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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.