Heart under the hood
Culture and community at Tulsa Individuals Car Club Picnic
I pulled my orange lowrider bicycle from the back of my SUV and hit the pavement, cruising around the hilltop curves and parking lots of Chandler Park. It was July 9, a Saturday, and the 19th annual Tulsa Individuals Car Club Picnic.
Lowriders painted candy apple green, baby blue, bright white, and various shiny, metallic hues glittered in the sun. Black and purple donks—full-bodied cars on large-diameter wheels—gleamed, some with suicide doors open. A set of twin white ’65 Impalas were parked taillight to taillight, mirror images of each other’s smooth, cool, classic rides.
By noon, the temperature and heat index had already pushed the mercury to an uncomfortable level. A sea of people moved in waves among lowriders, motorcycles, bikes, and nearly every conceivable mode of custom transportation—some parked, some cruising.
Men, women, and children were gathered together in lowrider unity, celebrating cars, family, and summer. Charcoal grills smoked and scented the air. Troops of bike riders zigzagged in between spectators and cars, playing music for the crowd with their frame-fitted loudspeakers. At a pavilion, behind an Individuals banner listing the club’s 24 chapters from L.A. to Japan, a DJ slung hip-hop records.
A few weeks earlier, I watched as Jerry Herring put his sea foam green 1958 Chevrolet Impala in park, dropping the front and rear suspension in unison until the car pancaked on his garage floor. Doo-wop echoed outside the windows as the melody lit up a dash-mounted color bar beneath his glove box. An original Individuals Los Angeles Car Club plaque hung above his rear speaker.
He got out of the car, went around to the back, popped the latch on his continental kit and raised the decklid to disconnect the trunk-mounted batteries that supply juice to his vintage aircraft Pesco hydraulics.
Despite the immaculate appearance of his car, Herring said by his standards it was “filthy.” He insisted the car would be cleaned and polished before The Picnic, which he founded a generation ago.
Now in its 19th year, The Picnic has heralded reputation among lowriders and car enthusiasts around the country.
“Our picnic is bigger than the California picnic. [It’s] the biggest I’ve seen,” said Brian Harbin, who has been a Tulsa Individuals Car Club member for 16 years. He added that yearly attendance is usually between 3,000 and 5,000 spectators and regularly brings in an average of 200 to 300 cars. One year, as many as 500 cars entered the event and the number of spectators topped the 5,000 mark.
But the Individuals Picnic did not originate as a car club function. Its genesis was what Herring called a cultural introduction, meant to show Tulsa “a type of people that [the public] may not have understood: lowriders.”
Herring first hosted The Picnic under the umbrella of his custom lowrider shop, Jerry’s Customs. He sponsored it as a way to give back to his loyal customers, to show the community that “we’re all not a bunch of gang members … [or] drug dealers,” and to replicate something he missed about his native Southern California.
When Herring first arrived in the Oil Capital, he felt like he had stepped back in time—“like going to Mayberry,” he said. In 1992, after traveling between California and Oklahoma for a few years, Herring finally decided to plant roots in Tulsa. He brought with him street smarts and culture to the metro area, and found a way to make a few dollars in his newfound sitcom utopia. He opened Jerry’s Customs, thereby establishing Tulsa’s first lowrider shop. And Tulsans eagerly wanted in on the lowrider game.
“I feel there was no lowrider culture when I came here,” Herring said.
Several people in the car community agreed that lowrider culture in Tulsa was virtually nonexistent then. Of course, many locals owned hot rods, kustoms, or mini trucks. But by and large, traditional lowriders were nowhere to be found in Green Country. Many of the younger car guys could only get their lowrider fix through newsstand copies of Lowrider magazine, watching rap videos on cable television, or by purchasing VHS copies of lowrider documentaries.
Herring used his shop to spread the love of street culture and to preach the lowrider gospel. “Guys in Tulsa wanted Dickies [clothing],” he remembered. As a teenager, Jermel “Pinky” Harris (now in his 21st year as a club member) often stopped by Jerry’s Customs because he had lowrider bikes. Seeing the business potential, Herring bought cars in California, brought them to Tulsa, and customized them for eager customers.
The interest in Tulsa encouraged Herring to start a legitimate car club. With Los Angeles Individuals President Charles Clayton’s approval, Herring founded the first chapter outside of California. He quickly instituted ground rules, which was the first time that the club had any real structure for governance. He knew that establishing club bylaws and codes of conduct was necessary to combat the negativity he witnessed in lowrider circles in Los Angeles. Nearly as fast as Herring established the Tulsa chapter, he also inherited the responsibility to oversee and manage all new Individuals upstarts from Tulsa to the East Coast, as well as chapters in Canada and Japan. Today, every chapter hosts an annual get-together or picnic.
Herring’s establishment of the Individuals C.C. was also the establishment of the first premier African-American lowrider club chapter in Oklahoma. Jerry’s Customs picnics evolved into the Tulsa Individuals Car Club Picnic.
By 3 o’clock, the picnic was downright hot, both literally and figuratively. At the south end of the park, several people crowded onto bleachers in the sweltering heat to watch the car hop competition. Spectators clung to the chain-link fence with readied phones and cameras, waiting for the hop to begin. Surprisingly, for a contest that put $2,000 on the line, only three vehicles entered this year’s throwdown. Of past car hops, Harbin said, “A couple times it only lasted like ten minutes [and other times] some guys would bring a bunch of cars and we’d be over there for an hour, hour and a half, hopping cars and just tearing them up.”
A beige mid-2000s Lincoln rolled into the cordoned area. We waited to see what the granny grocery-getter could do. One of the Individuals worked the crowd while a couple guys lined up the green acrylic measuring tower at the car’s front suspension. At “GO!” the Lincoln lofted off the ground, clearing as much as 24 inches beneath the tires. As the hydraulic cylinders whined reek-a-reek-a-reek in labor. The crowd forgot the heat and came to life.
In the next round, a black and green-candied Chevy Blazer crept into position. As soon as the owner elevated the rear quarters some three feet off the ground, the spectators knew the competition had just gotten real. Within the first three hops, the Blazer hit 42 inches, dwarfing the Lincoln’s attempt.
The final competitor silently rolled in with his dark silver Cutlass.
“This [car] was in the movie ‘Lowriders’!” an Individual yelled out to the crowd.
The movie car extended its rear suspension nearly a foot higher than the Blazer. It was clear the Cutlass came to play. By the second hop, the car drew whistles, gasps, claps, and hollers. By the third, the car hopped so high its rear bumper touched the ground and car parts began to fly. The fans ignited with excitement. The Cutlass decisively won the $2K prize money.
Over and over, show attendees echoed to me one particular sentiment: The legacy of The Picnic comes down to one word, family. Nuttin’ But Luv Familia C. C. member Travis “Travyeso” Lankford, trekked from Wichita to the Tulsa event for the first time with his daughter to show off her chromed and hot pink metal-flaked lowrider bicycle and his pearl white and blue Monte Carlo.
Lankford said simply, “It’s a family thing.”
Indeed, I spied moms and dads pushing strollers and holding toddlers’ hands as they all gazed at jacked-up Cadillacs and slammed Impalas.
While he stood next to the quintessential lowrider, a 1964 Impala Super Sport, Fine Lines C. C. Co-Founder Manuel Quezada said that he has attended The Picnic from day one.
“We bring our families out here to grill and to show the public what lowriding is all about,” Quezada said.
Behind his big-body Cadillac Fleetwood, United C. C. member Alvin West said, “Being out here with your family and supporting other people’s functions is important because the more you support them, they support you.”
“We were always involved in the community, and bringing a positive light to something deemed negative,” Herring said.
“Big Paul” Ball, long-running Individuals president, echoed Herring’s sentiments.
“We are a community-based club, so, if someone in the community reaches out and needs our help—nine times out of 10, we are there.”
When Harris first joined, the club volunteered as mentors at Tulsa Job Corps to speak to teens and young adults to empower them to do good work and be productive members of society.
“The outreach was meant to give them something positive to look at,” Harris said. “Everyone’s been on their own bumpy road, but there is a brighter side.”
Now, the club organizes an annual toy drive for DaySpring Villa women’s shelter. They work with the shelter to create a gift list, then purchase suggested items and invite additional car and motorcycle clubs to join them. For back-to-school season, they donate backpacks and school supplies to children at Hawthorne Elementary. And during the holidays, they adopt a handful of families to provide with Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas gifts for children who would otherwise go without.
“In the hood, everyone is needy. People need help everywhere,” Harbin said.
Beyond charity, Herring believes that lowrider subculture is a place where there should be no color lines, despite tensions between cultures and racial divides.
“And I love that,” he said.
Herring retired from the club in 2007, but he still supports club events. The Tulsa Individuals C.C. still subscribes to many of the same principles that were established a generation ago.
Ball has presided over the club for a decade now and noted that throughout the year they continue to support charitable organizations and give to residents whenever they see the need. Members are still held to strict codes of conduct and must abide by club rules to remain active.
The Picnic continues to be a Tulsa tradition for many car enthusiasts and a benchmark for several lowrider clubs across the country, including riders from Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and as far away as Florida. Next year’s picnic has been in planning stages for months and will continue throughout the next 12. Club members plan to pull out all the stops with their cars and the hop competition. Ball also said that “a major [recording] artist is coming down,” and “over 25 different chapters from New York to L.A” will be there to celebrate the Tulsa milestone.
Look for their 20th annual celebration of cars, culture, and community next summer.
For more from Jake, read his interview with Cheech Marin on Chicano art.