50% Hustle: A Side-Mirror Glimpse Into the L.A. Street Racing Scene

by Gus Donohoo

I was picked up a little after 10PM, to roll north along sulfur-lit freeways to an undisclosed location. After weeks of false starts and dead ends, I finally had traction with the Los Angeles street racing scene. I was in the car of an intermediary who had offered me sage advice, invaluable intel, explicit threats, and a generous ride to the meet. The caginess was understandable—though rarely enforced, a $1000 fine, impoundment of your ride, and a three month jail sentence are the potential punishments for being caught just watching a street race.

We park up in the darkened lot of a sprawling strip mall. Text messages rebound, and after a few minutes a low-slung corvette growls in, followed a little after by a glistening SUV. They’ve come alone—two men, both twenty-somethings; one bigger and of an intimidating size, but with a gentle face, the other shorter and bearded, with a boxer’s nose and square shoulders. On assurance of anonymity, they agree to introduce me to their world. It’s a place of freedom and risk, adrenaline and obsession: “Being connected to that car, it’s not like anything else,” the bearded guy explains to me an hour later in a testimony to that compulsion, “there’s no computers in-between—there’s nothing. It’s just me and that car. That feel of it, there’s just nothing like it to me, better than any drug—and I’ve done plenty of drugs—I want to say better, but it’s just as good as getting pussy. There’s nothing else like it.”

Lawlessness is a defining characteristic of the American narrative. And pussy another. The West was not wild merely for being the spurred saunter into effervescent cruelty that Cormac McCarthy described—the romance of the West is tied to an American identity that sees freedom as a right, a virtue, and a necessity. And nothing says freedom in the modern West like a car: “All he needed was a wheel in his hand and four on the road,” Jack Kerouac wrote of his hero Dean Moriarty. The contemporary street racers I’m speaking to are the heirs apparent to a lineage that stretches back to the very origins of the motorcar, and to an American car culture that has been influenced through narratives as diverse as Charlie Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), to On the Road (1957), American Graffiti (1973), Grease (1978), Back to the Future (1985), and The Fast and the Furious (2001-).

“There’s a high level of professionalism in what these guys do.” Documentary filmmaker Tiziano Niero stressed to me a few days earlier. The cars are sophisticated machines, enhanced and made race-ready through accomplished technical knowledge and with nuanced expertise. Niero toiled for ten months to create the film that these editorial images come from—a preview of his work Chase is a Race. The title of the film refers to a fundamental law of a street race: two cars line up for a quarter mile dash, if one goes too early, and the second jumps and chases, it becomes a race—a chase is a race.

We’re sitting four-up in the SUV in the empty lot. I’m on the backseat, the intermediary’s to my right, and the racers are up front. I’m interviewing the back of their heads, with occasional captured glances from the rear view mirror. Sporadically, cars enter and leave the lot. When two pull in—a Camaro and a Pontiac—the bigger guy kills the interior light, either out of curiosity or wariness—this is a regular meeting spot, but tonight it seems to mostly be people doing late night laundry. He explains the gravity of a race to me: “You’re doing something dangerous, and the main thing is you’re gambling. You get two groups together, and you collect the money, so if the race is for $5-10,000, it’s you and your friends putting up the money, not just the driver.” $20 side-bets are the bread and butter of L.A. street racing, yet bigger races can net as much as $10K for the winning driver’s team. This team element can occasionally give rise to something of a gang presence, but this isn’t a well-oiled criminal industry—more of an incidental blow-off valve for certain elements that run the streets.

“You don’t really see gang-related beef at the car meets.” The bigger guy tells me. “They overlook their differences—Bloods and Crips get along at Sunday Fun Day [a Takeover as described below]—we have cities that really hate each other, but at the car meets, we’ll all be in this parking lot, and I know damn well that the people lining up in front of each other hate each other outside of the meets, but in here they’re talking about their cars.”

“What blows my mind,” the bearded guy adds, “is there’s such a big diversity within these car meets that it’s refreshing. You’ve got Indian people, you’ve got white boys, black people, Mexicans, Arabs, Asians. It used to be like all the white boys had the American cars, all the Asians had the Asian cars, but now it’s just mixed. You’ve got some badass girls out there racing with some nice-ass cars too. Not many, but the ones that do, they really drive.”

Contrary to the typical Hollywood vision, the ideal car won’t have fluorescent lights running beneath or a ludicrous paint scheme—the ideal car is what’s called ‘a sleeper.’ “In the high stakes racing you want your car to look slow, and be fast.” The bigger guy explains, “You always want to convince the other person that you’re slower than you are. Because that way I’ll convince [the person I’m racing] to give me a two car head start, then I’ll beat him by two cars, and I’ll say ‘you know what, this time why don’t you give me a one car head start, and I’m going to just milk him for more money.”

“It’s 50% hustle, 50% driving—that’s just the way it is out here.” The bearded guy agrees. “It’s always two horses on the track—it’s nothing like Fast and the Furious at all—that is bullshit, stupid…” he stresses. The most common races draw together cars of differing values like Honda Civics (>$19K new), Ford Mustangs (>$25K new), and Nissan GT-Rs (>$110K new), but Ferraris (>$200K new) and Lamborghinis (>$200K new) can show up too. I ask how the hyper-expensive cars are viewed:

“They’re ATMs.” The big guy tells me, “Because a lot of times, let’s say someone comes out with a very expensive car, and they just think oh, my car has 800 horse power, my car is fast. But with racing it’s not just a matter of having a lot of horsepower—the main thing is traction. So you’ll randomly have people come with expensive cars, and they want to try and race someone, and I’ll look at their tires and say ‘ok, you can race this ugly assed car right here,’ but that ugly assed car is actually pretty fast, and we’ll just hustle them for their money.”

Similarly contrary to expectations, the drivers themselves are of far less stature than the cars. Both the guys are dismissive of the idea of a single driver that might be looked up to, or idolized in the way that commercial racers often are—like Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton, who told me in the [Ctrl-C]+[Ctrl-V] issue that behind the wheel he felt “made for this.” “It’s more about what kind of car you have and how you drive it.” The bearded guy tells me, “There’s some cars that you’ve got to be kind of ballsy to drive on the street. For the most part everyone I know can really handle their cars well.”

In the old West, horsemanship was a prized skill—a mastery of both beast and terrain. The racers too know their streets, and will use cracks and potholes to leverage other drivers—especially novices and newcomers. I neglect to tell the two I’m sitting with that I’ve never even learned to drive stick—I love the aesthetic of cars and have done some reckless things in automatics, but street racing isn’t one of them. In spite of females occasionally attending and racing, it’s a macho culture, and a predominantly blue-collar one, though I find it interesting how flat it is compared to some other sports—it’s the love of it that matters, and at the end of the day, there’s plenty of allure in an arena where a Trans Am from the Valley can smoke a Porsche from Beverly Hills.

The guys are swift to differentiate between the street racing scene, and other car scenes that they’re often confused with—not least by police and the media, who are seen as both underestimating the technical proficiency, and overstating the recklessness and presence of drugs and alcohol at the meets. “During a big race, drinking is pretty much something you’re 100% never going to see. At the Takeovers—which is the donut people [motorheads who gather in empty lots in large groups and throw their cars in tight circles of screeching, smoking rubber]—a lot of those people drink,” the big guy tells me, “they’ll have their bottles out and they’ll be drinking, but that scene is a more chaotic scene, more a ‘fuck the police’ kind of scene, and you’re doing it to make a statement.”

Niero explains how rare it is to see the racers engage in any other vices—even away from the road. He’s observed it as relatively uncommon even at the Takeovers, and directs me to a comment made in his documentary by a driver who attends these non-race events: “I am not going to say it’s fuck the police and fuck the system, it’s just my lifestyle. Everybody got their lifestyle. There are people who like to smoke weed, smoke crack, I like to do donuts in my car—that’s what I like to do… that’s my drug. I don’t drink or smoke.”

As a heady fusion of adrenaline and high horse power, crashes in races are inevitable. Have you guys ever wiped out? I ask, “Plenty.” The shorter guys admits, laconically, “not too many injuries, but plenty of accidents.” “There’s maybe one in every 10,000 races,” the big guy speculates. The risks to other motorists or pedestrians—at least for the high-stakes racing—are seen as limited by the racers.

Though there have been fatalities, but in recent years only for spectators. The guys describe a particular crash as a Rubicon-Crossing moment—they refer to it as “the major accident.” In February 2015 a North Hollywood man, Karen Balyan, lost control of a Ford Mustang in the first few seconds of a race, and crashed into dozens of spectators on a strip of road known colloquially as ‘the Canoga Speedway.’ Two local men—Eric Siguenza, aged 26, and Wilson Wong, aged 50, were killed. Balyan was given 12 years in jail, and the other racer—Irael Valenzuela was given a one year sentence, with five years probation. “That was a very big turning point.” The bigger guy tells me. The other guy agrees: “Basically cops became edged to go after modified cars and street races more, and before all that it wasn’t as big of a deal.”

Niero has observed the risks firsthand, and is thoughtful in his defense of the culture, pointing to the fact that L.A. has no easily accessible or affordable race tracks: “These guys don’t really have an alternative so they don’t necessarily know what it would mean to have an alternative to street racing. Once you give them an alternative you may demonize them. This is an institution that has been here for 60 years, and people find it easier to turn and look the other way rather than actually say ‘right, here’s a problem, what are we going to do with it?’”

Through this lens, the street racing becomes another facet of a very typical struggle of today’s Los Angeles—a city that demands road participation by the scale of its sprawl and lack of public transport, yet which makes the ownership of a car oppressively expensive and easily criminal—particularly for the poor and working class. Each year the city raises $158 million from parking tickets alone. “Driving is a very big necessity [in L.A.],” the big guy reflects, “99% of the time everyone needs to drive pretty far to get to their job. So if you do something as simple as fucking up and not going to court for one ticket, now you have a suspended license, now you get pulled over for driving without a license, they impound your car—it’s a spiral… it gets worse and worse. That’s a very common thing for most people at the car meets.”

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Ultimately the city is battling more than just a century of history and a deeply embedded cultural narrative—it’s battling a consuming passion: “Even if you’re just watching this you know you’re doing something illegal.” The bearded guy admits, “There’s no innocent people doing this. You’re getting some sort of adrenaline rush. There’s two types of people,” he lists on his fingers, “for some it’s like a hobby, for some it’s like a lifestyle. Basically if you get caught—for a lot of people they’re going to stop doing this altogether, for others you might stop doing it for a couple of weeks and then you’re going to get right back into it. Because it is a lifestyle. All your friends are doing it, all you think about is doing it. It’s like a drug—it’s going to pull you in. You want that sense of adrenaline.”

The guys are wary of how they’re presented in print—even anonymously—but they’re generous with their time, honest with their answers, and trust me enough to effectively invite me to a meet—or to tell me that they would at least tolerate my presence were I to attend one. Sadly the next big event falls the day after our press date. I certainly won’t be thrusting any automatic transmissions into drive and making a fool out of myself, but you will find me there on the sidelines (admittedly behind the rear wheels). It’s a calculated risk. A transaction of danger for pleasure, and an interaction with a tradition of lawlessness that still pumps along the arteries, and down the freeways, into the very heart of America.


Still Images From Tiziano Niero’s Upcoming Documentary Chase Is A Race
Written by: Gus Donohoo