The Main Drag

Welcome to the deadly, thrilling world of drag racing, Miami style. It's all about speed.

"Pepe got a new Mustang," one says.

"Carlos crashed his Camaro while driving to work," another adds.

"Have you heard about the new red Corvette? It's faster than anyone's," offers a third.

Most racers mature out of the clandestine sport
Michael Steinbacher
Most racers mature out of the clandestine sport
Steve Satterwhite

About twenty Firebirds, Mustangs, and Camaros fill the cramped parking lot, converting it into a car show. Once every five minutes a sports car cruises through, and its driver revs the engine to show off his macho wheels. A recent-model Mustang pulls out of the lot, heads south on Twelfth Avenue, then the driver floors it. A thick plume of gray smoke rises into the air and the rear tires spin, leaving behind a 40-foot skid mark as the car bullets down the four-lane highway.

Inside Rey's a pie maker tosses dough into the air. A young woman behind the counter takes orders.

American Graffiti? No. It's Thursday night at Rey's.

Besides gossiping, drivers plan their next meet. Challenges are thrown down, prizes determined, and suitable locations selected. "There is a rush being out on the street. You are doing something wrong and [the cops] know it," says a racer who wants to remain anonymous. He is leaning on a white Ford Probe. "It's all about a macho thing. I wanna be faster than him, so I gotta go out and do it."

But Hialeah police are out in force this evening. While one officer talks to racers in the Rey's lot, several patrol cars circle the adjacent Chevron gas station and strip mall. They order some drivers to leave. Failure to follow authorities' commands can lead to arrest. In the past, police have even taken drivers into custody to prevent a race. The officers also watch the three other shopping centers that surround the intersection.

Cliff Bane, owner of Diamond Package Store and Bar, which is in the shopping center, first called police to complain about the racers more than a year ago. There were sometimes as many as 100 cars filling the lot and preventing customers from parking, he says. The cops brought some relief. Then Bane hired an off-duty officer. These days most of the racers have gone elsewhere. But the results have not been 100 percent positive, Bane comments. Many bar customers have cut their consumption to two drinks for fear of being arrested when they leave. "With the cops here, it hurts me," the bar owner says in a thick Southern drawl. "Without the cops, it hurts me."

Jose Colón arrives at Rey's around 10:00 p.m. He is a passenger in his friend and colleague Angel Buendia's four-door Nissan Sentra. Two other Firm members follow Buendia. Mike Hernandez is piloting his Mitsubishi Galant and Danny Fernandez drives a canary-yellow Honda Civic CRX. Buendia drops Colón at Rey's Pizza, then the three cars attempt to park near Bane's store. The off-duty officer orders them to depart.

The trio understands the cop to say they can park at the Jumbo Supermarket, just across West Twelfth Avenue. But when they pull into the deserted lot, two Hialeah police officers confront them. Another pair of cops appears minutes later. They demand drivers' licenses, insurance cards, and vehicle registrations. The club members comply while explaining how they ended up there. "The officer across the street told us we can park over here," Hernandez tells an officer whose badge reads "Nguyen." The cop doesn't buy the excuse, and returns to his cruiser with the paperwork.

Several minutes later a dispatcher tells Nguyen that these Firm members' records are clean. The officer then explains to the group that they are trespassing on shopping center property and could be arrested. Next he delivers some good news: They will not get a free ride to the county jail. But there is bad news as well: All of their names will be added to a trespassing list. If they are found again in the strip mall, they will be arrested. Mike repeats that an officer ordered them to the lot. Nguyen is piqued; he steps up to a spot about five feet from Mike's face and adds that he does not like car clubs. The officer orders the racer to leave immediately, then threatens arrest. Grumbling expletives, the three young men enter their cars and drive away. "These cops never leave us alone," Colón says.

There will be no racing on this night.

In another corner of Miami-Dade, at the Fuddruckers restaurant on South Dixie Highway, Elvis croons from the loudspeakers, droning out the roar of passing cars. Smoke from cooking hamburgers combines with exhaust fumes to cloud the air. Decades-old muscle cars occupy most of the parking spaces. A white, chrome-laden '54 Thunderbird stands next to a black Harley-Davidson '66 Sportster, which is beside a green '57 Chevrolet. Balding men with bulging waistlines dominate the crowd. They drag along reluctant wives while showing their offspring a piece of personal history. "Your grandfather had a car like that," a father tells his son, pointing to a classic Mustang. "It drove like a dream."

On the first Saturday of each month, the Fuddruckers parking lot travels back in time. The oldies car show allows owners to proudly display the products of years of sweat spent attempting to restore youthful dreams. The meet also serves as a reunion for racers. Cesar, who helps organize the event, prefers not to give his last name. "It's personal," he says.

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