Speed Demons

St. Louisans hope to cash in on their motorcycling skills -- if they live long enough

They are not, they insist, crazy. Or unsafe. Or any of the other things you may think about someone who rides a motorcycle through freeway traffic at speeds exceeding 100 mph, often on one wheel.

The Streetfighterz, a trio of South County crotch-rocket aficionados, plead guilty to one thing: They are hotdogs with a thirst for speed and a love for maneuvers that have friends and parents leaving messages on their voice mail: Are you still alive? Other motorcycle daredevils do the same routines -- stoppies (hard-braking maneuvers that put the back wheel high in the air), riding while standing on the gas tank, wheelies while the rider sits with legs over the handlebars -- but most wear protective clothing made from leather and Kevlar. The Streetfighterz favor jeans or shorts, T-shirts and tennis shoes. Tests have shown that denim wears through after 4 feet of sliding on pavement -- after that, it's just flesh -- but image matters for the Streetfighterz. Like the Wallendas, they work without nets.

"I know it sounds hoosier, but that's what we're going for," confesses Dennis Cardwell, 22. "It makes us more extreme. I feel invincible on my bike."

This kind of thinking has its limits. If they rode in Illinois, they wouldn't have to wear helmets. But the Streetfighterz won't go that far. "You can get a skin graft, but you stay a vegetable," explains James Vaughn, who, at 27, is the eldest Streetfighter. They won't admit to fear. "After a certain point, you trust your skills and you trust your bike," says Adam Hunziker, 24.

Motorists on I-55 between Meramec Bottom Road and I-270 may be familiar with the Streetfighterz, who prize this length of freeway because it's flat, straight and nearby. They call it the Two-Mile Stretch, and they don't wait for the wee hours to get it on. They wheelie past commuters and the occasional cop, changing lanes with the front wheel high in the air and sometimes venturing onto the shoulder in heavy traffic. They stand on the saddle at 70 mph and talk about holding wheelies for the entire two miles. Next year, Cardwell vows, he will zip beneath an agricultural semi truck -- the kind with extra ground clearance -- just inches in front of the back wheels.

In the motorcycling community, extreme riders like the Streetfighterz are sometimes called hooligans. Reactions on the road vary. "Either cars you pass are thumbs up out the window or flipping us off," Vaughn says. "We've had people chase us down and yell. Sometimes they phone the police."

The Streetfighterz shot a video last summer that they hope to begin selling in January. Set to the music of local rock bands, the 30-minute video features shots of stunts, narrow escapes, a brief encounter with police (who don't catch up) and crashes, including a wheelie gone too far that ends with the destruction of a nearly new motorcycle, which tumbles, tumbles, tumbles. The rider, a friend of the Streetfighterz, escaped serious injury. Another friend who crashes his dirt bike for the camera is less fortunate when he comes down hard after a jump. "He broke his arm right there," says Cardwell as the tape rolls. "People get ambitious when they go riding with us. We haven't found anyone in Missouri who rides like we do." Vaughn won't allow his daughters, 6 and 8, to bring an advance copy to show-and-tell, nor are they allowed to tell their classmates they rode in the camera car piloted by Tina Vaughn, James' wife. "I respect his riding talent," she says. "I also know the importance of a real expensive life-insurance policy."

Though they've each logged about 7,000 miles during the past year, the Streetfighterz are not especially experienced. Hunziker has been riding just seven months. He's a graphic designer. Vaughn, an electrical engineer, and Cardwell, who works in a video store, each have less than three years of riding experience. They met on the basketball court, and their competitiveness shifted to local highways after Vaughn bought a motorcycle. "James used to talk a lot of shit about how he could do this and that," recalls Cardwell, who wanted to outdo his friend so badly that he flashed a forged proof-of-insurance card at the motorcycle dealership so he could pick up his first bike.

In October, they set up a Web site (www.streetfighterz.com) where they sell T-shirts and display photographs of themselves engaged in highly illegal acts on local streets. E-mails have come from as far away as Finland. "We're averaging 100 hits a day," says Vaughn. Homegrown stunt-riding groups have established about a half-dozen Web sites to sell videos and promote themselves -- the very best perform at motorcycle shows and races across the country (the Streetfighterz expect to debut at Gateway International Raceway next year).

Besides pictures of death-defying stunts and written accounts of what it's like to slide down the road on your knees at freeway speed, the Web sites include video clips of things going terribly wrong and photographs of the aftermath: twisted hulks that were once motorcycles and guys with I-still-can't-believe-it expressions staring down at raw, bloody meat that will never be the same. Some experts advise carrying Styrofoam coffee cups in first-aid kits: High-velocity impacts have been known to dislodge eyeballs from their sockets, leaving the still-seeing eyes dangling on battered cheeks, which provokes confusion and shock. There's not much anyone can do at that point except put the eyes in the cups upside down over the sockets until help arrives.

Insanely powerful Japanese motorcycles capable of speeds approaching 190 mph make all this possible for anyone with sufficient nerves, credit and proof of insurance. The bikes cost about $10,000 new. Responding to pressure from European governments that were threatening to mandate slower bikes, manufacturers early this year voluntarily agreed to keep speeds below 186 mph, still plenty quick. Weighing just 400 pounds, these motorcycles will go from zero to 140 mph in less than 10 seconds. Slowing down is a different matter.

Let's say a dog steps in the road. At 174 mph -- the fastest the Streetfighterz have clocked themselves -- it will take the rider about a second to see the danger and start hitting the brakes. During that time, he will have gone 255 feet. Assuming he manages not to hit anything, he will stop 1,365 feet later, all told traveling more than five football fields in slightly less than 14 seconds from the time he first spots Fido.

Cops, not dogs, are the real danger in the world of the Streetfighterz, who ride without license plates and don't stop when the party lights come on. "It's just too expensive to get caught," explains Vaughn. Cardwell can vouch for that. He was nabbed by the Missouri Highway Patrol in Jefferson County in October 1999 -- he says he thought he'd lost them and was taken by surprise after he'd stopped. He spent 12 hours in jail and got five tickets: speeding (120 mph in a 60 mph zone), improper lane change, careless and imprudent driving, failure to stop at a red light and failure to yield to police. He ended up with $835 in fines and a broken pinkie from crashing into a patrol car. Only the speeding ticket stuck -- the judge agreed to reduce all the others to excessive-vehicle-noise infractions and sent Cardwell to driving school. "My lawyer told the judge I wanted to be a police officer and this could ruin it for me," he recalls. "I learned my lesson: Don't get caught." He still plans on being a cop and hopes to enter an academy next year. Though he got a break in court, his insurance rates skyrocketed to more than $3,000 per year.

Hunziker had a close call recently when he ran low on fuel with police in pursuit. He managed to lose them long enough to dash into a QuikTrip, where he "borrowed" some gas (he didn't have any money), then sped to safety. (Hunziker says he returned and paid for the gas after the heat was off.)

Vaughn, who has no points against his license and pays less than $400 a year for insurance, admits to one major crash. He had dismounted at 70 mph and was holding onto the back of the bike in a maneuver called skitching, which amounts to skiing on pavement with just the soles of your shoes for protection. The bike, a Yamaha R1, started shimmying. Fearing the motorcycle would entangle him before going down, he let go. While he picked himself up, his friends yelled at him to chase down his bike, which was still hurtling down the road. "The only thing was I hurt my hips a little bit," he says. The bike was totaled. In the end, everything turned out all right.

He got a brand-new motorcycle.

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