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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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It's 1:00 a.m. on a muggy Friday in September. While most of Miami sleeps, ten sleek foreign automobiles speed toward the metropolis's western edge. Young men steer the growling, low-riding vehicles west on lonely Tamiami Trail. When the convoy reaches Krome Avenue, it turns right and travels north about five miles. At a pitch-black and empty stretch, eight of the cars fan out to both shoulders. Two stay on the road, side by side. They are preparing to race, not to win a prize nor settle a dispute, but for pride, bragging rights, and reputation.
A 1995 green Acura Integra GS-R idles in the northbound lane. Jose Colón, a race fanatic, hunkers down behind the wheel. The stout 23-year-old draws on a cigarette while checking last-minute details. His ride is impeccable. He has replaced the dull rims installed at the factory with shiny ones. He's added wide tires and a spoiler. Oversize chrome exhaust pipes, new red spark-plug wires, and a silver, softball-size air filter combine to enhance the sports car's performance.
Next to Colón's Acura is a red 1995 Honda Civic Si, its bottom just inches above the ground. A slender male driver leans back in his seat. When New Times approaches and asks his name, he refuses to divulge it. Then he revs the engine to a high pitch.
The road is clear.
As the bitter smell of exhaust fumes permeates the air, onlookers sit on the hoods of their cars, awaiting the contest's start. Even the spectators' automobiles are somehow modified; some have replaced turn signals with strobe lights while others have added smoky glass to dim their headlights. They whisper in anticipation. Then a man dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans emerges and walks to the yellow line that marks the middle of the road. He extends his arms horizontally from his sides. The Acura and Honda inch forward. The black-clad starter directs the drivers to align their front bumpers, then backs up about twenty feet.
The starter drops his arms. In an instant, tires squeal, smoke rises from the front wheels, and the vehicles dart forward, leaving two black marks on the asphalt. Onlookers' eyes follow the racers. The metal cacophony stops for an instant as the drivers shift gears. More hushed conversation rises from the audience as the contest proceeds. The racers change to third gear, the red glow of taillights dims, and the deafening roar dissipates as they move faster and farther away. The competitors quickly approach -- and pass -- 100 miles per hour.
Twenty seconds later and about a quarter-mile away, the Integra's yellow hazard lights start flashing, declaring victory. The spectators buzz about the results. It seems Colón's machine is back in racing form after a stint in the repair shop. It may be one of the fastest in Miami, one onlooker comments. The Acura and the Honda slow, make U-turns, and rejoin the group. As they park, two more cars approach the starting line. Colón accepts some congratulations from the crowd. The scene repeats itself with different contestants more than a dozen times during the next hour.
Welcome to the secretive subculture of drag racing, Miami style. While the ranks of outlaw drivers are burgeoning, their venues are disappearing. Rapid development on the city's western fringes has converted country roads into urban highways, eliminating many ideal spots for illegal meets. Near the few deserted streets, residents often complain to police about the noise associated with the contests.
The cops certainly know of the racers' intentions. Officers intimidate the young participants by visiting favorite meeting places, compiling lists of offenders, and distributing warnings. Over the years enforcement has been inconsistent; authorities buckle down after drag-racing accidents like the one that killed four teenagers in Hollywood this past August, then retreat a few months later. Most racers shrug off the danger and police pressure. "I do it because I love it," declares Colón. "I wanna be known for something. Now I'm known as Jose Integra. Before they used to call me Hoser."
The Firm car club gathers under the fluorescent lights of a Mobil gas station in Hialeah. Colón serves as secretary for the group of about 30 young men who love to tinker and drive fast. This night six members lean on their vehicles, blowing off steam after a run-in with the constabulary. Some walk into the store to buy snacks. Around 11:00 p.m. Colón receives an urgent phone call from his girlfriend, Sylvia Martinez. His car alarm is blaring. And some suspicious characters are lurking around his beloved Integra in the parking lot of the Kendall apartment that the couple shares. Someone apparently is attempting to steal Colón's wheels, Martinez reports.
Like street cops who receive an urgent call, Colón and company race off. They enter the Palmetto Expressway at NW 103rd Street and head south. Danny Fernandez floors his Honda CRX and club president Mike Hernandez follows closely. They accelerate to speeds approaching 100 miles per hour, swerving around slower cars, missing them by inches. Heavy traffic doesn't impede The Firm, which continues west on State Road 836 and south on Florida's Turnpike. The drivers exit at Kendall Drive, make a stoplight-to-stoplight dash west, and turn right on SW 137th Avenue.