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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.
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