Originally created 08/21/96

Looking high and low



Heaven is 4 inches off the ground for Tony Hanson. Unless he wants to go lower, and he can.

"When I drop the hydraulics in my truck you can't slide a pack of cigarettes under it," he said proudly, looking down at his pale purple truck with white swirls on the side.

Sandy Howard doesn't look down on the Tony Hansons, though the cab of his beloved Ford pickup truck is 5 feet off the ground and looks as if it could run over Mr. Hanson's mini-truck and any other car in traffic.

"It's just two different breeds of people," he said, shrugging.

They have one thing in common, though. They're willing to spend hours, years and even every paycheck on their trucks, lowering them to worm-threatening level, lifting them high, and painting them neon colors that look radioactive. Some pay thousands to install pumps and batteries that cause the truck to leap off the ground and dance; others concentrate on shaving off every outside handle to smooth the lines. Their reward comes in truck shows or more likely in admiring glances in the parking lot.

IT'S A HOBBY, an obsession for some, and sometimes more. It's a way of life, of expression. The truck is their canvas.

"Everything revolves around mini-trucks," said Rob Wethington, 22, of Beech Island, who owns an electric blue Suzuki Samurai. "Live it, breathe it, eat it."

Mostly they just want to be different and stand out from the herd in traffic.

"It's an expression of their personality," said Mr. Hanson, the low-rider, who has been customizing trucks for the past 10 years.

"Just as you want to look different from the next person, you want your vehicle to be the same way," said Mr. Howard, who has owned Sandy's 4X4 for five years and has done about 150 four-wheel-drive conversions in that time, many for out-of-state drivers. A "lift kit" raises the truck up and large knobby tires complete the package.

Explaining the difference between the low-riders and the four-wheelers is simple. Take the four-wheelers.

"Most of 'em like mudding and going out in the woods. They're outdoorsmen," said Gene Baker of Columbia County Rod Shop, who does a few custom trucks. The "lift kit," giant tires and other customizing can run anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000, Mr. Howard said. The low-rides appeal to the younger set, the 16- and 17-year-olds who can spend a lot of cash because they still live at home. A nice paint job, lowering package, and of course a booming stereo system will run about $4,000, he said.

"They just like to cruise 'em," Mr. Baker said.

The low-riders have their own way of summing up the four-wheelers.

"I call the guys with the four-wheel drives the rednecks," said Mr. Hanson, the low-rider.

So, what do low-riders call themselves?

"Rednecks," Mr. Wethington said.

TO BIG-TRUCK DRIVER Mark Strickland, who takes his customized four-wheeler deer hunting, going low is silly.

"That is a useless truck," he said, as he and a buddy paused from cruising Friday night to chat with some friends in front of Martinez Auto Parts. "I don't even like to put low-riders in the same category" as four-wheel-drive. Mr. Howard is a little more diplomatic.

"It's like baseball and football," Mr. Howard said. "It's two totally different types of individuals and two totally different types of interests."

To those outside the subculture of custom trucks, it might be hard to justify spending thousands of dollars on a truck they will probably repaint and re-do in a couple of years.

"It's like hunting and fishing," Mr. Baker said. "If you ask a guy why he hunts or fishes, he just tells you he enjoys it. If you try and break it down to pay for each bird or each fish, it would be ridiculous."

It's more than a hobby for Mr. Howard, it's a sport. He races his orange Ford four-wheel-drive at mud tracks around the Southeast and has a slew of trophies to show for it. Others drive their custom trucks to car and truck shows the way Deadheads used to follow the Grateful Dead. The remainder of their life revolves around it, even the most important moments.

"It's not unusual for a couple to get up in the back of a pickup and get married," Mr. Hanson said. "We had two weddings in Charlotte when they had Booger Bash," which is a car show.

WHETHER RIDING HIGH OR LOW, the custom truck enthusiasts share a common dedication to their vehicles, and a common cruising ground.

The trucks pass each other on Friday and Saturday nights on "the strip," a section of Washington Road that extends from National Hills to Columbia Square. The Stein Mart parking lot on one end and the Columbia Square Parking lot on the other, as well as fast-food joints like Hardees, are places to turn around and head back. A lot of cruisers congregate at the Sonic Drive-In, where Jessica Jimenez, 16, and her friends from Hephzibah were standing around Friday night, leaning on their car, smoking cigarettes and watching the cruisers pass through.

"There's nothing else to do," Jessica said. Basically they just "eat and ride around." And watch the trucks come by.

"I don't like the little trucks," she said. She and her friends agree the coolest are the "big trucks."

"I just like trucks, I guess it's because I'm from Hephzibah," said Roxanne Willis, 16. A purple and red double-axle truck rolls by and gets their attention for a second until they see who is driving.

"That's an old man," said a disgusted Karissa Vann, 16.

THEIR FAVORITE TRUCK is a "big white Z71 extended cab" Chevrolet truck owned by Martinez teen-ager Brandon Wilson. A minute later, it turns slowly around the corner of the building.

"That's him," they shout, and three girls run up and lean in the window.

Brandon, the chrome on his white truck gleaming, seems unimpressed by the attention. He's put $20,000 extra into his truck and figures it's paying off.

"I think it's worth it," said girlfriend Krissy Shrader, 16, of Martinez.

He enjoys the cruising for now but he won't be doing it when he's older, he said.

"I'll be in bars," he said.

When 11 p.m. rolls around, Augusta's 21-and-under curfew kicks in and clears the strip.

"Augusta, man, curfew is big-time," Mr. Wethington said.

There are other hazards to watch out for, especially for the low-riders.

"Speedbumps," Mr. Wethington said. "Speedbumps are a pain."

Low-riders have to be careful when they go to the grocery store, Mr. Baker said, lest their trucks bottom out on a mound of asphalt.

But they get their revenge on road reflectors, which the low-slung trucks apparently rip out of the road as they pass overhead.

"You see a puff of white out behind you," Mr. Hanson said.

"I bet there's not a road reflectors from here to Charleston," Mr. Wethington said.

IT'S EASIER FOR SOME to spend the time and money than others, particularly the young guys. Go by a fast-food restaurant and there's a custom pickup truck in the parking lot waiting for its owner to get off work, Mr. Baker said.

"Most of 'em, that's probably the reason they work," he said.

Mr. Wethington is preparing to drop another $2,000 of renovations in his Samurai and doesn't expect any static for it.

"Why, I'm not married," said the 22-year-old. "I'm at home with Mom and Dad."

No such luck for Keith Boyd, 24, his co-worker at Fine Designs Customs in North Augusta, which turns out scores of custom cars and trucks.

He's managed to shave off the door handles, trunk handle and gas tank nozzle (he now fills the tank through a hole in the wheel well) to earn more points at competitions. His low-slung truck is gray and covered with primer paint. But now he has a fiancee.

"The only thing she's going to let me buy now is a paint job," he said. "She said it's time to quit."

But later, he says it won't stop just because he gets married.

"I'll probably be like Tony over there," Mr. Boyd said, gesturing across the garage at Mr. Hanson. "Thirty-eight, 39 years old, still doing something crazy."