Illegal street racing has been part of the American car culture since there were cars to race, streets to race them on and speed limits to break.
The subject is visited by movie makers every decade or so, the latest attempt being Universal Pictures' "The Fast and the Furious."
It opened with a big box-office take last weekend, attesting to the drawing power of a film featuring fast cars and fast company.
But "Fast" is getting decidedly mixed reviews from many in the automotive industry and the compact and import auto racing scene it attempts to depict.
Among the movie's detractors is the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. (SEMA), a Diamond Bar trade group that represents the $1.2-billion-a-year compact car performance and appearance equipment industry whose products are so prominently portrayed in the film.
In a statement issued days before the film debuted, SEMA spokeswoman Rosemarie Kitchin applauded the movie for publicizing the import and domestic compact car scene, but condemned it for glamorizing "street racing, the illegal and unsafe practice of using public streets for speed contests."
The races are exciting to watch on screen, but "send the wrong message to novice and amateur racers," says Len Monserrat, a Miami-based racer who drives the B.F. Goodrich Tires/Dynamic Turbo Mitsubishi Eclipse at import races held on National Hot Rod Assn.-sponsored drag strips. "Racing is great--on the racetrack," he says. "On the street, it's not only illegal, it's incredibly dangerous."
But Adam Saruwatari, another star of the import drag racing circuit, says the film was likable. "I enjoy going to see movies [like this] that stretch reality and have a good ending," he said. But he added that viewers have to remember that it is a movie and not be influenced by its depiction of street racing.
The movie, directed by Rob Cohen and produced by Neal H. Moritz, is the first full-length feature film to take on today's world of import-car street racing. It explores the cars and characters behind a band of street racing outlaws, led by Dominic Toretto, a character played by actor Vin Diesel. The racers finance their cars by hijacking trucks filled with consumer goods.
When big-city cop Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) goes undercover to expose their criminal exploits, the plot thickens as he is forced to decide where his loyalties lie and what his limits are.
The plot line doesn't overcome what some feel is an inaccurate, or incomplete, portrayal of the compact-car racing scene.
"They took advantage and totally exploited the import-car movement with negativity," says 24-year-old Omar V. Chavez of Los Angeles, who is active in the street and show-car arena.
"We have the real version of what's happening on the street, and then there's Hollywood's version--like kids don't need school or books and they don't need to be mechanically knowledgeable to understand import cars," Chavez says. Chavez worries that "kids will come out of the theater with a misconception of what's really going on."
Lawson Mollica, 28-year-old marketing manager for Advanced Engine Management, a performance parts manufacturing company in Hawthorne, was disappointed in the film both as an entertainment and a message.
"I think I saw the same movie a few years earlier, only they weren't outlaw street racers in that one, they were outlaw surfer extremists. Call me crazy, but the plot line was very 'Point Break,' " he says, referring to the 1991 Patrick Swayze/Keanu Reeves film about an undercover agent infiltrating a gang of robbers who use their ill-gotten gains to support their surfing lifestyles.
"Fast" represented only about 1% of the street scene "and even that representation was inaccurate," Mollica says. "Street racing does exist, but . . . it is dangerous and illegal, and there are other avenues to enjoy going fast." While companies like his develop, manufacture and market equipment specifically intended to boost the performance of compact cars, "I don't know of one manufacturer, AEM included, that condones" street racing, Mollica says.
Ryan Hawkins liked the movie despite flaws that he said included weak acting, technical inaccuracies, misrepresentation of the street car scene and racial stereotyping of the mostly young males who populate it.
The 22-year-old Orange County stockbroker arrived at the theater in Orange on Saturday evening in his 1993 Toyota Supra, followed by 200 of his closest "car guy" friends in a pack of 80 custom compact cars.
"I thought it was entertaining for the most part--better than expected," he said after watching the movie. "It had all the cheesy Hollywood stuff, but I go to movies to be entertained and it did that for me," Hawkins says.
Shaun Carlson, a 27-year-old import racer and president of NuFormz--an Ontario firm that specializes in building import race cars--says the film was "a little far-fetched" and "glorifies a gang thing with the Asian community, and we've been trying to get over that stereotype for years."
But "Fast" also had some positive attributes, he says. "I had to keep reminding myself that it is only a movie, and it might add to the excitement [that gets people involved in] this industry."
And Jon Fitzsimmons, 27, a spokesperson for Racers Against Street Racing, says that although the producers added some dramatics, "some of the racing scenes were accurate. I think it was better than 'Driven,' " the recent Sylvester Stallone film about Indianapolis-style open-wheel racing, he says, "and it was cool to see some of the people I know on the big screen." Most important, Fitzsimmons says, the movie does let viewers know that street racing is illegal and can carry severe consequences.
Still, there are worries that "Fast" will encourage impressionable moviegoers.
In a bid to derail an increase in illegal racing in the wake of the movie's premiere, the California Highway Patrol, California Speedway in Fontana and the NHRA joined last week to announce the opening later this year of a new Southern California racetrack designed specifically for so-called street-legal performance cars--the kinds of cars that enthusiasts customize and tune for higher speeds and better performance but use for daily transportation.
The track will be built at the California Speedway and is expected to be able to handle up to 500 racers each weekend during its 20-week season.
Opening day is in early October--the exact date hasn't been set--and organizers say that the fee to race a car in a safer environment with precision timing to accurately determine winners and quarter-mile times and speeds, will be about $20.
Highway 1 contributor Larry Saavedra is editor of Sport Compact Car magazine and a longtime observer of the sport compact racing scene. He can be reached at LarryS@mcmullenargus.com.