SUN VALLEY, CALIF. — About 10:30 p.m., the cars begin to gather on the wide boulevards that cut through the warehouse district, where there are no residents or retailers to be bothered by the sound of squealing tires and smell of burning rubber.
By midnight, about 50 cars begin their processional to the starting line two blocks up the street. But the first squeals of rubber this night come from a black-and-white Los Angeles police cruiser that lurches from a shadow to snag the lead car. The street racers scatter into dark side streets.
"We'll be back," says a Hispanic youth who goes by the name "Thrasher."
Yes, it's time for some of the sounds and smells of summer. Across the nation, on any weekend night, young adults are gunning their engines in a four-barrel attempt to get their souped-up Supras past hopped-up Hondas.
It's a tradition of sorts that may date back to the first crankshaft. But this summer, police departments across the country are bracing for even more with the successful release of Universal Picture's new movie, "The Fast and the Furious," a testosterone-filled paean to fast cars racing on city streets.
Although the movie is pure entertainment, it depicts a part of society that mainstream America may have missed - the culture of horsepower worshipers. "Kids get cars sooner, they're faster, and there are fewer places to run them," says Jack Dolan, an administrator of RaceLegal.com, a San Diego group that organizes legal races. "The cars these days are much faster than anything I had."
They're noisy, too. Besides squealing tires and burning rubber, rap music pounds from car stereos so loudly that it rattles the glass of adjacent buildings. Air shocks hiss as they raise and lower the chassis of "lowrider" trucks, and the scent of nitrous oxide, injected into carburetors to push engines faster, perfumes the air.
The accoutrements that go with this neo "American Graffiti" movement are booming as well. According to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, the demand for engine dress-up kits, superchargers, roll cages, seat belt pads, and racing peddles has grown by almost 60 percent a year for the past five years. "There is still a youth movement that wants to improve performance," says Rosemarie Kitchin of SEMA.
But fast cars can also pose serious problems. Stephen Bender, a professor of public health at San Diego State University, estimates the fatality rate among young draggers at 6.5 per 1,000 in San Diego County. By way of comparison, the fatality rate among all drivers would be 1 per 1,000. "This is off the scale - this is front-page news," he says.
It was front-page news last week in Oceanside, N.Y., when a Lamborghini racing a Corvette crashed head-on into another car, killing one. On the same weekend, another street-racing accident killed two in Prince George's County, Md.
Illegal to watch
Such accidents are putting pressure on authorities to crack down on the urban Andrettis. The Los Angeles Police Department has formed a special street-racing task force. Last weekend alone, the unit arrested or gave out 259 citations at one location in Tujunga here. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles City Council made it illegal to even watch the races - punishable by a $250 fine.
In fact, the penalties for street racing are stiffening. In Philadelphia, the fine is now $5,000. In San Diego County, it is $970, plus impoundment of the car, which costs another $850. On top of that, the drivers can lose their driver's license for six months and be forced to do community service.
Yet police are limited in what they can do. Around Pittsburgh, for example, racers regularly show up in the Fairywood neighborhood, an isolated area of warehouses. The police usually dispatch a car. But the racers just "go somewhere else," says Sgt. Dennis Washington. Then they return when the cops leave.
With enforcement only partially successful, some think the right approach isn't to thwart the street-racing culture but to control it. LegalRacing.com, using a $450,000 public grant, organizes races in a San Diego stadium parking lot. One Saturday "we had 1,000 young people entertain themselves with people there who could help them if there was any trouble," says Mr. Dolan. Oakland and Los Angeles are studying the program.
Similarly, 15 companies involved in the performance-car market recently formed a group called Racers Against Street Racing. It promotes legal racing at drag strips that charge as little as $20 to go head-to-lead-foot with another car. "We just want to show street racers that there are other ways to get an adrenaline rush," says Adam Saruwatari, a professional drag racer and group spokesman.
It will be a hard sell. On weekends, the racing ritual are familiar all over southern California - and much of America. But here in the Foothill Division, the activity is particularly acute because of decades of acculturation.
"It's a way of life here, always has been, always will be," says a teenager who calls himself "Racer X." "I grew up here and everyone was doing it. Now I'm of age, and it's the first thing I want to do."
Racers here reflect similar characteristics. Most are 17 to 23 years old, pay for their cars through part-time employment and odd jobs, and race for fun and thrills. "It's the rush, the adrenaline, it's just cool," says a 23-year-old, identifying himself simply as Brian.
Employed by Sprint PCS, Brian has recently signed with the FBI. He says the movie "Fast and Furious" is an insipid exaggeration of what real-world street racing is all about. "This is pretty organized and safe if you really watch it for awhile," he says. "There are a few stupid people who squeal their tires and show off, but most of us don't do that."
The ritual does unfold according to its own unwritten codes. On one side of the street, most of the cars are Japanese. American cars gather on the other side and race down a different corridor.
The crowd of drivers and gawkers is diverse - black, white, Hispanic, male, female. They come and hang out for 90 minutes, leaning on cars, strutting around with boomboxes and cell phones. Many have body jewelry and tattoos. Beak caps and baggy pants are the uniforms of choice. On some nights, 100 cars will show up to race. On others, 500 people will come, but few racers.
The races are for a quarter mile. Sometimes money is involved. One driver, Jesse, won $800 recently.
Often, though, it's just for bragging rights. As Brian sits in the Thrifty station, a driver named Heath pulls alongside Brian's 1995 Honda Del Sol. "Whatcha got under there?" he says. "Let's go for it."
The duo drives two blocks up Glenoaks Avenue and deposits a starter from the back seat. He raises his arms, calls out "three, two, one," and then drops his hands. The cars squeal off into the dark streets.
"He beat me by about a car length," says Heath, returning with his running lights on. "He must really have something under that hood."
Sara Miller contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor