Florida International University
Down on Northwest 27th Avenue, nestled on a littered field in the shadow of a Metrorail overpass, marked by a single sign on what seems a non-descript warehouse, lies a little piece of auto heaven, a place of pilgrimage for young men in search of flashy paint, 30-inch chrome rims, suede interiors and ear-shattering sound systems.
At Red’s Miami, they find their Eden.
They bring hollowed-out hoopties, decrepit vehicles barely rolling on their standard-issue wheels, and $30,000-plus later, drive out in a street-certified donk.
A donk “means you’re doing big things,” says Frank Carralero, owner of Red’s, where urban folklore has it that the donk came into its own. “It turns heads.
Anyone can drive a Mercedes off a lot, but no one in the world will have your donk.”
While elevated vehicles, also known as “hi-risers” are not strictly a Miami phenomenon, the donk, typically a ’71-’76 model Chevrolet Caprice or Impala, largely emerged on the streets of Liberty City when locals began customizing their rides with candy-colored paint.
By the mid-1990s, status among the hip-hop generation was determined in part by the size of their rims and the height of their suspensions. When 20-inch rims came on the market in 1994, enthusiasts began building intricate cars around them from old, but shapely chassis.
The donks will parade on the highways and byways during Urban Beach Week, a Memorial Day weekend celebration that attracted over 300,000 people last year, turning Ocean Drive into a hot car hotspot.
How they became known as “donks” is unclear. It may derive from the Impala’s stylized emblem of an African antelope that some owners thought resembled a donkey.
Carralero calls Liberty City-born rapper Trick Daddy, who uses the word in several songs, the “godfather” of donks. But he credits Ludacris, a rapper who’s used cars from Red’s in his music videos, for bringing its meaning to the masses during an interview at the 2004 MTV Video Music Awards.
The awards, held at Miami’s American Airlines Arena, inspired Datwon Thomas, then editor of Rides Magazine, to call Collins Avenue a “concrete catwalk for neon-colored, skyscraping, slow-creeping cars,” the likes of which he’d never seen. The caliber of vehicles rolled out by Miami’s rap community prompted Rides to publish an issue devoted to the donk.
In Miami, Red’s is the place to go to get donked.
Red’s has been turning 40-year-old classic Chevrolets into high-rising street spectaculars since it opened in 1992.
In 1997, with sponsorship from such firms as Pirelli Tire and wheel manufacturer TIS, Red’s transformed a 1994 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine frame into the only known donk limo, a shiny, red beast on 30-inch rims that stand seven feet off the ground at its roofline.
Its interior is a plush suede and leather combo, outfitted with a wet bar and two large TV screens hooked up to a DVD/stereo that rattles the lungs.
“You’re showing the best car builders in the world that you can do something with their products,” Carralero says.
Most donks, of course, are not limos, do not have 30-inch rims, and do not stand seven feet tall.
Aside from the basic 20-inch-plus rims, a true donk requires a state-of the-art stereo system, and a you-have-no-choice-but-to-look-at-me paint job.
With a decent lift and upgraded suspension at $6,000; rims and tires costing $10,000 plus; a $5,000 stereo and a $4,000 paint job, not to mention a luxe interior, the question arises: Why not just buy a new car?
To donk aficionados, the answer is clear: You can own a car or you can own a lifestyle.
“It’s for show,” said Julio Rojas, a Miami Gardens resident who grew up around the car culture, inspiring him to purchase a 1972 Chevy Caprice for $500 in 2000 and add 26” rims and a candy “peggy gold” paint job.
“It’s like, my new old-school is better than your old new-school,” he said.
Rojas, 31, a service employee at Nova Southeastern University, is a fixture at informal car shows across South Florida, unofficial gatherings in flea market parking lot shows and Memorial Day or Labor Day parades down Ocean Drive.
“It’s more of a competition,” he says. “Everybody is trying to be under the light.”
Of course, there’s also the fact that it doesn’t cost much to buy a bruised junkyard car and sink cash into it.
That doesn’t happen with a Mercedes.
Besides, custom shops may be less inclined to question cash customers than corporate car dealers; showing up with a briefcase of Benjamins likely will not raise as many eyebrows.
To that point, Rojas concedes that donk culture often centers around drug culture. But, he said, pure interest drives owners like him.
“For the rest of us, it just takes a little longer to trick them out,” he said. “But a lot of times, people will assume you’re selling drugs.”
Whether or not the cash paid to customize a car is legitimate, there is a downside to sitting so high:
The distance between a car’s bumper and the ground can be no more than 24 inches, according to Florida state statutes. That can be a problem, now that 34-inch rims have come on the market. Still, the desire to outdo other donk riders may supersede the desire to avoid a moving violation.
The good news is that law enforcement often looks the other way or simply doesn’t know the law.
One North Miami officer said he didn’t know how high is too high, but harkened back to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: “I'll know it when I see it.”
George Skillas, a Red’s employee, was pulled over in the tricked-out donk limo on the way to a charity event. But he was cited only for running a red light. The officer showed no concern that Skillas loomed over him during the entire exchange.
For most owners, the cars are for weekends or show.
Red’s usually takes the limo out only for events, and Rojas routinely drives an Infiniti, leaving his donk at home.
But at Memorial Day weekend’s show-off street party, the donks will roll down Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue on South Beach in all their hometown glory, some of the most brightly painted and deliciously customized cars ever to strut the concrete catwalk.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Link/Rides Magazine. ‘73 Chevrolet Caprice donk.