By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
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.
Then an adrenaline rush. A Miami-Dade police car with emergency lights flashing speeds up behind them. They hit the brakes, and the patrol vehicle passes on the left.
Finally they enter The Groves apartment complex near Kendall Lakes Circle, where Colón has lived for the past seven months. The Integra is untouched. False alarm. "I thought I was going to get pulled over when I saw the cop behind me with the lights on," says Fernandez, standing under the dim lights of the parking lot.
About fifteen young men exit their cars and congregate on the asphalt. They make up half The Firm's membership. They celebrate by doing what they do best: hanging out. One shows off his new Chihuahua, which he has named Taco Bell after the popular mutt that hawks Mexican fast food on television. Hernandez ridicules a Nissan Altima that drives by: "Drop it an inch. That's a four-wheel-drive car right there." And, of course, they talk about their own cars. "Faggot! Bitch! Dammit!" is Raul Jimenez's jealous reaction to the newly reupholstered seats in Colón's Integra.
Strict organization distinguishes The Firm, which Hernandez founded two years ago, from dozens of other Miami-area car clubs. The group has a hierarchy, mandatory weekly meetings, and rules; for instance, members who are late to an event are hit with a ten-dollar fine. A Website, www.thefirmcc.com, was started about a year ago. When members race as a club, they travel to Moroso Motorsports Park in Palm Beach Gardens, a rare location where they can legally step on the gas. "We are strictly going out there to show off the cars," comments the 27-year-old Hernandez. "Everybody takes pride in everybody else's car."
Minimum requirements to join The Firm, according to Hernandez, are that you lower your vehicle's chassis and that you don't act like an asshole. "When someone wants to join up, we look at their personality, not just the car," the president notes. The bottom of Hernandez's 1996 Mitsubishi Galant rides about three inches from the ground, making for a perilous journey across uneven pavement. He has replaced the puny, fifteen-inch factory wheels with shiny, twenty-inch rims on tires with skinny sidewalls. The combination makes for an extremely bumpy ride. "A low rider's worst nightmare is a ditch," says Hernandez.
Members must participate in a monthly drive. As many as twenty of them meet and motor in a line to a local hotspot like South Beach or Coconut Grove. Their weekly gatherings aren't exactly VFW or city council style, but they include dues collection and discussions of topics such as car cleanliness.
The group competes in car fashion shows throughout South Florida. Categories range from the best-looking engine to the best-looking interior. Trophies and the chance to boast are the prizes. Most meets are sponsored by hot-rod magazines and specialty shops that sell high-performance parts.
The group communicates in a distinctive language. Their low-slung chariots are divided into two categories: "low rider" and "Euro low rider." The first refers to older cars with extensive modifications like welded-shut doors and hydraulic suspension. Euro low riders are modern cars dropped three to four inches from the ground and souped up for racing. These Hondas, Toyotas, and Nissans dominate The Firm's ranks. A "dirty" auto is not one caked in mud, but one that looks good. To "bust dick" means to upgrade a vehicle so that it puts others to shame. (i.e., Jose's Integra is bustingDanny's dick.) Injecting nitrous oxide directly into the combustion chamber to create more horsepower is called "spraying."
Most Firm members are young Hispanic males who live in South Miami-Dade. A passion for making cars go fast, look good, and sound impressive unites them. A high school education and a menial job are the norm. Hernandez lives at home and works as a supervisor at a medical-supply warehouse. He helps support his mother, who raised him on her own. The Firm also serves as an extended family for the majority of its members. They celebrate each others' birthdays, share their troubles, and console one another in times of grief. "I'm always hanging out with these guys," Hernandez comments. "I can't get away from them."
Colón credits the club with helping him stay straight. The high school dropout began devoting himself to the outlaw sport following a 1994 felony arrest for carrying hundreds of roofies. Three days in the Dade County Jail scared the then-eighteen-year-old straight, he says. (Colón later was sentenced to probation.) He purchased the Integra in 1995 for about $15,000, which he financed with $2000 down and loan payments of $400 per month. Odd jobs ranging from construction labor to computer sales paid for the go-fast parts. Colón had finally found an outlet for his abundant nervous energy. Time that he once spent dealing drugs is now devoted to giving his car more speed, pumping up the sound system's volume, and turning more heads than anyone else on the road. "I leave my wallet on the counter of my apartment and don't worry about it," he says. "We are a minority in Miami. Good people who like to hang around with other good people."
Colón still has run-ins with the police. But instead of felony arrests, the cops have nailed him for speeding. Fourteen times in the past six years, twice for drag racing. A major citation could mean suspension of his driving privileges. Faced with such a threat, most people would slow down. Colón keeps adding parts. The Integra's modifications include a larger exhaust, a high-capacity ignition system, and a nitrous-oxide assembly. Cost: $5000. The car's best time on the quarter-mile track: 13.9 seconds. He claims to have reached 160 mph on Alligator Alley in the Everglades.
Remaining on Colón's wish list are high-performance cams, pistons, and a supercharger. "I'd rather spend two or three grand on something that can go vroooooom!" says Colón as he simulates stomping on a gas pedal.
Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Ernesto Duarte recalls a 1997 event that showed police how brazen the racers could be. Late one night a group of young men gathered at a quiet spot on Krome Avenue between Tamiami Trail and Kendall Drive. They blocked traffic on the dark road while two competitors prepared their cars. Attendants directed traffic to nearby roads. But the race didn't come off as planned. One of the commuters delayed by the meet was an off-duty Miami-Dade police officer riding his motorcycle home after work. A helmet and jacket hid the cop's identity. He didn't take the detour; he called for backup. A slew of citations was issued.
Over the years police have been stunned by the sophisticated techniques employed by some racing groups, Duarte relates. Scouts with cell phones sometimes alert racers of approaching patrol cars. Race locations have been moved at the last second to throw officers off track. Code words keep outsiders in the dark. "It's definitely a culture. It is passed on from generation to generation," Duarte says.
Fatal accidents usually lead police to crack down. Late one Sunday night in October 1993, two spectators, Juan Pineiro, a 24-year-old from Hollywood, and 21-year-old Paul Cheeks of Miramar, were killed when a car swerved off the road during an illegal meet on County Line Road near NW 37th Avenue. Five others were sent to the hospital.
Perhaps the most publicized speeding incident in Miami-Dade history occurred just two months later, on December 30, when fifteen-year-old Francisco Del Rey, Jr., raced his Corvette on South Dixie Highway near Coconut Grove. A tiny Chevrolet Chevette crossed his path at SW Seventeenth Avenue and was sliced in two; all three passengers died. Police estimated the teenager was traveling more than 100 mph. Later an investigation revealed Del Rey used a fake birth certificate to obtain a driver's license.
Police in Miami-Dade County wrote 784 tickets for illegal racing that year, according to the clerk of the courts' office. They cited drivers under Florida statute 316.191, which bars drag racing on public roads. The penalty is a $78 fine and three points on a driver's record. (A violator who earns twelve points can lose his license.) Spectators can also be slapped with a $42 penalty.
In the next few years, enforcement apparently lagged. In 1994, 694 tickets were issued. The number dipped to 616 in 1995.
The citations climbed again in 1996 to 960 and peaked in 1997, the year the off-duty highway-patrol officer ran into the drag race on Krome Avenue. Soon after the incident, the Florida Highway Patrol and Miami-Dade Police created a squad to stop the competitions. Undercover agents infiltrated the clubs and gathered intelligence. When they learned about meets, they informed the task force. The county issued 963 tickets in 1997, the highest number since 1980. "It was a challenge for us to put a stop to the drag racing," Duarte says.
About six months after the special squad was formed, authorities deemed it a success and disbanded it. The police believe their strategy worked. The number of arrests dropped to 415 in 1998 and had reached 384 through September 1999. "We haven't had a high number of complaints," says Duarte. "Either they moved or stopped." Duarte credits the special squad with making other police departments aware of drag racing. "The law enforcement community has kept itself abreast of the problem," the lieutenant remarks.
Racers suspect the latest drag racing fatality in Hollywood on August 7, 1999, spurred a new crackdown. (Duarte denies any special effort.) Around 11:00 p.m. David Scozzafava pitted his 1995 black Chevrolet Impala SS against a 1997 Ford Mustang driven by Glenn Blackledge. The young men sped down Sheridan Street at speeds exceeding 80 mph. Scozzafava, a twenty-year-old Broward Community College student, lost control and wrapped the Impala around a tree. He died instantly. Three passengers, ages eighteen to twenty, were also killed. Blackledge, age twenty-one, was not seriously injured. He was, however, charged with four counts of unlawful blood alcohol/manslaughter, four counts of driving under the influence/manslaughter, and four counts of vehicular homicide.
Duarte admits that police tend to scrutinize racers more closely following such accidents. "The media reports help raise awareness," he explains. "Teens can be scared into not doing it."
Cars sporting shiny paint jobs, glossy tires, and darkly tinted windows abound in the parking lot of Rey's Pizza at West Twelfth Avenue and 68th Street in Hialeah. Outside the restaurant young men, some with girlfriends glued to their sides, munch on pepperoni slices, sip on cola, and gossip about racing.
"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.
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.
Cesar's hair is thinning and graying. He's dressed to unimpress in a blue T-shirt, black shorts, and sneakers. His mature appearance does not prevent him from acting like an eighteen-year-old. He holds court next to his restored 1972 white Pontiac Grand Prix, which dwarfs the Japanese cars favored by today's racers and has double the pistons, horsepower, and weight. Cesar greets many familiar faces. "That guy used to own the fastest Camaro in Hialeah," Cesar notes, pointing at a chubby Hispanic man wearing a white dress shirt and black slacks. "That guy got married young and lost his Nova in the divorce," Cesar says while motioning toward a skinny figure with salt-and-pepper hair walking away from him. "He never returned to racing."
Then Cesar spins tales from the racing scene of his youth. It doesn't sound much different from today's environment. Locations, motivations, and consequences are similar. Just change the characters, clothing, and cars.
Most of his racing colleagues matured into mortgages, families, and careers that removed them from the speed loop. Cesar also grew into some responsibilities, but kept a foot in the sport. He works as a mechanic at a Hialeah repair shop, which he declines to name, and races the Grand Prix on a semiprofessional circuit. His car has been damaged, mostly as a result of blown engine parts, but Cesar has survived unscathed. He labels such competition a rite of passage for any hot-blooded young motorhead. "For these kids to go to a track, it would cost $100 for the night, between food, gas, and entry fee," says Cesar. "That's why there will always be street racing."
Cesar complains a lack of racing space forces young drivers on to the street. In the 1970s he could drive northwest on U.S. 27 and reach farm country after passing the Palmetto Expressway. These days warehouses, strip malls, and subdivisions line the road until it reaches the Everglades. The same phenomenon has recurred in many of his old haunts: the Tamiami Trail near Krome Avenue, County Line Road between NW 37th and 47th avenues, and State Road 9 from the Golden Glades interchange to NW 22 Avenue.
One solution would be to build a quarter-mile speedway, Cesar opines. None exists in Miami-Dade. "If they built a track in the county, half the street racing that takes place would end," Cesar declares.