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Building on a concept

Three military teams faced off in Scion's ‘Battle of the Builds'

Mar. 11, 2013 - 11:54AM   |  
The Squid by The Salty Dogs at Naval Station Mayport, Fla., won the Scion Battle of the Builds competition.
The Squid by The Salty Dogs at Naval Station Mayport, Fla., won the Scion Battle of the Builds competition. (Scion)
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Runners up

1st Runner Up: R&R 2011
Prize: $12,000
Team: Sapper, Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Specs:
• Tropical-themed exterior paint job.
• Bikini-top convertible with roll cage.
• Weather-resistant vinyl upholstery.
• A door-rattling custom sound system, including one capacitor, three amps, two subs and three sets of speakers arrayed throughout the car. "It’s like being at a concert," says one team member. "In the front row, under an 808."
• Battery-charging power cable to standard outlet plug.
• Screen display to control audio, look at SD card pics and watch movies.
• 26 feet of undercar street glow LED lights, 120 LEDs lining the wheel wells and backlit Scion emblem on the front grill.
• 55-watt, 600K HID low-beam headlights.
• Speed-boosting, shifter-triggered "Ny Trex 100 Wet Shot" nitrous oxide system.
---
2nd Runner up: xB ASSAULT
Prize: $10,000
Team: Kai Hei Tai, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Specs:
• Converted to all-wheel drive.
• Custom lift kit.
• Turbo charger kit.
• Widened body by 3 inches.
• 17 x 9-inch Moto Metal 909 "The Skull" wheels.
• Goodyear MTR tires with Kevlar; roof-mounted spare.
• Halo projector headlights.
• Pilot Automotive 3.5-inch, 55-watt performance driving lights with Halos and Strobe.
• Custom bumpers, rock rails, roof rack "up armored" with Duplicolor Bed Armor with Kevlar finish.
• Leather seats.
• Audiofonics 1,200-watt amplifier with three sets of speakers.

R&R 2011 by Team Sapper of Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., was a finalist in the Scion Battle of the Builds competition. (Scion)

GRAND PRIZE: THE SQUID

Prize: $14,000 and a trip to Las Vegas
Team: The Salty Dogs, Naval Station Mayport, Fla.
Specs:
• Hand-airbrushed squid paint job.
• Genuine marine-grade portholes.
• All-leather upholstery and head liner.
• Interior red and green — port and starboard — running lights.
• Four TV screens and a DVD player.
• Custom sound system.
• Adjustable suspension on all four tires.
• Rear window duckbill spoiler.
• Custom hand-painted rims.

Joseph Johnson's heart started racing as soon as he read the e-mail. For most of the crew aboard the destroyer Carney, already four months into its deployment in early May, it was just another piece of junk mail as they plied the hot waters of the Red Sea.

But for Johnson, a gas turbine systems technician (mechanical) first class, news of a military-only competition to customize a straight-from-the-factory Scion car — and a chance at claiming its grand prize of $14,000 — was like an invitation to try out for the chop shop Olympics.

Johnson had been working on cars since he was a kid. Earning an art history degree from Platt College in Southern California before joining the Navy, he thought the competition was a perfect mash-up of his love of design and autos. Within minutes, he'd sketched out a design in his mind's eye and sped through the bowels of the ship to the engineering log room, where Senior Chief Gas Turbine Systems Technician Louis Perez was having thoughts of his own after seeing the e-mail.

"Hey, check this out!" said Johnson, bursting into Perez's office, describing the old-school Navy tattoo of a squid that he pictured enveloping a shiplike Scion body.

Few people aboard Carney knew more than Perez about the four massive gas turbine engines that kept the 505-foot-long, Tomahawk-shooting ship ready to sprint at speeds topping more than 30 knots. But he was known throughout the crew as a master at transforming cars and motorcycles into mobile works of art.

"Shipmate, I'm there, however you need me," Perez said. He had some ship portholes in his garage back at their home port in Mayport, Fla., that would be perfect.

Sparks were flying in other corners of the ship as well, and by the end of the day, Johnson had recruited four more sailors. Dubbing themselves the Salty Dogs, the team met almost daily to refine their concept and plan their build.

Some 8,000 miles away, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Michael La Mar's Kai Hei Tai team was already brainstorming ways to convert a Scion into an all-wheel-drive worthy of the endless miles of off-road trails that cover Twentynine Palms, Calif., like a dusty spiderweb.

And as a June 11 deadline for submissions loomed, a team of Army combat engineers at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. — led by Pfc. Harold Yeo — was finding last-minute inspiration in drop-top dreams of a sun-splashed beach, cool tunes and frosty drinks. They scrapped earlier plans for a rough-and-ready vehicle, figuring they got enough of that at work. A customized car, they reasoned, should speak to what every deployed soldier craves most: rest and relaxation.

Military-only competition

"Scion" means "descendent" or "heir" — a word usually associated with the up-and-coming kids of the powerful. It's good branding for a Toyota offshoot designed and marketed for younger car buyers who might associate the Toyota tag with their parents' Sienna or the hand-me-down Corolla they drove in high school.

Since the car line was introduced in 2003, Scion has sponsored annual pimp-your-own-ride "Tuner Challenge" competitions as part of its guerrilla marketing campaign. Those build-offs have been so successful in boosting buzz for Scion, company execs decided to expand the idea with a military-only version, said Steve Hatanaka, Scion's special events and auto show manager. They called it "Battle of the Builds."

"We knew that there were car enthusiasts in the military and wanted to tap into their creativity," Hatanaka said.

The rules were simple enough. Military-only teams were invited to submit customization concepts for Scion's 2011 xB compact wagon — concepts they were confident they could actually pull off. Three finalists got a car and $15,000 in cash to fund the build.

Dozens of entries poured in from teams around the world, and 28 semifinalists were picked.

It was still a few hours before sunrise as Carney sailed west through the Mediterranean when the Salty Dogs finally got the word. They'd been waiting up all night.

"When we saw on the website that we had made it, I almost threw up, I was so excited," Perez said.

But Carney was still a long way from home. The other finalists — Yeo's Team Sapper at Fort Leonard Wood and La Mar's Marines at Twentynine Palms — would get a two-week jump in the three-month race to turn their visions into reality.

"We had a little press conference when we got the car, and within minutes we went to work," Perez said.

In California, the Kai Hei Tai team — whose name means "Marine" in Japanese — had already reduced its Scion to thousands of parts splayed out neatly at the base auto hobby shop. There was only one other all-wheel-drive Scion in the U.S., and that had been custom-built by Toyota's Descendant Racing Team. The Marines couldn't afford the high-end parts that crew used and instead went scrounging at junkyards across the state.

In the end, their "xB Assault" would be an off-road Frankenstein with parts cannibalized from half a dozen other vehicles — suspension lifts from two FJ Cruisers, a transmission and transfer case from a 2008 RAV4 and differential housing from a '99 model, a rear axle from an '09 Matrix and gas tank feeder units from an '08.

"From Labor Day weekend, we went to 24-hour ops," La Mar said. "We were running out of time and had to get aggressive, so we split into two 12-hour shifts — Alpha and Bravo — and turned over at noon and midnight."

In Missouri, Team Sapper was working up until the last minute, as well. They had started by taking a power saw to the roof of their Scion and completely gutted the interior. In the end, they were working all-nighters and straight through the weekends. The night before their deadline, a bleary-eyed stumble put a chip in one of their doors.

"We had to redo that door basically from scratch," Yeo said. "We were finishing it right up to the last minute."

Back in Mayport, the Salty Dogs had setbacks of their own and plenty of long hours in the shop, even in the midst of a brutal post-deployment overhaul period on Carney.

For The Squid's signature paint job, the team enlisted the help of local airbrush virtuoso Dave Webster, who's been transforming bland-colored cars into mobile masterpieces since 1978. The Salty Dogs labored alongside Webster over the metal canvas, prepping and cleaning and doing touch-up work.

But they made a point to stay out of the garage on Sundays.

"We needed to give us time to regroup and be with families, especially after the deployment, so we just forced ourselves to slow down and take a breather," Perez said.

Still, he said, "It was lot of hard work and elbow grease. I had welding sunburns for about a week and a half just from doing the doors."

And the winner is…

All three teams said sending their cars off without ever getting the chance to drive them was probably the hardest — or at least the most frustrating — part of the whole process.

After years of judging car contests across the country, professional car judge Nathan Leon has seen thousands of customized cars.

"But none of those competitions have been as rewarding or as unique as the Scion ‘Battle of the Builds,' " he said.

The Salty Dogs will pick up their $14,000 grand-prize check Nov. 3 at the automotive industry's insiders-only Specialty Equipment Market Association expo in Las Vegas, where The Squid will be on display.

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