Hanley Ramirez had one request for Alex Vega—he wanted his Lamborghini to spit fire. Vega, who owns The Auto Firm, a garage located 17 miles from South Beach specializing in the customization of cars, first pulled off the request for his notoriously flamboyant client Yoenis Cespedes, but the concept still confused him.
"I never thought an athlete would want that," Vega said. "You can't drive that fast in the areas that they play. You can't drive that crazy."
But like he's done for other athletes and celebrities in the past, Vega fulfilled the request, to the amusement of Ramirez.
"I thought it was funny he asked me, and then you actually see him play with it, shooting fire like it's a joke," Vega said. "I thought it was crazy."
Vega's business garnered a lot of attention last year when Cespedes showed up at New York Mets spring training with a different car every single day for a week. Cespedes is one of Vega's top clients, having customized 13 vehicles ranging from everyday cars to ATVs—used on the outfielder's farm—and several three-wheeled Polaris Slingshots.
The Auto Firm opened in 2004 when Vega decided to start his own business, and within a few years, he was working on the cars of Alfonso Soriano (his first MLB client), Alonzo Mourning and Akon. Gradually, word spread about Vega, who dreamed of customizing cars after watching The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider and The A-Team as a kid.
"I would always have in my mind that I would want to build a car for a movie one day, and it stayed in my heart to want to do that," Vega said. "Today I'm building cars for a lot of athletes and famous people."
The work on a car can take as short as a week to as long as a month, with costs ranging from as little as $1,000 to $75,000, the amount Cespedes spent customizing a $400,000 Lamborghini Aventador. And while he mostly does luxury vehicles, people who are interested in having more modest cars modded can still make their cars their own, though Vega seems less enthusiastic about them.
"If it's a Toyota Corolla, I'd rather set it on fire, but I could do that as well," Vega said.
Vega mentioned that while some players request a certain color scheme or come in with an idea, they usually let him do his thing. At this point, most players come into the shop knowing his body of work, already following his Instagram account which boasts 429,000 followers.
"I have a good rapport with a lot of my clients and usually, even new clients that come in, they say, 'I came to you because I see what you do and I want my car to be like Avorza,'" Vega said. "I want it to be branded by you and want you to do it the way that you do it."
The attention brought Vega the opportunity to star in a new reality show featuring his shop, which is coming to Velocity this summer. Vega's brand, Avorza (a mix of his initials and Forza), has appeared in music videos and is constantly in demand from athlete clients. But while there's certainly a lot of inherent flair that comes with building customized cars for wealthy celebrities, Vega takes his craft seriously.
"This is art," Vega said. "This is not swapping brakes and changing engines and making a car sound loud. This is about getting a car worth half a million dollars and making them look totally different."