Up all night with the hardcore drivers who block off city streets and highways to revel in the high-speed thrills of illegal drag racing.
Driving in a racecar is no time for sightseeing. Speed distorts everything. The desire for more of it is inherited from when you thought your toy racecar could go faster than his toy racecar; you’d take your mark, say vroom and try to reach the make-believe finish line first. When Mattel launched Hot Wheels toy cars in the ‘60s, kids were hooked because matched head-to-head with Matchbox cars, Hot Wheels would win. Racing is the pursuit of speed, speed that’s strong and loud. A racecar never purrs. It buzzes, even shrieks. The louder it gets, the faster it goes. The sound was described to me as “trying to drown a weed whacker in a bathtub.” It’s throaty, as if the guts of the car are running exposed. To some, it’s noise. To others, it’s music, the sound of a well-tuned instrument, its perfect pitch. Speed isn’t the type of fun that needs to be rationalized. Speed is simple. Speed is a game.
This is how a street race usually goes: drivers meet near the designated race location. Racers buy-in. Bookies collect bets, then pool money. Drivers use their cars as the blockade; twenty, thirty, or more, plod along the highway—or on a side street, although that carries the risk of residents, jolted awake during the race by the whizzing of engines accelerating to upwards of 100-150 miles per hour, alerting the police. The racecars lead, lined up like the first row of a marching band in a parade. Traffic slows. Commuters wonder what the hold-up could be. It’s the middle of the night.
“There’s nothing normal about driving that fast,” said Kay, a street racer who has been neck-deep in the sport since he was a boy living in Brooklyn. “The car is gone. It’s just not there anymore. When you’re driving, you don’t even know where you are, you can’t even see anything.”
Kay’s racecar, a Mazda RX 7, can do a quarter of a mile—a lap around an athletics track—in a little over twelve seconds. Kay, like most other racers interviewed for this story, asked to be given a pseudonym because street racing is illegal, and has been for some time. The laws prohibiting it are more heavily enforced today than when Kay first got into it about fifteen years ago. Kay remembers Brooklyn in the ‘90s when the Mazda RX 7 was considered “the king of the street,” races weren’t consigned to highways (or any other roads harder to access by the police) and “illegal street racing” seemed like jaywalking, barely noticed and almost never penalized.
Racing is lots of talking and not as much driving. The groundwork for a race is talk and more talk about how fast your car can go – setting an expectation which rarely matches reality – and at least two people committing to the race, a location and a wager. Kay is very good at talking. While diminutive in stature, everything else about him is big. He speaks with strength, nearly choking on vowels, expressing excitement by stopping mid-sentence, standing stiffly and offering a quick, punctuated “yo!” or “what!” or “word?” before continuing a story.
“I went to buy a car from a guy. There was a young dude in his garage and I overheard him talking about his Honda. And I was like, ‘Yo, c’mon man, a Honda? Hondas are like Lego cars. You put them together like Legos,’” Kay recounts. “I was kind of teasing him about it and he was like, ‘Word,’ and he got all upset. Then he was like, ‘You could bring anything. I’ll race you in anything.’ And I was like, ‘Word, for how much?’ And he was like, ‘What you got?’”
They firmed up a price and raced a week later on the Belt Parkway.
* * *
“It’s really annoying when you find [races] because they cause all this congestion,” says Thaniya Keerepart, a car enthusiast who doesn’t confuse congestion with the lead-up to a street race. “Basically all the cars that are racing are driving parallel at some incredibly slow speed. And they all have souped-up cars and they are all going really slow.”
Thaniya likes cars, especially cars that go fast. And she loves her car, a Volkswagen GTI. “I think it’s more me,” she says, versus her old Honda Civic SI, a popular racecar, sometimes referred to as “the rice rocket,” and the BMW 328 which she forfeited to her ex-boyfriend after they broke up. It lives in California now. She has owned three customized (commonly referred to as “souped-up” or “tuner”) cars in her life, and recently purchased an apartment in Brooklyn for which she asked that it include, if not a single-car garage, a parking spot where no other car could park within a few feet of hers. Still, she gets aggravated when she sees racecars clogging up the roads. That night, she just wanted to get home.
“I bumped into the G37 [Infinitis]. I saw three of them blocking the traffic and this was on the [Brooklyn Queens Expressway] between Tillary and Navy Yard,” she says, “So they started in Williamsburg to block to traffic and they kept on pushing back and pushing back, and the moment of their race, I don’t know how they coordinate but at one point, vroom and they literally took off!”
It was a quarter-mile, full-speed drag race, straight down the highway, that would be over in fifteen seconds or less.
All racers are car enthusiasts and all car enthusiasts are stirred by driving fast. Thaniya purchased her current Volkswagen, already tuned, from a seller who posted it on a message board for Volkswagen enthusiasts.
“I bought my car off of that message board because that is a website for everyone who loves [Volkswagens] more than their own life,” she explains. Thaniya drives in autocrosses—races typically held in parking lots where cones are placed on the ground for drivers to weave around. She is never adverse to a pick-up race, and recalls the time she luckily found one on her way home, in her new car.
“I bought a one-way ticket to New Hampshire, paid [the seller] in cash, drove the car seven and a half hours to New York and it was the best drive of my life,” she remembers enthusiastically.
Pick-up races are like meet-ups for car enthusiasts. They are opportunities to test your skill, drive more aggressively, maneuver in tandem and coordinate moves with another driver.
“I ran into this guy who was driving a Honda Civic, super old school, you can tell who the ‘modders’ are,” Thaniya says. “You are just driving and you see other people driving aggressively and what I do is just go right up behind them then try to pass them super close—that’s the sign.”
“Modders” are drivers who make “mods.” Most modifications or “mods” to tuner cars aren’t aesthetic—nobody’s painting flames on the side door or the hood—so the fact that Thaniya can spot a racecar on the street already makes her smarter than your average driver. Mods are typically internal: a rebuilt engine, a new exhaust system, a car riding almost indistinguishably lower to the ground due to a stiffer suspension. Racers tend to have a hard time explaining how to spot a racecar. One racer equated it to asking him how he knows a girl is a girl. He just knows.
Thaniya’s pick-up race didn’t have a clear winner or loser. “It’s like follow the leader,” Thaniya’s boyfriend, Todd, chimes in. Todd’s car of choice is an Audi S4, faster than Thaniya’s, so more suitable to the street or track but less proficient in autocrosses.
While speed limits are meant to ensure safety, modders tend to think they are exempt from these simply because they are good drivers. Egos are stoked as equally from driving fast as driving well. Reaching for your seatbelt is an insult, suggesting unease.
“Most people drive their cars in various degrees of panic,” Todd says.
Fear causes drivers to maneuver sloppily. They’ll over-brake, over-turn, over-accelerate, unaware of how little control they even have.
“I’ll hear a lot of people say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a great driver,’ especially from guys.” Todd adds. “Recently there was a study of Americans that said 80 percent of them think they’re above average, which is really funny, because by definition they can’t be. So it’s an apropos analogy for people driving. For people who know how to drive, they know how to drive.”
* * *
Modders tend to speak in code. OEM is an acronym meaning “original equipment from the manufacturer.” Rarely is someone racing a car just as it came from the factory; despite how sporty it may look or how fast the commercial claims it can go, most untuned cars are ill-equipped to race. They wouldn’t be competitive. Modified Mustangs or Hondas can beat factory-issued Ferraris. For racers, increasing a car’s performance begins and ends at its horsepower. The more horsepower a car produces, the faster it goes. Manufacturers apply limits on horsepower. Working with an internal combustion engine in which fuel mixes with oxygen to create energy that propels your car, there are a number of ways for modders to accelerate this combustion process and generate more power. Before that, however, they must take care of some housekeeping.
“The first thing that I did when I bought my car is I voided the warranty,” Todd says. “So you are just saying whatever the repairs bills are, they are coming out of my pocket. There is a clause in your insurance that if you’re in a timed event your insurance won’t cover it.”
You cannot expect automakers to repair something that barely resembles what they sold you. Most modders circumvent this by buying a cheap used car, knowing that the most important parts are going to be replaced anyway. Todd’s friend bought a Mazda Miata and dropped a Corvette engine inside.
Building a car is a negotiation, with the amount of modifications people make contingent on: cost, dedication to the sport, the source car (the attributes a car has before any modifications are made to it), and availability of parts. The sport before the sport is the build itself, the manipulation of parts, the unrelenting urge to tinker, and tinker again, and then tinker some more, until one day you decide you’re finished. Many then sell the tuned car (to people like Thaniya) for far less that the investment in parts and labor, and start all over again.
“They are enthusiasts, they enjoy it,” Kay says, “They have fun with it. And you always want something more, it’s always a work in progress because things are always changing, some parts are always becoming better.”
Racers are always making connections, in their neighborhoods or through online forums. Kay met Tony in his old neighborhood. Tony met Ali on the racing scene then hired him to work in his performance shop in Queens and now they build cars together. Tony built Kay’s car. Both Tony and Ali have retired from street racing, preferring to race legally on a track, but Tony is the guy whose reputation will far outlast that retirement.
“Back in the day, Tony had the ill car,” Kay said. “His boy had the ill car. There was something special about them.”
Some racers end up growing out of this—the thrill of the speed and the danger. They think about what’s at stake, how one accident can change everything. They resolve to get off the street and drive on a track or only build cars and leave racing to those who still find the risk of getting caught totally exhilarating.
“There is so much more for me to lose,” Tony says, “with my family and my business.”
* * *
A performance shop is not an ordinary repair shop where you’d take a car after a minor fender bender. Performance shops make racecar-style mods, often specializing in specific models. Tony and Ali work primarily on Mazda RX 7s, a car that modders like because it has a rotary engine versus a conventional piston engine—a small radial set-up produces energy more efficiently than pistons moving up and down in cylinders.
Ali has been working on cars since he was a kid. His dad was into cars, his grandfather was into cars; so were his uncles and cousins.
“Different people have different budgets,” Ali says. “It all comes down to a money factor, how much you have and are willing to spend will determine how fast your car will be.”
Drivers consider price against performance potential when buying a car. “There are so many Hondas out there because they’re pretty cheap,” Ali says. “There are many parts available, lots of manufacturers and it’s competitive, price-wise. But if you take another car – recently a popular car is a Nissan GTR. That’s a very fast car. You can put minor mods on it and can get a deadly streak on it. But you’re looking at something that is out of range for some people. The car from factory itself is $75 to $80,000.”
A Honda Civic is a popular model because there is a surfeit of aftermarket parts available for it.
“All the parts are so interchangeable,” Kay says. “And there are so many of them, and it’s like, ‘You need an engine? I got those’; ‘You need a hood? I got that,’ so it becomes a thing where everyone has what you need for it.”
Hondas are front-wheel drive cars, which some claim is an inherent disadvantage in a sport where you want the engine to push the car, not pull it, but they can be purchased for as little as $2,000, and don’t weigh much. To lighten cars even more, most guys remove the air conditioner and power steering. For a dedicated track car, in a twelve-second race, there’s no need for climate control. Apart from being heavy, both siphon energy from the engine, which reduces overall horsepower; how much horsepower is debatable. Some say mods are like diets—everyone has their own opinion, and those opinions are sacrosanct.
A Honda Civic is sometimes seen as a starter car. Once racers mature, they’ll begin dabbling in different models. A Toyota Supra is a popular mid-level racecar. The Nissan GTR has a horsepower rating of 480. The Toyota Supra has one of around 300. The Nissan has the power advantage at the outset, but costs approximately $50,000 more. As far as mods go, $50,000 will go a long way. And horsepower, the power generated at the engine, is not the number racers are most interested in. They are far more interested in zeroing in on power where they want it most—the wheels. The innards of a car, what sits between the engine and the wheels, referred to as the drive train, will cause some frictional drawdown in energy as it moves from one area to another.
Todd’s Audi came with 400 horsepower to the wheels, so for him, increasing his horsepower without adjusting much inside the engine made more sense. So he “chipped” it.
Every car from the manufacturer includes an ECU or engine control unit, which dictates air-fuel ratios in your engine. When a racer wants an engine to churn out more power, recalibrating the ECU, “chipping” or “flashing” it, alters its disposition by allowing larger air-fuel ratios, which yields stronger reactions inside the engine—equaling bigger explosions and increased horsepower. Chipping a high horsepower stock car like Todd’s is one of the easier mods a racer can make to increase performance. Plus, it’s relatively inexpensive. A typical chip costs $1,000 and doesn’t involve any heavy duty tuning. Ali wouldn’t even consider simply chipping a car. That will only achieve so much. He finds power by customizing engines.
“As far as your motor, sometimes it has to be built because your motor from factory, the parts that’s used—the pistons, the rods, the block—these things are built not to withstand these high horsepower, extreme speeds,” he says. “‘My motor’s built’ means they replaced the entire internals. It looks identical, like the factory one, but just with stronger materials.”
According to the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, overall aftermarket sales in the car industry total $307.7 billion in 2012, employing nearly 4.1 million people.
Ali rebuilt not only his motor but took everything out of his drive train and is slowly piecing it back together. He fabricated a custom engine, and added a turbocharger and new exhaust system. A turbocharger introduces compressed air back into the engine at a higher rate to mix with fuel, which gives the car a boost of power. When a modder decides to rebuild a car, the first mod sets off a chain reaction and many, many more mods follow. A turbocharger requires upgraded fuel and larger pumps to accommodate the increased gas flow. Increased combustion requires a new exhaust and a stronger ignition system. The car is hotter from all this activity, so it must be cooled. When those mods are done, you then have to program and attach a new operating computer so that each part works together properly. Ali also almost tripled the size of his tires. A racer can build a car within a month but Ali has been working on two concurrent car builds for five years and counting. There is a lot to be done.
“That’s what people don’t understand about racing,” he says. “Guys spend their last paychecks on making their cars faster.”
Mechanical knowhow aside, money is one thing that can separate a fast car from a really fast car. Modifications can shave up to ten seconds off your car’s race time.
“If someone says they have a ten-second quarter-mile car, you know that car is fast,” Ali says, who after years of racing still raises his eyebrows in excitement when he talks about speed. “From factory, most cars do [a quarter mile race] in sixteen, seventeen, eighteen seconds. If you take a fast car, let’s say a Ferrari, one of those exotics or a Dodge Viper, 500 horsepower from the factory, those are like twelve-second cars. So people are taking a car that’s doing eighteen seconds in a quarter-mile, upgrading them and doing ten seconds in a quarter-mile. That’s a big deal. They can say ‘my car is faster than a Ferrari.’”
* * *
On the day of my visit to the shop, Tony was measuring the horsepower of his car on a dynamometer, called a “dyno” for short, and it came in at 700 horsepower, up from a factory rating of 222—an improvement of more than 300 percent. He and Ali were preparing for the Sports Car Nationals in Englishtown, New Jersey, the next day: a legal race with two parallel tracks, competition brackets based on car type and speed index, and qualifying and elimination rounds spread across two days. At his last quarter-mile race Tony clocked in at 10.1 seconds. Tomorrow, he’d attempt to break ten seconds flat. Eliminating two-tenths of a second is a very big deal.
The sound at the track was deafening. Hundreds of cars—Hondas, Volkswagens, Mustangs—lined up, front to back, their drivers waiting for the chance to show how fast they move. The cars slid into position as if released from Pez dispensers. Drivers revved their engines, testing their equipment before reversing back into position. Custom tires wrinkled, gripping the pavement. Exhaust looked like it was coming out from underneath the tires. It only took a few moments for the drivers to take their marks.
Tony’s car finished a quarter of a mile in 9.90 seconds. By one-eighth of a mile, he was traveling at 95 miles per hour and at the finish line his speed was recorded at 141 miles per hour. For someone who drove his car to the racetrack, Tony made amazing time. He raced in the 10.50 index bracket, a time trial for which the driver getting closest to 10.50 seconds in a quarter of a mile wins. Tony went too fast. He knew he would but couldn’t enter a faster bracket because his car didn’t have the proper safety gear.
“That’s not supposed to be like that,” Kay says. “That’s one of the few things about imports. American cars are faster, significantly faster, but you pretty much have one purpose for the car. They are not going to drive this car to the corner store and take your girl upstate. The things you have to change, the car doesn’t run normally. So, you put it on a trailer, you bring it to the track, you run it, you put it back on the trailer, you bring it home.”
The difference between a fast car and a really fast car is the time it takes to count from one to two to three seconds.
At ten or eleven seconds, acceleration is still something a spectator can see. The car gets off the line, its speed climbs, a slight pause can be detected when the driver changes gears, and full speed isn’t realized until beyond the finish line.
The fastest car I saw at the racetrack was an American Mustang, which did a quarter of a mile in 6.98 seconds, traveling at 199 miles per hour. The car launched off the starting line as if flung from a slingshot, coasting on pure, immediate power, with no discernible drag from gravity, geared to reach full speed at precisely a quarter of a mile and not one-tenth of a second later. The driver released a rear parachute at the end of the race to slow it down.
“A quarter-mile dedicated track car is something that you cannot transfer to the street,” Ali says. “It’s specifically made to go down a quarter-mile. The way it’s set-up, it will achieve two hundred miles per hour in a quarter-mile. So it’s not something that you’d drive to get groceries.”
In order to rid of extra weight, drivers gut their cars, remove seats, the insulation, radio, dashboard and carpets, leaving only a driver’s seat and a wheel (along with a roll cage required for safety in track racing) – definitely not what you’d see driving to get groceries.
Tom, a racer who organizes street competitions all over New York and New Jersey, taping and then uploading them onto YouTube, manages to race American cars on the street. “Mustangs, Grand Nationals, Malibus, they are all cheap and light. Kids throw all this money into these imports but domestic can make the power on much less.”
For Tom, though, the difference between a street race and a track race is negligible because he treats the two the same. He chooses remote locations instead of busy highways. The drivers take similar safety precautions: they must wear neck braces and helmets, and cars must have roll cages, fire extinguishers, and scatter shields over the transmission in case it blows. Although not required, Tom tries to enforce these rules as much as possible. He thinks people who don’t give racing a bad name, and was particularly marred by an early experience seeing a car veer off the road mid-race, roll down a hill and kill the driver inside. He wants to prevent tragedies like the one last year, in which a driver lost control during a race, was flung from his car, hit a utility pole and decapitated.
* * *
Kay picked up a friend before heading to the race. He had to bring a friend to hold the money because if he got into an accident or was chased down by the police or even arrested, he wouldn’t have wanted to lose $1,000.
If Kay had bet more than $1,000, he would have been uncomfortable racing on his skill alone and would have opted to let Tony drive his car.
“I would be like, ‘Yo, my car’s running but he’s driving it.’” Kay says, “It’s about seat time. When you know what it feels like to drive a car that has 500-600 horsepower, at that weight, it’s not new to you, it’s totally comfortable.”
He met his opponent on the Belt Parkway near JFK airport. Around thirty people got out of the cars, holding up traffic to watch.
They raced and he lost.
He missed a gear by less than a second and that’s all it takes; that’s the difference between winning and losing. Immediately after the race ended, everyone got back into their cars and drove to another location, where they would settle up their bets.
While the money was trading hands, Kay began talking about why he lost, excusing it, because that’s what racers do when they lose—say it was a fluke. It was no fluke but saying so is part of the game. Kay lost, but in a way, he really didn’t at all.
“We’re grown men,” he says, “and you get to stay a boy by doing this. It’s just fun.”
* * *
Melissa Smith is a writer living in Brooklyn. She received her graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Corinne Mucha is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Chicago, IL.