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

Sep 19, 2013 at 4:00 am
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.
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. Mark Gilliland

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

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.

Vaughn says that back in the late 1990s there were probably fewer than 100 people in the United States who were even aware that these stunts could be done on sports bikes, let alone actually experimenting with them at high speeds. Information was slower back then. There was no Facebook or YouTube. If a man pulled a gnarly wheelie for two miles and no one documented it, did that wheelie happen?

For Hunziker the solution was obvious. Get it on video. "We basically started filming to show people: 'Look, this is what we just did, seriously.'"

Using Vaughn's $200 Super 8 Sony camcorder, they shot enough footage for a ten-minute highlight reel of sorts. None of them knew anything about editing a video, so when they screened the teaser for those dubious friends, Vaughn found himself juggling remotes for four VCRs, playing here, pausing there, while simultaneously dubbing in some local tunes. Kubrick it was not, but the small audience in Vaughn's basement was blown away.

Vaughn sent the teaser to Impact Video, a California-based national distributor of extreme-sports videos. For Docy Andrews, president of Impact Video, 1999 was a big year. Skateboarding reels were a cultural force unto themselves, and the power of video was carrying extreme sports from the underground to the mainstream at a breakneck — and profitable — pace. That year the X Games featured Tony Hawk nailing the first ever 900 degree rotation off a vert ramp, as well as Travis Pastrana's first freestyle Moto X competition. Andrews recalls, "We saw it on dirt bikes, ATVs, snowmobiles, pretty much anything with a motor."

The Streetfighterz's video wasn't the first she had seen of young men riding wheelies for miles or standing on gas tanks that had been pounded flat with a hammer to provide a foothold. She credits the StarBoyz out of Akron, Ohio, as the first stunting bike group to approach her, but the Streetfighterz footage was only the third or fourth of its kind that ever crossed her desk, and it was really good. If Vaughn would give her 45 minutes of additional material, she'd distribute the video.

And so between 1999 and 2000, the Streetfighterz hit Interstate 55 and other highways around St. Louis to shoot its first bona fide film. They titled the finished product Careless and Imprudent — the same term written on the tickets cops give out for pulling stunts on the highway. To avoid such tickets and the steep fines they brought, the Streetfighterz stopped riding with license plates and cranked the throttle when they saw lights flashing behind them. It made for great footage.

By 2000 the Streetfighterz's star was rising fast in the burgeoning world of stunting. (Riverfront Times profiled the group for a cover story in December of that year.) Shooting Careless and Imprudent required hundreds of hours of practice, seven days a week, four to five hours a day. But the members loved it, and they got better in the making.

"I wouldn't say we were inventing the sport," says Vaughn, "but we were driving the sport in a direction that we wanted it to go."

It was winter 2001 ("Cold as shit," recalls Hunziker), and the guys weren't sure if anyone would show up to the St. Louis bar they'd chosen for Careless and Imprudent's release party. To their surprise, when the Streetfighterz arrived, they found fans lined up two deep. The party started at 8 p.m. By 8:45 fire marshals were only letting one person in for every person out.

"They were in awe," says Vaughn of the crowd that night. "To be honest, we were just as excited as they were."

The film was soon on store shelves across the nation, and Vaughn and the Streetfighterz were fielding calls to perform at events, competitions and drag races across the country and in Europe. It was the perfect storm of massive popular demand for new extreme sports — after all, only a few groups could do what the Streetfighterz could.

That first video, though technically crude, set the style for the many more to come: Action shots of the wheelies and stunts backed up with heavy metal and hip-hop. Subsequent videos followed suit. The packaging for one box set promised in full capitals: "INSANE HIGH-SPEED STUNTS AND GUT WRENCHING WRECKS!" and "JACKASS MEETS HIGH-POWERED SPORTS BIKES."

After the success of its project in 2001, the Streetfighterz immediately got to work on making the next Careless and Imprudent. The group began taking on the form of a production house: Vaughn handled the business side of things, wrangling sponsors and motorcycle deals, as well as promotions and setting up shows. Hunziker threw himself into video editing and used his graphic-design degree to create T-shirt logos and the group's website.

By 2002 the Streetfighterz had released its second DVD. (The group would go on to make thirteen films sold at places such as Best Buy and Sam's Club.) And perhaps if things had simply continued in that direction, Streetfighterz would be like the other major stunting groups still operating today — performing at arenas and publicity events as opposed to the streets. But that didn't happen. And the reason may be that innocuous message Dennis Cardwell placed on an online forum one day back in 2002: the one suggesting that other stunt-bike enthusiasts get together for a "group ride."

Captain Ronald S. Johnson sits at his computer inside the Missouri State Highway Patrol's headquarters in Weldon Springs and points to what he sees as incontrovertible proof of Ride of the Century participants evading the law. Playing out on the monitor is surveillance video of troopers arriving at the parking lot of the Red Roof Inn at Interstate 44 and Hampton Avenue on the evening of Saturday, August 31.

"There. Right there," he says, as the video shows troopers arriving to the parking lot after following a group of cyclists who were stunting on the highway. The troopers approach some of the bikes and feel the heat still coming off the engines. The bikes' owners, meanwhile, have scurried off the lot.

Johnson pauses and rewinds the footage. "See? There they go."

The cat-and-mouse game between authorities and the bikers involved in Ride of the Century never ends, though Johnson has long grown tired of it. He talks about wives and daughters "stranded on the side of the road, in tears" because they were overwhelmed and terrified of the swarms of sports bikes filling the road. How Ride of the Century participants have in the past shut down highways, parking their bikes to stop traffic and creating a four-lane playground for performing stunts. He talks in rumbling, somber tones about the event's failings, especially this year's deaths.

Johnson says he has tried for years to set up some kind of meeting with the Streetfighterz to talk through Ride of the Century's pressing issues, but to no avail. Vaughn says he has been trying the same thing for just as long. Finally, this year, that meeting happened.

It didn't go well.

A few days prior to the kickoff to Ride of the Century, the Streetfighterz learned that police pressure had caused the cancellation of one of their Labor Day weekend events. The third annual Funfest was supposed to be a family affair where spectators could enjoy food and drink while watching a stunt-bike performance in the parking lot of Big St. Charles Motorsports. But after the dealership got a visit from one of Johnson's colleagues, Lieutenant Stephen Ferrier who warned that troopers would be conducting checkpoints, the owner decided the event wasn't worth the hassle.

Enough was enough. Vaughn got on the blower and called Lieutenant Ferrier. The two set up a meeting for that same day at St. Louis police headquarters downtown. Vaughn was expecting a handful of law-enforcement representatives, but, he says, when he walked into a sixth-floor conference room, he was greeted by nearly twenty people, and more were filing in. In attendance were Johnson, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and other representatives of St. Louis city and county, including lawyers.

"I felt ambushed," Vaughn says, describing how Johnson and Ferrier spent 40 minutes chastising Vaughn and the Streetfighterz for promoting and profiting from illegal activity. Vaughn says the scolding culminated in Johnson declaring that if the Streetfighterz wouldn't shut down the event themselves, the police would find a way to shut down the Streetfighterz by revoking its business license.

"I can tell you if this event goes anywhere near like last year, I will use every bit of power, and I will see that this licence will not exist," Johnson can be heard saying in an audio recording Vaughn took of the meeting. "There's no way the state of Missouri should have a company that's promoting criminal behavior and chaos on our highways."

He also claims the troopers asked him for the ride's route so they could send some patrol vehicles to provide a buffer between the riders and other vehicles on the highway. He replied that the ride has never had a set route, and anything he gave them would be, at best, guesswork.

Johnson denies threatening the Streetfighterz, though he does have serious issues with the group's business model. He also refutes Vaughn's claim that there were lawyers present at the meeting. The gathering was attended by fifteen representatives of law enforcement, no more. He claims that Vaughn did give them a specific route, one which Johnson himself waited at for over an hour with other patrol cars until it became clear that they had been stood up.

"I can't tell you enough times that I did everything I could," says the trooper. "I showed Mr. Vaughn the utmost respect. I threw out every plan that I could think of to make this a safe event, so he could have this event."

Johnson said he posed a simple challenge to Vaughn when he invited him to attend a press conference with police later that week to address the media on the upcoming Ride of the Century. Johnson says that during the meeting he asked Vaughn: "If you're saying that you want this to be a safe event, if you want the chaos and things to stop — then just get up and say that," says Johnson. "What I saw is that he really didn't know how to stop it."

No representative from Streetfighterz attended the police press conference that Wednesday. Vaughn says he didn't want to answer loaded questions from an openly biased media. The Streetfighterz did, however, post a press release to its Facebook page. It included the following: "The intent and purpose of the ride has never been to cause chaos and mayhem on the roads, but instead, have an event where people and motorcyclists with similar interests could come together and share a passion for motorcycles... [B]e safe, respectful to other motorists and obey all traffic laws while riding."

Vaughn says he had asked Johnson to make sure the statement was read during the press conference by him or some other police officer. That did not happen.

Yet the fact remains that for the very first time in Streetfighterz's history, a phrase like "chaos and mayhem" appeared not as an all-caps tag line on a DVD box set but as a plea to — of all things — lower the intensity level.

The Streetfighterz couldn't have anticipated what that first "group ride" would become. Cardwell's message posted on that online forum back in 2002 brought just 60 riders out to the flood wall on the St. Louis riverfront. Participation quadrupled the next year at the first official Ride of the Century, and Hunziker came up with the beguiling name for the annual gathering.

"It was my idea, and everyone was giving me shit because they're like, 'How can it be Ride of the Century if you do it next year?'" The paradox didn't seem to hurt attendance, and the ride grew. After 2005, Vaughn estimates, the gathering grew annually by around 500 riders.

Now after eleven successive years, the Ride of the Century is one of the largest, if not the largest, gathering of stunt bikes in the world. This year an estimated 3,000 bikers attended the event, and their run-ins (figuratively and literally) with the cops began before the ride even got under way.

On Thursday night, three days before the actual Ride of the Century, undercover officers in north St. Louis arrested 23 riders on charges of reckless driving. Authorities also impounded 24 bikes during the same bust near a gas station at Interstate 70 and Salisbury Street. (Riders who witnessed the arrest tell Riverfront Times that they were victims of police profiling and were not doing illicit motorcycle stunts on roadways.)

Then, at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, Justin Rohe, a cyclist who, unlike the Streetfighterz, did attend the police press conference earlier in the week to defend Ride of the Century, died when he ran his sports bike through a red light and crashed into a car in St. Charles. Johnson considers Rohe's fatality the first death of Ride of the Century 2013.

The second came hours later. Police say Mike Evans was part of a group of motorcycles speeding the wrong way down a south St. Louis street around 6:05 p.m. Saturday when he attempted to pass a car on the right. The incident report states that the 32-year-old's motorcycle clipped the passenger side of the car, flew off the road and hit a pole, killing the resident of Harrisburg, Illinois. The car Evans clipped turned out to be an unmarked police vehicle.

James Vaughn got a call about Evans' death while cleaning up after the Funfest, which had been relocated to a bar in Columbia, Illinois. It was there that he also got word about the incident going down at the Red Roof Inn.

The Funfest had gone off without a hitch, despite its eleventh-hour venue change and a huge police presence along the roads near the bar. The problem occurred as some of the last bikers to leave the event — a group of around 100 — headed back to Missouri.

Captain Johnson says the group began pulling stunts and speeding down the highway service lane once they crossed the river. Police and troopers followed the riders to the Red Roof Inn, where the cops quickly began impounding motorcycles. Eventually two flatbed tow trucks pulled away with ten sports bikes at about 6:30 p.m.

Police say the motorcycles were specifically identified as those that had been driven recklessly, but their case isn't helped by a YouTube clip in which a trooper can be heard telling the outraged cyclists that he was "under direction" to tow "any bike with a hot motor." It's probably the best evidence to date that supports the Streetfighterz's claim that police indiscriminately targeted motorcyclists regardless of whether they were actually involved in any wrongdoing.

"We know the cops acted irresponsibly from their end," says Hunziker. "You should be protecting the bikers themselves and the public. The way they acted that weekend? None of the above. In my eyes, they acted more irresponsibly than the bikers who were doing wheelies."

Vaughn arrived at the Red Roof Inn just as the bikes were being towed. Johnson was there, too. Vaughn says he approached the captain and told him he had heard about Mike Evans' death. Was there anything he could do?

Vaughn recalls Johnson's response: "He told me, 'This is number two for your ride, you know. I'm talking about deaths.'"

Johnson later left the Red Roof Inn and headed to the site of Evans' crash.

The victim's emotionally shaken brother-in-law was there at the scene. Johnson recalls confirming the victim's identity to his in-law. He also recalls the T-shirt the brother-in-law — a fellow rider — was wearing. It read: "I don't stop for cops."

The actual Ride of the Century on Sunday, September 1, was anticlimactic by comparison. There were no deaths. No accidents. Just mass inconvenience as hundreds of riders inched, sometimes one by one, through police checkpoints near the St. Louis riverfront. YouTube videos uploaded from helmet cams show the area clogged with bikers waiting to be let out by police, though police spokespersons say that, as prescribed by law, the checkpoints did not function exclusively to target motorcycles.

And where were the Streetfighterz during the actual "ride" of the Ride of the Century? Vaughn and Hunziker say they were preoccupied with the organizational aspects of the ride and barely touched their own bikes. Vaughn admits, though, that he doesn't even like riding in large groups anymore.

"I'm scared shitless," he says. "I could ride with the five guys in the Streetfighterz all day long. I know where they're going to be, what they're going to do. But I don't like riding in large rides."

This is what the actual Ride of the Century has become to the Streetfighterz: a raucous gathering for other riders to enjoy.

"It's like a brotherhood that we established," says D.J. Schaeffer. "The ride is second nature to us now. It's the quality time that we get to spend with our friends that week; that's my favorite part about that weekend. I know what I can do, these guys know what I can do. But these people who travel from California, from New York, from Florida, it's their day to have fun. It's not our day. It's their day."

The Streetfighterz's official video trailer for the 2012 Ride of the Century garnered 1.7 million hits on YouTube. This year, the group isn't sure they'll assemble a similar video. But even if they don't publicize the ride or organize next year's event, it's likely that it will continue on without them. Says Hunziker: "The ride — it's kind of gotten above us."