I had intended to concentrate this column on the coming 2000 race season. As this month's Leading Edge is being penned, we are less than a week from the season opener, a Battle of the Imports event at Palmdale. I planned to comment on how this could be a breakthrough year for the sport of import drag racing but was rather blind-sided by an article the folks at HKS clued me into, in of all places, U.S. News & World Report's website.

The story is about a police raid conducted in City of Industry, Calif. that turned up $8.5 million in black market computer software. There was one line of the article, written by Jeff Glasser, that really caught my attention. It read, "Parked next to the curb were 'rice rockets,' souped-up Hondas and Nissans-a telltale sign of Asian gang activity."

What erked me was this is just the kind of stereotype we have been fighting for years-one in which anyone driving an import with a polished tip is either a drug-crazed street racer or part of an Asian gang that helps old ladies across the street then beats them up for their pocket money. I have always viewed street racing as the biggest hurdle because it is reality based. The gang angle seems so far fetched, so far removed from reality that only someone acting in malice, either toward Asian cars or Asian people, would embrace such a viewpoint.

Street racing is real and Turbo, along with other parties in this market, have worked in concert to get the racing on the track where it belongs. The Battle of the Imports is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and it has spearheaded import drag racing's march to the mainstream. Getting cars off the street was a noble cause and helped open many doors in the earliest days of the scene. We were looking to the future and hoping to harness the same concern shown for getting racing off the streets and funnel it into promoting safety in import drag racing in 2000. But the reference in this article illustrates we still have far to go in changing the basic perceptions of those in the "mainstream." When looking to the horizon to make things better, we find controversy at our feet and must address it in lieu of more "vital" issues.

Only when the import scene is accepted as a legitimate hobby-like model building and basket weaving-will such high-and-mighty entities as U.S. News & World Report research a little deeper and dispell these stereotypes instead of sustaining them.

Were the comments based on information relayed to the author by police? We don't know but this perception is a real problem. The tide must turn. I have friends getting pulled over because they are driving a "rice rocket" and they are Asian. They have to get out of their vehicles and dress down to prove they have no tattoos, because as everyone knows, only gangsters have tattoos. For many this involved removing a sport coat and tie so it's not like they were wearing outrageously suspect clothing. I'm sure some gangsters like nice cars but don't blame the cars or those law-abiding car enthusiasts who make up 99.9 percent of the "rice rocket" scene.

The parallel situation here is the Harley Davidson motorcycle. Long associated with Hells Angles and ruthless murdering biker gangs, the Hog has evolved into the mainstream, being accepted as a symbol of our freedom as Americans to roam our country's open roads at will. While it is a sign of status, a legitimate form of transportation and a great family hobby, it is also still the vehicle of choice among Hells Angels. But times have changed, or more precisely, the public's perception has changed. How long will it take the perception of imports to evolve to the same level? In my opinion, it's already overdue.

Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled program. This column is going together the week prior to the first import race of the season. The first big import event of 2000, a Hot Import Nights car show, was held last weekend and attracted a best-ever crowd to Del Mar. This is an encouraging sign; however, an ominous cloud hovered over this weekend's proceedings-the threat of rain. Of course, last week, weather forecasters predicted rain and we experienced un-seasonally high amounts of...sunshine-with a day of 80-degree highs. The Battle has never been rained out during its 10-year reign (sorry, I had to) as the most popular import drag race series. Has its dry run come to an end? Time will tell. I am looking forward to getting into the meat of the 2000 season and getting a feel for what's going on. Two weeks after Battle, the IDRC kicks off its season at Pomona. A zinger for 2000 is the introduction of a spec fuel in the all-motor class. VP Racing Fuel will be the only fuel allowed to compete in the class. So the days of all-motor monsters that leave cryin' eyes in their wake are gone.

It's early in the year, to say the least, but I'm getting some pretty good feedback from The Force; last time I felt this way was when I predicted that '99 would be the year of the nines in Honda performance. Eights anybody?