By Lindsay Toler
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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."