Johnny Le is sitting on the floor of the garage, his elbows propped on his knees, a wrench dangling from his right hand. The undercarriage of the jacked-up Honda Civic, he's been working on all afternoon hangs about four feet off the ground, just above his head. His face and hands are smeared with grease.
"I like to go fast," he says in halting English, raising his hand to shield his eyes from the late-afternoon sunlight streaming through an open bay door in the back of the garage. "I go as fast as I can. It's never enough for me. I just want to get to that pole."
Le is the owner of Lightspeed High Performance, an auto shop in University City that specializes in customizing compact import cars for high performance. He's also a semiprofessional drag racer; the store has a Honda CRX with a race-car engine that consistently runs 11.6 seconds on a quarter-mile dragstrip, at a top speed of 119 mph. He says it's the fastest CRX in St. Louis.
"No nitrous. That's pretty good for the Midwest," the 28-year-old Le says, laughing. "I'm consistent. That's pretty fast."
Le was born in Vietnam but grew up in Texas and California. That's where he first became interested in fast cars and drag racing. He used to race against his friends, running from red light to red light or meeting up on deserted highways to test their cars. The rush of speed was addictive, he says, and he became more and more serious, eventually dropping out of college to become a mechanic.
Le moved to St. Louis ten years ago and found the scene for custom imports -- small cars, Hondas and Volkswagens and Nissans, modified for speed -- much smaller than those in Texas and California. He tinkered around, opening the shop in 1996 and making his car faster and faster. He also got off the streets. Le races exclusively on the track now, usually at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Illinois, or traveling to California, Florida or Chicago. He drives a 1998 Honda Prelude with a modified engine and body off the track, but he says he keeps it under the speed limit --mostly.
"I feel the kids are stupid when they take it on the streets," he says. "They run red lights and basically try to kill somebody. I hope they'll go to the track more often."
But street racing hasn't entirely lost its appeal for everyone at Lightspeed. Jose Lopez, one of the shop's mechanics, straightens up from under the raised hood of another Honda lined up against the wall.
"Do any of us street-race?" Lopez asks. "No. Would we like to? Yeah. We all used to street-race. But honestly, now that we have a race car, we need to keep it legal. We'd all like to keep it up. It's fun as hell, but everyone's getting stupider now."
Le, speaking in a second language, has a hard time describing the rush he feels behind the wheel of a race car. Lopez, on the other hand, knows just what to say.
"It's much better than sex," he says. "I can say that and honestly mean it. It's like some people who shoot up heroin. It's an addiction."
In recent months, street racing in St. Louis has gotten an unflattering high profile. Four people -- all teenagers -- have been killed since the beginning of the year in incidents of alleged racing or hill-jumping in south St. Louis County; another died last month in north St. Louis County. Local television news has reported the deaths as part of an epidemic of street-racing fatalities, pushing fast cars and teen drivers into the public eye. Now police, legislators and school officials, besieged by the growing attention to teenage drivers in general and racers in particular, are feeling pressure to crack down.
There may not be much they can do.
"We've been told by students that if we really clamp down hard on Lemay Ferry [Road], it wouldn't affect them. They'd just find someplace else to go," says Major Tim Fitch of the St. Louis County Police Department. "Does a traffic ticket make an impact? Basically, they say it doesn't. They go to a lawyer, pay a lawyer, and get it whittled down to a nonmoving violation."
It's hard to imagine what kind of deterrent would work, given that street racing is a spontaneous game of one-upsmanship driven by ego and hormones. Guys are showing off their cars in a parking lot on a Friday night and start bragging about whose car is faster, or one will pull up next to another car at a red light and rev his engine before speeding, sometimes through traffic, to the next stop. In such heated moments, consequences don't mean much: The drivers are usually caught up in the moment and, before they think about what they're doing, they're racing.
Jason, a seventeen-year-old high-school student who doesn't want his real name used, says he never thinks about what might happen as a result of his racing. "When you're racing, you don't care about getting caught at the time," Jason says.
He's been pulled over several times and has had even more close calls in the six months since he got his 400-horsepower 1993 Nissan 240SX. Despite the danger, he's unrepentant about his reckless driving. His biggest worry is getting a ticket: "Sometimes I've almost rear-ended someone else, and I've been pretty close to getting clocked by the cops. I got lucky quite a few times going 100 on Manchester."
For Jason, the thrills are immediate. The rush is all he cares about when he's driving fast. "Your heart really starts pumping when you're doing double the speed limit," he says.
Part of the appeal of racing is its illicit nature. Anything that draws the approbation of teachers, cops and parents holds an automatic appeal for rebellious teenagers. Add the markers of a readily identifiable subculture, especially one with a do-it-yourself ethic, and the physical thrill of rumbling full-throttle down a suburban highway at 100 mph, and you have street racing.
"We've all been busted a few times," Lopez, the mechanic at Lightspeed, says. "It gets a little old. But it's such an adrenaline rush when you know it's illegal to go 120 mph. It's not as much fun when it's legal. If this was the autobahn, I don't know that they'd be doing it -- at least not as many of them."
When there is talk of consequences, most racers consider the money.
"It's just stupid," says Joey Nguyen, a nineteen-year-old St. Louis native who used to street-race but insists that those days are long over. "The tickets aren't worth it; the damage isn't worth it. A paint job doesn't come cheap. Parts don't come cheap." These days, Nguyen says, he'll only race on dragstrips. "I've heard all the excuses -- the compound on the track is different from the street. I say it's always the same on the track. On the street, it's always different. On the track, there aren't any wet spots. If you spend $10,000 on your car, you don't want to wreck it."
Jason says his parents found out he'd been modifying his engine when an auto shop called his house and left a message about a part he was buying. They were concerned about the risks he's taking in a powerful car and threatened to take the car away. "My parents have threatened to sell it a few times," he says.
Street racers rarely weigh the risks. It's like drunken driving, says Lopez, the mechanic: "It doesn't really hit you until it happens to somebody you know," Lopez says of the potential for disaster every time a teenager burns out at a traffic light. "I seriously doubt it makes any kind of impact unless somebody dies."
Seventeen-year-old Megan Landholt was killed on Lemay Ferry Road in February when the car she was driving collided with a Camaro that police investigators say had been hill-jumping and went out of control. Landholt was on her way back home after a study session at the library when the crash occurred.
Jonathan Hearst and Kevin Houska, both nineteen, were killed in July when the car they were riding in rammed into a guardrail on Lemay Ferry during a late-night drag race. The driver, Brandon Ostendorf, pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular manslaughter. He'll be sentenced in July.
"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy," says Steven Hearst, Jonathan's father. "This has been going on for a long time, since James Dean. It's not going to stop until there are some strict rules on it so that the police know exactly what to do when they see it. Kids are going to be kids -- I remember doing it once or twice. But never like this."
Dale Sandage understands why young men like to drive fast. Growing up in South St. Louis in the 1980s, Sandage, now 33, worked on his own cars, and he raced. He still owns a 1968 Camaro with a methane engine that he races -- but only at the track. (It's not street-legal.) The car runs under ten seconds for the quarter-mile.
"It's peer pressure. Let's face it -- motor sports is an ego-driven sport," Sandage says. "You get four or five friends out on Lemay Ferry Road, talking about their cars, showing them off, sooner or later they're going to race. That's how I got started. I only did it for about a year. Then I joined the Army. I got a good education real quick about life and how precious it is."
Sandage has been the dragstrip manager at Gateway International Raceway since the beginning of this year. For several years the track has let street-racers use the dragstrip. This year, Sandage decided to give street-car drivers a night of their own. The Tuesday-night street-car races are a way for speed demons to indulge their impulses and show what they can do -- without the dangers of racing on the streets.
"When you're dealing with illegal racing, it's a safety issue," he says. "I don't think kids understand that that piece of machinery they're in isn't always easy to control. It's very simple: You're in a 3,000-pound car, and it doesn't always want to go left or right like you want it to. The next thing you know, you're up against a telephone pole. I didn't study physics, but I learned about it behind the wheel of a car."
This year, for the first time, Gateway sets aside a single night for street cars. Last year, street cars were lined up against real race cars, such as Sandage's, with slick tires and engines that are only allowed on the track, and motorcycle racers. That kept a lot of kids away. The pro and semipro racers and their cars intimidated many kids who might have come, and the crowded field meant fewer chances to line up each night.
"It's still crowded, but last year was worse," says Joey Nguyen, who takes his 2001 Acura to the track almost every week. "I only went one time last year."
What frustrates Sandage most is the anti-authority, underground attitude that keeps some racers from coming to the track.
"You go out to Lindbergh on a Friday night and see a group of kids at the Taco Bell or Steak 'n and Shake, talking trash, and the next thing you know they're on the corner, racing," he says. "But it's not this controlled environment."
Le, an ardent supporter of the street-car nights, thinks drag racing, on the track, is a better outlet for adolescent energy than some of the alternatives. "I tell parents to be glad their kids are spending money on a car and not drugs," he says. "It's better than drugs."
On a recent Tuesday night at Gateway International Raceway, two lines of nearly 100 cars stretch out behind the long asphalt drag strip, with the Arch visible in the distance, the drivers all waiting for a turn on the track. The street-car nights at Gateway, held every week during the summer, are a weird collision of the old muscle-car motorhead mentality and the West Coast machismo of low-rider culture, with a dose of hip-hop thrown in. The only prevailing demographic is sex -- most of the drivers and spectators are boys and men. Unlike stock-car racing, the draw is racially mixed, with rednecks in Dale Earnhardt hats next to Asian-Americans, Latinos and African-Americans. The spectators, with coolers full of beer, cluster in the metal bleachers around the start line, where the real action of drag racing takes place.
The cars entered in the races -- at $15 per car -- are equally diverse, from the expected Mustangs, GTOs and Civics to Ford Ranger pickup trucks and modified Escorts. Some are immaculate and heavily modified; some are battered and strictly stock. Most are somewhere in between, still under construction. Some drivers -- especially those in domestic muscle cars -- burn their back tires in a cloud of heavy smoke before lining up in the dark grooves left by previous drivers, to the delight of the crowd.
A few inexperienced drivers elicit embarrassed laughs when they have trouble getting out of first gear or miss the green start light or line up too far ahead. The fastest cars -- anything under thirteen seconds -- get appreciative applause and scattered sighs of envy.
"You wait in line, watch the lights, wait for green and then go," says Nguyen. "It's always scary. It really is. You get used to it, though. You learn how to block out everything around you and just look at the light. There's a crowd of 200 people there in the stands, so you don't want to mess up and look like a dumbass. It happens, though."
The full acceleration of a modified car -- even one that's completely street-legal -- is an eye-opening and heart-racing experience. From the stands, what looks like a straight shot -- from the start line to the pole, through the gears to top speed -- is a constant process of adjustment under intense pressure, with attention to the engine's RPMs and oil pressure and temperature gauge, all while pressed by gravity against the seat, as the car rumbles, seemingly with a mind of its own, all over the narrow lane of the dragstrip. And all while trying to beat the guy next to you.
"It's a rush," Nguyen says, echoing nearly everyone else who's ever driven a car at top speed. "There's so much going on, and it goes so quickly."
The emergence of the sport-compact scene -- growing from a West Coast underground phenomenon in the late 1980s and early '90s -- has taken street racing to a new level. In the past five years, movies such as The Fast and the Furious and Gone in 60 Seconds have helped make it a part of pop culture. With 2 Fast 2 Furious, the sequel to The Fast and the Furious, scheduled for release next week, everyone -- racers, police and retailers -- is expecting an even bigger surge in popularity.
"It's a whole new generation," Le says. "The last generation, it was muscle cars. Now it's how fast you can make a four-cylinder."
You can make a four-cylinder engine surprisingly fast. For a few hundred dollars, a four-cylinder can nearly match a V6. For $3,500, you can replace the 127-horsepower engine of a Civic coupe with the 200-horsepower engine of a Prelude, dropping a second or more from its stock sixteen-second acceleration time. For less than $10,000, you can make a small, economical hatchback a street-legal race car -- one that's more agile and responsive than a Detroit-designed muscle car.
"Those big boats can't handle," Nguyen says. "A small car can handle like crazy, and this way you still get enough power to go fast."
There's much more to it than just performance, though. The aesthetics of modified imports -- related to performance and speed but sometimes done just for looks -- is an important marker, letting drivers recognize each other as fellow members of the group.
"It costs a lot of money, but it gives me fulfillment," says Spencer Greene, a twenty-year-old college student with a 1994 Honda Accord and a 2001 Civic hatchback, both extensively modified. He's spent more than $10,000 customizing the two cars and spends most of his free time getting more work done. He doesn't think he'll ever be finished.
"I can't afford a BMW, so this is the only way I can have a nice car.... It's about personalization. I'm big on white and red; that's just my combination. My other car is white with red details, everything. It's like art."
Greene says he often sees other cars while he's driving around and stops to talk to their owners. "It's like a family," he says.
Bethany Doris, Greene's eighteen-year-old girlfriend, just bought a white 1994 Honda Accord. She's spent nearly $4,000 on detail painting, stereo equipment, wheels and a new intake. Most of her improvements, like her boyfriend's, are cosmetic, though the new intake adds a deep rumble to the engine and a pop to the car's acceleration.
Greene says he'll occasionally rev his engine and accelerate if another modified car pulls up next to him, maybe make a dash to the next light if the road is clear. He goes to Gateway to watch the Tuesday-night street-car races but doesn't race seriously, either on the streets or the track.
"I might mess around with a kid," he says. "I'm not going to do 130 down the highway. I try not to break the speed limit too much or burn my tires. It's a waste of money."
That, however, hasn't kept him from getting attention. He says he's been pulled over more than 300 times since he turned sixteen. "If you have stuff on your car, I guarantee they'll pull you over," he says. "They may screw with you if they don't have anything to do. They'll say your headlights are too bright or something like that. There was a cop that used to wait on my street and pull me over when I drove my other car."
There are a handful of regular contact spots for the local scene -- high-school parking lots, a rotating lineup of strip malls and fast-food restaurants where drivers cruise and show off their cars. There are shops such as Lightspeed and Adrenaline Motor Sports in St. Charles, where customers hang around while they get their cars worked on. There's the online message board stlstreet-racing.com, where racers post photos of their cars, challenge other drivers, talk about parts and complain about the police. For the most part, though, racers get together spontaneously or, if they want to meet or compete, surreptitiously.
The compact culture mixes secrecy and an overt desire for attention. Because it's illegal, most racers are wary and want to stay as far underground as they can. At the same time, racing is a high-profile, extroverted activity -- the rush of being the first to the line is second only to the rush of high speed -- and the modified cars, with bright paint jobs and expensive wheels and spoilers on the back, demand to be noticed.
The deluge of media attention this winter, though, has made many drivers more leery than ever. The owners of stlstreetracing.com, citing a previous bad experience with reporters, declined a request to be interviewed for this story. When a reporter from the Post-Dispatch asked for information about street racing from the administrators earlier this month, her e-mail was posted on the site, with the administrators explaining that they don't want to contribute to street racing's already tarnished image. (Others weighed in, too. A typical response: "I'll give you the full Saint Louis Street Racing low down in return of 3 various butt naked shots of your box.")
Nguyen and Lopez both believe the media attention is necessary: Heat from reporters and cops, they say, will make some drivers think twice before revving their engines.
Jason says racing's new high profile has forced him and his friends to slow down, if not stop altogether. "That's why I've cut down quite a bit lately," Jason says. "A lot of people have."
Major Fitch says patrol officers in the South County have noticed less racing this spring, in part, he says, because of the crackdown. "We've done some concentrated enforcement efforts in South County," Fitch says. "We'll tow cars or make full-custody arrests so they have to go in for processing. It's more serious than just a speeding ticket. We've been hitting it hard, specifically on weekends. The officers who are out there say they're seeing less and less of it."
When Johnny Le moved to St. Louis, the scene was much different than it is now.
"Four, five, six years ago, when I first moved here, it was kind of boring," he says, leaning on the hood of a black Honda behind the Lightspeed garage. "It wasn't fun anymore. Then I got into business, and it's more enjoyable. I drive by and see people in their cars and get along with a lot of people everywhere. I talk to them and check out their cars. It makes me feel like I want to stay in this city. It's pretty good."
He says he doesn't worry that his shop encourages kids to risk their lives by racing on the streets. There's nothing wrong with a fast car, he says, as long as you know how -- and when and where -- to handle it.
"It's for fun, not to race," he says. "You get your car fast, get it looking good, you'll have the potential to race. But you don't want to do that past 40 or 50 mph. You double the speed limit, that's not safe. You can have a badass fast car, but if somebody's going slower than you, they panic and then hit somebody else. That's not you, but you create it."
No one really knows what it would take to stop street racing. The rush is too great, the temptation to run from red light to red light too overpowering and too available, for reckless young guys to resist. The track is too safe for some racers -- on the streets, they have their own world. They may think it's safe, that they're in control -- but they're not.
"It's not safe when you just meet up together and race," Le says. "Street racing is dangerous. But you can't stop kids from hanging out and showing off their cars. You cannot stop that."