Highway Hellraisers: Meet the Streetfighterz, the motorcycle daredevils behind the much maligned Ride of the Century

Highway Hellraisers: Meet the Streetfighterz,  the motorcycle daredevils behind  the much maligned Ride of the Century
Mark Gilliland
The “tank wheelie” involves putting the bike into a regular wheelie, scooting up onto the gas tank and throwing your legs wide while holding on to the handlebars for dear life.

A wheelie used to be all about power and speed. It was simple back then, before the summer of '98, before Dennis Cardwell first used his clutch to pop the front of his motorcycle into the air instead of just hammering the throttle at 100 mph. This was years before "Sitdown" Steve Jones cruised down Interstate 70 with the front tire removed from his bike, and before James Vaughn accidentally hit his kill switch and flipped over his handlebars at highway speed. Before the cops and checkpoints and arrests. Before the media-fueled outcry. Before helmet-cam YouTube videos. Before the deaths. Before the Ride of the Century. All of that came later.

There were no Streetfighterz prior to 1999, just three friends: Cardwell, Vaughn and Adam Hunziker, south-county boys who played lots of basketball together at Vetta Sports on Old Tesson Road. Vaughn was the old man of the group, a 25-year-old with a family, a house and a full-time job as a field engineer for an electric company. Hunziker was a newly graduated graphic designer. Cardwell was, well, a wild card and a goofball who had been riding dirt bikes for years, a hobby that Vaughn and Hunziker didn't know about when they bought motorcycles of their own. Cardwell got a new bike too, maxing out a few credit cards to make the purchase. Soon the three buddies were zipping along St. Louis highways at speeds of up to 130 mph — taunting and pushing each other just as they did on the basketball court.

See also: VIDEO: The Streetfighterz's Greatest YouTube Hits

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Photography by Mark Gilliland.

In the early-morning hours on a summer night in 1998, Cardwell finally did it. He "clutched up" a wheelie, allowing him to ride it out with a measure of control and distance that blew Vaughn and Hunziker's minds right through their helmets.

"From that night it really clicked," says Vaughn, now 39. "I don't really know what it was. It just lit a fire, and we started going out with a particular mission in mind: to see who could ride the longest wheelie."

There's something both powerful and intangible about the wheelie. Evel Knievel (God rest his soul) could've told you that. But so, too, could any sixth grader on a Huffy.

"Why do people want to skydive?" Hunziker asks, explaining the rush that comes with riding a wheelie. "Why would you want to jump out of an airplane 50,000 feet in the air? Why would you want to ski down an 80 degree incline on a mountain? These are things that are human nature. People are thrill seekers, addicts of adrenaline."

"Sitdown" Steve Jones has another explanation for the appeal of the wheelie: "It's like tits," he says. "You just want to look at 'em. You don't know why. You do."

It's the Friday following Labor Day, and four of the five members of Streetfighterz (a.k.a. St. Louis' Original Stunt Team) are assembled in Adam Hunziker's well-appointed basement man cave in south county.

"Sitdown" Steve Jones, whose nickname comes from the eponymous stunt in which he remains fully seated during a wheelie, lounges on a couch while Vaughn hovers behind him, sometimes leaning his thick tanned forearms on the sofa back, sometimes standing and pacing.

Hunziker sits on another sofa across the room. D.J. Schaeffer, an iron worker by trade, is perched on a luxuriously oversized bean bag chair. Absent is Guru Khalsa, a St. Louis native who now lives in the Bay area. Cardwell, the man perhaps most responsible for shaping the Streetfighterz, no longer lives in St. Louis and hasn't been involved with the group for years.

Spread about the basement are various DVDs, posters and paraphernalia from the Streetfighterz's fourteen-year history. Another room in the cellar holds the group's T-shirt printing equipment.

A few days earlier Streetfighterz wrapped up its eleventh official Ride of the Century, attracting thousands of sports-bike enthusiasts to St. Louis. And like in years past, the event brought with it a firestorm of police and media attention. This year, though, it was even worse than usual: The cops held press conferences vowing to crack down on Ride of the Century and followed up the warnings by arresting more cyclists and impounding more bikes than ever. Then there were the fatalities. Over the long holiday weekend, two bikers died after spilling from their vehicles. Media reports made sure to mention that both of the deceased were affiliated with the ride.

It's gotten to the point that members of Streetfighterz feel like they've got bull's-eyes on their backs, like they're some kind of outlaw motorcycle gang akin to the 1960s Hell's Angels or the grizzled renegades portrayed on Sons of Anarchy. Sure, some Streetfighterz are guilty of ignoring a few traffic laws, but they maintain that they're just a group motorcycle daredevils who've turned their passion into a business enterprise.

The group took its name from the term European riders used to describe Japanese crotch-rockets that had been stripped of excess plastic body casing for a more aggressive look. Hunziker added the Z to the end to make it even cooler. Streetfighterz.

Today Streetfighterz is also the name of the group's production company registered as an LLC with the state of Missouri. The members shoot, edit and distribute their own videos, and visitors to the Streetfighterz website can buy T-shirts and DVD box sets. The films began not as a moneymaking venture but as a way the Streetfighterz could prove to their friends that they were actually performing the stunts they bragged about.

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