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Newsletter: Play Next: Fast and furious in Southern California

Good morning, I’m Paige Hymson, a podcast producer here at The Times. The big news on the audio desk is that Episode 4 of our “Larger Than Life” podcast is out now. In today’s episode, legendary street racer Big Willie Robinson becomes fast and famous as he begins to make connections in the entertainment industry. Listen and subscribe here, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Since street racing plays such a major role in “Larger Than Life,” I called up Gary Scott Thompson, the L.A.-based screenwriter of the original “The Fast and the Furious” film to explore car culture today in California on the roads, in museums and in Hollywood.

“We have this sort of independence in California, and part of that independence is freedom, and cars are freedom,” Thompson said.

Thompson grew up in Northern California around cars. He started working in his grandfather’s junkyard at age 12 and incorporated what he heard into his script.

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Gary Scott Thompson, right, “The Fast and the Furious” screenwriter, in an early photo at his grandfather’s junkyard.
(Gary Scott Thompson)

“I knew what everything sounded like. I knew how to do all this. I knew how to take vehicles apart, put them back together. So I was already halfway there,” he said.

Thompson got hooked on street racing culture when he moved to Southern California. In Newport Beach in the 1980s, Thompson recalls drivers super-tuning their vehicles and racing them in the streets.

“It was an interesting mix of cultures that were doing it,” he said. “That was the first time I saw that.”

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While living in Los Angeles, Thompson lived down the block from a group of racers. He watched them tear their cars apart and put them back together every weekend. That fascinated him. Thompson started to visit racetracks too to watch the so-called race wars that were happening, a scene familiar to those who have watched his “Fast and Furious” film.

“On big weekends, people would come from all over and race against each other. All that ended up in the script,” he said.

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The original cast of 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious,” which started the $4-billion global franchise.
(Universal Pictures)

Accurately representing the diversity and gender he saw in racing was important to Thompson while writing the movie script. He wrote what he saw.

“They treated each other equally,” he said. “I saw one of the females tearing one of the engines apart by herself.”

He also made sure there was a diverse cast.

“I wanted to be colorblind in terms of the people,” he said. “They could have been anybody.”

Like many drivers and those familiar with the sprawling street racing culture in California, Thompson acknowledges the dangers. He went to both illegal and legal street races when he was doing research for his script.

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“I was a big proponent when they opened the racetracks for people to come in and race because then it’s on a track and there’s some sort of safety to it,” he said.

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Vin Diesel and a 1969 Dodge Daytona
(Giles Keyte / Universal Pictures)

So, how did our neck of the woods become such a hotbed for street racing?

“Southern California grew up in tandem with the automobile starting in the late 1800s,” said Bryan Stevens, director of exhibitions at the Petersen Automotive Museum. “As the city grew, the automobile was on the minds of planners and developers and played a huge role in shaping the city.”

Stevens’ interest in cars came from riding in sports cars with his father as a kid: “They can be machines of freedom and pleasure and, like a layer of clothing, can convey a message about their owners’ tastes and personality.”

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Bryan Stevens, left, director of exhibitions at the Petersen Automotive Museum.
(Petersen Automotive Museum / Ted 7)

Stevens is responsible for strategizing, planning and producing all of the museum’s exhibitions, which explore the history of the automobile. Since the original Petersen Museum opened in 1994, it has increased its collection to more than 300 vehicles. Right now, you can find an exhibit with 11 race cars constructed in and around Los Angeles on display.

Former racer Stephan Papadakis first discovered street racing in Long Beach, a city known for its annual Grand Prix, an event full of racing and activities on and off the track. Papadakis began building his reputation in the 1990s and went on to set multiple records and win championships with his team. He now owns Papadakis Racing, a sport-performance business based in Carson.

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Stephan Papadakis, founder and owner of Papadakis Racing.
(Toyota Racing)

“In SoCal if you want to get around, you need a car. And you’re attached to your car so often that it becomes part of your identity — just like the clothing you wear or the shoes you choose,” Papadakis said. “The car is a representation of your personality. A lot of us want to be unique and we choose to modify our cars to stand out.”

If you’re interested in stories like these, about cars and street racing culture in Los Angeles, you’ll love the “Larger Than Life” podcast hosted by Times staff writer, Daniel Miller. Join the community on Facebook where members discuss the podcast and reminisce about the story.

Subscribe to the Play Next Podcast Newsletter »

Picks of the week

Each week, different Times staff members will share their personal podcast recommendations with you. Here’s what Clint Schaff, vice president of strategy & development at The Times, is listening to now:

“Akimbo,” Seth Godin: Advice and how-to podcasts are popular, and many are from authors and speakers seeking to market their ideas and services. Godin is certainly a marketer, but his “Akimbo” podcast elevates the conversation to be about changing culture, not selling soap. “Akimbo” is a great listen for anyone seeking to improve the world around them by making a difference by making a ruckus.

“The Turnaround,” Maximum Fun and Columbia Journalism Review: This podcast is like a master class in audio interviewing and serves as a resource for storytellers and journalists. Host Jesse Thorn turns the mic on great interviewers like Larry King, Terry Gross, Werner Herzog and Katie Couric. A personal favorite is Thorn’s interview with the late Reggie Ossé, host of “The Combat Jack Show,” a pioneering hip-hop podcast.

“Running From Cops,” Topic and Pineapple Street Media: Police brutality, misconduct and racial discrimination are making news across the country. This podcast from Dan Taberski and the team behind “Missing Richard Simmons” looks at an interesting contributor to these problems — reality shows featuring police. Through its investigation of “Cops,” the longest running reality show in TV history, this podcast examines how reality shows are not nearly as real as viewers think, and may be shaping actual reality more than they might like.

Coming Up

Next time on “Larger Than Life:” Episode 5 is available July 23. If you want to find out more about today’s episode, visit our website, where you can see pictures of Willie palling around with “Star Wars” characters at his racetrack and listen to a song about Willie from a 1970s B-movie.

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