Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords
Big Apple Street Racing
Long a part of New York City's subculture, it has become a lifestyle for many enthusiasts.
Editor's Note: MM&FF does not condone or support street racing, nor does it suggest any reader participate in street racing due to its illicit and dangerous nature. But there is no doubt that it exists and is growing in popularity daily. The report you are about to read is for information and entertainment purposes only.--Jim Campisano
Street racing. Those words mean something different to everyone. For some it brings back memories of their youth, when they spent all day getting their car ready for a little stoplight-to-stoplight action. Others think of Hollywood's attempt to portray this late night activity on the big screen in The Fast and the Furious. Then, of course, there are enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike who are dead set against it due to its illegal, reckless and potentially deadly nature. But for many across the country, it is a way of life, a way to go racing without having to read rulebooks, deal with long tech lines, packed staging lanes or anything else that can hamper their desire to simply face off against the person in the other lane. Like most metropolitan communities, New York City has its own underground street racing scene, one that dates back some 50 years.
On any given night--summer, spring, fall or winter--there are several places to go racing on the city streets. And we're not talking about innocent traffic light encounters; we're talking in some instances about big money showdowns. "If it is dry out we will race," commented an anonymous street racer. Crowds of people gather in different locations and try to set up the race. Even the Internet has helped bring together different groups through the use of message boards, chat rooms, and e-mail. This society is typically low key, as wide spread attention can only enhance the risk of NYPD showing up. We are not going to tell you where it is happening in NYC other than it takes place in one of the five boroughs and the surrounding areas. Several people have spoken highly of the launch pads and say they hook almost as good as some of the local tracks!
The events take place on highways that are literally shut down by the following crowd of spectators. The cars do their burnouts and line up in their tracks like their dragstrip counterparts. A flagman starts the race and two groups of people stand at the finish line to call the winner. Racing on the street can be more complicated, but that is the basic idea. Arguing, racing for large sums of money, and the risk of getting caught by the authorities simply comes with the territory. The racers know it and deal with it--in fact, its outlaw nature is a big part of the appeal.
Legalities and accident risks aside, street racing is about winning. It brings pride, prestige, and honor when you're victorious. It is instant respect amongst your peers. It can also be financially rewarding since the stakes are high and most times races happen for thousands of dollars. People contribute anywhere from 20 to hundreds of dollars to a "team's" pot of money. Other times, the car owners put up big dough since it is more of an ego rush to have your car winning. And let's just say that some of the car owners are not exactly the pillars of the community and the illegal act of street racing is just a minor infraction of the law compared to their other businesses.
Street racing is winner-take-all, the final round so to speak. Money is divided up between the contributing parties. Afterwards the winner might head to the local diner and buy breakfast while the runner up goes home and eats crow.
"The rush of getting out there and doing it is great. It is hard to put into words. Street racing is not a hobby, but a lifestyle," says "Pete."
In this realm of drag racing, there aren't any corporate sponsors calling the next day, no 6-foot trophy, or winners' circle pictures. Just the basics--do your burnout, pull up to the starting line, haul to the finish line. The first one there wins. It is perhaps the purest form of drag racing. While some will disagree with its purity, there is no denying the fact that there is a winner and a loser and it is decided in roughly a quarter-mile.
The Rules Of The Road
There are two basic types of competition at legal dragstrips, bracket and heads-up. Bracket racing has the driver worrying about dial-ins, staggered starts, breaking out, and other variables. In heads-up racing, if someone can afford it, then the winner is first to the finish line. Fun and exhilarating, but you still deal with very specific rules of what you can and cannot do to your car. A great deal of travelling is required to go heads-up racing and there are always the rule politics to contend with. Street racers make up their own rules and each competitor agrees upon them. You don't like it, then don't race. The cars are typically matched up to be as similar in nature as possible. Stuff like racing a stock suspension car vs. stock suspension car and both have a small-block on nitrous. Real people and real cars make the scene, not corporate-backed racers or big-dollar car owners.
A dial-in is not adjusted and an association does not tweak the rules when there is a distinct advantage between the two machines. The racers work out their own idea of a spot, or head start. Two ways determine it, car lengths and/or "the break." The break has a different name across the country, but in NYC (and North Jersey) it gives one person the ability to move first. Racers from other areas around the country refer to the break as "the hit," "the move," "the bust," as well as probably a dozen other nicknames. The flagman is eliminated and when said competitor moves his opponent is allowed to start. It's a simple technique, but effective. The spot is always a source of controversy and usually the source of the unavoidable argument, or shall we say hardcore negotiations.
There is no commercialization, which can oftentimes leads to unwanted stickers on the car or odd rules that only please a small amount of racers (or a sponsor) and end up pissing off everyone else. Street racing is about competition, plain and simple. The tech department is solely made up of the opposing driver checking out the winning car on Anystreet Avenue, which is around the corner from where the crowd of spectators is hanging out. No formal protest procedures, no tech inspectors questioning the intent of rules, it is either right or its wrong. Most of the times it comes down to searching a car for hidden nitrous.
One anonymous guy on the scene had this to say: "This past year an '03 Cobra was unbeatable for months. He ran a lot of guys, but no one was able to beat him. We all thought he had nitrous and the car was searched several times but nothing was ever found. We are still split on whether he had the juice or not."
All too often big time street racing can be seen as glamorous and glorious, however the dark side of this late night activity can include jail time, heavy fines, and even injury or death (both to the participants and the spectators). Let's not beat around the bush--race tracks have safety personnel, the proper safety barriers, safety checks, and so on; industrial parks and highways do not. In street racing, there are no rules. The roadways are designed for cars travelling in the neighborhood of 55 mph, not 130 or 150 mph. Factor in the potential of oil or dirt scattered on the highway, and the fact it is not prepped with VHT through the finish line. These are all possible scenarios that can send a 3,000-plus vehicle out of control and into the watching crowd or through the guardrails. Many times the crowd lines up down the entire quarter-mile to watch, making for a lethal situation.
"One race, we had a new driver and he lost control of the car. He ended up T-boning the other guy," says Pete. Both racers walked away unscathed, but both cars were totaled. The opposing driver has since begun focusing on racing his personal Mustang at legal venues on an organized circuit. Pete also told us of another car that came from out of town looking for a little action. It was a '67 Nova that was running low 9s at the track on 10.5-inch slicks. "He lost it and hit four parked cars. Once again, the driver was lucky enough to walk away, but all the cars involved were seriously damaged. It's real dangerous. Even the best drivers can crash, but you take it as it comes," Pete stated.
Of course, not all the danger is from the racing itself. Not every street race location is in the safest of neighborhoods and both New York and New Jersey scenes have some rough areas. Usually the late night crowd knows that people are there for street racing, but most guys we spoke with said they keep an eye on each other's backs because you just never know.
Today's movies are visual masterpieces, but unfortunately when Hollywood tried to show street racing in the two Fast and Furious films, it looked more like a video game. At least in the New York area, the quickest and most feared cars are not Supras or Eclipses. There are a few quality import cars that have attempted to cross over and race the Mustangs, but they have had very little success. "Mustangs are everywhere these days and win a lot," says "Carl" (whose name we changed at his request). But by and large, Chevy-powered cars (mostly '69 Camaros, G-bodies, and Malibus) share the makeshift dragstrips with the '79-newer Mustangs. If you bring your car out, make sure it is genuinely quick because these cars usually run anywhere from the 9s to the 11s. Rumors of 8-second street racers run rampant, but none of our sources could confirm them.
The combinations are real; anyone can buy the parts and these Mustangs are probably very close to what most readers of MM&FF have in their driveway. Street racing has a mystique about it. Not only are a group of people roaming the streets in the middle of the night, but very little is usually known about your opponent's ride. What everyone thinks they know can be the biggest advantage you have when it comes time to set the race terms. Cars hit the scene and sometimes look like crap and these are usually the ones you need to avoid. According to "Matt," "Mustangs are doing great on the street because right now their small-blocks can be easily built and make great power. Turbo and blower cars have a hard time getting races because the high-tech stuff scares people off."
Doing more with less is the name of the game and sleepers are a must. Some guys will bring their car to the location on a trailer, while others opt to drive it on the street to show their car is not a thinly disguised racecar.
Where The Action Was
It may seem that Big Apple street racing is strictly for the serious racer, but that is not the case. Throughout the metropolitan area plenty of slower cars get lots of action. Francis Lewis Boulevard in Queens was the main strip--people would literally spend hours drag racing up and down the thoroughfare. The cops came every so often and the crowd would disperse to a local parking lot and wait for them to leave. Then the action was back on. It was run like a dragstrip; a person would pull up and someone would be there waiting to race. An 11- or 12-second car could be king. Not every run was for money and people did it for the sheer thrill of racing. However, it came to a screeching halt when the local residents got sick and tired of hearing cars blasting through the neighborhood until dawn almost every night. Of course, the occasional accident that killed a driver or bystander did not sit well with local authorities. In the late '90s the Queens District Attorney put together a NYPD task force to clean up the growing problem.
The NYPD task force, dubbed Operation Hermes, clamped down heavily on that location and other areas in Queens and began to impound cars that were caught in the act. They employed hidden video surveillance and used it to impound several vehicles. In fact, two of the impounded Mustangs appeared on MM&FF's May 1998 cover. NYPD converted the Mustangs into Highway Patrol vehicles, and they are still in service today. A law was passed to justify the citywide sweep for the illegal drag racers. It was dubbed a "quality of life" issue, like prostitution, public consumption of alcoholic beverages and New York's fabled "squeegee people." Basically, street racing deteriorated the quality of life for NYC residents and the legislation gave cops the ability to impound vehicles that violated it. Quality of Life issues ultimately shut down all of the X-rated and adult video stores on 42nd Street and paved the way for midtown Manhattan's revitalization under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
In the mid-'90s places like Hunts Point in the South Bronx and other regions of NYC were a hotbed for racing. NYPD came down hard on these locations, which were staples of the street racing community for decades. The tactics were not as severe as the Operation Hermes sweep. The sanitation department would drop sand or turn on the hydrants to prevent racing. Fountain Avenue in Brooklyn was rendered useless when the city fathers purposely added grooves and divots to the roadway, making the surface permanently rough. Today those locations only come alive in bench racing sessions.
The current "minor leagues" of street racing continue to take place on late nights, but the import crowd seems to make up that demographic in the New York street scene. Gone are the times of racing for hours on end, provided the police did not show up. The new groups of street racers have reinvented their ways and continue to fly under the radar and out of the headlines. The "major leagues" are where the serious iron comes out and if a racer is not packing (at a minimum) 10-second times, then they shouldn't bother looking for a race. These confrontations happen on highways across the New York metropolitan area. The participants are passionate about their lifestyle and continue to street race, despite NYPD's efforts to shut them down. Street racing has been around for generations and appears to be a part of the Big Apple's subculture that will never go away.
Getting Street Racers Off the Streets
Across the country many tracks have been adopting a program to help get drag racing off the streets. NHRA has its Street Legal Drags program, but it seems to have been geared towards the import scene rather than the large domestic crowd. In the Chicago area, a new type of racing event has been growing each year and it is essentially a street racing night at the dragstrip.
It began at US41 Raceway in Morocco, Indiana, several years ago as the Street Car Chaos and now several spinoff groups host similar events. Scandalous Racing (www.scandalousracing.com) has attracted hundreds of cars and thousands of spectators to Union Grove, Wisconsin's dragstrip. The track also holds its own event called Real Street Drags. Essentially, the track marks off car lengths for the proper spot and the timing clocks are turned off. They have two people on the top end calling the races providing a true street race-type environment without the danger and keeping it legal. More and more dragstrips across the country are starting to realize the value of these programs. They can pack the house and do a good service to local communities.
In some areas, unfortunately, this solution is just not practical. Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey, has enough problems with its neighbors when it opens for business during daylight hours. We can only imagine the ensuing melee if it tried to open for "legalized" street racing at midnight. In crowded areas like New York, New Jersey and (in theory) Los Angeles, where you are lucky enough to have sanctioned tracks at all, midnight to dawn racing is not a viable option thanks to noise restrictions.