Backstory: Spinning their wheels

Hot cars spinning doughnuts - a metaphor for freedom in South African townships.

From the first screech of his tires, it's clear that, on this course, Jeff James is king. He revs his gold 1993 BMW Alpine. This is his baby, his chariot, hand-painted and jury-rigged to perfection. "Don't Call the Police" is its nickname, from the letters on his license plate - DCP 105 - and from Mr. James's inclination topractice doughnuts on public parking lots.

The crowd pushes closer to the circle of smooth tar, about 120 feet across, built like a small, cement skating rink in the large asphalt courtyard of Jazi Bootleggers Pub & Restaurant.

The people know James, and they know this will be a show. That's why hundreds of them are here on this late Saturday night at a $2-a-head entrance fee.

Hazard lights blinking, James slowly steers his baby just inside the four-foot wall around the rink, custom built for James's unique sport - spinning. It's the new craze in South Africa's black townships. There are no points, no teams, no final score - just one man in a car, doing doughnuts as fast as he can, sometimes jumping out of, and back into, the car while it spins.

The windows of James's BMW are down. He's the picture of cool, elbow resting on the door frame. He puts the car in first gear, then slams on the accelerator, twisting the wheel 180 degrees. Tires scream, around and around the car spins - rubber burning, smoke billowing - first in small circles, then larger ones at 15, 20, 25 miles per hour. He slides across the rink, a whisper away from the brick wall and serious time in the body shop.

Women screech, echoing the tires. Men yell, and punch the air. Cellphone cameras blink, capturing this local hero - a South African black man with a BMW, a black man who can drive wherever he wants, however he wants.

James slows the car, yanks up the hand brake, and hits the accelerator again. The car squeals but doesn't move. The front tires are still, the back spin crazily. Acrid smoke billows from the back tires, rising with the volume of the crowd. He drives the car around the rink again, and then stops altogether.

James gets out and, without glancing at the crowd, moves his floor mat with showy nonchalance to the back seat. The crowd roars - they know what's coming. James gets back in the driver's seat, and stomps on the accelerator, bent so it will stay depressed without his foot. He twists the wheel right as far as it will go, opens the door, and jumps out. He runs with the car as it spins, positioning himself between the open door and the car frame. He keeps a hand on the car, working to stay in the same arc. Periodically, he steps onto the running board, rides for a few seconds, then jumps back off and runs again.

This is when you have to listen, James explains. The RPMs slow as the accelerator slowly sneaks back into place and the wheel creeps out of its turn - this is when you dive back in and pull the accelerator back with your foot and seize control.

The crowd is frenzied as James finishes his act. Women reach toward him. Men jump the wall to collect scraps of rubber from his brutalized tires. By day James is a businessman who owns two minibus taxis - by night, he's a rock star.

***

Cars are mobility - nothing to take for granted in South Africa, which not long ago restricted the movement of blacks under the racially repressive laws of apartheid. Then, few blacks could even afford cars. Those who could were often harassed by police who assumed their cars were stolen. Cars are also fun and fast, and attract women. Especially the BMW. That's "Black Man's Wish" in the townships. Or "Be My Wife."

For years, there have been township car cliques, men with the same make of car who love those cars as much as - maybe more than - their girlfriends. These are the types who tinker with engines, take bodywork personally, and push their vehicles to the limit. These car lovers sought that limit, with doughnuts and screeching and revving in parking lots or roped-off streets. But three years ago, after a spate of accidents and resident complaints, police cracked down on unofficial spinning.

A new generation decided to take its sport above ground.

"We're not just making doughnuts," says Tshepo Mofokeng, a businessman and a top Soweto spinner. "We've organized."

This younger group of spinners - in their 20s and 30s - rented an arena at Soweto's rundown Shareworld Sports Stadium on Saturday nights. It attracted crowds; the crowds brought DJs and vendors and employment. Spinning nights became like block parties - a safe, fun place in the troubled township to find weekend exhilaration.

Soon it became clear who could do doughnuts and who could do figure eights; who could do stand-stills (spin the tires, but keep the car from moving); and who could do that ace of tricks, letting the car spin alone. And superstars - like James and Mofokeng - were born.

The sport is expensive: Drivers must watch out for engine trouble and buy tires every week. They get no pay for performing. But according to the drivers, there's no greater joy.

"I get high from doing this," says Mofokeng. "Some people might have a passion for theater, for going to the opera. I have a passion for doing doughnuts."

Soweto's sport spread across South Africa. Other townships opened their own venues, and spectators formed loyalties to local spinners.

***

Tonight, many Soweto spinners are here at the new rink in the Kwa Thema township of the Springs north of Johannesburg. After buying tires and gas, they caravanned here - a line of speedy BMWs on a dark South African highway. By the time they pulled in at 10, swarms of spectators were cooing over cars. The DJ was pumping kwaito - South African rap - tunes. A hundred people had set up chairs at the rink, a few hundred more milled around it.

By midnight, James is in the parking area, sipping a Sprite, leaning on his car, getting ready for his second twirl. The gold-painted hood is lifted, the overworked engine cooling, and the tires replaced. A friend, Bernard Funati, sits on the curb, singing praises: "Raw talent. You don't go to school for that. He's too good, this guy."

James shrugs modestly. He's a local celebrity. People recognize him in the street. "It's a nice feeling," he says. "I like to be amongst people."

Gazing at his hardworking BMW, he adds, "And this car - I love this car of mine."

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