Street racing
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Story and photos by Laurance Yap

Friday nights, I can still hear them from my bedroom window.

Three years on from when I first twigged to the roar of souped-up VTEC engines buzzing out of Milley’s donut shop just a few blocks down from my Scarborough home, the noise isn’t quite as loud as it once was, the crowds of cars gathering into the early morning hours not quite as big, or as dense, as they used to be. Milley’s, which once seemed to be the epicenter of Scarborough’s street-racing culture, has fallen out of favour – too much police presence on the Steeles corridor, too many highly-publicized accidents that have happened much too close by, and just a lot more traffic these days from the growing subdivisions, all of it on roads that have deteriorated to the point where a jab at full throttle will likely tug your front wheels off into the nearest ditch.

Still, there are the diehards, and the ones who live close by and who don’t want to go much further to get their dose of speed and noise. Every Friday, a house the corner from me that normally has an Acura RSX and a Nissan 240SX in the driveway becomes a parking-lot for high-performance machinery, playing host to a souped-up Acura NSX, a couple of lowered Preludes, an Integra Type-R and a tricked-out Celica. They stay there all weekend, every weekend, but are gone on Monday mornings.

Street racing

Street racing

Street racing

Street racing
A group of car enthusiasts gathers in a suburban Toronto strip mall and check out Subaru’s new Impreza STi. Click images to enlarge

Living so close to the street-racing scene, I’ve always had a more complex relationship with it than authoritarians in their downtown offices, legislators at Queen’s Park, and even the cops on the beat trying to hunt these guys down and keep them off the streets. In all the time I’ve lived where I have, I’ve only heard about bad racing accidents, never seen them; I’ve never seen the kind of insane behaviour (sociological and driving) that gets portrayed in movies like 2 Fast 2 Stupid. But most of all, I’ve seen how incredibly vibrant some parts of the culture are – how though a lot of the guys that are involved in the racing scene are there for the typically macho motives of bragging rights, the occasional bet, or bagging the girl spectators that seem to have become an integral part of the whole mindset, some of them have managed to design, build, and drive automobiles that are nothing short of true works of art.

It’s no coincidence that a lot of car ads are shot at night on wet urban roads and set to thumping hip-hop. Right here, right now, this is where car culture lives, and this is where it grows.

Actually, right here and right now I’m sitting on an outdoor patio with my friend Marcus, unsuccessfully trying to keep ice cream from dripping on my shirt. A few yards away, a couple that has just pulled up in a customized blue Civic hatchback is ogling our cars – his a stock-looking third-generation RX-7 (though it isn’t) and my tester for the week, a silver Subaru STi with what must be the tallest wing installed on a regular production car. While the girl’s hands gesture the sexy shape of his car in the air, he’s busy peering into the STi’s cockpit, pointing out the intercooler water spray button and the knob that lets you adjust the torque distribution of the all-wheel-drive system. Marcus’s beaming with pride, and even though the car’s not mine, so am I.

He’s telling me about how he feels targeted these days just because he drives a hot Japanese car. Last year, he got pulled over on Weston road and was warned by the cop that he’d been logged into a database of “people known to be associated with street racing,” even though he was just on his way home from the movies. He gets pulled over just because, and then has his car crawled over, the authorities just looking for opportunities to ticket him for something, anything–window tinting that’s too dark, headlights that aren’t legal, whatever. No wonder he’s been loath to install a bigger-diameter exhaust pipe and larger wheels, because he figures it would only increase the intense scrutiny he’s already under.

Not that Marcus is totally innocent, though. He used to be really into the street-racing thing, and use to run almost every week before it all just became too much. He’s got a house to pay for now, and is trying to finish off a university degree: the tickets that kept piling up, and the prospect of losing his car or his license mean that nowadays he just goes to the races to hang out, spend time with other car fanatics, check out what the latest trends are, see what people are doing. Keeping it real, so to speak.

Besides, he says, street racing has changed a lot in the time, just a couple of years ago, since he was running. “The crowd’s a lot younger now – average age is maybe nineteen or twenty. Kids,” he says derisively, “with too much money to buy fast cars but not enough experience to keep them under control. You can tell right away who they are when you show up to a meet. They’re the ones doing burnouts in the parking lot, tearing away from stoplights, popping wheelies on their motorcycles. They’re the ones that have kind of ruined it for the rest of us.”

The “rest of us” he describes as more serious racers. You can tell who they are, he says, by how their cars look normal unless you’re up close and notice R-compound tires, the lack of a catalytic converter, or a stripped-out interior – no sparkling graphics, no neon tubes hanging from the undercarriage, and most importantly no huge wings on cheesy aluminum struts. You can tell who they are by how they leave a meeting spot to go to a race: in staggered formation, slowly, so as not to draw any attention. You can tell by the way they behave – how they mostly just stand around waiting for a race to be arranged without getting in everyone else’s faces about how fast their car is. “If you’re serious, people know how fast you are.”

Marcus’s quick to point out that, unlike the big race in 2 Fast 2 Stupid, most contests are straight-up quarter-mile runs which begin and end at stoplights. That money rarely changes hands. And that the only guy in that entire movie that had but a shred of realism in his character was the one who stopped before jumping the bridge yelling “hell no.” No race win is enough to destroy your car over. The car is the reason you’re here. The car is sacrosanct.

One restless night I leave the house at ten o’clock and just drive around. Probably not the best idea in a car like the STi which screams unlawful intent from every embossed pink logo, gold Brembo brake caliper, and silver-painted BBS wheel. Call it something of an experiment – it takes less than half an hour to be pulled over and have the papers examined (thank heavens that Subaru’s documents are all in order, and that every one of the STi’s expensive and extensive modifications is totally street-legal). This despite staying scrupulously within the speed limit and cruising along in sixth gear making as little noise as possible. Suddenly I sympathize.

There’s a decent-sized group congregated in the parking lot of a Canadian Tire on Eglinton that Marcus has pointed me towards – he’s there along with his friends Chris (another RX-7 guy, tonight here in a Mazda6) and Jason (bone-stock Nissan Sentra Spec-V). But despite the number of cars around, there’s not much talking going on between drivers: they cluster in small groups, the BMWs over there with a Saturn Ion, the Cavaliers and Sunfires in another corner, and the Integras across from them. Two Mustangs roll in with huge rear tires and roaring engines, but their antics in the lot – squealing tires, hanging the tail out on the way into the coffee shop–not only Marcus them out as yahoos but also draw security out double-quick. A Metro cruiser shows up a few minutes later and the crowd quickly disperses.

But that’s just a warmup. The real crowds only gather after midnight, and Eglinton is too close to the city. Marcus’s told me that on weekends, it’s common to see a couple hundred cars show up at the Colossus theatre complex in Woodbridge, or a big strip mall at the corner of Woodbine and 16th Avenue. Westbound on Highway 7, and souped-up imports and the occasional muscle car start funneling in from other streets, so that by the time we reach the 400 a road that was near-deserted has become a veritable traffic jam.

At the Petro-Canada on the corner of Weston, groups of cars pull in, gas up, peel out; the lots behind the theatre are chockablock with racers and spectators, and the action has even spilled out into the lots of restaurants and other shops in the same megaplex. Standard wheels seem to be Cavs and Sunfires with the requisite body kitsch; there are also numerous Neons and the usual contingent of lowered Civics, Integras, and Eagle Talons. I’m surprised by how many domestics there are, but it just goes to show how much the scene has changed in the last little while – everyone’s waiting with bated breath for the new Dodge SRT-4, which is supposedly a lot more powerful than its 215-hp rating would attest.

Nothing much is happening, yet. Maybe it’s because it’s early – about half past eleven – or maybe because there’s still traffic on the roads around here. The police presence – a couple of marked cruisers, uh, cruising silently through the lots with their lights off, may be enough of a deterrent. I glance at the guy in the Talon next to me at the light and he shrugs his shoulders and pulls out of the lot, heads off down 7 – I don’t know whether he’s going home or is just looking for action elsewhere.

What is racing, exactly? Is it exceeding the speed limit on the highway within the vicinity of another fast-moving car? Is it flooring the gas pedal when coming away from a stoplight? Is it circling on-ramps more quickly than you should, trying to see if you can catch the guy in front of you? If so, then I’m as guilty of it as the guys who go at in organized races, the guys whose starting position has been brokered by someone at one of these meets, someone who usually doesn’t have a financial stake like he would in the movies, just a curiosity to see whose car is faster.

While I don’t dispute that street racing is a problem, or that it’s been a cause of many an accident in the city, or that it’s cost more than one innocent life, it’s difficult to reconcile what we’re hearing about the statistics with the anecdotal evidence. Evidence that at least in my neighbourhood says that tells me there’s less racing than there used to be, and that these days most of the modified cars you see cruising around late at night are more about show than go. Extremely lowered suspensions, huge wings, and basic engine modifications simply don’t make cars faster – often, they slow them down because whoever has done the modifying just doesn’t have access to the same resources as a multi-billion-dollar corporation with million-dollar R&D budgets.

Certainly there have been numerous accidents lately where excessive speed has been a contributing factor, as it often is when performance cars depart their intended course. But I wonder whether too many of these excessive-speed accidents have been labeled as street-racing accidents. Just because a Corvette has plowed into a ditch, or an Integra has struck a phone pole, doesn’t mean that it was racing. It could just mean that its driver was being an idiot.

Yet anecdotal evidence tells me that harassment of drivers of modified cars is way up. Friends of mine with tricked-out cars, especially small imports, report that they’re afraid to drive in certain areas of the city at certain times of the night for fear of being pulled over and given grief. Certainly I’ve had more than my share of run-ins with the law, given that I often get to drive more-expensive, and more-extroverted, cars than I would otherwise be able to drive. Not once has one of these run-ins been about speed, or racing, or anything else – they were all within a few blocks from home, all at significantly lower than the speed limit, all because I was guilty of being young and Asian and out at night driving a nice car.

“It’s simple profiling,” one guy tells me as I chat him up at Woodbine and sixteenth. “We know that racial profiling is illegal but that it happens anyway. Well, they profile your cars, too. And lord help you if you’re driving something that looks fast these days.”

Markham’s the place to be if you want to see the Japanese stuff. By the time I pull in around midnight, the strip mall’s lot is full of high-end Asian machinery, subdivided just like in the earlier meeting places into groups of like-looking cars and like-minded drivers. Cars and drivers who wear their Japanophile status on their sleeves and spoilers: the vast majority of Nissan 240s wear Silvia badges, all of the Lexus IS300s are branded as Altezzas, and many of the Integras have the full JDM-spec front-end with its rectangular lights and air intakes. A huge pack of speed bikes lingers at one end of the lot, and there’s a lineup at the Tim Horton’s drive-through that spills right out onto Woodbine.

First impressions are that this is a richer crowd, but that may be more of a cultural thing than a financial thing. Like myself, a lot of Asian kids are still living with their parents well into their twenties, and thus can pour a lot more of their disposable income (for the fanatics, that means all of it) into their cars, into all of the modifications. All of the cars are sparkling-clean, and few of them are any more than five years old. One guy catches sight of my only lightly-filthy STi as I pull into a parking space. “Yeah,” he says sarcastically, “wear that brake dust with pride.”

There’s some real art happening here – tastefully integrated body kits, intricate, and beautifully-designed, graphics, wheels I’ve never seen the likes of before. Art and technology, too. Laptops ride shotgun in a lot of these cars, software running on them allowing drivers to continually monitor their engines, make minute modifications to ignition timing, boost pressure, whatever, in order to extract optimum performance. Under hoods (many of them real carbon-fibre), highly-polished engines gleam in the artificial halogen light of the parking lot.

Despite all the cars, their fender-leaning drivers packing enough attitude to cast the next Fast and Furious sequel right here, there’s surprisingly little happening. Inside the Tim’s, people line up quietly, whisper their orders for a double-double and a vanilla dip; there’s very little bater between anyone, save for the shared glances through the window when something particularly hot (an NSX, a couple of BMW M3s, and my STi) pulls in. The lot is pretty desolate as well, without the expected hip-hoppery from souped-up stereo systems, the loudest sound the occasional bit of conversation carried by the wind, or the snap-scratch of a Zippo lighter. Everyone smokes here.

I don’t hang around too long. Even though there aren’t any police around, the whole place just seems kind of dead. A few cars pull out of the lot one at a time, probably to head off to a race in some desolate nearby location, but the crowd seems oddly restrained – tired, even. A reader who emailed me a couple of weeks ago spoke of how all of the media attention around street racing had just got the whole community down; how enough guys, even the ones who were just there to watch, were too scared to even come out anymore.

I’ve known Marcus since elementary school. His first car was a Volvo 240, which got destroyed in a fire in grade 12. Then he had a 740, then a Camaro (which he still drives in the winter), and two years ago, he bought his RX-7. “If I’d had the seven back when I was sixteen, I’m sure I would be dead by now,” he says. “And I think that’s part of the problem with some of these new racers. They’ve got enough money that they’re into the fast stuff right away – into the fast stuff before they’ve even learned to handle something slow. No wonder there are accidents.”

I ask him if a drag-racing track within the city – something that, unlike Cayuga or Mosport, isn’t more than an hour away – would get the racers off the streets. His answer is a cautious yes. “So long as it’s not too organized,” he says, “so long as people can show up, pay a few bucks, and run as much as they want all night, then yeah, it would work.” Having been to the track himself, though, he has difficulty believing that the informality of the whole street-race scene – the hanging-out, the bench-racing, the trash-talking – could make the transition to something more organized, structured, and safer.

“Let’s face it,” he says. “There will always be an outlaw element that will want to race on the streets, people for whom there will never be any substitute. And it’s not just poor guys, or guys with slower cars – some of the top racers have huge money, trailer their cars to meets, and accept the sort of risks they’re taking.” He tells me about last week, when he saw an Ultima GTR – a British kit-car with a Le Mans-style body – show up at one of the hot spots. “Six hundred horses and serious money in that race-spec engine, but I doubt he’d be at Downsview to play anytime soon.”

I see what he means. And I’m not so sure I even care about getting all the racers off the streets. Because lot of the best and most interesting developments in automotive design and technology have come directly from the streets – heck, in the sixties and seventies, the big three regularly developed their performance models by taking them down to the races on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue on Saturday nights. These days, a lot of the styling trends you’re seeing on production cars – the big wheels, the clear-lensed lights, the metal-flake paint jobs – have come from places like Colossus and Woodbine and 16th. While it would definitely be nice to reduce the amount of racing on the streets – for our safety and for the racers’ – there’s part of me that hopes we’re not entirely successful, that there remains a glimmer of that outlaw element that makes car culture so attractive in the first place.

Heck, when they first hit the streets a hundred years ago, cars themselves were kind of an outlaw element. You don’t want to go back to riding horses, do you?

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