Since the days of Elvis, Eisenhower and the Edsel, illegal street racing has flourished on deserted roads in the San Fernando Valley. Driving at breakneck speeds, dragsters must stay one step ahead of the law and seconds ahead of an opponent as they vie to be crowned the new King of the Road.
But in the last couple of years, Valley street racers, in souped-up cars and motorcycles, have raised the stakes. No longer do friends and foes oppose each other only for the pure enjoyment of it. Money in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, is gambled on fast wheels and fearless nerves. Racers, faced with investing thousands of dollars in new motors and other expensive auto parts, say winning a race must reap more than momentary pride.
"I've put 20 grand into my car in four years," said Steve, 23, who repairs radiators and whose most recent motor in his 1969 Chevelle cost $5,000. "I don't have a savings account. Half of my check every week goes into my car. Who wants to beat up their motor for nothing?"
Racers bet against their competition with cash fronted by spectators who make their own--and frequently larger--side bets. Betting is usually in the $50 to $200 range.
Some dragsters complain that the new financial risks have diluted the original spirit of street racing--all-out anarchy.
But, considering the crowds who show up every Wednesday and Sunday nights, racing in the Valley remains a spirited pastime. Dozens--about 10 of whom race regularly--gather at fast-food hangouts, usually Arby's in Reseda on Wednesdays and Tommy's in Sepulveda on Sundays, to plan the night's races.
Even when police force them to flee one location, the dragsters migrate via caravan to the next prearranged meeting place.
On one recent Sunday night, in the span of about half an hour, two police cars chased 50 racers from Tommy's to a Winchell's at Chatsworth Street and Zelzah Avenue in Granada Hills to the Lumber City parking lot on Sepulveda Boulevard in Mission Hills.
"It's very obvious when they cluster and make their moves," said Sgt. Dennis Zine, supervisor of the Los Angeles Police Department's Valley traffic safety team. "We have the air unit and other units in the vicinity to spot their moves."
Each time, the officers flashed their lights and asked the crowd to disperse. Everyone vanished in a matter of minutes.
"I think they're through for the night," one officer said after chasing the racers from the Lumber City lot.
But minutes later, the pack had gathered at Canoga Avenue and Lassen Street in Chatsworth, one of their frequent racing sites. They completed one race before the police arrived.
"They think street racers are a bunch of 16-year-old kids in Mom's cars," said Robert, 21. "But they don't realize how organized it can be."
Said Ed, 27, a racer since he was a teen-ager: "Escaping the cops kind of adds to it all. It's like we're doing something, and let's see if we can get away with it."
In the last decade, Los Angeles Police Department undercover operations have resulted in the arrest and prosecution of dozens of street racers, although Valley officers in recent years have focused their attention on other crimes.
"With the gang activities and the drug problems, those are more of a priority than the street racers," said Zine, who added that complaints about racers from residents have dropped significantly in recent years.
'Only So Many Resources'
He estimated that it would require a 25-man task force eight hours of work to apprehend the people who race in the Valley on an average evening, and "a police department has only so many resources." Street racing is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine, usually about $600, and a possible jail sentence.
In September, 1980, a 50-man Valley police task force arrested 46 people for street racing and curfew violations on San Fernando Road in Sylmar. Before those arrests, Zine said, there had been eight reported drag-racing-related deaths in 18 months. He said recent figures are not available, but the danger remains. "Their fun gets people killed," he said.
Zine said he didn't realize that the dragsters and their supporters bet more than a few dollars.
"I thought it was just nickel-and-dime stuff," he said. "That's organized gambling, and that's illegal. They weren't doing that in the past."
None of today's racers knows when or how the drag-racing tradition began in the Valley. They recall an attachment to automobiles in their adolescent years, often passed on by parents, and soon discovered the streets as a natural outlet for their passion. Bored with the routine of Valley night life, they discovered their niche in the social strata.
"It's like one big giant party," Ed said. "You see people and friends of yours you don't see anywhere else."
The party is divided into three classifications: the hard-core racers, who bet hundreds and thousands of dollars; the novices, a younger breed who only put up a few dollars and race more for the fun of it, and the "squirrels" who, much to the irritation of the serious dragsters, are only spectators. The racers say the squirrels inflate the crowd, drawing too much attention from the police.
Many of the racers--mostly men in their 20s and 30s--are auto mechanics or work in other car-related fields, perfecting skills they'll exploit in the nights ahead. It is easy for them to pick up a minor part that can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Racing nights begin shortly before 9 p.m. Slowly, the empty parking lots fill up with racers and their friends piled into run-down Chevys, Camaros, El Caminos, motorcycles and four-wheel-drive pickups in a spontaneous auto show. People roam from car to car, many of the hoods left open for observers to gaze at the impressive collection of motors. Racers pull into the lots with their engines revving and stereos blasting in a bid for more attention. They get it.
Once the primary participants arrive, the negotiations begin. Racers often designate representatives to conduct the bargaining for the duel ahead. A typical night features two or three races.
"So much depends on how well you can get the best deal," Steve said. "It's as important as how fast your car is."
Racers argue, for hours it seems, to secure any advantage they can. Normally, motorcycle racers, whose machines have the potential for quicker acceleration than cars, will allow their opponents a small lead, perhaps several car lengths. The racer's history is always taken into consideration. A very successful dragster will be expected to give lengths to someone with a lesser reputation. Not surprisingly, a fair amount of hustling goes on, as racers deliberately drive poor races to improve their bargaining position for the next, and often more lucrative, battle.
"People have long memories here," said Craig, 22, who races his Suzuki motorcycle. "That's why I like to race when not many people are around. This way, people don't know how fast the bike is. Word gets around, but a lot of people don't believe the word."
50 People Gathered
On one recent Wednesday, Craig had no choice--about 50 people gathered at Glenoaks Boulevard and Peoria Street in Sun Valley to watch him race Steve's Chevelle for $50. Situated next to a factory far from any residential areas, the Sun Valley site is a favorite because racers have several hundred yards on Glenoaks to slow down after crossing the finish line. The track is about a quarter of a mile long.
After lengthy negotiations--"So much of drag-racing is a waiting game," said Robert--Craig finally agreed to give Steve a 17-car-length head start.
Once the terms were set, it was time for both racers to undertake last-minute preparations. Steve revved his engine as his friends put Track Brite on his tires. Craig did the same. The substance heats the tires, making them adhere better to the concrete and take off faster.
Steve then put a $15 bottle of nitrous oxide--a gas--into his motor to give it added horsepower and speed. Racers call it applying "the juice" or "the bottle," and it is a condition that must be agreed to by both parties or else it is cheating.
"You wouldn't believe all the ways you can hide the juice," Robert said. "It is very easy, and you can't detect the smell. Everyone tries to cheat. It's all about who can cheat the best."
Cheating, Craig's followers told him, was his only hope against Steve. He would have to "steal the move." Simply, that means leaving before the flagman actually signals for the race to start. Racers steal the move on a regular basis.
Jumped the Signal
Craig jumped the signal, but it didn't matter. He lost by at least five lengths. His supporters had lost $30 and patience. "We had a bitchin' move and he couldn't take him," said Rodney, 22. "That's what I call an inexperienced street racer."
Craig, who works in construction, accepted defeat gracefully. "I should have been a lot higher on the RPMs."
Steve didn't gloat. The victory kept him on track for more winnings and his dreams of street-racing immortality. "I bought this car when it was all busted up, and I've put four motors in it. This car will be a legend. People will be talking about it for years."
At midnight, the crowd dispersed. All talk was about Steve.
A week later, Steve faced a challenge from Aaron, 26, and his Katana motorcycle. Aaron hadn't raced in three years and was only willing to give Steve four car lengths and "the go," which means the race begins as soon as Steve makes the first move.
"I want to do it for a C-note, but four-and-the-go is too close," said Steve, who agreed to race for $50, mostly fronted by his friends. "He offered me six-and-the-go last week, but I think everyone has got him scared now."
Countered Aaron: "The bike can only go 1080 (10.8 seconds in a quarter of a mile) with a pro rider, and I'm no pro rider. My reaction time is poor."
Plea for Sympathy
The plea for sympathy didn't work, and Aaron finally gave Steve seven lengths and "the flash"--the race starts when the flagman turns on the flashlight. Steve saw an opportunity to steal the move.
"Lift the light to your stomach," Steve told the flagman, "so then I'll know you're just about to light it."
The flagman, a friend of Steve's, agreed.
Seconds later, Steve took off from the starting line, and the crowd assumed that he would win. But Aaron beat him by one car length.
"My reaction time is very good," said Aaron, who won $20 from Steve. (The other $30 was split among their backers.) "I was just saying that to get the best deal I could."
Steve remained undaunted. "I'll have my chances."
Once again, the crowd had been entertained.
"It was exciting to me," said Lora, 21. "The speed, the noise, it's all so alive. I know a lot of people who have made a lot of money in street racing."
Along with dozens of others, Lora stood well behind the starting line to avoid the possibility of being hit by racers. Cars occasionally have veered off the street into the curb.
But dragsters say they don't think about the danger.
"Once you start thinking about it, that's when it will mess you up," Robert said. "You have to concentrate on winning."
Racers say the danger certainly doesn't justify any police efforts to stop them. Furthermore, they contend, the community should sanction a special track in the Valley for them to race legally.
Legal Drag Strips
The legal drag strips in Palmdale and Bakersfield are too far away, racers say; they would have to spend too much money on gas and transporting their motorcycles and cars. The legal strips require a helmet and seat belt and forbid certain auto parts. Betting occurs there, although not as frequently as on the streets.
"Having a track here would solve a lot of problems," said Dave, 20. "Police wouldn't have to chase us, and this whole thing wouldn't be a general hassle. Cars would stop getting impounded by the cops."
Zine said several attempts were made earlier in the decade to locate a suitable drag strip, but they were unsuccessful.
"There is no location here," Zine said. "You're not going to have a drag strip next to a residential area. The land is too valuable here for a drag strip."
Meanwhile, racers will continue each week to assemble at their hangouts. They can't imagine ever growing tired of the thrill that only speed generates.
"Life begins at 170," said Joe, 21. "The fastest I've ever gone is 240 m.p.h., and after you hit 170, it doesn't seem like you're passing things. It seems like things are passing you."
Added Craig: "The cops will certainly never stop us. They might break down a place and give people tickets, and it might be slow for a while. But we'll go to another place. We'll always find another place."
And with the emergence of money on the street-racing scene, the stakes may become too high to ever disappear.
Several weeks ago, a veteran racer arrived late at Arby's and was still angry about all the money he had spent on repairing his motorcycle. He surveyed the night's racers and searched for a victim.
"I need a serious money race tonight," he said. "Not $100 or $200 worth. I mean some real serious money."