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"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."
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