Hot Wheels Mafia

Last week at 6:30 in the morning there were already a few shoppers waiting in the parking lot of the Walmart at Dennery Road, by Palm Avenue and the 805. Some of the patrons were owners of segundas (second-hand stores) across the border, and the others were Hot Wheels collectors.

“The Kool Kombi can be sold for up to $50 on eBay, but I’m not into this for resale, like the rest of these guys,” Jerry Velazquez explains as he points at the other middle-age gentlemen sipping on their coffee cups.hotwheels_combi

“The last time I was at this spot,” continues Velazquez, “a girl screamed after she got pinched by another collector sifting through the bins. After lining up all of the hands, she couldn’t identify the pincher, so the security guard let us all off with a warning.”

Jon Yamada (aka VW Jon), a VW parts specialist, steps up by Velazquez’s side. “Remember when I blocked the dude with a shopping cart?” Velazquez nods in agreement and also admits to using shopping carts and baskets to impede the paths of other collectors running close behind.

“We are not allowed to run inside,” says Velazquez, “and if we do, the employee has the right to escort us back to the front and we have to start all over again.” This penalty can be detrimental for the collectors because their competitors are in and out in less than three minutes.

These collectors have different agendas, some for that monetary “come-up” and others for personal reasons. Since Yamada specializes in VWs, he is constantly seeking the Hare Splitter and VW Buses, which are sold 1–4 per case, making his odds better than others strictly “Treasure” hunting.

In 1995, Mattel came out with a line of Hot Wheels called the “Treasure Hunts,” which brought many new collectors into the market, including ones from the “baseball-card” scene. These guys have been landing collectibles intel for years with their old-school mafia-esque ploys: buying store managers lunch, having employees page them with code “164,″ concealing toy batches behind the infant clothing racks, secretly photocopying the delivery truck driver’s Thomas Guide routes, and other schemes to get closer to having first crack at the product.image-2

Yamada then spoke about his biggest score being a gray and silver 1971 Plymouth Barracuda Treasure Hunt, which was located at the old Target by the DMV, off of Fourth Avenue. He resold his 98-cent investment for $300 at the Frank & Son Collectible Show, the largest weekly collector meet in the City of Industry. Yamada has collected Hot Wheels since his mom began taking him to the now-defunct Kresge. But, in the past 11 years, he was reintroduced to the hobby via Velazquez.

This is the breakdown of each shipment, as explained by Velazquez:
Super Secret Treasure Hunt – 1 per every 15 cases of 72; original retail, 98¢; aftermarket, $50
(Regular) Secret Treasure Hunt – 2 per case of 72; original retail 98¢; aftermarket retail, $5.

PJ John

PJ John

PJ John then walks up in the circle of collectors. PJ is a middle-age artist who is still in his Millennium Falcon pajama top, hence the name “PJ.” This morning, he’s rockin’ his cyclops 1980s sunglasses to cover his bloodshot eyes. He just got back from the four-day 28th Annual Hot Wheels Collectors Convention, held in L.A. from October 1–5.

“It was crazy! I nailed some custom one-offs from the Roy Nakamura estate being sold on the floor below us,” PJ raves. At the Hot Wheels convention, miniature-car collectors camped out in their rooms, which doubled as shops, where they bartered, bought, and sold throughout the night, with no curfew. PJ parked in room 560, on the 5th floor, and over 1000 attendees were scattered between the 3rd to the 12th floors.

PJ is a Hot Wheel’s “lifer” and is the rare exception to the fan base because he buys for the sake of art under his “Prototype 164″ alter-ego. He purchases stock Hot Wheels, dismantles, re-casts with silicone molds, re-paints, and then re-packages the 1:64 scale toys. He is the equivalent of the Pimp My Ride for the 1:64 world. In fact, after his scavenging for some 1965 Impalas, he copped some art supplies 12 aisles down.

“We got five minutes till 7,” Yamada says to Velazquez. “We’ll be lucky if management hasn’t hit the bins yet.” There is skepticism in the natural distribution of the Secret Treasure Hunts: some say the rare cars often don’t reach the bins or shelves and are purchased by the inside people. The T-Hunt cars are allegedly being cherry-picked out of the cases during “pre-night,” when the sealed boxes are still plastic-wrapped on the pallets, and then purchased with an employee discount.

“The numbers don’t lie,” states Velazquez. “If there are over 300 Hot Wheels in the bin, why is there not one Secret Treasure Hunt when there should be 8 present? Do the math, dude!” Velazquez knows his numbers well, being the owner of over 10,000 Hot Wheels and over 600 yellow Minis alone. He’s got over 50 Treasure Hunts that he has locked up in his vault, with a copy of our Second Amendment stapled to his front door.

Just some of Velazquez' Hot Wheels collection

Just some of Velazquez’s Hot Wheels collection

“There’s been tough collectors around, bullying others, even children at Kobey’s and Spring Valley [swap meets],” says Velazquez, “but we have the strongest weapons right here,” and he quickly draws his iPhone.

The word on the street was a big scuffle occurred between two collectors at the Target on Palomar Avenue, which ultimately knocked over the Barbie stand on the adjacent aisle. Police intervened, and the two men in their mid-40s didn’t press charges against one another.

“These fights were more apparent in the late 1990s,” explains Jerry, “but with everyone posting embarrassing videos on YoutTube now, imagine how viral two grown-ass men fighting over a little toy will be.”

At 7 a.m. sharp, the female employee unlocks the door and rolls her eyes at the crowd of over 15 people scuffling through. When probed about the alleged Hot Wheels distribution ratio dilemma, she ignores and yells, “No running!”

Author: Mike Madriaga
Featured in the San Diego Reader Magazine (10/2014)