Island Speed

Aug 25, 2011

The islands of Hawaii are located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (located some 2,500 miles southwest of Southern California, 2,700 miles south of Alaska and about 3,800 miles southeast of Japan), which basically puts them in the proverbial “middle of nowhere.” In fact, Hawaii is known as being the most isolated population center on Earth.

But that has never stopped car lovers on the islands from pursuing their passion for high performance and racing.

Since at least the 1940s there has been a strong interest from the Hawaiian natives in automobile racing, especially drag racing, which in the early days was done on the streets. An abandoned airstrip at the Kahuku Airfield soon became the place to race after WWII, and in the early 1950s an organization called Hono-Kai Timing Association was born-a club of hot rodders from Oahu that raced their “hao wela,” (pronounced ‘how vella’) cars, which in Hawaiian means “hot rod.”

Around this time, circle-track competitions were also being held in Maui and at the Honolulu Stadium, which saw Navy enlisted man Jerry Unser, for example, winning races in front of 20,000-25,000 screaming fans.

Hawaii’s first locally built dragster was created in 1955 by the Kolea Racing Team of Eddie Sorenson, Buddy Hughes and a young guy named Jimmy Pflueger. A few years later, a teenaged Roland Leong was secretly racing his mother’s car on the drag strip in 1959 (a big white Oldsmobile 4-door that they nick-named “Lureline” after the famous SS Lureline Hawaiian cruise ship of the era).

In the early 1960s, a champion motorcycle racer from Honolulu named Danny Ongais developed an interest in dragsters, all the while buying wrecked Corvettes from insurance companies and fixing their fiberglass bodies as a way to get funds to race. He started drag racing with an Olds-powered roadster.

Kahuku eventually went away, but a new track took its place. After pooling together the money with some prominent Honolulu doctors to build a modern drag strip out at the Campbell Industrial Park, Pflueger opened Hawaii Raceway Park in July, 1964. The track had a huge positive impact on motorsports on Oahu, getting kids off the streets and safely on a strip.

Leong’s mother Teddy was involved in the partial ownership of a speed shop for a short time back in those early days, and in general the world of high-performance aftermarket parts was getting more and more popular in the fast-growing Hawaiian street, performance and racing markets.

The speed shop industry in Hawaii wouldn’t grow by leaps and bounds until some years later, however, when an enterprising car enthusiast named Ron Uemura appeared on the scene.

A WD is Born

Growing up loving cars and taking in all things racing, Uemura started a small garage business in 1966 in the Kalihi district of Honolulu, working on customer cars and installing the aftermarket speed equipment parts of the day.

Tackling both street and drag vehicles, his natural mechanical abilities were apparent. But the real money, he discovered, was in selling the parts themselves.

Soon his shop was a source for speed parts to the general population of Hawaii. Working deals directly with the mainland manufacturers, traveling to the West Coast to attend the SEMA Show and then eventually setting up accounts with the big names of the industry, he began bringing in large amounts of all the popular brands of high-performance aftermarket products to his home island via container loads on ships.

It wasn’t long before Ron’s Racing Parts had also established a wholesale operation (named HPW for Hawaii Performance Warehouse) where area jobbers on Oahu and throughout the islands could buy from him at discounted prices, making their margins for retail sales.

With this increase of overall volume he was able to get the “longer” deal and with that, in certain instances, he became the exclusive distributor for some of the biggest and most in-demand product lines.

Furthering the business relationships within the industry, he then became more active in the Specialty Equipment Market Association, allowing him to further learn the ropes of big-time parts purchasing. With his buying expertise, he not only increased his profits, but brought the best products to his customer base at lower prices.

Banana Gold

Besides the retail and wholesale work, Uemura also somehow found time to run a series of drag race vehicles called “Banana Gold,” which was not only a great way to have some fun with fast cars, bit also greatly helped generate attention for his business and show the masses how serious he was about performance.

He started with a 1941 Willys pickup and then moved on to a series of supercharged alcohol Funny Cars. At one time in the 1980s, there were eight Ron’s Auto Parts-Performance stores (three on the outer islands).

Over the years the company has downsized, and today Ron’s Performance Center has a single central location outside of Honolulu on the Nimitz Highway that leads to the convention center and Waikiki beach. (Not a bad place to hang your business shingle, that’s for certain!)

About five years ago, Uemura decided to step away from the daily activity of running the business, selling the operation to his daughter, Leigh Hamasaki. By keeping it in the family, the place is in good hands and the future is bright for the company, as she is committed to continuing the tradition of offering high-performance aftermarket parts and pieces to the customers of Hawaii at competitive prices.

Of course today, Ron’s Performance Center (www.ronsperformance.com) has to deal with the challenges of the modern marketplace-mainly competition from mainland mail order and Internet sites, as well as the closing of the drag strip on Oahu, which has obviously cut down on the company’s hardcore race parts business by a large percentage. (However, there are still remaining Hawaiian tracks for sanctioned drag racing on the Big Island, Kauai and Maui.).

There are efforts under way to provide a place for Oahu car enthusiasts to drag race, but of course it’s a tough battle with local government officials.

A Place to Gather

For the past 45 years, performance car buffs in the Hawaiian paradise have been able to get their fill of aftermarket parts and equipment from Ron Uemura, and now from his daughter and crew, headed up by Ian “Yoshi” Yoshizawa, retail operations manager.

The large speed shop has a 5,000-square-foot showroom filled with the industry’s latest wares, all in air-conditioned comfort for visitors. “Oahu” in the Hawaiian language means “the gathering place” and it has the largest population of the islands (950,000 at last count), making it the ideal place to house such a business.

On the distribution side, HPW currently services approximately 200 wholesale accounts on Oahu and the neighboring islands, and there are a total of 12 employees in the operation. Hawaiian high-performance lovers can still get their fix of all things Edelbrock, Holley, K&N, Accell, MSD, Comp Cams, TCI, Flowmaster, American Racing and Falken (plus a lot more) and transportation costs are the key to being competitive with mail-order competitors. (“Landed” parts and their end price is what it is all about.)

A recent Customer Appreciation Cruise Night attracted more than 200 hot rods, muscle cars, resto-mods, VW bugs and collector cars. The event featured music, food, goodie bags, plus $5,000 worth of door prizes. Famed pinstriper Wildman from Mooneyes in Japan came to the island and took part in the fun (striping cars, bikes, die-cast cars, a helmet, thermos bottles and even cell phones!) along with Shige Suganuma, Mooneyes owner. Chico Kodama, land speed racer and president of Mooneyes USA, flew in from California.

On a personal note, after a complete walkthrough and photo tour of the place, we had the chance to meet some of the retail customers that happened to be in the showroom at the time.

As evidenced by them picking up parts for their projects, it was obvious the high-performance street scene is alive and well in and around the Honolulu area. Talking with the owner of an 8-second Pro Mod-style street-legal car that was nearly ready for its maiden run, it’s clear the passion for serious performance is alive and well these days in Hawaii.

While these enthusiasts are located far away from any large land mass, they are still living their dream of having a high-performance or collectible automobile in the land of Aloha, thanks to the parts, service and knowledge of Ron’s Performance Center.