July 20, 2001

Old Habits Never Die, They Just Go To San Jose - Street Racers Challenge Each Other And The Cops

By Russell Morse
Pacific News Service

SAN JOSE, CA - Mannen revs the motor of his black Acura Integra a couple of times. "I'm just thinkin' to be ahead of him, man. That's it." He pauses and takes a deep breath.

He's lined up with a black Honda Civic. The driver pops his head in Mannen's car window. "Ten dollars. You wanna run? Let's go."

Mannen nods and looks forward. The other driver runs back to his car.

Mannen rubs his shaved head. "Hella adrenaline is just pumpin' through me. I swear to God." Another deep breath. "Wait. Is that the cops?" Mannen doesn't have a driver's license.

The flagger drops his arms and Mannen's Acura takes an early lead. The Honda is but a memory as the Acura's speedometer jumps past 100 mph. As quickly as it started, the race is over and Mannen heads back to the starting line. "S***. Ten dollars like that?"

Hundreds of Hondas, Mustangs and Acuras line the empty, moonlit streets — called "tracks" — in industrial North San Jose. It's 1:30 a.m. and the races are just starting.

Every Friday and Saturday night, hundreds of young people from all over the Bay Area bring their souped-up cars to race along one of several "tracks." They race in one spot until the police come, then head to another.

This track runs behind a drab corporate office building. Hundreds of spectators yell and cheer, awaiting the next race. Seconds later, a loud boom in the distance causes a hush in the crowd, suspecting a gunshot. After an anxious moment, someone in the distance yells, "Firecracker!" Someone closer echoes, "Firecracker!"

A few seconds later, a long, loud whistling sound is followed by an even louder pop. Then another whistle, another pop, and a streak of light followed by a chorus of whistles and pops.

Suddenly, people scatter for their cars, fearing the police will be there shortly. Hundreds of motors start simultaneously and cars speed off in every direction. Everyone seems to know where to meet, and those without a ride start to walk to the rendezvous point — a lonely Chevron station.

People come here between races and fill up their tanks. Gearheads, gawkers and groupies crowd the parking lot, and the line to the all-night snack bar is out the door even at 3 a.m. People buy cigarettes and anything with caffeine — Mountain Dew, Red Bull.

Angel, 20, sits on a bench in front of the store, laughing and talking with her friends. Although several young women are here, she is the only one who races. Her car is a deep purple 2000 Honda Civic SI.

"Racing is what I'm about. I race for fun, I guess." She pauses. "Attention! I race for attention. I get more attention because I'm a female, but people doubt me because I'm a female, too."

Angel has proved her worth to doubters. "I went to Sears Point and hella people were laughing at me. They were thinking I couldn't pull it off. Then I ran a 15-1 and people stopped laughing."

That early success prompted plans for a future in legal racing. "I don't know if I'm goin' for NASCAR, but I'm goin' for something. I wanna run the imports in Europe."

In her three years of racing she has seen only a handful of women driving. "It's funny when these guys get smoked by a girl. So I just wanna say to them, `Don't doubt females. Don't doubt me when I come up behind you.'"

Everyone seems more relaxed — some time has passed and no one has seen a police car. Almost all at once, people step into their cars and roll out into a parade of sporty and very clean cars, honking and playing loud techno and rap. Though no one is leading, all the cars end up at the next spot, arriving from all directions.

The races are in the same spots on the same nights but there is no league or timekeeper, not even a person at the finish line. The only "official" is the flagger, who lines up the cars and sends them on their way. It's an envied position.

Manny, 23, is a regular flagger. "Before they race, I look in front of them to make sure that there aren't any cars coming and I look behind them in case the cops come.

"If the cops come, I let them know and they just roll. Otherwise, if they're ready, I flag them 1, 2, 3, go. The races last, at the most, sixteen seconds."

Manny says, "On an average night, there's about 200 cars and on a good night, there's like 400. The cops try to stop us, but they can't. It's just too big."

He asked a police officer why they stop the races. "The cop said that if the racers were smart, they'd find a place that the cops wouldn't care about." But he doesn't know of any such track.

He understands that racing near gas tanks and pipelines is dangerous, but "at this track, they're just breaking it up `cause we're tryin' to have fun and they just wanna ruin it."

But people keep coming back. "It's just a manly thing to do. People buy cars, soup `em up and make `em go fast. It's something to prove."

As excited as people get about cars, the real show stoppers are the motorcycles, or street bikes. DeMarco, 21, rides a Suzuki. He and two fellow racers come ride down from Antioch every weekend to race.

They switched from cars to bikes because, "You can get away on bikes. They can't catch you. The cops can't touch you. We just hit, like, 155 on the freeway on the way over here. We're pushin' 150 horsepower. That's more than a lot of these souped-up Hondas out here are pushin'. And we're way lighter." says DeMarco.

DeMarco and his crew peel out to face their next challenger — a monstrous GMC Suburban SUV. Everyone laughs. The flagger drops his arms and the Suburban speeds off. The motorcycle sits. When the Suburban gets about three-quarters of the way down the stretch, DeMarco takes off and catches up, beating him as the crowd explodes into laughter and cheers.

Cars line up. And the flagger sends pairs of cars speeding off. Fans and drivers heckle racers — and then comes the call "Cops!" People scramble for their cars, trying not to leave anyone behind. No one seems to know if the police are really there, but it's not worth it to wait around and see. In a matter of minutes, the track is clear.

At the Chevron, the parking lot is not so full — it's 4:30.

Billy, 14, is there with some of his friends.

"This whole racing thing is pretty cool." he says. "I got two years `til I get my license. I'm already saving my money, though. I wanna get an Integra."

Russell Morse is a reporter for YO! Youth Outlook, a publication by and about Bay Area Teens

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