“When I see a place, it's a parking lot. It's a building. It's steps. I see the steps as seating capacity. I see the walkways. I can see gold and chrome and paint,” says Squirrel Montoya, producer of some of the biggest lowrider shows Albuquerque has seen since the mid ’80s.
Putting on a lowrider show is no easy business, says Phillip Cordova. He should know. He's learning the ropes from Montoya. The shows are huge. Last year, at Montoya's 9th annual event at the Hispanic Cultural Center, many of the 4,000 that turned out had to be turned away because of limited parking and space.
“He always did it by himself. He ran himself ragged. I thought it was easy,” Cordova says. “Now I'm finding out it's a lot of work. It ain't easy.” Entertainers, sponsors, parking, trash cans, trophies—these are some of the standard organizational challenges that crop up. “And he rarely writes it down. He keeps it up here,” Cordova says, pointing to his head.
With a lowrider show, there are some additional details to be mindful of. Montoya keeps his ear to the ground, learning about long-standing disagreements between car clubs, he says. For instance, if two car clubs are feuding, he'll make sure to place them away from one another during the show. "If you're blind to it, something's going to happen.” The clubs are out there all day, he says, sitting next to each other. “Someone's going to say something. Someone's going to take it wrong, and you're going to have problems.”
And you don't need problems, he says. It's hard enough just to make the show run smoothly, to make sure everyone's paid for their ticket, that there are clean restrooms available, that no one's falling down from heat stroke.
Montoya's serious about safety at his shows. He wants them to be family events. City police are always in attendance. “I want people to think three times, not twice,” he says, “about doing anything because a cop's right there.” He also cruises around on Friday and Saturday nights to observe behaviors. “I park and watch and see how they act, so if they come to my show, I know what guys specifically I have to look at.” At the door, he has people on hand to dig through door panels and unearth weaponry.
Montoya's put on the dog for lowrider shows in parking garages, on little league fields, at the Convention Center, at Tingley Colosseum, and at the Indian and Spanish villages. Sometimes it's difficult, Montoya says, to find a venue that will host a lowrider show, somewhere with good facilities that won't be biased about the event. This year, they found the Sandia Motor Speedway.
Montoya took one look at the place and had a vision: Vehicles on the track, the main stage at the finish line, bleachers that seat 4,000. He expects a turnout of 180 cars and about 60 motorcycles, all of which have to fill out registration at La Segunda, a secondhand shop at 1810 Central SW, and show their work to the organizers before they're allowed in. The paved parking lot will become a sort of impromptu show, with spaces for the people who drive beautiful cars but don't necessarily want to enter them in the competition.
Judges are hired from out of state to prevent conflicts. Categories include: Best Bomb (rounded cars from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s), Best Euro, Best Motorcycle, Best Bicycle, Best Lowrider Car, Best Lowrider Truck and Best Original (a vehicle that has all of its original parts). In each category, there’s a cash prize ranging from $100 to $300, and trophies are handed out for paint, upholstery, hydraulics, etc.
But in spite of all the trials of putting the thing together, it's worth it, Montoya says. “The show—that's my entertainment. They have national hot rod shows for the hot rod people. There's not too many Chicanos that like hot rods. But I do it because of the beauty in these cars, the artwork.”