ACCELERATED INTEREST: MAGAZINE TAKES TOUR TO 18 CITIES TO SPOTLIGHT UNIQUE CARS

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Lowrider is cruising the country on a record-setting tour of 18 cities, riding on the growing popularity of "lowrider" car culture.

Although its primary audience remains young Hispanic males in the Southwest, Lowrider is starting to gather thousands of new readers among non-Hispanics and wo-men, says the magazine's publisher, and enthusiasm is spreading to new regions.

With heavy newsstand sales, Lowrider's circulation has grown 54% in the last five years to reach 253,000. Its annual tour has been expanded to accommodate more sponsors, and this fall its first TV series debuts, a 13-week series on cable TV's Speedvision called "Lowrider Art on Wheels."

A GROWING MOVEMENT

"The lowrider culture has gone from a very specific niche to a big movement that's starting to show up in movies, TV commercials and print ads, and there's more of it on the way," said Lowrider Publisher Ricardo Gonzalez.

Lowrider car culture surrounds cars that often have been altered to ride low to the ground and include elaborate paint jobs, highly detailed wheels, lights and hydraulic systems designed to make the cars bounce off the ground at the touch of a lever.

Lowrider cars can be worth as much as $90,000 each after alterations, Mr. Gonzalez estimates.

The high point of lowrider activities includes displaying cars at rallies and events, and the 10th annual nationwide Lowrider Bajito Tour '99 is one of the pre-eminent events for fans, with admission fees as high as $18 per person and thousands of people attending.

Events include car shows and "car hop" competitions where hydraulic-equipped cars jump up to 6 feet off the ground.

Sponsors say the tour allows them the chance to meet their audience face to face and do hands-on market research on trends among lowrider cars, which are constantly in flux.

"Being part of this tour is a very efficient way to reach some very involved and passionate car fans who work on their own cars and care about engine performance," said Steve Koch, senior VP and general manager of Pennzoil-Quaker State Automotive Chemicals, which is backing the tour through its Pennzoil motor oil and Gumout fuel additive product lines.

A longtime Lowrider advertiser, Gumout has heightened its involvement in the tour this year by sponsoring a sweepstakes to win a meticulously restored 1958 Chevy Impala hardtop. First-prize winners at each tour stop get the chance to compete for the grand prize at the tour's final stop in Las Vegas on Oct. 11.

As part of an integrated media buy, Lowrider has been documenting the restoration of the prize car in recent issues of the magazine.

For 83-year-old Dayton Wheel Products, marketers of multiple-spoked wire wheels preferred by many lowrider car fans, the lowrider phenomenon now drives "the majority" of its business, said Sales Manager Mike Edgerton.

INCREASE IN '80S

The company, which previously ca-tered primarily to high-end British car collectors, began to notice an increase in sales to lowriders in the late 1980s and responded by building a network of dealers catering to lowriders throughout the Southwest.

Sales of the lowrider-style wire wheels-which can cost from $1,800 to $4,000 a set-are now growing in new markets including the East Coast, where lowrider culture is spreading rapidly, Mr. Edgerton said. The company recently introduced a set of $3,500 gold-plated wire wheels targeted to the lowrider community.

"Sponsoring the Bajito Tour is one of the best ways for us to do market research, where we can see our fans and find out what they want from us," he said.

The magazine and its sponsors have also discovered that, contrary to assumptions, lowrider fans are also very active on the Internet.

CRUISING THE NET

"We thought these guys were so busy working on their cars they didn't have time to surf the Internet, but we were wrong. There's a ton of lowrider activity on the Internet and now we're starting to market to them there," Mr. Edgerton said.

Lowrider is also meeting the cyber-lowriders with a revamped Web site

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