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Drag-racing from Vons at Balboa and Genesee

Saturday night Is for sleepers

The north end of Morena Boulevard, near the Price Club, is perhaps the most popular now. The new section of Highway 52 is a good spot, although it’s riskier because of exposure to police cruisers.
  • The north end of Morena Boulevard, near the Price Club, is perhaps the most popular now. The new section of Highway 52 is a good spot, although it’s riskier because of exposure to police cruisers.

The bad weather did what the police couldn’t do: it got the racers off the streets. The rain made everyone go home, back to their jobs, their garages....

But when it was dry, everything was all right.

When the tires are warm enough to grip...

When the tires are warm enough to grip...

... they line up.

... they line up.

The Vons parking lot at the southeast comer of Genesee Street and Balboa Avenue in Clairemont is big, flat, and black. Empty, it looks as though it’s a wide, deep pond; when it’s wet, it looks as though you could skate on it. It is maybe four square blocks of pavement, unobstructed by trees or walls. A Winchell’s Donut Shop sits stranded near the middle of it.

The lot is surrounded by a Longs Drug's, a Vons, a cluster of other, smaller stores, and a pizza parlor. On Saturday nights, when it is warm and sometimes when it isn’t, the parking lot is filled with hundreds of extraordinary cars. Most have been made to move fast, while others have been designed to look good. Some do both. Saturday night is the night for gloss paint, thuddingly loud car stereos, and breakneck speed.

Pretty muscle cars park over by the Longs Drugs. The sport motorcycles rev their powerful engines by the Winchell’s. The mini-pickups are grouped near the Vons. Every style of car, new or classic, mills around in between. The space is so well lighted it’s a Las Vegas Strip of mini-truckers, low riders, sports bikers, muscle cars, and restored Macks, Checker Marathon cabs looking as though they just drove in from New York City, mini-diesels, restored hearses and ambulances.

Just don't shift into reverse doing 60.

Just don't shift into reverse doing 60.

It’s near midnight, and cars keep pouring into the lot. Police patrol cars park on the edges of the lot or across the street, but so far they have kept a low profile. Gary watches everything with severe indifference. He’s in the MOPAR club, and he knows what it’s all about. He points at the black-and-red reconditioned hearse with the racing mags on it and says, “That’s all this is about. It’s about showing off.”

He says there used to be another hearse, only it was painted white, and the two used to race up the boulevard at midnight. It was really something, he said, to see two hearses going for it.

Chris and his dialed-in, factory muscle car. There are still legal places to race in Southern California: the Pomona Fairgrounds in East L.A., Carlsbad Raceway, out in Palmdale, and in Glamis.

Chris and his dialed-in, factory muscle car. There are still legal places to race in Southern California: the Pomona Fairgrounds in East L.A., Carlsbad Raceway, out in Palmdale, and in Glamis.

Near the black hearse, a tricked-out ambulance sits revving its engine, ready to do anything but carry the injured. Gary squeezes his heavy frame between two freshly waxed Nomad station wagons with fat rear tires. He points to another car, peering through his thick glasses at it. “That Chrysler over there cost $18,000 to restore.”

There are also the illegal places in San Diego, like the half-mile strip out near Otay Lakes Road that was big until 1970. Then there was Kearny Villa Road, where, for a while, 400 or 500 cars would show up at around 1:00 a.m.

There are also the illegal places in San Diego, like the half-mile strip out near Otay Lakes Road that was big until 1970. Then there was Kearny Villa Road, where, for a while, 400 or 500 cars would show up at around 1:00 a.m.

Most of the motorcycles in the lot tonight have fully enclosed plastic fairings. They are sleek, shark-like. This isn’t their show, however, and they seem alien and isolated. The sport bikes are tremendously fast — zero to 60 in under four seconds, and top speeds of 150 mph plus — but they don’t bring out the fondness that the general public has for the cars. Some of these cars are moving mansions, and the bikes, while awfully fast, are outsiders here tonight. Their show happens at the general store at the top of Palomar Mountain on Saturday and Sunday mornings, where no muscle car dares wander.

Darcey, Chris’s girlfriend, shows up in her Duster. The El Camino boys want to go for a roll — a moving start — on the freeway. Chris is against this.

Darcey, Chris’s girlfriend, shows up in her Duster. The El Camino boys want to go for a roll — a moving start — on the freeway. Chris is against this.

The bikers call the car racers “Cage Jockies,” and the drag racers call the bikers suicidal. According to the car racers, racer replica motorcycles like the Ninja, GSXR, FZR, Hurricane, and the old Interceptor are “Donor Bikes.” Car racers refer to them as “Crotch Rockets,” and some, in a more jingoistic vein, label sport bikes “Rice Rockets.” They say that riding these bikes leads to wildly spectacular and horrific accidents. Uncontrolled wheelies happen now and then in the lot. Some have seen it more than once and say it’s really quite a sight....

In the Vons lot, the mini-trucks are out in force tonight: flat, lowered import pickups layered in candy color paints, stereos blasting away with huge subwoofers mounted behind the cabs. Some trucks have hydraulics that allow the spotless beds to pivot in many more directions than just up and down. They are everywhere, and they look like toys. Near the trucks, a jacked-up jeep has its hood up, exposing a completely chromed-out V-8. The hood has a hole carefully cut in it so a chrome blower can stick out, ready to suck air into the engine.

Gary looks at all of that and shakes his head. His car is on the other end of the lot. He drives an Oldsmobile, but he says they let him in the MOPAR club anyway. (MOPAR is a shortened name for the Motor Parts division of Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge. Other clubs represented at the lot include the National Hot Rod Association, the International Hot Rod Association, and smaller clubs with names like Streetmasters.) Gary’s dirty white T-shirt has a custom-written apology on it for his owning an Oldsmobile. The other MOPAR guys kid him about it, and he laughs. They say, “Gary here drives an Oldsmobile, but we won’t say anything about that,” and Gary rolls his eyes and thanks them for the favor. The MOPAR guys explain that the club is only for Chryslers and Dodges, but sometimes, if the attitude’s right, an Oldsmobile is good enough. But just barely.

The show cars are out tonight and so are the others — the real street racers. After midnight, the faster cars start leaving in clumps, some of them to go home, others to drag race. Subtlety is key to keep the police, who circle the lot constantly, from following. “It was pretty blatant at first,” Gary says. “Sometimes half the parking lot would all of a sudden leave.”

As it approaches 1:00 a.m., some muscle cars leave the lot. Doing burnouts, spinning their tires and revving engines to whining, chattering pitches before leaving. After a while it becomes more than annoying.

The sleepers are different from the rest. They show off in a different way. Gary says the sleepers are the best because they didn’t look like anything, which makes them seem much faster. They just look like cars. It is a world away from the mini-pickups, which look like something but can’t do anything, can’t go fast, can’t steer well, can’t even haul stuff. Just drive around the parking lot like stunted, overexcited dinosaurs, rap music booming from their beds.

Gary points out Chris. He is standing next to his car, a 1975 Plymouth Duster. It is painted a faded matte blue, and there are two big numbers written in white grease pencil on the back windshield. Gary introduces Chris as the one who’d know about street racing in San Diego. Chris doesn’t say anything about racing on city streets, though; he explains that the numbers on the back windshield are from when he entered the Duster in a drag racing competition at Carlsbad Raceway last week.

The 24-year-old Chris has shoulder-length blond hair and small mustache, a small thin frame, and blue eyes that seem a little too soft for the angles of his face. The satin jacket he is wearing doesn’t add masculinity. It is his girlfriend’s high school cheerleader’s jacket and has her name — Darcey — written across it in big letters. As Chris speaks, he does so quietly.

According to Gary, Chris is a good racer — a solid mixture of intelligence and instinct, possibly one of the best in the lot. The quiet way he carries himself makes Chris a sleeper. He had taken his car to local race tracks and proved he could race it well. Gary stands off to one side and talks about him. He says you should have seen Chris race. Up at Carlsbad, he ate up the competition — no mercy — and if you really wanted to know about racing, Chris’d be the man that’d know about it.

To Chris, moving a car over a quarter-mile distance in under 14 seconds is a good thing. To look down at his speedometer and see over 100 miles per hour is excellent. It’s not top speed that counts, however, but quickness. If a stock-car race for 100 laps around a track is a long, drawn-out battle, a late-night drag race is like a well-planned, carefully thought out, but lethally quick knife fight. And tonight Chris has made plans. He is going to race out on Highway 52. The details of arrangement have been made, and together four cars leave the parking lot: a Chevy Nova, an El Camino, and two Dusters, one of them Chris’s.

The interior of Chris’s Duster looks as though it was gutted by desperate thieves. As he straps himself in, he explains that anything nonessential to the running of the car has been removed. The heater and the cigarette lighter are nonfunctional. The interior is basic black. Except for new, heavy-duty seat and shoulder belts and a high-tech, dash-mounted tachometer, nothing has been added. There is no stereo, and the engine noise throbs clearly through the firewall past the empty dashboard. Cut electrical wires dangle to the floor.

Chris graduated from Crawford High, class of ’83. He got his first car to race with two years after he graduated. He had a job before but now he doesn’t. “I just quit my job,” he says, and doesn’t elaborate.

He drives the Duster down Balboa Avenue through Clairemont, then to Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa, and then on to the two-laned Highway 52. Next to him, the opponent, a 383 small-block Chevy El Camino, pops back and forth. It can’t wait.

The week after Chris quit his job, he took the Duster up to Carlsbad and won his class in the “Pure Stock Small Block Under 360 Cubic Inch Class” competition. The recognition pleased him. They put his picture in the racing magazine and gave him a trophy and 40 bucks. He wants to race more but says, “It takes too much money to race.” It can’t support him, he says, and he doesn’t want it as a job because that’s not what it’s about. Racing is about winning.

Drag racing, if it’s done right, is safe, he says. “I’ve only seen one car come close to crashing. The guy shifted into reverse going about 60. No one got hurt.” There are still legal places to race in Southern California: the Pomona Fairgrounds in East L.A., Carlsbad Raceway, out in Palmdale, and in Glamis — an old railroad station east of Brawley where every year, thousands migrate to run the quarter-mile strip.

And there are also the illegal places in San Diego, like the half-mile strip out near Otay Lakes Road that was big until 1970, when for one reason or another it ceased to be the place to race. Then there was Kearny Villa Road, where, for a while, 400 or 500 cars would show up at around 1:00 a.m. on some nights, ready to race or watch.

Most of the racing spots are very dark. The north end of Morena Boulevard, near the Price Club, is perhaps the most popular now. Up on the open mesa of the new section of Highway 52 is also a good spot, although it’s riskier because of exposure to police cruisers and having to wait for the traffic to clear in order to race from a standing start. On some nights, in some spots, 200 to 300 people show up just to watch, sitting on the hoods of their cars lined along the road.

They race those stretches until the police make it too uncomfortable for them to do so or until it starts raining a lot. Then everyone forgets about it until next summer, when there’s a new spot. Every summer has always created a new place to race in San Diego County. Each time word has gotten around until people and cars converge from everywhere to race or to watch.

Chris has a second Duster at home he’s fixing up. He loves Dusters because they are American cars he can get for cheap. Parts are easy to find. The cars are simple and inexpensive and can be alarmingly, viciously quick if they have the right owner. “I bought it for $1500 and basically haven’t done anything to it, just dialed it in. It’s basically a factory muscle car dialed in right. Right now I have it geared to peak at a quarter mile.” The Duster he’s driving is charmingly plain and simply designed. He says he thinks he’ll get the other one dialed in soon enough to bring out to Carlsbad and to Vons by the end of summer. With everything right, he’ll be looking at a 13.69-second quarter-mile at 104 miles per hour, a good speed for a small-block stock.

At a stoplight, Chris looks over at the Chevy. He’s worried because it has overdrive — six forward gears that will give it the edge on the top end of the tachometer. The El Camino driver meets his look and smiles back. According to Chris, the driver is “a friend from Santee” and the race is “just for bragging rights,” but he looks again at the El Camino and frowns.

Chris never street races for money. “Just the L.A. guys race for money. Maybe three or four guys come down here every once in a while. The racing gets pretty intense then.” He admits that he doesn’t have the money to bet even if he wanted to.

Racing is taken very seriously. Winning streaks are carefully built and cherished for as long as they last. No one races anyone if he thinks he’ll lose. No one wants to develop the reputation of losing all the time, and those that allow that to happen are fools. Chris explains that sometimes entire nights are taken up in the negotiation for one ten-second race. At Vons, pride conies in the name of beauty or speed. In a race, pride comes only in winning.

The Duster pulls onto the shoulder of eastbound Highway 52, and Chris and his friends get out. The starlit sky looks huge. The group stands on the shoulder in the biting wind, waiting for the traffic to clear so that they can race from a standing start.

The eastbound traffic finally dissipates. A look west shows no cars approaching. Chris edges the Duster into the right lane and slowly creeps up so that he’s lined up with the El Camino in the left lane. Behind the stopped cars, another car, a Chevy Nova, pulls up and straddles the freeway’s two lanes and sits waiting. The Nova driver gets out of his car and crouches between the El Camino and the Duster and makes sure the race cars are lined up evenly. Another car sits farther back along the shoulder of the road, engine idling, ready to warn them if more traffic comes down the freeway toward them.

The Nova driver climbs back into his car. When the Nova flashes his high beams, Chris and the El Camino will go.

Chris revs the Duster up to red line until the car vibrates. He watches the tachometer and the rearview mirror, waiting. The entire car trembles for long seconds.

The Nova’s high beams flash.

Chris pops the clutch out with a thump and tries to dig the Duster into the pavement just right, not so hard as to get the tires spinning, not soft enough to fall behind the El Camino. Over the grinding noise of the engine, the Duster’s tires let out a long, piercing screech.

He jams the gas pedal down, his right hand locked on the shifter. Out of first gear, Chris has the 3200-pound Duster running at about 40 mph. He grabs the lead in the first moment, slipping ahead of the El Camino. Then the El Camino surges on hard.

Chris is pressed into his seat by big invisible hands. The acceleration is enough to make you laugh from the thrill. He winds the engine out in first. It’s as loud as a factory in the car.

Chris speed shifts into second without letting off the gas. He quickly slams the transmission in and out of gear. The car lurches, and a big bang — like a huge hammer hitting the engine — makes it jump as he spanks the Duster into red line. The tach needle twitches and jumps.

He takes a quick glance over to his left. The El Camino is about a foot away on the driver’s side. He punches the shifter into third. Bang! He mis-shifts. The Duster slows for a split-second, long enough for the El Camino to streak on ahead and away. The race is definitely over, so Chris slows the Duster to 80.

The Nova that started the race with its high beams has been following and now flashes by. Chris’s expression almost apologizes.

The pack of cars loops back over an overpass, and everyone comes to a stop on the shoulder of the onramp to 52 westbound. It’s dark and getting cold, but the guys in the El Camino are in a good mood. They get out of their car and walk over to talk to Chris about the run. The only light is from the offramp stoplight; everyone’s face keeps changing from red to green to yellow. The hiss of the highway and the hum from power lines nearby are constant under the conversation.

The onramp is cold. The mesa is miles wide, and it feels as though there are no humans left on Earth except the ones on this offramp. Earth has been taken over by freeway cars passing by with bright eyes and by blinking jets flying over and away to distant lights on the horizon. Here everything feels like concrete and steel except for the guys in their 501 jeans, hands in back pockets, standing around talking about their machines.

Darcey, Chris’s girlfriend, shows up in her Duster. The El Camino boys want to go for a roll — a moving start — on the freeway. Chris is against this. He knows a roll will give them the advantage, and he can beat them only by going from a dead stop off the line. He looks away and shuffles his feet in the dark. He says to his friend in the El Camino, “It just doesn’t feel smooth, I dunno. I got the Duster stuck in fourth.” Chris tries talking them into another dig, and they eventually agree.

This time the cars roll down the onramp onto Highway 52 facing west. The cars align on the freeway and the Nova’s lights flash from behind and the cars go again, slamming through the gears. At first gear, the El Camino jumps ahead. Chris has hooked hard — made the mistake of giving the Duster too much gas at the dig, causing the wheels to spin and not gain traction. The El Camino knows this and gets greedy, flooring it in first, hoping for an early kill.

In second gear, Chris begins catching the El Camino. Light posts zip by. The 805 overpass, gray and ominous, looms ahead, then slips past.

Chris stomps the gas pedal from half throttle to full and, after a surge of speed, gains a lead by fourth gear.

A moment later, at 105 mph, Chris sees victory. The El Camino seems to tire just a bit, and Chris pours on the acceleration to finish his opponent.

As the El Camino pulls back and its headlights shine into Chris’s rearview mirrors, his eyes flicker back and forth between the instruments and the mirrors, concentrating as though he’s trying to memorize everything.

As the cars slow, Chris is happy, gregarious. He talks about what just happened in great detail, how he gave it too much gas, how he really shouldn’t have won from a dig at all against the superior El Camino, how lots of people like automatics because the transmission parts don’t break, but also how there’s no control and it doesn’t take any skill to race those. He adds that he’s “gotta get some new tires badly.”

He slows the Duster down to a crawl at 55. Now regular, normal cars catch up. Toyotas and Hondas whip indignantly by. Darcey pulls up next to Chris in her Duster and waves. He grins and waves back.

As everyone heads west on 52 to Morena Boulevard, the El Camino jumps back and forth next to Chris’s Duster again, this time trying to challenge him to race from a roll. Chris is careful not to look over so “I can keep my bragging rights for next time.”

Why does he race?

“I dunno. I haven’t really thought about it. So I can rag on my friends when I win. It’s an ego thing — getting bragging rights for a day. I dunno. Anyway, it feels pretty good. I beat him. It’s an ego thing.”

The racers rendezvous at a small two-tiered parking lot of a business complex on a hill overlooking the northern section of Morena Boulevard. A couple of dozen cars are parked there, mainly racers. The lot is nestled at the foot of a hill near the bottom of Rose Canyon. Big white warehouses surrounded by a chain-link fence sit next to the lot. Other than the traffic, there are no signs of life, no convenience stores, no houses, nothing — only the sound of the freeway hiss snaking through the other side of the canyon.

Tom, Chris’s friend, is waiting at the parking lot. Tom’s Nova, like Chris’s car, is a sleeper. The paint is a faded, unobtrusive blue. The interior is cold and vinyl and barren. But as Chris says, “the engine is dialed in just right, ready to go.” It can turn in high 12s in a quarter-mile. The other stuff doesn’t matter. Tom looks like Chris with the same shoulder-length hair, except his is brown. He’s 21 years old and has a mustache that will always look as though he’s just started growing it.

From the freeway a half-mile across on the other side of Rose Canyon, it must look like a muscle car convention in the glare of the floodlit parking lot. Someone says that the security cops have blinders on and don’t mind the late-night drag racing as long as the parking lot stays clean and the watchers stay off the ice plant and don’t break any sprinkler heads.

In the lot, everyone is looking at each other. Between the pools of light, people congregate in the shadows. Synthesizer dance music plays from someone’s car stereo. The crowd is eclectic: black, white, Hispanic and Asian, young and old. Mainly it’s young men in their late teens and early 20s. Not many girls.

Everyone expects someone else to do something. The guys that showed up in the three Corvettes don’t want any action, maybe because their cars are too expensive to risk or maybe because they didn’t want to get beaten by something old, heavy, and cheap. Somebody points to Chris and says, “That’s the guy from MOPAR,” and heads turn to look.

Later, about 50 people line up at the edge of the arc-lit parking lot overlooking Morena, ready to watch a drag race. Down below on the dirty boulevard, about 100 yards away, two VW bugs are lining up in the dark. A guy in a Pendleton shirt is down on his knees between them, making sure the bugs are even. People are talking, and there’s a lot of hassling over each other’s cars in between the makes, especially Dodge versus Chevy.

“I used to race a ’67 Camaro RS,” someone watching says to someone else.

“Then I got married. Took all my money.” A voice out of the dark asks him what he’s doing here tonight watching racing then. “Hell. The marriage is over. So I’m getting back into it now.”

Down below, the bugs go. Their engines make straining sounds, and they seem to crawl off the line. Some of the spectators laugh, but most take it as seriously as the drivers themselves, as if the big blocks were going at it.

In one corner of the parking lot, Chris is leaning against a black Nova, trying to get Darcey into a race with a Mustang that had just beat someone. The Mustang guy is feeling pretty good, but he doesn’t want to race a girl.

“C’mon,” Chris says. “It’s a girl driving a stick. You won’t race a stock Duster?”

The Mustang won’t race. More people are coming into the parking lot. A ’66 Nova rumbles in, its exhaust loud enough to make the ground tremble. It’s obvious and obnoxious, but everyone has to look at it just once.

Chris says he gets along with everyone except the guy in the purple Dodge with the silver rims and the big white shifter knob and big fat tires. “He’s not in the MOPAR club. That guy thinks he can beat up everyone. He thinks his car’s faster than everyone’s. He talks a lot.” Later he mentions that the guy’s also Darcey’s ex-boyfriend and that a couple of times she had to call the cops on him when he came around her house threatening to smash in her windows. But that doesn’t matter, Chris says; it’s mainly the thing about the guy thinking he can beat everyone else that gets to him.

Then Tony enters the lot in the Dodge Dart sleeper, a 440 power plant quietly mumbling under the hood. Chris points it out and says, “The header’s the only giveaway. There — under the front tire. Otherwise it looks totally innocent.”

Chris points out another guy. “There’s Joe Isuzu. We call him that because he lies through his teeth. He’s from L.A.” When asked what he lies about, Chris says, “Everything. Y’know, his car.”

A self-designated race-arranger approaches Tom and says somebody named John wants to race his Duster.

“John who? Mustang John?”

“John in the Camaro.”

Tom checks out the Camaro, agrees to a race, and then hurries to prep his Duster. He says, “The Camaro’s got a Dominator carb and a gear drive. And I’m gonna sucker him into a race tonight with my stock Duster,” and then he smiles.

He lets the two long-haired Mexican kids who are John’s friends follow him to watch him change his rear tires. He opens his trunk and runs his hand over the huge racing slicks tucked in there. They are barely street legal. The flat, grooveless tires have little rubber knobs all over their surface, designed to heat up and melt in the friction and grip the road. “These wouldn’t last two weeks if I drove around town in ’em,” Tom says. The tires cost $160 apiece.

Tom is in a big hurry to race, and a crowd of half a dozen gathers to watch and listen as he and Chris work on the tires. Tom starts pumping the hydraulic jack handle, and the jack slips and the car almost falls on him. He and the Mexican boys laugh. The boys’ looks to each other say their friend John’s ’68 jet-black Camaro RS with the 468 power plant will have an easy win against this lopsided little ’75 Duster. They look at Chris working on the other tire, and in the darkness he shrugs and explains to them, “He wants to race. He doesn’t care.” Tom looks up and says to Chris a little too loudly, “John’s gonna kick my ass — he knows that.” The jack slips again as Tom’s tightening down the lug nuts, and he swears. “This is gonna suck. I like close races.” Chris loads the street tires in the trunk. “Maybe he might miss a gear.”

Tom shakes his head. “He’s probably got an automatic transmission.”

They stop talking and finish the work. The small crowd watches in silence. It is as though Chris and Tom are performers and these are rehearsed lines that they say, that they must say every Saturday night before every race. And now that they have said these lines, they can get down to racing.

The Camaro backs out of its parking space like a sleek submarine slipping from its mooring. Its idle is set at a steady scream, and the sweet smell of motor oil fills the cold parking lot air.

Later, down below on the dark street, Tom and the Camaro alternate revving their engines, then dropping the clutch in, burning out their tires. They do this several times, and when they think they’ve gotten their tires warm enough to grip, they line up. Chris kneels down and lines them up. When he thinks they are ready, he stands up. The cars begin steadily revving. Standing in the glare of the headlights, Chris’s arms extend straight out from his body. He holds them there for three seconds, then drops them to his side.

He holds perfectly still as the two cars whisk past him. Their engines scream off the line. Tom’s Duster gets off slowly from the dig, then makes ground and passes the Camaro so fast that some watching say “Holy shit!” the way some spectators at a bullfight might say “Ole!

Both Tom and the Camaro shift perfectly, running through the gears almost in unison. As Tom wins, someone else announces, “The small block holds its own.” The roaring of the engines fades into the distance.

After the race, the crowd gathers by Tom’s Duster as he pulls into a clean, well-lighted space. People look at the car and the driver. They examine the old Duster with the solid engine as if they are searching for clues. Someone says, “The Camaro’s paint job costs more than this whole car.”

Tom is exuberant. Chris waits for him to climb out of the car so he can talk to him about when he knew Tom had it won. “I could see when he let off. I could see sparks coming out of the exhaust.”

John gets out of his car and comes over to check out the Duster. “The engine is straight out of a dragster,” he says. John is older, and later he says he’s got kids at home as old as some of the guys here.

He just can’t stop racing. Right now, though, he’s pissed that he lost, and he can’t figure it out. He boasted that his car had more than 500 horsepower, but he got beat by this stock Duster and he wants to know what the deal is.

“I’d have to say it lost because it’s a Chevrolet,” Chris says. He smiles.

The next guy that wants to race Tom is from Hemet. Tom’s car has become the car to beat tonight. This time, as he looks over the Camaro, Tom is really worried because the Camaro has nitrous oxide injection. Chris takes Tom aside and tells him that when he starts the race, he will blink before he drops his arms, giving him an advantage that he says should make it a fair race against the esoteric N2O Camaro.

As Chris and Tom hold their strategy session, everyone suddenly drops to the pavement. Whispers carry down the line: “Cops!” A police car has pulled up on Morena near the starting line and is shining its light up the embankment into the parking lot. Then another police car pulls into the driveway of the lot and everyone begins standing up.

The cop gets out of his car and starts checking IDs and telling people to beat it. Quick good-byes are said, and people hustle to their cars, some hiding beer bottles under their windbreakers. Soon the sounds of engines starting and revving break the night’s silence. A minor traffic jam begins as the cars line up to leave the lot. It’s 2:30 a.m.

The cops get the racers for whatever they can — reckless driving, “exhibition of speed,” illegal lane change —anything. It’s a game in which the police never see all that goes on but are very aware of the speed and the danger. A racer, trying to defend the safety of racing, says, “We’re gonna race, no matter what. And when the cops crack down on our safe places, we’re going to go into town to do it.”

Another police car enters the parking lot, and a tall, soft-spoken, very tired looking officer climbs out of his car to watch the parade of racers creep out of the lot. He doesn’t look much older than some of the racers. He says this is all private property. He asks, How safe can racing be when you’re going 85 or 90 miles per hour? He says he knows exactly how to keep muscle cars from racing. “We ticket ’em. Jack up their insurance rates three or four times. Let them run out of money. Most of these guys can’t afford the insurance anyway.” As he says this, the last car drives out of the lot, leaving it in total silence.

The next weekend looks like rain, so most of the mini-truckers don’t show. The racers don’t miss the mini-truckers, though, because of the brawls they had been causing lately. Even so, the lot is full and the informal car spectacle continues through the night. Neither Tom nor Chris shows up. Someone says they had a falling out over something other than cars, something that had been brewing from way before the Nationals that Chris won, and now Tom wants to fight Chris. No one seems to know where Chris is, nor is anyone too worried about it; they say he’ll show up again, just like before. Maybe he got a job that keeps him working night, or he moved, or he sold the car. Or maybe he’s at home in his garage working on the Duster, making it faster. But they know he’ll be back, just as they know it’s going to be summer again and the nights will be hot and dry and somewhere people will line up along a road to see someone else’s older, faster cars race the quarter-mile strip. Right now it’s only the bad weather, they say, but that can’t last forever.

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