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Go Speed Racers

Members of the Dangerous Performance crew stop at Joan's Spot Free Car Wash before a night of racing. Those on the crew who are along for the ride this time horse around in the parking lot.
Mark Graham

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.

"We're just friends. We just get together, have a good time," Vanegas says.

Besides the addition of potent horsepower boosters and computerized injection systems, races aren't much different from those depicted by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause nearly a half-century ago or Grease in the 1970s. Parents still worry about it, girls still act incredibly impressed by it, and police still perpetually try to shut it down. (And still largely fail.)

The big difference between today's racers and their predecessors seems mostly to be in the numbers of racers and onlookers that today's street race attracts in a very short time, thanks to cellular telephones and pagers. Massive groups of racers and fans often arrive together or nearly so at one of a half-dozen different warehouse areas in and around Dallas. Within a few minutes they're racing.

When police arrive, racers and fans disband and disappear in a speedy departure that, because of the huge number of pedestrians scrambling for their rides in the midst of panic, appears more dangerous than the racing. The sense of danger seems to play into the allure of street racing, although Vanegas and the others insist that they don't get a charge out of fleeing police.

Because of the large numbers of onlookers, street racing is attracting attention from not just police but from lawmakers. The picture being painted of those like Vanegas and his group is one of unbridled devotion to speed and machismo and an attraction to a fractious and antagonistic ganglike culture. More and more, street racing is being unfairly blamed for deaths, racers say. If a shooting occurs where racing takes place, as happened last year in Farmers Branch, street racing is blamed. If an accident on a highway involves a speeding teen-ager, street racing is cited as the cause.

Vanegas leads what he considers to be one of Dallas' top racing groups, one brash enough to advertise itself on the Internet and one that seems bound not by anger or a mutual attraction to danger but by camaraderie and a common interest in fast cars.

If they seem out of hand, it may be just because they are at the height of their youth, unrestrained by responsibilities of marriage or parenthood or a work-a-day life. Their world is awash with possibility, and they have plenty of pent-up energy to offer it. For now, their outlet is powerful engines, deserted streets and the freedom it all brings for a few seconds in the quarter-mile.

"The thing is to be on top," Vanegas says. "It gets you all emotional."


Vanegas and his crew gather in the backroom of the Rancho Restaurant, a small family-owned establishment sandwiched between a coin-operated laundry and a Volkswagen repair shop in the heart of a section of Irving characterized by pawn shops, used-car lots and strip malls.

The Rancho Restaurant is the crew's place. Here, they are comfortable. It's a hot and muggy little room, a bit greasy, a little worn out. A color television on a shelf in the other room intrudes on the song blaring from the jukebox.

Crew members begin to arrive: Vanegas, Jerard Patino, 17, Manuel Mendiola, 21, and Jesus "Juice" Lucero, 19, who gets his name from the orange-colored car he drove until the engine blew. The restaurant owner's son, David Martinez, a Dangerous Performance crew member and part-time waiter, brings Cokes, chips and salsa.

"We need bigger injectors on it," Patino says. Several nod. They talk about which cars have good systems and which ones need bigger ones. They talk about "nitrous fanatics."

Patino is one of the youngest in the group and by far the most outwardly enthusiastic. He jumps into just about every conversation and uses his hands to talk. He wears a thick silver chain around his neck and the crew's trademark red T-shirt. Patino has a black 2000 Camaro SS, which, like many street racing cars, is fitted with a nitrous injection system. Silver mesh wires run from his Camaro's engine to a nitrous oxide canister mounted on the hump in the backseat.

The canister is a showpiece because it means you are serious. A toggle switch is installed on the center dash console to inject the nitrous and boost the car's power. Nitrous is a big topic around the table. They talk in racing jargon, of things like "launch bags," "bottle warmers" for the canisters, injectors and canister capacities. They talk of racing like another group their age might talk about the wattage of a stereo system or extreme sports.

 

Julio Magana, 20, shares the title of president with Vanegas. He runs a 1993 Nissan 300 ZX twin turbo. The soft-spoken Magana grew up in the neighborhood and lives at home. He works as a customer service rep for TXU.

When he arrives in the backroom the group chants his name.

"Juuu-lio," they say, repeating it again and again.

Smiling broadly, he sits down at the head of the main table. He wears a navy blue Detroit Tigers hat and sports pencil-thin sideburns that extend down the side of his cheeks. He talks about recent work on an engine.

"It was pretty tight. It seemed like 20 pages of how to literally take out the engine...It told me how to take out the whole motor," he says and is interrupted by his cellular telephone. "That's Oliver. I just talked to him. He said he's coming."

Living at home allows Magana to put spare money into his car. It's the same with most of the others. Some, like Patino, have spent thousands on a car and hundreds more at a time on retrofits like nitrous or modified air intake systems. They also spend money on tires and nitrous refills, which can cost a couple of hundred dollars a pop.

"The good thing about it," Magana says, "is I work. It's my money. They don't tell me, 'No, you can't do it.' I mean, I pay for my car. I'll pay for myself."

They don't talk about cars long. The conversation moves to girls and a recent keg party. Vanegas chats on the phone. Martinez brings more Cokes. They laugh about getting drunk at the party Saturday, about somebody who stumbled down into a basement and somebody else who puked on a piano.

"Who was the girl laying in the yard?" Patino asks, and they all laugh. "I looked down at her...She was laying in the middle of the grass. She was laying like a dead animal. Her legs were out, and her arms were at her side with a beer in her hand. She was like this [arms outstretched]. She was looking straight up."

This hangout could be in just about any American town in just about any of the last five decades, it seems. Most of the Dangerous Performance members grew up in the same Irving neighborhood and went to school together. Others who join either meet at a race or through a mutual interest in cars. The crew has Hispanic and non-Hispanic members. Other crews usually form the same way, drawn together by geography, car type or happenstance and bonded by character, Vanegas says.

Their conversation is peppered with profanity. It would probably get them smacked in the head at home, but it's all right here, hanging out. They talk about dogs and girls and cars and racing. They are proud of their group's image as one of the top Dallas crews and their growing reputation. You have to be devoted to cars, racing and the 25-member crew. They play ball together, go to parties together and look out for each other. Those around the table say their parents know what they're doing with their cars.

"Personally, I'd rather have him [Jerard] pouring his money into his car instead of drugs like other kids. He's put a lot of money into that car," Patino's mother, Mary Patino, says in a later interview. "To them, it's like a sport. I'd prefer them to have an area instead of having to run from the cops all the time."

The 46-year-old Patino says the crew comes over to her house for meetings, and they seem like a responsible bunch. She's seen her son race; it worries her, but she doesn't try to stop him.

"I was young once. I remember doing that. It's dangerous, but nowadays, it's dangerous sitting at McDonald's and eating. You just never know," she says. "It's kind of scary, but he controls the car pretty good. But, like I said, I've been there, done that."

Someone, usually Vanegas, is almost always on a phone while the crew sits in the backroom. Vanegas is like a businessman working out a deal. When he's not on the phone, the crew talks toward him, trying to get his attention. They've made contact with a couple of crews. It's not going to rain tonight. They'll be racing.

 

Sitting in the backroom of the Rancho on a night on the front edge of summer, anything seems possible, good or bad. It could be running an amazing race that they'll record and watch again and again and maybe post on their Web site. It could be a new car that they smoke or a new girl they'll impress or a disastrous arrest or a wreck. It could be a wreck. No one talks about it. It could be anything. Vanegas makes the move to leave.

Patino is optimistic. He says, "It's going to be a good night."


Outside, the sky has turned orange and the sun is going down. Oliver Davila, 20, and three other crew members arrive. One gets behind the wheel of one crew member's new Pontiac Firehawk and guns the engine. It's in gear and the car leaps forward, coming within an inch or two of the bumper of Mendiola's 1997 Cobra. The group lets out a groan and then laughter. They rush over to inspect for damage.

They look at a video of one of their recent races using a screen on the visor of Davila's fire-engine red convertible Camaro SS, then Vanegas makes the call to go, and they load up into a half-dozen cars.

Behind the wheel of his Cobra, Mendiola talks about the brotherhood he shares with the group. He's known core members of the crew since 1994, he says. They've lost some to family responsibilities and some to the military. Mendiola, also a TXU customer service representative, says he's noticed that many members of the crew have no brothers, nobody to shoot hoops with or help you out at 2 in the morning if you need it.

"It's not just street racing," he says. "We hang out."

At about 9 p.m., they arrive at Joan's Spot Free Car Wash. Cars need to look good for a race. They talk idly of girls and racing. They talk about how lousy it is that the nearest legal tracks they could use are 30 to 40 minutes away. Plus, when you get there "you've got to sit around and wait," he says.

It smells of car wax and cigarettes from one of the girlfriends who has arrived and tar from Mama's Daughter's Diner where a couple of guys are resurfacing the parking lot. It smells like summer. A good-looking 20-ish blonde in tight jeans shows up to talk to her boyfriend, one of the crew, and then leaves. Everyone watches her. Patino is excited and jumping around.

"We're going street racing. We're going street racing," he says.


When the movie The Fast and the Furious was released last year, it quickly attracted attention from police agencies that worried it would cause new problems on the streets. The film, which grossed $206 million in the United States and foreign markets, stars Vin Diesel and depicts a culture of devoted street racers who fire machine guns at each other and use their fast little cars to hijack 18-wheelers. Like Dangerous Performance, the crews in the movie ran the quarter-mile, they used nitrous oxide, and they attracted crowds. That was about where the film's realism ended.

Police and the media seem to have paid more attention to the movie than crews like Dangerous Performance did. Street racing is now being said to cause an increasing number of youth fatalities. In California, lawmakers are trying to enact a law that would allow police to charge those who act as lookouts and another that would target spectators.

In Dallas and surrounding areas, police have the authority to ticket the racers, and they often ticket spectators for minor infractions. Police don't like to admit it, but if groups such as Dangerous Performance are going to race on the streets, it's better they do it on a deserted warehouse street than at a street light. Police say the races are most dangerous to pedestrians.

But police also seem anxious to blame street racing for accidents that involve youths but not necessarily a race. For instance, as early as 1996, Dallas police initially blamed spectators after a driver crashed into a crowd watching an illegal race. The driver wasn't racing, just in the vicinity, but that's an accident cited as proof of the dangers.

The accident on Northwest Highway east of Las Colinas occurred when a man later convicted of drunken driving drove into a crowd that was gathered to watch races. Two were killed and a dozen injured. Police later said the accident happened because the 56-year-old driver was drunk but that the crowd "contributed."

In spite of their name, the Dangerous Performance crew claims they never race each other during the day or on a street with stop lights and traffic. Driving toward the Arlington warehouse district, Mendiola says it's frustrating when street racers get blamed for stupidity.

 

"Accidents have happened because of racing, but if you look at the time of the accident, a lot of them are, like, during the day when there's a lot of traffic around, and that's not the best time to do it because there are other cars that don't know you are doing it," he says. "When we're going into the warehouses, they know we're doing it. There's no cars around. You'll see how empty it is."

Joe Gunn, a 55-year-old former Dallas police officer who headed the illegal street racing task force before he retired this year, does not agree that any racing, even on deserted streets, is safe. Standing near an ever-popular racing spot near Northwest Highway, he points to the north toward Royal Lane, where he patrolled for illegal races in the 1970s and where races still go on today.

"Most of them are just guys. They like to soup their cars up. They like to race those cars. It just so happens that it's very, very dangerous with no supervision. You got bystanders and other people standing around and other cars," he says. "They don't really understand that aspect of it, I don't think. They just see it as having a good time or having fun. Their judgment's not real good."

Police have more pressing crimes, and Dallas officers who patrol for races are often on overtime because the department does not have enough manpower. But, he says, the fact is that illegal racing is drawing huge crowds, and the potential for a tragedy of disastrous proportions is there.

"Hundreds of people line up along one of those streets. You're talking about 300 or 400 people lined up on these sidewalks. If one of those cars gets out of control," he says, shaking his head. "Man alive."


At about 10 p.m. a line of race cars forms a caravan and heads toward Arlington. Stopping at a light near the race area, a group of girls crane their necks to look at Mendiola and his car. He drives on and turns in to the warehouse district.

"This is the main strip right here," he says, driving past a warehouse. "We start off right here, and we go down this way. There's people that line up all down here."

He drives down the darkened road to a parking lot entrance. It's about a quarter-mile to the mark.

"It's right here," he says. "Right here you're doing about maybe like 110. Yeah, this is about 110. The reason we come down to the spot is to make sure no cops are around. We'll come over here and scout this area right here to see if there's a cop sitting right here. If we don't see anything, we'll go back and park and let everybody know that there's no cops."

John Pilcher is general manager for QFC hardware, which has a building on the race strip. He says the only thing racers typically leave behind is skid marks, and they race at night, so most of his employees aren't affected. But sometimes the races do cause problems.

"We do run three shifts here, and sometimes my employees can't get to work unless they get in line to race," he says. "That has happened. It doesn't happen all the time."

He characterizes the races as a "nuisance and not a nuisance" because the participants seem well-behaved and don't damage the property. But Pilcher is concerned that the youths will wreck.

"We are just scared one of those cars will go out of control and hit a curb and could flip over in our parking lot or, I don't know, run through a building," he says. "You got people standing all along the street. You could kill somebody."

Driving back toward the starting line outside Pilcher's offices, Mendiola says the road is wide and there are usually no parked cars on it. By the time he reaches the front end of the quarter-mile, cars are starting to stream into the area, parking in spots as if they were arriving for a shift at a factory.

"Once you get your race in, you go back around, get back in line. It's just like the track, pretty much," he says. "You put your car in line, wait for the other people to get out of the way...[and] you get back up to the line and race the next person," he says. "It's real organized. It's not like chaos."

Seconds after arriving, one car revs its engine and speeds down the strip, squealing its tires on the takeoff and chirping at the first gear change on the quarter-mile.

 

Grocery store-sized parking lots that straddle the racing strip begin filling up with cars fast. Kids take position on the hoods of their cars or get out and walk toward the informal starting line. A motorcyclist dressed in leather screams by in a high-speed wheelie. Another car approaches the line. The driver revs the engine and then speeds off, squealing tires.

When the engine noise dies down, you can hear a cellular telephone ring. Girls, made up, perfumed and in tight-fitting outfits, approach boys like they might at a dance. One pair walks up to a boy, and one of the girls insists she knows him. He insists she doesn't, but a conversation about possible common friends ensues. The crowd is a mix of races. The one thing the majority of them all have in common is age. They all appear to be 21 or younger.

The smoke from the rubber creates a fog in the street. A couple of the youths videotape the action. The cars launch, belting out a combination of noise and smoke. The crowd cheers and turns to watch them at the end of the road. Then the crowd turns back to the line.

Mendiola is right. The cars are orderly. In just a few seconds, a second set of racers is ready. The skinny kid motions the cars to the line and they are off. The kid has to dodge an old Nova that jumped from the line a bit crooked on takeoff. After the first few runs, the races take on a pattern. The kid motions them to the line. The cars burn rubber. The crowd draws in. They launch.

There is no betting. The reward for winning is bragging rights and sometimes acceptance onto a crew. The first Dangerous Performance driver of the night is Juice, in his Mustang Cobra. Crew members hold the back end of his car. He launches. He doesn't win, but it's a good launch and a good race.

A few minutes later, the reserved Juice is back, out of the car and grinning.

"You see that?" he says.

The races won't last long at this spot. Just as the routine is setting in, blue lights appear at the starting end of the strip. Youths close to their cars get in and gun the engines toward the exit. It's a frenzied scene of yelling and engines and running in the midst of speeding cars and motorcycles. In less than a minute, everyone but an Arlington police car and one unlucky pair are gone.

Besides police radio chatter, it's quiet. The white police spotlight shines on two youths being handcuffed over the roof of their car. The Dangerous Performance crew got out with everyone and no tickets. They were lucky.

The handcuffed driver and passenger weren't as fortunate. The crowd scattered like a herd of zebras on an African plain panicked at the sight of a predator. Unfortunately for the guy driving the blue car, the cop had picked him out first and stayed with him during the panic.

"I was just pulling into the driveway, the street," the young driver says. "The cop was right behind us."

After a few minutes, a second police officer arrives to assist the first.

The youth tries to look cocksure and whistles while the police officer checks him and his passenger for outstanding warrants. Sergeant J.D. Pugh acts stern. He talks to the youth as if the whole vanished crowd were there.

"We're not playing games with you guys anymore," he says. "We catch you, we're going to give you all the tickets we can write, and we're going to take you to jail."

A third officer arrives at the strip. And then a fourth. By then, everybody but the youth and his blue car are long gone. Pugh initially thinks the car he stopped might be stolen, but it's not. Pugh issues the driver a ticket for not producing his insurance card.

Once away from the youths, Pugh's hardened face relaxes. Suddenly, he looks friendly. He's part of an anti-drunken driving task force, he says, which is trying to curb street racing. He doesn't come out and say it but implies that he'd rather have these kids racing on that strip than in the streets. The problem, he says, is that the races take shape in a way that is just too dangerous for police to ignore.

"Arlington has not had any killed like that, but other cities have. That's where the danger is. They can lose control. They blow a tire or something like that. They start peeling out and one tire holds and the other tire doesn't, and it turns them to the left or the right into the crowd, and then you have a bunch of dead bodies."

 

Pugh says police know they aren't going to stop races, but they can cut down on the problem.

"There's no way that we're ever going to catch them all. If they're going to run, they're going to run. You pick a violation and you stop them," he says.

Vanegas and his crew, along with the other racers, head out to another warehouse district. They'll race until about 2 a.m. before police arrive and again scatter the crowd.

At the Rancho on another day, part of the crew sits around a table in the front of the restaurant. Somebody else is in their spot in the backroom. The crew talks warily about the bigger and bigger crowds they seem to be attracting.

"I know that, like, when school gets out for the summer, it's Wednesday night to the races," Patino says. "The thing is, that it's too many people."

Scott Cochran, editor of Drag Racer Magazine in Los Angeles and a street racer himself in the early 1960s, says today's street racers aren't much different from those who started it all.

"Back in the '30s, when the hot rod movement started, the general public complained about the hot rodders, those damn hot rodders, and they had problems with the street racing, so hot rodders got a black eye in society. They were outlaws, so to speak," he says.

He says national hot rod and drag racing associations need to accept the new breed of street racer, and local law enforcement needs to do more to find safer places and safer ways to race.

"It's been going on since 1939 that I know of, and it isn't going to stop, so they've got to develop places for these kids to run," he says. "...It's not going to go away. There's always going to be street racing."


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