LONG BEACH, Calif.—Call it ``itch marketing.'' Young men and women have been bit by the the import racing and show bug. Even if they never compete on the track or enter their set of wheels in a ``Show Off,'' they've got the itch to add style, sound and speed—or at least the appearance of speed.
A set of exotic wheels and tires accomplish two of those three goals almost immediately.
A recent Southern California-perfect day at a park in Long Beach, with the Queen Mary in the distance, was an eye-opening ``classroom'' for anyone aiming to cash in on the import market, which the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) estimates is worth more than $100 million a year in retail sales—the fastest-growing niche in the aftermarket.
"Chase," just one of many car clubs at the event, had 20 members' cars occupying a whole row. Skateboarders and break-dancers did their stunts to the constant thump of bass speakers that were everywhere.
The local hip-hop radio station brought a phalanx of dancers and musicians. Earrings and tattoos were in abundance. So was cleavage, in the form of former Playboy centerfolds and poster girls—just your average hormone-exciters.
This kind of action has added excitement to Toyo Tires, a major sponsor of events like Hot Import Nights and Hot Import Daze. In 1999, the company is scheduled to attend 35 import car shows or drag races, said Jim Scobie, Toyo's manager of special events. This event, Hot Import Daze, drew an estimated 20,000 guests.
Why does Toyo do it?
``We're out to market our products, to get our name out to the young kids, roughly 16 to 26 years old,'' Mr. Scobie said. ``Promotion helps ensure future growth of our tire business. When these kids have minivans, they'll consider Toyos are just as good as the Goodyears or BFGoodriches.
``Second, we want to support the kids and their activities. This isn't just a car show—or a drag race. This is a lifestyle. Events like these bring them off the street, where they can hang out and be kids. They're not hassled by the police. These kids live to modify their cars. I'd bet that, with some of them, almost every dollar goes into fixing up their cars.
``You come out and support these kids—I guess it's Generation Y—and they support you. It all comes back.''
Support takes the form of stickers, temporary tattoos, posters featuring tires and swimsuit models, and, for a select few, tire sponsorships.
``We're getting them branded, not 10 years from now. Other tire companies are starting to get involved. We got involved early and claimed our territory.''
He goes off to talk to some Toyo employees who are here to enjoy the sun, scene and food. Moments later, the personable Mr. Scobie comes back, grinning.
``Hey, I wanted to tell you. We've got another advantage: our approachability. We're not cold, corporate stiffs. Look at me: We're out here with our snowboarder sunglasses, Vans (tennis shoes) and surfer shorts.''
Toyo's sales and market share have gone up dramatically ever since the Cypress, Calif.-based company got into the import scene, said Joe Jordan, manager of Toyo's performance tires and a former Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) racer. Mr. Jordan wouldn't disclose numbers, but said, ``Let's put it this way: right now we're having a hard time keeping any inventory.''
Mr. Jordan took up a station at the end of the line where enthusiasts, mainly male, stood for several minutes to get a poster signed by one of several swimsuit-clad models on hand.
As he rolled up each poster and slipped a rubber band on, he bantered. ``Here you go! Thanks for coming by. You have Toyos on your car?''
If they said they did, he would ask them where they got them. ``Price club,'' said one sheepish teen. Toyos are not sold at Costco, the warehouse club outlet the teen indicated. As soon as the young man was out of earshot, Mr. Jordan confided in a low voice, ``What am I going to tell him? That he had got Bridgestones?''
Smiling, Mr. Jordan said he is a big fan of poster giveaways. ``This way they put this big poster up on their wall and all year what do they think of? Toyo!''
Verone Pangilim, part of a cadre of Southern California enthusiasts that Toyo sponsors, and who are happy to bring their cherished cars to be in Toyo's display, said he's impressed that racers like Eddie Bello, driving a turbocharged Porsche, can run mid-9-second quarter-mile times on Toyo's street performance radials.
``Look at those guys,'' he tells a reporter, pointing to two teens examining a cutaway portion of a Toyo tire. ``That's a smart move on Toyo's part. These guys pick it up, look at the tread and the pattern, see how thick it is, and I heard them say, `Hey. Cool. I'm going to get these. They'll last.' It's what I call hands-on marketing.''