strips or going to car shows. It's like a movement.''
And, like any movement, this one has its own icons. ``There are versions of the Civic that appeal to economy buyers, and others, like the Si Coupe, that attract young speed demons,'' said Csaba Csere of Car & Driver magazine. ``These latter buyers are likely to regard it as a modern '57 Chevy and modify it for higher performance.''
Mr. Yip is a West Coast-based journalist and an on-line editor for the San Jose Mercury News