The Fast and the Frustrated

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"And we'll kick them out, and they'll come back again with another car -- different color, different number, different name on the tach card -- and do it again. And they've been kicked out of our track, they've been kicked out of Speedworld, and they've been kicked out of Tucson's track for doing that."

But doesn't being banned from every track in the state just give the racers an excuse to take their NOS-powered suicide bombers to the streets?

"Um, yeah, that's a possibility," Sundstrom says. "But the safety stuff's not expensive, and it's not hard to install. They think it's cheaper to skip all that and just go street racing. But it's only cheaper until they go to jail, or get a ticket, or go to prison for killing somebody. It's crazy. But that's the kind of stuff we run into, all the time."

Michael Maggiore walks to the back of the spotless high-performance Tempe tuner shop he runs with his dad, Tony, and younger brother Joe, and focuses the digital still camera on the table holding the $4,000 in car parts he's about to install in the sparkling blue 2003 Honda SI parked before it.

"This is the turbo timer," he says, describing the banquet of shiny metal delicacies while chief mechanic Carlos Gonzales hoists the car on the lift to the blaring strains of heavy-metal rap on the boom box.

"This is the E-Manage, which is a fuel and timing controller." The kit Maggiore's installing today has everything a driver needs to turn an already zippy car into a certifiable terror at the track. "This is pretty much an all-inclusive kit," he says, fondling the nitrous blow-off valve. "I mean, this is it. This is the real deal."

Tuners like Maggiore are the geek stars of the new car culture, the brainy anti-grease monkeys profiled in the slick racing magazines like Sport Compact Car and Import Tuner and sought after by a rapidly growing cult of import modifiers. On cable's Speed Channel, a trio of bickering tuners now even host their own automotive makeover show, Tuner Transformation, where the hotheaded graphics and accessories guy gets into regular shouting matches with the performance guys over hot issues like which gets more space in the trunk: the subwoofer box or the Nitrous Express bottle?

The Maggiore boys themselves have already been featured in almost two dozen magazine articles, framed around the storeroom at the family's Superior Racing Development in Tempe, one of the top shops in town with its own fleet of pro-am trophy-winning cars. Today, Michael is shooting a photo spread for yet another national magazine detailing a step-by-step power plant overhaul of this already sweet ride.

Like Shane Saunders, who works just down the street, Maggiore and his crew were also shaken up by the news reports of Michael Esquer's crash, but for a different reason. They recognized the car on the TV news, too: It was one they had worked on in the shop, performing the high-horsepower engine swap and the installation of the nitrous kit that made it such a fast machine.

"Obviously we don't condone that kind of driving, and when something like that happens, it's really sad," Maggiore says a few days after the accident. "I've personally never attended an illegal race -- if I did, I'd have a lot more money, 'cause that car is wicked fast," he says, pointing to the white '93 Civic hatchback that Team SRD races in the 10s at the legal tracks, and kind of serves as their business card.

"But we've had customers who've been to them, honestly. You can't stop them from doing it. I mean, for me, putting this turbo kit on this kid's car doesn't mean that I'm condoning him speeding. It means that I'm doing what he's come to us to do, and it's his job to be responsible and not go T-bone some school bus with it."

Maggiore feels it's wrong to point fingers at the tuner when today's high-tech Mr. Goodwrenches are only giving the adrenaline-hungry consumer the extreme-power fix they crave on the highway.

"Am I the only one who's seeing what's going on in the commercials?" Maggiore asks. "There's the Dodge commercials, where the guy's going, 'Yeah, it's got a hemi.' Now Ford has a commercial where they put their truck against a Dodge, and the guy's like, 'Hey, is that a hemi?' And the first thing they do is drag race, off a stoplight. And not only are they drag racing off a public street, but they're towing boats!"

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern