Lowriders are on the rise as Autorama hosts its first-ever invitational

Debbie Sanchez is getting nervous.

Her car, a candy orange 1979 Buick Regal, is getting an interior makeover ahead of the first-ever Lowrider Invitational Exhibition to be held at this year's Autorama custom car show at Cobo Center in Detroit. Sanchez has been tapped to host and curate the three-day showcase, which will feature 16 lowriders from the Midwest, with most sourced from Michigan. Her car, dubbed "Taboo," will take center stage. However, Taboo is not quite ready yet.

"I'm praying it gets done," Sanchez says of her car's unfinished facelift. The last time she saw Taboo, it was without seats and was awaiting new upholstery and carpeting. But Sanchez's close friend and fellow lowrider Marty Martinez assured her that together, they will make it work.

"Marty said, 'Deb, if we got to, I'll come up, we'll put it in and we'll throw some blankets over it, you know?'" she says. "That's what we do. We make things happen."

For the uninitiated: Lowrider style originated in Los Angeles during the height of xenophobia that followed WWII, when young Chicanos began customizing their cars by lowering blocks and cutting spring coils. Often customized with Mexican imagery, the cars became a political and cultural statement. While the earliest lowriders used sandbags to weigh down the vehicle, they have since adopted advanced modified suspension and hydraulic systems that allow the driver to toggle between cruising "low and slow" and bouncing its front end in mid-air.

"It's just a different ride, Sanchez says. "You feel every little bump. And wherever we go, we are the center of attention."

For more than 24 years, Sanchez has been "one of the guys," as she considers Detroit's lowrider scene to be male-dominated. Born and raised in Southwest Detroit, she has spent the better half of her adult life embedding herself into the lowrider world across the country by hosting car shows and various lowrider events — all while maintaining a left hand with hot pink six-inch fingernails. Somewhere down the line, she was dubbed "Queen of the Lowriders."

Sanchez is also the subject of a forthcoming documentary, Debbie Sanchez: Queen of the Lowriders, which will wrap filming during the Autorama weekend and will capture the elaborate load-in and pack-up process as each of the 16 lowriders featured in the invitational will likely have to be towed or transported by trailer. Winter is a dangerous time for lowriders, and driving to the event is not an option for many of the cars. One part in disrepair could lead to an expensive domino effect for the car's owner.

"These are older cars and they're made different because the computers aren't there," she explains. "For example, I have a carburetor on my car, and I have six batteries, and three pumps in the trunk. Those batteries have to be charged, and the hydraulic fluid thickens when it's cold in the tanks because there are three tanks. There are so many mechanical things, there are [specialty] seals. I mean, it's a lot. So, if that fluid is pushing through there or if it's in there and it's thick and it's not flowing right, then it could mess up a seal, and then we've got to replace a cylinder."

The documentary began production in 2017 and Sanchez says it could be released as early as this summer. It primarily focuses on Sanchez's life and Taboo, and touches on her time as founder of the Dreams II Reality car club, to which she has since elected another lady lowrider to serve as president. She is also in the process of having her daughter transcribe audio for an autobiography, detailing her upbringing and earliest memories of lowriders.

"I've had to fight over the years for my place in the lowrider community," she says. "When I go to a car show or a lowrider picnic, I stand with the guys. The film has taught me a lot about myself that I didn't know. I just know what I do and who I am. And what I am is a lowrider. Bottom line."

While Sanchez is the primary subject of Queen of the Lowriders, the film's purpose has expanded since filming began. Sanchez says that the documentary has shifted to be about the sacrifices made by the loyal wives and girlfriends of lowriders as much as it is about her own experiences.

"We did an interview with some of the ladies, you know, that was when reality hit," she says. "Sometimes they don't have the money because the car has got to be fixed. The women in lowriding don't have to be behind the driver's seat. They play a huge role because of the support and the love they have for their lowrider. We need more women to come up in the community."

The 2019 Autorama Lowrider Invitational Exhibition will not only be the highest-profile car show Sanchez has had a hand in, but also the largest lowrider segment in Autorama's history. Billed as "America's Greatest Hot Rod Show," this year marks the 67th iteration of Autorama in the Motor City, where the custom car show originated. As opposed to the North American International Auto Show, the slick, big-budget annual industry event also held at Cobo, Autorama is about individuals showing off their custom creations.

Pete Toundas, the president of the production company behind Autorama, says Detroit's Autorama is analogous to the Daytona 500, which is why he and the show's producers are invested in curating a show that reflects car and culture trends.

"We're always trying to go after a more youthful type audience, and Hispanic youth are very, very involved in cars," he says. "It's great to see that kind of enthusiasm."

For Toundas, choosing Sanchez to help out was an easy choice.

"She knows a lot of car owners. She's known on a national basis, and it was great for me to rely on her to gather a lot of these great samplings of lowrider vehicles," Toundas says. "She brought a whole new dimension to the overall Autorama committee."

It means something, too, for Sanchez, who says lowriders have typically been widely discriminated against in the traditional car show community. She explains that while hot rodders tend to focus on the preservation of their vehicles, lowriders are more interested in the modification of internal components. This year's invitational could serve as an unspoken olive branch between the lowrider and hot rod worlds, and prove that lowriders have their respective place in the spotlight.

"Before, the lowriders would enter Autorama and they would be put in with the hot rodders, just wherever they had room," Sanchez says. "I'm thankful to Autorama because they're acknowledging us as car people, which we are."

"I want my lowrider family to be accepted and to shine," she says.

When it comes to the legacy of lowriders, Sanchez says it's all about educating a new generation while dismantling long-standing stigmas surrounding the lowrider community. She's quick to dismiss the notion that lowriders, long associated with hip-hop culture, are "gang bangers" or "drug dealers," and explains that they're a tight-knit family that aims to continue the tradition of lowrider culture. When a lowrider dies, lowriders line up in a procession with their cars to show respect. They bring their cars to weddings and quinceañeras.

"We have a lot of pride and a lot of respect," she says. "And we will not accept disrespect, you know? And if you don't like us, then just stay away from us. Educate yourself. I mean it's, it's very easy."

Sanchez says, too, that despite their tough reputation, lowriders are very approachable. In fact, riders welcome it.

"When somebody comes up and they're talking about your car, it's the best feeling."

Sanchez recalls a time when she was approached at a car show by a couple of children who were fascinated with her car, which Sanchez says was "nothing special."

"It didn't even have hydraulics at the time and it was just sitting there on the spokes," she says. "One little guy walked around my car and asked if it was mine. Then he left. A few minutes later he comes back with two other little guys his age and they're all walking around and looking at my car. After a minute he says, 'Miss, miss, ain't this your car?' I said yes. He looked at the other guys. 'See, I told you. Girls are lowriders, too.'"

Doors open at noon on Friday, March 1, 9 a.m. on Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m. on Sunday, March 3; Cobo Center; 1 Washington Blvd., Detroit; 313-877-8777; autorama.com; Tickets are $21.

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