By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It's late on a Wednesday night in a warehouse district west of Dallas. Dozens of teen-agers face each other across a wide road. Between them, headlights from two muscle cars shine white in their faces. The snaking group presses closer into the lanes while unmuffled engines growl and clatter as drivers press hard on accelerators.
Carlos Vanegas and four members of his Dangerous Performance "crew" perch themselves onto the trunk of one car. They use their weight to hold down the car as its tires scream into the asphalt. Plumes of acrid gray smoke billow from wheel wells.
The cars are just about ready to go. For the crowd and the drivers, this is where the rush is. This is what brought them here, to a poorly lit industrial street in Arlington on a weeknight.
The line of onlookers presses perilously into the lanes. A lanky teen with short hair and long shorts stands in the road just in front of the cars. He signals the two drivers to move to a line together and then waves his arms and bows deeply as though he's on the deck of an aircraft carrier motioning takeoff to a jet. The cool night air is filled with an explosion of tires and engines and exhaust and gasoline as the cars leap out of the crowd and speed off into the dark. The lanky kid dodges one car that gets too close.
It feels dangerous and exciting. It feels out of control. The sight and sounds pull at the nerves on the back of your neck as the cars fly away, seeming to miss the crowd by inches. The first cars are hardly gone a few seconds when two more move up to the starting line.
Just a few minutes before, the warehouse district was dark and deserted. In a few minutes, after the inevitable flashing blue lights appear, it will be deserted again. But, for now, it's a street party microwaved into a frenzy, fueled by powerful machines and rambunctious youths. In the crowd, the boys wrestle and smack each other. Girls in pairs run from one group to another. They shout and howl. A boy about 17 years old stops for no particular reason and shouts into a spectator's face like a drill sergeant, "This is the most dangerous shit in the world."
For Vanegas and his crew of more than 20 cars, many equipped with retrofitted superchargers and bottles of power-boosting nitrous oxide, spending the night racing the quarter-mile against members of another crew or strangers is part of an identity. Vanegas is known as one of the presidents of Dangerous Performance, a Dallas racing group so envied by those outside racing circles that their windshield-wide white stickers are sometimes stolen.
Vanegas, a sharp-featured 20-year-old who wears short-cropped hair dyed blond on top and a Hilfiger shirt, walks through the crowd of racers and fans comfortably. He carries a casual air but one that says that here, he's a player. He talks on his tiny silver cellular telephone, smiling, motioning with his head and hands to those walking past him.
Vanegas lives with his parents and works as an office assistant in his father's long-haul truck contracting business in Irving. He is the unmarried father of twin daughters and plans to go to college and one day take over the family business. But all that is in the years to come. For now, there's racing.
"It's like a hobby. Most people have their own hobbies, and this is like our hobby. We want to be racing. Most people's hobby is playing golf. They get old, they keep playing golf, you know," he says. "We're getting old, but we're going to keep on doing it. Getting better cars and stuff."
The others in his crew openly praise Vanegas for his driving skills and seem drawn to him. He drives a 1994 Ford Mustang Cobra, the crew's car of choice. His girlfriend, not the mother of his daughters, isn't thrilled with Vanegas' hobby, but she tolerates it, he says.
"She worries about it. She worries about it a lot," he says. "But she knows I love it. She knows even if she tells me I can't go out there, I'm still going to go out there. It's something you enjoy doing. They tell you you can't do it and you're still going to go ahead and do it."
Media reports and Hollywood story lines sound the alarm about the decades-old practice. A recent United Press International story with a Dallas dateline said, "Street races are often elaborately staged events, complete with timers and trophies and too often...deaths." Although accidents have happened, there isn't much evidence that street racing deaths have skyrocketed the way that statement or the media hype implies. In reality, a night of racing in Dallas seems no more elaborate than a bunch of teen-agers showing up on a road beside a row of empty warehouses.
The brand of illegal street racing practiced by Vanegas and company is not about racing on regular streets during the day or for money, or fighting with rival gangs or mangling cars or bodies. For this group, it's about the charge in running the quarter-mile. It's about hanging out.