Modified for Maximum Impact

Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

On almost any given night in some big city or sleepy suburb across this fair land, hundreds of teenagers and twentysomethings gather along some stretch of deserted roadway. There, a youth will stand in the middle of the street as two souped-up import cars rev the engines on their nitrous oxide--injected, high-performance Honda Civics or Acura Integras--and approach an imaginary starting line.

Then the youth will drop his arms and, in a scene straight out of a James Dean movie, the cars will roar down the street like angry tigers on a makeshift quarter-mile "track" reaching breakneck speeds.

Later this month, Universal Pictures will roll out "The Fast and the Furious," director Rob Cohen's adrenaline-fueled action film that opens a window onto this world of illegal street racing. Cohen's film attempts to capture all of it--the thunder of 300-horsepower engines, the exotic street theater, the tribal customs and the battlefield nature of today's street-racing scene.

Cohen, an engaging middle-aged father of a 14-year-old son who kids an interviewer that today's bald look among many young people is making his thinning pate fashionable, remembers the first time he witnessed an illegal street race, checking out the scene for a possible film project. It was out along San Fernando Road in the San Fernando Valley, where he was stunned to see hundreds of young people and their cars all lined up along the road as modified, turbocharged Integras, Civics, Toyota Supras and other pavement-hugging imports dueled in predawn darkness.

"I go, 'My God, there is something happening out here...." Cohen recalled. "That night, there were about 200 cars, just under a bridge, lined up. A guy was standing there. There was a little weird sound, smoke, wheels peeling, then the cops came and everybody went running."

Cohen ran to a waiting car, dove through the open window with his legs hanging out, and sped off in the night.

It is this heart-pounding excitement, occurring late at night all across America, that Cohen and his team of filmmakers set out to re-create in "The Fast and the Furious."

Cohen's film is Hollywood's latest attempt to reignite public interest in car-racing movies, which had its heyday with Paul Newman in "Winning," James Garner in "Grand Prix" and all those Saturday-matinee hot-rod flicks like "Hot Rod Gang" and "Hot Rods to Hell." Director Renny Harlin and actor Sylvester Stallone tried, and failed, to re-energize the genre with their recent thrill-ride "Driven," a film set against the backdrop of professional open-wheel racing, but as of Wednesday, the movie has taken in only about $31 million.

What Cohen saw that night on San Fernando Road would not only fire his imagination, but the resulting film would cause Universal executives to realize that they had tapped into a burgeoning underground craze that, if marketed aggressively, could turn their little $39-million racing movie into a sleeper summer hit.

Anyone who doubts that illegal car racing is a mushrooming phenomenon need only drive out to Ontario, a flat, industrial town at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles. Here, shortly after midnight on a recent Saturday, all seems quiet. The Carl's Jr. off the Jurupa Street exit of the 15 Freeway is dark. A motorist or two stands under the neon glow of the all-night Arco sign, pumping $2 gas in an eerie Edward Hopper-like scene.

Then it begins.

A car circles the gas pumps and pulls out of the Arco station. It is quickly followed by a conga line of other vehicles. Who these drivers are in this makeshift caravan is anybody's guess. They have come for one reason: to find a local "track."

The cars turn onto an industrial street called Wineville past giant warehouses. Then it comes into view, something so surreal that it takes a few moments to realize you have not stumbled into a scene from "American Graffiti."

For all along Wineville near Frances Street are hundreds of young people of all races standing next to high-performance import cars. Some youths clutch video cameras to record the event. Others simply hug their girlfriends or stand, hands in pockets, bantering with their buddies.

In the middle of the street stands a youth, who raises his arms as an Integra and a Toyota Celica rev their engines. The drivers sit stone-faced as they prepare to race side by side for a quarter of a mile.

His arms drop. Tires screech. Engines roar. Exhaust belches into the inky darkness as the pungent odor of gasoline wafts through the air.

As the cars hurtle down the street at speeds of up to 100 mph, two more cars approach the starting line. Behind them, at least a dozen or more racers rev their engines and ask other drivers if they want to accept their challenge.

Suddenly, someone in the crowd yells "Popo! Popo!"--slang for cops--and hundreds of youths run to their parked cars and scatter. An Ontario police cruiser, its light bar blinking brilliant colors, comes into view. If the cops catch anyone racing, they can impound the cars.

RJ De Vera, a 24-year-old concept consultant with Motegi Racing in Rancho Dominguez, who served as a technical advisor on Cohen's film and has a small acting role in it, watches the scene unfold. It's just the same, he says, when he was racing in the early '90s. "Usually it's a weekly thing," he said. "I just came back from Seattle. It was pretty crazy. It's the same there as here. Lot of kids meeting in parking lots, trying to find a spot to go. They'll go to one spot and try to race as much as they can, then the cops will come and they'll go to the next spot. It's kind of funny. That whole movie part where everyone goes 'Cops! Cops!' and leaves. It's just like that."

Who determines where the races will be held? "No one does," De Vera answered. "There's always like three, four or five different areas and you just kind of follow everyone until everyone decides to stop.

"Usually, they pick a really long stretch of road near a factory where there isn't a cross street," he added. "They'll just go as far as they think they should. Usually, they'll end up in third gear or start of fourth. They'll turn on their hazards if they're winning."

A 20-year-old racer who identifies himself as Mario from Pomona sits in the Arco station as dozens of cars and hundreds of people clog the parking lot. This is "halftime," as the youths fill up with gas, get out and chat with other drivers, and size up the competition.

Why does he race? "It's just a thrill," Mario said. "You come out here to get respect for your car. That's pretty much what it's all about. Out here, you get known and people respect your car."

How did he start? "Just as a hobby, pretty much. Now we are trying to build a car to take it on a national level. The car cost me $2,400 and the motor cost me another $6,000. But to get on the national [legal] level, you need another $10,000 at least just to be competitive."

Ever been caught by the cops?

"I've had it impounded once before. I was just driving up the street and somebody else was driving next to me and they pulled us over." (It cost him $700 to get it out of impound.)

The Arco station, which looked like the San Diego Freeway during rush hour only moments before, is suddenly a ghost town as the cars head out for the next race.

The die-hards won't drift home until nearly 4 a.m.

From the cars to the lingo to the look, Cohen and producer Neal H. Moritz, who previously teamed on "The Skulls" and HBO's "The Rat Pack," have attempted to mirror the real-life world of street racing. They know that one false note will instantly turn off the young crowd that inhabits this world.

But the filmmakers acknowledged that for dramatic purposes, the movie had to devise a storyline that would do more than depict street races.

"You have to hang a Hollywood movie on some rails, some story," Cohen said. "You could get a guy who just wants to be king of the streets, but then what is the story? Races and races and more races. So, I said, 'Are there any criminal activities that are offsprings of this world?' The police told us there are two things that happen in this world: car thefts and hijackings."

Cohen said producer Jerry Bruckheimer had explored car thefts in "Gone in 60 Seconds" last summer, but Cohen decided to inject a hijacking plot into "The Fast and the Furious." As the movie unfolds, actor Paul Walker plays an undercover cop named Brian who is investigating a string of daring, big-rig hijackings and their possible ties to two notorious street racers--a king of the streets named Dominic Toretto, played with scene-stealing bravura by Vin Diesel, and the ruthless Johnny Tran, head of an Asian motorcycle gang, portrayed by Rick Yune.

The plot thickens as Brian falls in love with Dominic's sister (Jordana Brewster) and must then decide where his loyalties lie. Michelle Rodriguez of "Girlfight" fame co-stars as Dominic's sexy, animalistic lover.

Based on an article in Vibe magazine, the screenplay was written by Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist and David Ayer from a screen story by Thompson. Cohen's team included cinematographer Ericson Core, production designer Waldemar Kalinowski and editor Peter Honess. But it is the choreographed ballet of the cars and the thunder of their engines that are the real stars.

Craig Lieberman, a former street racer and now executive director of the National Import Racing Assn., was another technical advisor on the film.

"We had 14 principal cars" in the movie, Lieberman said, which included such high-performance imports as the Integra, Supra, Civic, Mazda RX7, Mitsubishi Eclipse and Nissan Maxima.

"You can buy those cars for as little as $20,000," he noted, but when fully modified, the price can skyrocket to $150,000.

At NIRA-sanctioned races, a front-wheel-drive Honda Prelude with a 2.2-liter engine can make 700 to 750 horsepower and can negotiate the quarter mile in nine seconds. The fastest import going these days, experts say, is a Mazda RX7 that hit 181 mph in a low seven-seconds quarter mile.

Unlike hot rods of old, many of these fuel-injected babies come equipped with on-board computers. Drivers install nitrous-oxide bottles that when hooked up to a gas line, provide an instant boost of up to 100 horsepower, all with the flick of a switch.

Howard Lim, group publisher of EMAP, which publishes performance car magazines Super Street and Max Power, sees strong comparisons between what the kids today are running and the earlier generations of hot rods.

"That whole scene of hot rod racing is being repeated now with different vehicles," Lim said. "These cars today are becoming more and more technically advanced. Instead of tuning with a screwdriver, these guys are tuning with laptops."

Cohen sees today's racers as a straight line back to the 1950s and the era of hot rods. After that came the muscle cars of the '60s--the Chargers, the Chevelles, the Mustangs, the Shelbys--all that "Steve McQueen stuff" that epitomized American cultural power. In the 1970s came the glamour race cars for the elite--Ferrari, Lotus, Maserati and Porsche. But with the advent of Japanese cars that began to flood the American market in the '70s, young people began tinkering with imports.

The movie was shot entirely in Southern California and contains some of the most hair-raising car chases captured on film. In one seven-minute sequence shot on a desert freeway near Hemet, actor Matt Schulze hangs onto a speeding truck while the driver tries to blast him with a shotgun. Other races were staged on Pacific Coast Highway near Trancas Canyon Road in Malibu and on a wide stretch of Prairie Avenue in El Segundo. A huge "Race Wars" sequence that appears toward the end of the movie was filmed at San Bernardino Airport and attracted about 1,500 import car owners and enthusiasts.

When the movie was previewed in Sacramento, Cohen recalled, the predominantly young audience applauded after the first car chase. Worried that the Sacramento test screening might have been too easy, Universal held another preview in Chatsworth, where the audience also gave the film high scores.

Cohen said that after the second screening, he was approached by Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures, who asked what he would think if the studio pushed back the movie from March to June?

Cohen admitted he was initially panicked at the thought of his small film without big stars competing in a marketplace saturated with big effects-laden films like "Pearl Harbor" and "Tomb Raider." "[Shmuger] said, 'Have faith in your movie and faith in our marketing department; we will not let you down,"' he recalled.

Cohen, who takes care to stay attuned to today's trends in pop culture, has never been a critic's darling. He hopes that with "The Fast and the Furious," critics take it for what it is and consider the audience it is geared toward. His biggest hope is that when the final box-office tallies come in around Labor Day, his film will surprise everyone by becoming one of the summer's 10 top-grossing movies.

A potentially troubling aspect of the film is how much it glamorizes illegal street racing.

Jon Fitzsimmons, spokesman for Racers Against Street Racing, an organization supported by Honda that is working to give youths alternatives to illegal racing, said he is concerned about how younger audiences--particularly the racers themselves--will react after seeing their sport emblazoned on the big screen.

Noted Fitzsimmons: "I think a lot of movies that come out have the power to glamorize things, but most people have the smarts to differentiate between what they see and what they do.

"People can be hurt from cars going out of control," he added. "You have a lot of inexperienced drivers at these races who may not be familiar with fast acceleration."

In Carson, for example, street racing has become such a constant problem that the L.A. County Sheriff's Department recently received a $200,000 state grant to crack down on the races. A city spokeswoman said a 17-year-old girl was killed in a race in Carson in 1999 and a 19-year-old man died in a race-related wreck last year. In January, authorities arrested 32 people, mostly juveniles, and impounded 72 vehicles during a sweep in the Sylmar-Sun Valley area. Police said that in 1999, at least eight young people died in accidents involving illegal racing or speeding in the San Fernando and Antelope valleys.

And in an incident near San Diego, a man videotaping a race from the sidelines was struck and killed by the racers.

Ontario police Det. Mike Macias estimated there's been a five-fold increase in illegal racing in his city in the past decade. "Now, you get groups of 300 to 500 cars and each one of those cars has three or four people in it."

On a recent visit to a series of illegal races in Ontario, The Times saw no flagrant alcohol use among the kids watching the races unfold, but police said the festival-like atmosphere that often surrounds these clandestine races has attracted a gang element, resulting in vandalism, tagging and even shootings.

"Kids involved with street racing are after the girls, they're after the speed, they're after the drugs, they're after the alcohol and they're after the gambling," Macias said. "That has attracted a more criminal element."

Even with an expanded police presence, he added, it is difficult to stamp out the nighttime races. "Our biggest problem is, we can send 12 officers out there and you are not going to be able to control a mobile group of 300."

But Cohen believes most street racers are being unfairly stigmatized. "There are many things in American history where what started out as illegal and dangerous wound up as the new thing and spawned a new kind of inventor, a new kind of automotive engineer, a new kind of fuel, a new kind of sport, a new kind of something," the director said.

"So, you say to me, would I rather have 'Boyz N the Hood' or 'The Fast and the Furious'? I would rather have 'The Fast and the Furious.' I've been out there night after night where a bunch of people go to somebody's turf, race cars and, if they lose, they hand over the bet money, and they wait for the next time they can get the illegal race to get together and get it back. They don't go into somebody's neighborhood and shoot their house up."

The film takes pains to depict the dangers of street racing, but Cohen levels some criticism at the police. He thinks the cops should say to the racers, "You guys have San Fernando Road from 1 o'clock to 4 o'clock on Thursday night and we'll keep the cross traffic out of that area. Drive safe, wear your seat belts and don't be stupid."

"Instead, they want to impound their cars," Cohen said with exasperation. "Well, the minute one kid escapes from one of those races, he's so adrenalized, that's all he can think about. How can he do it again? It's just like marijuana or any other area where you're trying to make people criminals in partaking in a new cultural institution. It's ridiculous, in my opinion."

One thing the film vividly captures is the multiethnic subculture of the street-racing scene, which is populated by Asians, whites, Latinos and African Americans. "I think this [street-racing] culture is the heartbeat culture of fashion, music, style," Cohen said. "There has been a synthesis of hip-hop, import cars, 'multi-culti' as I call it--the multi-culti tribe."

Although the cars may have changed over the past 50 years, he noted, the mystique of street racing remains as strong as it was when hot rodders had ducktails and their girlfriends wore poodle skirts. "There is something romantic about meeting in the middle of the night, going to some all-night restaurant, laying the bets, knowing the tracks that might come clear. You're running as many quarter miles as can be, knowing the cops are coming, then scattering like cockroaches in the middle of the night."

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