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October 17, 2010

News & Features

For tuner car enthusiasts, inexpensive imports are the top pick for racing

Special to NWautos

tunerslead

Joel Staab, manager of CarNutz in Bellevue, works on tuner cars for clients, as well as his own 1988 BMW E30 M3, which he rescued from a junkyard. He hopes to have it race-ready in a year. (Barry Gibbons / Special to NWautos)

By the time Chris Jeanneret finishes customizing his '97 Nissan 240SX, roughly a year and a half of his life will have passed. But for Jeanneret, a tuner enthusiast, customizing the car's engine, suspension, brakes and more is worth the time and labor. When the project is complete, he's going to race the sponsored 240SX in the Evergreen Drift ProAm series in Monroe.

While the Seattle-area auto technician is living the dream of most tuner enthusiasts, the majority aren't pro racers. They're just fans of adding features like aftermarket parts and kits for enhanced performance, typically focusing on vehicles imported from Asia and Europe.

"They're usually guys from their teens to about 30 who want the sharpest street car they can customize," says Joel Staab, manager of CarNutz in Bellevue.

Drift racing
  • See tuner cars in action at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, one of the Northwest's premier locations for drifting events. For more info, visit www.evergreendrift.com.

Staab, 39, has been customizing and owning tuner cars since he was a teenager. He sees a lot of cars come through his shop for enhancements to make them the fastest, fiercest rides on the block.

Several models have risen to become top tuner picks -- the Toyota Supra Twin Turbo, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo and the Subaru Impreza STI among them. More recently, others have climbed the ranks.

"I'd say [that] today, the Nissan 350Z, Nissan 240SX and Toyota Corolla are the most popular," Staab says.

Why? They're relatively inexpensive. "Car buyers often target older, lower-cost cars for a few thousand bucks and sink maybe $5,000 to $6,000 into the enhancements," he says.

Tuner fans have typically customized their vehicles to be street cars, Staab says, but the trend is shifting. Now the sport of drift racing seems to be influencing which imports people are favoring, he says.

Drift racing, like that done in the Evergreen Drift ProAm series, requires drivers to engage in a series of clutch and brake maneuvers at high speeds. This causes the tires to lose grip with the pavement and, with skill and luck, the drivers maintain control of the car on turn after turn without crashing into the barricades.

Tuners jump photo

Chris Jeanneret, an auto technician and tuner enthusiast, prepares new wheels and tires for a car at CarNutz in Bellevue. (Barry Gibbons / Special to NWautos)

The style of racing has been around parking lots and amateur circuits for decades, but it has only recently become a professional motorsports class.

"It's a great sport," says Jeanneret, 27. "And it's getting more and more popular. There are a lot of good racers who start out tuning their own cars and street racing, and then end up competing at the track."

Staab recently rescued an '88 BMW E30 M3 from a junkyard. "It didn't run, the exterior was all rusted out and the interior was shot," he says. "This model of BMW was made for racing. They're hard to find and a real magnet for collectors and racers."

He's putting about a year of labor into the vehicle to tune it as both a street car and a racer. Along with a cosmetic facelift and enhancing the suspension and brakes, Staab is also replacing and upgrading the engine and installing a roll cage. He's enhancing his BMW to do what it was made for -- racing.

"In the tuner scene, I'm seeing street cars slowly dying out," Staab says. "More tuner drivers are in it for racing, even on an amateur level. Evergreen Speedway offers great events for these guys. And the scene is becoming popular with women drivers, too."

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