SALEM, Va.—They began to arrive about three hours early, some having dodged the wind and rain of Hurricane Floyd. By 6 p.m., the parking lot at Yokohama Tire Corp.'s Salem, Va., tire plant looked like the site of an MTV concert. This was one of the stops for Super Street Tour '99, sponsored by Super Street magazine. Yokohama is co-sponsoring the 3-year-old event for the first time this year.
A caravan of about 400 customized, souped-up street-tuner cars stopped in Salem Sept. 16 en route to Atlanta for the Number One Parts International show on Sept. 18. Two other Super Street caravans, one originating in Florida and the other in California, also were heading for the NOPI show.
The drivers and others—primarily from eastern states—gathered at one end of the parking lot to listen to music from a disc jockey, scramble for T-shirts and other prizes and chow down on pizza and soft drinks.
The street-tuner market—primarily a coastal phenomenon—is spreading rapidly across the country, said Mark Richter, Yokohama's performance marketing manager. He said the tuner market generates about $100 million in sales of tires, wheels and accessories each year.
Mr. Richter said the tuner-enthusiast market is about 80 percent male, mostly between the ages of 18 and 24. They average about $500 per month in discretionary income, which they spend on clothes, entertainment and their cars.
Hondas, Toyotas and other imports—though they are much smaller and less powerful—are to this generation what the '57 Chevrolet was to baby-boomers. Mr. Richter said figures from the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association and other sources show street-tuner enthusiasts spend an average of about $1,000 a year to customize their cars.
For example, ``a car sitting at stock height is basically just uncool,'' Mr. Richter said. ``If the fender gap exceeds an inch or so, it looks to these guys like a four-wheel-drive vehicle.''
Plus-sizing the original-equipment wheels and adding lower-profile performance tires is almost mandatory among tuners. They also tend to add other items, including shocks and springs and performance exhaust systems, that have higher profit margins than tires.
And that's just the exterior. Tuner enthusiasts equip their cars with state-of-the-art electronic gear: CD and DVD players, videotape players and even global positioning systems.
``It's about lifestyle, how to be cool with your car,'' Mr. Richter said.
Yokohama officials said catering to the tuner-enthusiast market can mean big profits for the tire dealer.
``Here is an emerging segment of the market,'' said Dan Hunter, Yokohama vice president and general manager of consumer products. ``It takes no special training (to install); it's all bolt-on stuff.''
Mr. Hunter added that Yokohama can provide dealers with demographic information and what tire sizes dealers should stock to meet this market.
Mr. Richter said tuners will spend several thousands of dollars to replace 13-inch OE tires with custom wheels and performance tires on a Honda that may only be worth about $5,000. He suggested dealers can host car club meetings and advertise in club newsletters to get involved in this market.
Dan King, Yokohama director of marketing, consumer products, said dealers should also cultivate business with tuner enthusiasts, ``because they are going to be a bit more loyal.''
Yokohama has several lines of performance tires—AVID H4/V4, A520 and the A032R—which it said should appeal to the street-tuner market.
Mr. Richter added Yokohama will introduce a new line of performance tires at the Automotive Industry Aftermarket Week show in Las Vegas in November. ``It has a very aggressive technology, a very unique technology for the street-tuner market,'' he said.
Yokohama would not reveal the name of the new line, which will be available in the spring, but it has an asymmetrical/helical tread design that ``breaks new ground,'' Mr. Richter said.
Yokohama also has several initiatives to draw customers to dealers, including the ``Inch-Up'' campaign to help dealers promote the benefits of plus-sizing tires and wheels to improve performance.
Mr. Richter cited another reason for cultivating the tuner market: ``We're talking to someone at 18 who happens to buy Yokohama products, and there's a good chance he's going to be buying tires for another 50 years.
``We like to get in front of him at a young age, have some experience with him, and then he could be a spokesman for us the rest of his life.''