Car Racers Rejoice in L.A. Version of Hot-Rod Heaven : Automobiles: The return of legal racing at the Terminal Island strip means that racers are more likely to stop dangerous contests on the streets, some say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The thick, stinging smell of burned rubber is like incense and the roar of car engines sweeter than harp music to the hundreds of street racers who are in heaven because legal drag racing has returned to Los Angeles.

For almost 10 years, drag racing fanatics have had to go to Palmdale or Bakersfield to test their machines legally. The recent opening of the Terminal Island track, run by the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers, means racers in Los Angeles can have a steady diet of what they swear is one of life's great pleasures: going faster than another car, truck, jalopy, go-cart or anything else that will move.

"Have you ever wanted to just beat somebody?" asked Lee Taylor of Watts. "I don't mean hurt them, but said to yourself: 'I've got to do whatever it takes to beat them?' That's what racing is all about."

"It's for the thrill, the fear and the exhilaration," said Lavon Simpson, a Lynwood mechanic.

"He's trying to tell you it's an alternative to sex," chimed in Shelby Hall, 27, of Gardena, while others in the group laughed.

"Naw, it's not that good, but that's what we're here for, the thrill," Simpson said.

Although drag racers have had no legal place to go in the city, many racers say they practiced on the streets. The return of the Terminal Island strip, some said, means that racers will be more likely to take their cars off the streets.

"At the very least, this is going to cut down on the amount of times you have to try out your car on the street before you really race it," Simpson said. "Before, every time you went out you had to risk getting caught by the cops. Now you can just come here."

"Big Willie" Robinson, president of the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers, and a legend among drag racers, opened the gates to the drag strip at 8 a.m. Nov. 20 to finish setting up the track. Minutes later, racers were bringing their cars, lovingly towed on trailers, to the strip's parking lot.

The group ran a strip on Terminal Island from 1974 to 1984, when it was forced to leave because the Port of Los Angeles needed the site for a project. Robinson worked on drag racing projects around the country until the riots of 1992 persuaded him that the city needed drag racing as an outlet for recreation and competition. The port will not need the site again for a year, and the board of harbor commissioners told Robinson his group could use the site until then.

Sporty-looking, aerodynamic cars raced, as did scruffy little Volkswagen bugs that were all engine. Teensy go-carts gripped the track better than the big cars could, and they raced against each other and motorcycles. Even souped-up station wagons competed, as did a fire-red 1923-style Model T "street rod."

Tom Capalbo, an attorney from Garden Grove, drove a car that drew glances of admiration all afternoon. His pink-striped black El Camino, named Guilty Mind, can blaze down a quarter-mile strip in 9.2 seconds. The engine alone cost thousands of dollars and the stick shift looked like the inside of a robot's arm.

"There's nothing like the thrill of speed," said Capalbo, who has been racing off and on since 1962. "But the best thing is, well, take a look around you at what's going on here.

"Instead of seeing black, white, orange or red, what one racer sees when he looks at another is a competitor," Capalbo said.

Indeed, Robinson had touted the unifying power of drag racing to the Harbor Commission in his efforts to gain its permission to use the site.

Before the racing started, Robinson called everyone over to explain the day's technical delays and bask a bit in the general elation at returning to Terminal Island.

"We told the world that when the street racers come together, it's all about brotherhood," Robinson yelled to applause. "They didn't think I was going to make it, but we put this track up in two days."

Rumors of Robinson's efforts to open another raceway had been speeding through the racing community for years, and many drivers left their racing cars at home until they saw with their own eyes that the track truly was back.

When the first cars roared their engines, burned some rubber to warm up their wheels and took off against each other, it was a spiritual experience for some.

"I'm loving it! I'm loving it!" said Richard Hayden of Burger Palace, a street racers' hangout in Arcadia.

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