I shove the heavy door open with my free hand and needle the lightstand bag balancing lengthwise on my massive Pelican case through the doorway. I make it past the back entrance of the SEMAGarage, eye the surroundings and immediately wonder how a space that’s dedicated to working on cars can be this tidy. It’s hospital clean.
I start to roam through the different rooms looking for the car I’m here to shoot. Of all the makes and models in the world, it’s a Ford Maverick. And of all people who could be associated with the domestic, I’m looking for a Korean-American actor who would’ve won Best Asian Male Hair award on multiple occasions if there was such a thing. I wander past a photo studio, dyno, 3D printers, and enough tools that would make a Snap-On truck blush when I hear voices punctuated with laughter.
I follow the noise to a room lined with toolboxes and work tables. The centerpiece of the real estate is a slate-gray four-post lift with a primer-gray car shell resting on top. Gathered near the trunk of the hollowed Ford are Sung Kang and three teenaged boys, Alexis Hernandez, Christian Quiroz, and Tony Chen. The actor known for his role as Han from the Fast and Furious films is holding up a pair of taillights, explaining to the young men the visual nuances between the Brazilian-spec Maverick lenses in his hand and the standard US one.
Hello, Project Underdog.
Autoblog: Last year, you and two friends purchased a 1973 Datsun 240Z that turned into the SEMA Show-stealing Fugu Z. Looking back, what’s your favorite memory from that experience?
Sung Kang: It’s a picture I took during the build. Aaron Eusebi from GReddy is a huge Datsun guy, he owns a 510. Since we were working on the car at GReddy’s garage, Aaron brought his son in one day to show him what we were working on. Both of them walked around the car pointing at things, taking turns asking and answering questions. It was a tender father-and-son moment and for our vehicle to be the medium for them to connect on was such a beautiful thing.
Building a project car is no easy task, was there ever a moment when you thought, what did I get myself into?
SK: Not really. The Fugu Z was my first build so I really didn’t know what I was doing or what the scope of a build entailed. My ignorance protected me from stress. The guys who made the build happen were Kenji Sumino, Aaron Van and Ben Schwartz from GReddy. They kept things on track. I was lucky they were the teachers for my first build, they taught me so much and made the whole process fun.
And now, you’ve decided to undertake another car build for SEMA. For the uninitiated, what is the Underdog?
SK: The Underdog is a 1972 Ford Maverick restomod being built by three high school students with guidance from mentors within the automotive industry. Pennzoil graciously stepped in to help fund the build and video production. Once completed, the car will be auctioned off with all proceeds going to the SEMA Memorial Scholarship Fund with dollars earmarked to pay for the three young mens’ college education.
The three students have such compelling stories, how did you recruit them?
SK: My partner-in-crime and mentor in this project deserves all the credit, Mike Spagnola, vice president of product development and OEM relations at SEMA. He’s been doing these types of student builds for years and has a relationship with Alhambra High School and other schools in the Los Angeles-area. We went and interviewed students in Alhambra’s shop program and picked the most passionate kids looking for a future in the automotive industry. It was a tough decision, but we narrowed it down to Alexis Hernandez, Christian Quiroz, and Tony Chen.
If you had to describe each of the boys using only one adjective, what would it be?
SK: I’d have to go with ‘brave’ for Alexis Hernandez, ‘loving’ for Christian Quiroz, and ‘diligent’ for Tony Chen.
Besides learning how to build a project car from the ground up, what do you hope the Underdog boys will take from this experience?
SK: I hope they forge lifelong friendships and a network of people they can look to as templates for happiness and success in life.
On the subject of life, during the midst of this build, Alexis lost his father. As challenging as that must’ve been, he’s still dedicated to the Underdog project. What perspective did that bring?
SK: It made all of us realize that life is truly short. You have to say I love you to those around you because today could be it. The fact that Alexis is still with the Underdog, showed that this project is more meaningful that any of us could’ve hoped it could be.
The Ford Maverick is the poster child for a vehicular underdog. What made you decide on that particular model?
SK: I have a special attachment to the Maverick. I drove a ’71 Grabber in Fast Five. It was beat-up, but I could appreciate the simplicity of the lines. Once I learned about the history and the following the Maverick had in Brazil, I felt a deeper connection to it. If I were a car, I would be the Maverick.
What’s the theme for the build and who helped design it?
SK: If the Fugu Z had a hot Brazilian cousin, it would be the Underdog. As for the design, everyone involved gave creative input and had a hand in shaping the look of the car. Steve Strope helped bring the design to life with a rendering by his talented artist, Tavis Highlander. Rocket Bunny provided the body kit and CarbonSignal redid the interior.
The four-cylinder Ford Ecoboost is an interesting engine choice for the Maverick, how did that come about?
SK: When we started, it was going to be a standard V8 swap. But then we asked, how can we make the build even more complicated? [laughter]
I’m sure the team appreciated the challenge.
SK: Lucky for us, Kenji and the GReddy team offered to help with the turbo system. Besides making life difficult for everyone, the turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four ecoboost engine pays homage to the 2.3 OHC four-banger found in Brazilian Mavericks.
That’s the obscure automotive fact for the day. When we shot the photos, we were about two months out from SEMA, now we’re about a week from the event, will the car be finished in time?
SK: Absolutely. It’s coming down to the wire, but it should be complete and running by Vegas … I hope [laughter]!
For those attending the sprawling mass that is the SEMA Show, where can they find the Underdog?
SK: It’ll be in the Pennzoil booth with the U-dog boys and myself, outside the central hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. For consumers, the Underdog will be at the SEMA Ignited event on Friday night.
What are the plans for the Maverick after its debut at SEMA?
SK: Work on any odds and ends that haven’t been finished and prep it to go to auction next year.
Before it goes on the market, is there an opportunity for a test drive? Might I remind, I did return the Fugu Z in one piece.
SK: Absolutely. Would love for you to.
I’m going to hold you to that. Last year it was a Japanese make, this year it’s a domestic, can we expect a European model next year at SEMA?
SK: Sure, I don’t discriminate.
Although you’re known for your role as Han in the Fast and Furious films, you’ve freely admitted that you weren’t always a car guy. Now with two project cars under your belt, safe to say you’re on the road to becoming one. How has this journey been?
SK: With the first build, I felt lucky because I got a free seat at the table. A man always wants to contribute and earn his place at the table, and that’s what I’m working towards. As honored as I was with the outpouring of support with the Fugu Z, working on the Underdog has been fulfilling in a different way. The last few months have been about creating lifelong experiences for three young men and helping them on their path forward. And that’s much more rewarding than building a car for yourself.