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The five-foot-six-inch Capone slides the seat forward about a foot and a half, then fires up the classic American engine, which rumbles like a boat's motor as the smell of gas fills the air. He closes the driver's-side door and rolls the tinted window down about halfway, allowing the drivers of cars cruising alongside to see his shaved head and eyebrow rings, but not his whole face.
It's Cinco de Mayo, and Capone heads from his Lakewood shop over toward Federal Boulevard to kick off Denver's cruising season. The Chevelle, which he customized for Carmelo, out-styles most of the rides along the way. It sits on custom chrome wheels and has a vinyl roof, which Capone designed to match the "earthquake orange" paint job. A speaker box that he made from fiberglass sits in the trunk, a set of steel balls hangs from the rear axle, and Baltimore Orioles logos adorn the ride's interior and exterior. The Chevelle is one of about fourteen cars that Capone has customized for the Nugget over the past three years. Carmelo likes his work so much that he's become a name partner in Capone Carmelo Kustomz.
Capone pulls the Chevelle up to a tattoo shop where several Mexican tattoo artists are leaning against the concrete wall. They all have shaved heads, loc sunglasses, Dickies pants and wife-beaters that show off their Aztec-style tattoos. Capone parks and walks into the alley behind the shop.
When he returns, he's behind the wheel of a black 1964 Lincoln Continental that fans of Entourage would instantly recognize. He parks the boat-sized vehicle between the Chevelle and a bright-green Camaro with Lamborghini doors that are open, reaching to the sky. Capone runs back into the alley again and returns in a new Dodge Charger, which he parks between the Lincoln and the Chevelle.
Screams of "Daaaaammmnnn" pour out of an SUV packed with teenage girls. Men look, too. All of the cars going by slow down so that their occupants can look at Capone's collection; some cars stop completely. Others almost collide when drivers take their eyes off the road.
"I love that feeling when I see the reaction people have to the cars," Capone says.
A kid walks up and asks him if he can take a picture of the Chevelle. Capone tells the kid to pose with each of the rides, even lets him sit in one of them, and snaps the kid's picture. The next camera to come along belongs to a college student who's making a documentary and wants to videotape someone talking about the cars. Capone acts like he's camera-shy, but he's not.
"That car belongs to Marcus Camby of the Denver Nuggets," he tells her. "It's an '06 Dodge Charger with 24-inch Giovanna rims, smoked-out tinted lights, a system." He motions for one of his employees who's standing by the cars to pop the trunk and show off the boom.
"This one's another customer of mine, a gang member's car. It's an '87 Camaro with 22-inch tires and candy-green spinners on the wheels," Capone continues. "It's got an alligator-skin custom interior."
As soon as the documentary student wraps up her shoot, another camera crew rolls up — a local TV station filming the Cinco de Mayo festivities. Capone repeats the breakdown of his cars: "That's Camby's, that's Camby's, and that's Carmelo's."
When Capone leaves the tattoo shop to head down Federal, it's in one of Camby's cars. Pimping the Nuggets' rides has given him exposure and name recognition around town. But when he looks in his rearview mirror and sees a squad car with its red and blue lights flashing, he knows that Camby's name is the one to drop.
"I don't look like I belong in these cars," he explains, braking to a halt.
Thirty-two-year-old Vett Capone comes from a car family. Growing up in Arizona, he loved to build model cars. He was about eight when his father bought him his first bike; Capone promptly sanded off the factory paint and gave it a custom job using the paints from his model-car kits. His parents didn't recognize it, he remembers, and thought he might have stolen another bike. To this day, he jokes, he's not sure if they sent him to work at his uncle's paint shop as punishment or because they saw his potential.
It took a while before his uncle let him work on cars. Instead, he had to run errands and take out the trash. But eventually he was given some basic painting duties, and after a couple of years, his uncle asked Capone if he knew how to paint "candy."
"Candy, I know how to paint candy," Capone replied. He was lying.
Painting candy is a three-stage job. A metallic layer goes directly on the car, a semi-transparent layer that lets the metallic layer shine through and reflect sunlight goes over that, and then up to thirteen clear topcoats are added. Capone's first candy job was a disaster. His uncle fired him and sent him to work at Maaco. This time, he knew it was both for punishment and potential. "Go mess up their cars instead," his uncle said.