Whip It Good

Vett Capone has steered his custom-car business from lowriders to a new high.

Maaco wasn't nearly as fun as his uncle's shop, though, and Capone soon scored a job with Red's Hydraulics in Phoenix, where he learned how to install the switches and hydraulic pumps that make cars bounce off the pavement and roll on three wheels — "hydros."

Lowriding was born on the streets of Los Angeles in the '50s, back when Chicanos were truly a minority. The kids started by customizing the classic rides of their parents' generation — all they could afford at the time — and that set the trend for five decades of dropping older cars inches from the pavement. The trend spread into black neighborhoods, and even into the white suburbs. Lowriders became big business, and there was money to be made. But, Capone says, in 1990, when his father got a new job and moved the family to Denver, this city was way behind Phoenix in the lowrider world. Even a kid had a chance to get in the game.

Capone did stints at Skyview High School in Thornton as well as Lakewood High, West High and Alameda High. But he was more interested in painting cars than studying, so he finally dropped out of school altogether and set up a painting business that stretched from neighborhood garages to his parents' lawn. After neighbors complained, an inspector with the Denver Fire Department came to check out the operation. "Your house doesn't look like a junkyard; it looks like Candyland," the inspector told Capone, gesturing at all the car parts painted bright shades of red, blue, orange, green and yellow.

Vett Capone customized a Camaro with Lamborghini doors and an alligator-skin interior (above), and designed the interior of a Monte Carlo to match the outside.
photos by Anthony Camera
Vett Capone customized a Camaro with Lamborghini doors and an alligator-skin interior (above), and designed the interior of a Monte Carlo to match the outside.

That same inspector mentioned a shop for rent on South Santa Fe Drive. It was $1,500 a month, but Capone could raise that much on a single paint job, even with his bare-bones set of tools: wrenches, screwdrivers, an air compressor and a paint gun. He set up shop there in 1997.

Capone was out cruising one day in 1998 when he saw a skinny black kid driving an '85 Caprice with hydraulics pull a U-turn and follow him. "This fool better not hop on me," he remembers thinking.

Stacy Mariney was just fourteen years old when he pulled up next to Capone. His car was sitting on deep-dish chrome wheels with a hundred spokes each, but his driver's-side window didn't roll all the way down, so he had to open the door in order to ask Capone if he wanted to buy some hydraulic pumps for $350. Capone thought the pumps were stolen and that the car probably was, too, so he declined the offer. He was ready to drive on when he noticed the dirty laundry in the back of Mariney's car and figured it wasn't stolen after all.

He caught back up to Mariney, and the two started talking. Capone could see that the hydro pumps on Mariney's car weren't working correctly, so he had Mariney follow him back to the shop. After Capone made some quick adjustments to the car that got it hopping better than any other shop in town could, Mariney told him he wanted to learn the business.

Capone took Mariney on as an apprentice, playing big brother to the kid who was nine years younger, even selling him his Cutlass. Today they're still close friends, closer than they are with their own brothers.

In 1999, Capone moved his business up to 69th and Franklin. Mariney was right alongside him. One hot afternoon, the two were kicking it at the shop. Mariney was pissed because the twenty-inch rims he'd just bought for his Chevy Blazer had the wrong size lug nuts; Capone wanted to try the wheels on his 1988 silver Monte Carlo. At the time, Mariney remembers, people were slapping 20s on trucks, but hardly anyone — maybe no one in Denver — was putting them on cars. He told Capone to go ahead and try, just for the weekend and no hopping, so that the rims wouldn't get bent. Together they lifted the frame of the Monte about a foot so they could fit the big wheels inside the wheel well. Despite Mariney's no-hopping request, Capone hit the switches. He wound up bouncing the Monte away with several more car-show trophies that season, all with Mariney's 20s.

Capone and Mariney were on the edge of a custom-car revolution. Industry focus was moving from lowriders to "whips" — cars that caused heads to whip around to look as they rolled by — and they were a part of that change.

But Mariney was changing, too. Although many of Capone's customers were gangbangers, he'd always made it clear that his shop was about cars, not colors. But now Mariney was drifting down the gangster path that Capone had worked so hard to avoid. In November 2001, Mariney was rolling with Trey-Five Crips when he was arrested on charges of aggravated robbery and menacing, which he later pleaded down to accepting stolen goods.

While Mariney sat in jail, Capone asked what he could do to help. Mariney always gave the same answer: "Just keep that shop open until I get out."

Capone did, but he had to double his workload while Mariney served his seven months.

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