MONTEBELLO — When Debbie Belmontes rumbles down the street in her mini-truck, its modified exhaust system announces her arrival two blocks away. Vroooom!
She drives a 2,651-pound, navy blue 1986 Nissan. It's lowered four inches and is equipped with Riken radial tires, Center Line rims, light-blue, pink and white pinstriping, sun roof, black tarpaulin, tinted back and side windows and an extended, or "king," cab.
Belmontes, 24, calls the truck "Luscious," and when she's at the wheel of her "toy," cruising city streets or freeways, she feels on top of the world.
"It's like a thrill," Belmontes said about driving her $13,000 customized mini-truck. The monthly payments of $245 on her salary as a clerk for the City of Santa Fe Springs is more than worth it. "It's something I did for myself."
Every Thursday she pulls up to Arry's Hamburger Stand on Whittier Boulevard to join sister trucking aficionados. They call themselves the Miss Minis, and they're believed to be the first all-woman mini-truck club in Southern California, according to observers of the custom car scene.
Nine Single Women
The group is small--just nine members, single women 18 to 24--but it already has received recognition among custom car clubs in the Los Angeles area.
"We're hot. We're in," club president Rita Flores said exuberantly at a recent club meeting.
Besides entering some trucks in a November car show at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, two members--Belmontes and Betty Campos with her bright yellow 1985 Nissan--were featured in the East Los Angeles Christmas Parade this month.
Their biggest break came when the Miss Minis were among the sponsors of a Dec. 15 car show and Toys for Tots collection drive with the California Volksmen (a VW club) and the Lifestyle car club, which, with 45 members, is one of the largest and most award-winning clubs in the Los Angeles area. Both of the clubs are limited to men.
Lifestyle president Joe Ray said the Miss Minis were chosen as a sponsor to represent the growing number of mini-truck owners. But, he said, the group was "an attraction already" just because the members are all women.
"Everybody is dying to see who they are," he said, although at first some men in car clubs "wondered if they knew what they were doing."
He estimated there are about 60 clubs in Los Angeles County, with an average membership of 20. But the numbers fluctuate because one club breaks up for every two that begin.
The Miss Minis "have a better chance than other clubs that start off" because the club is well-organized and members are serious about their truck customizing efforts, he said.
Flores and Loretta Aguilar, vice-president, started the club in August and recruited other mini-truck owners who share a love for trucks and want to fix them up to show them off.
"Ever since I was in elementary school, I've been fascinated by trucks," said Flores, who bought her blue 1986 Nissan in July. "I wanted to find other females that really enjoy their trucks."
Besides cruising together on Friday nights and Sundays at Los Angeles nightspots and parks, members trade the latest information on modifications and accessories for trucks when they get together.
Belmontes has used her favorite cartoon character, Betty Boop, as the theme for Luscious. She has Betty Boop floor mats and air freshener in the cab. The character is also etched on the side windows of the cab and painted on the tarp.
Because the club has edged onto primarily male territory--that of modifying and driving trucks--reaction to the group has been mixed, members said.
A few male car club members have said Miss Minis could never make it as a club because they would not know how to customize their trucks, Miss Minis members said. But they have learned. "Being a girl, you have to try twice as hard," Belmontes said.
Defying stereotypes was harder to do.
"Guys always say, 'Girls don't belong in trucks.' My own parents had that idea," said Mary Regalado, 18, who works as a grocery bagger at an Albertson's. But she, like other club members, wants to prove girls can modify their own trucks.
Some women have shown disapproval or envy of the modified vehicles. Lorraine Salas, the club's sergeant-at-arms, said some women with mini-trucks or cars have given them dirty looks and wanted to race but "we want to be cool with them" and avoid any trouble.
"Just as long as they don't touch our prized possessions," added Flores. "That's our life."
Flores stressed that the negative reaction has been minimal. Most club members have enjoyed extra attention as they tool around in their snazzy trucks.
The attention "makes us feel good," said Salas, the owner of a black 1986 Nissan. "It lets you know all the work you put into it is worth it."
One of the club's goals is to make peace with the police in what one member called an "all-out war" on mini-trucks in the Southeast Los Angeles area, where most of the members live.