Last week RJ de Vera sat in the wings of the auditorium at the Inn at Spanish Bay near Monterey, California. He was about to take the stage as part of Big in Japan: Future Collectibles from the Model A to the 240 Z”. As he waited for the show to start feeling the stage jitters that never really go away, his mind began to wonder to where it had all started for him - all those years ago in the Philippines, on his father’s knee behind the wheel of a Jeepney. He was smitten for life.
At the age of seven he moved to the U. S. with his family and it was during his early years in California that RJ began building remote controlled cars and racing them against those of his friends. Soon RJ began to gravitate towards his older brother who was working the club scene as a DJ. Many of his brother’s friends raced in the still underground Los Angeles street -racing scene and so at the age of 14 RJ was thrust into the budding import tuner subculture which was about to explode.
RJ began to fantasize about cars he would like and how he would customize each one. With the money he was earning scheduling appointments at a friends copy service, he took things a step further and began buying the tuning parts for the cars he didn’t yet own. It was only when his mother finally passed on here Acura Integra LS to him, and he traded it in for an Integra GS-R that the parts that had been piling up in his bedroom were finally put to good use.
When his mother asked him why he was modifying a perfectly good car he answered he was also selling the parts and needed to have something to demonstrate to potential customers. To live up to the aspiration he had just sold his mother, RJ became the Santa Monica reseller to some of the major Import Tuner shops in LA and his mother’s balcony became his warehouse. As parts and money exchanged hands between the cacti and roses on the balcony, the already impressive Acura Integra GS-R transformed into a show winner and RJ was launched onto the import car show scene.
In the mid 1990’s the import tuner scene was still in its infancy and in 1995 the Pomona Fairgrounds hosted the first ever car show dedicated to imports modified in what today is called “Japanese Domestic Market or JDM” style. Young tuners were getting their ideas from Japanese magazines and acquiring their parts from the US offices of the Japanese companies that were cropping up to supply the booming market. Up until the event in Pomona, the street races had been the only venue where the JDM style cars were being shown.
For the inaugural Pomona show called Import Showoff, RJ’s car was used for the front cover of the free program while he also committed to be a vendor with a booth and display case for the parts he was selling. This equipment was borrowed from one of his suppliers, Glenn, who owned a shop called Upgrade Motoring in Chatsworth selling tuning parts and swimwear. Bikinis and Mufflers seemed to go hand in hand.
During his days working for the copying service, RJ had made up to 300+ cold calls per day and had honed his skills accordingly, which meant that he now sounded much more mature than the prideful 19 year - old he was. In fact Glenn had been dumbfounded when a 19-year-old Asian kid from Santa Monica strolled into his office one day dressed in oversized pressed and folded-over Khaki’s.
RJ’s mother was, had been ferrying the kids and their equipment to one import car show after the other. One of RJ’s car club members suggested they put sporty wheels on her Honda Odyssey and then late one night she woke RJ up asking if he would turbocharge her van. She wanted to take part in the sanctioned drag racing event called Battle of the Imports that RJ and members of his team where now racing in. Mrs. De Vera was morphing into TurboMom and soon she and her yellow turbocharged van were winning one race after another to the immense embarrassment of RJ’s friends.
RJ eventually graduated to having a real storefront when he became a partner in a race -engine building shop that sold hard parts to modify both the engines and the cars they went into. But his engineering studies at UCLA were suffering. After failing to attend the one class he was scheduled for, he found himself with a GPA of 0.0 and a failing grade in the course. After shrugging off a scolding from the Dean of Engineering he came home to a lecture from both his aunt and his mother about the importance of education and the shame he had brought on the family. Finally TurboMom laid down the law. RJ would get a degree even if it was in “basket weaving” and he would now pay for it himself. But not with money he made from the racing shop. He would have to find himself something else to do.
It was at this point that RJ joined the world of publishing. Petersen Publishing wanted to get into the import tuner scene and had asked RJ to contribute to their new project called Super Street Magazine. He introduced them to his Team Kook Car Club and eventually one of the cars from the crew was featured on the cover of the first issue of Super Street. As the offices of Petersen Publishing were near the UCLA campus the newly studious RJ became a fixture, pestering the editors about the upcoming issues and other projects they had going on.
RJ knew that the mecca of JDM Tuning was the Auto Salon in Tokyo Japan. While he was still in high school his aunt and mother has promised him that if he graduated valedictorian they would pay for his round trip ticket to Tokyo. With school humming along nicely he figured now was the time to cash in his chips and visit Tokyo. Upon his mentioning the upcoming trip to the head honchos at Super Street, they asked if he might take some photos while he was there. Despite his protests that he was but a wee engineering nerd and not Ansell Adams, a borrowed pocket Leica was pressed into his hands and off he went on his next adventure.
On RJ’s return from the land of the Samurais his photos were passable and despite his protests of utterly mediocre writing skills, he spent the next week polishing the account of his Japanese adventure. Together with the photos, RJ’s first article was entered in the magazine and he embarked on an intense period of learning how to write feature articles while honing his photography skills working as assistant to cover photographer Wes Allison.
As he built his Rolodex and continued to help friends with car shows, Super Street Magazine took off along with the import tuner scene it documented and RJ became Petersen’s “man on the inside.” When the company acquired an Import Drag Racing Series called NIRA (Nation Import Racing Association) it’s organizer, Craig Lieberman, asked RJ to add a car show to the series and manage it while Liebermann joined RJ’s latest car show project; ArtNMotion.
It was at this point that Universal Studios called, asking for information about the emerging tuner street - racing scene. Once again RJ was the man of the moment, becoming a consultant on all things revolving around underground street-racing, import cars, and Asian gangs to the producers of a small budget film about the new phenomenon called “The Fast and The Furious.”
Craig and RJ were tasked with finding cars for the films characters. Considering the films meager budget the choices were few and far between but in the end providence once again shone on RJ when his sinister black S2000 was chosen as the lead villain’s car. After appearing in the first movie RJ sold it to the production company and it appeared in the second film in the franchise painted pink, the color in which it resides at the Petersen Auto Museum to this day.
In the midst of the frantic activity to produce a film RJ stumbled into a part in an ARCO gas station commercial. Within days of the commercials first airing, he received frantic phone calls from Paul Walker and Rob Cohen, both shocked he had failed to mention the fact he was an actor. RJ explained that he had received the part by accident, and that he was neither a member of SAG nor did he have a headshot. Nevertheless; Cohen, the director of the film, offered him a small role as one of the main street racing characters in the movie. He could now have a small moment on the big screen.
The total production cost of “The Fast and The Furious” was around 40 million USD. The estimates for the first weekend’s box office had been pegged around 15 million but it made 45 million that first weekend and everyone’s world was instantly turned upside down. Suddenly Jay Leno wanted to interview the virtually unknown cast and RJ was hosting the New York Times, Washington Post and USA today at what until then had been “underground” street races. The “underground” was not too pleased with the newfound publicity and soon street racing was forced to go mainstream with NIRA and other Import Racing organizations.
RJ has since involved himself with some other ventures. During his consulting days, the photographer of a magazine he was writing for introduced him to American Racing Wheels who were struggling in the import market. Backed by American Racing, RJ, created the Motegi Racing brand specifically for the import market. The name was based on the Twin Ring Motegi track in Japan and chosen partly because names of cities could not be copyrighted and so it was available. American Racing then asked RJ to start his own line, which he named RO_JA Motorsport as a combination of his full name “Rohan James”. Motegi Racing remains an active brand but RO_JA Motorsports shut down back in 2007 though he still owns the trademark.
While at American Racing, RJ also set his sights to designing wheels for American muscle cars. At the time Chip Foose was developing designs that were new interpretations of classic hot rod wheels from the past. RJ wanted to do something similar for American Racing. However, his designs were rejected and so he used them to launch another line of his own called Bravado Performance with a different wheel company. This line of wheels also remains active today.
RJ also ventured into the European Exotic market with a brand called DVR. At the time he was working with a partner designing and building body kits for import cars. His partner had always wanted to design something for the European exotic market and so another brand was born. Unable to get on the waiting list for a Ferrari F430 as a demo car, they bought a bright yellow Lamborghini Gallardo and modified it with their own products. The initials stood for Disegno Veloce Racing or “Speed Design” in Italian but also for De Vera, RJ’s surname.
RJ’s first venture into the world of media came when MTV wanted to develop a series surrounding the Fast and Furious phenomenon. A pilot was shot in New York but never made it to air. Finally it was shortened and launched as Trick it Out with RJ as both judge and host for the show. In the second season, he was joined by Becky Donohue as co-host who took over most of the hosting duties while RJ continued to judge the cars that contestant teams were building. Being cast as the bad cop versus his co-host’s good cop persona lay uneasily with him as he knew how much work was involved in building a car and found it hard to just dismiss all the hard efforts put in by teams as “crap”.
Throughout these years RJ worked as a marketing consultant to companies like Pepsi and Valvoline. At one of the SEMA Show events called Import Auto Salon RJ was introduced to Barry Meguiar, then owner and president of Meguiar’s Car Care, at the time hosting a TV show called Car Crazy. Someone had asked Barry which car on display had resonated the most with him and he had chosen RJ’s candy apple red Acura NSX. From there RJ became one of Barry’s go to sources for info on the young and burgeoning import tuner scene. In 2008 when Meguiar’s was sold to 3M, the new parent company wanted to combine some of 3M’s vehicle wrap technology with Meguiar’s surface care line.
RJ was tapped to work as consultant for this Meguiar’s project but soon after came on as a full time employee at Meguiar’s. His friends placed bets on how long fiercely independent RJ would last in a thoroughly corporate environment such as 3M. The longest bet was 18 months and as of the date of this writing it’s been close to a decade. His current role is Global Leader for Digital Marketing and Communications for the 3M Auto Business Unit.
According to RJ the future of motoring and the car passion in general is much brighter than recently described by some. By population size Millennials are the largest generation the world has ever seen and therefore of immense commercial power and influence. In his opinion, the drop off in car purchases by this generation, so often mentioned in the media, is actually misunderstood.
In fact, Millennials are really two groups. The first are those between the age of 25 and 34 who experienced the great recession but still could afford a car at the age of 16. For them like for past generations the car was the key to freedom and self-expression. Now, further along in their careers, they see the car as a status symbol; part of keeping up with the Jones’s. The second group of millennials is between the ages of 18-24. They were old enough to consciously feel the impact of the Great Recession and to them it was the smartphone rather than the car that was the key to freedom. Many of them started off in the professional world saddled with student debt and therefore had more important fish to fry than buying a car. Finally some live in urban city environments where car ownership is more of a burden than a pleasure due to lack of parking possibilities and traffic. Many postpone car ownership to after they marry and move to the suburbs and then a big shiny Luxury SUV or luxury car becomes the ultimate suburban status symbol.
The passion however lies in the postmillennial generation now between the ages of 8-14. It is they who grew up with Instagram and online gaming. They know the spec sheet for the latest limited edition Lamborghini Veneno by heart and flock to every car meet to snap photos while trying to outdo each other on their Instagram accounts. It would seem that for this generation to dream of various super cars is once again in vogue and so the passion for fast cars is once again reignited!