The Racer X Reunion: A Conversation With Kenneth Li and Rafael Estevez
THE RETURN OF RACER X
In 1998, VIBE Magazine published a profile on a speedometer-defying driver named Rafael Estevez, who would become the inspiration for one of the most profitable movie series of all time, The Fast & The Furious. As the franchise preps its seventh chapter, the unreal Furious 7, Estevez reunites with “Racer X” author Ken Li to relive the high-stake chases that spawned a blockbuster saga.
Before Vin Diesel sped a supercar from one of Dubai’s Etihad Towers skyscrapers into another like a batshit Evel Knievel in Furious 7; before Paul Walker and friends ambushed and barrel rolled a prison bus in Fast Five; before The Fast & The Furious, when Walker’s car conked out in a street race, there was Rafael Estevez, a real-life speed demon of the road. New York City was his domain and he was a pedal-stomping sultan during the late ’90s, earning eternal respect and dusting any challenger who dared to line up bumpers.
The Dominican daredevil from Washington Heights was making major bank via illegal highway races, flooring Honda Civics at velocities nearing 200 miles per hour all while evading cop cars. But he never imagined that he’d become the inspiration for a film franchise that has grossed in the billions worldwide, 15 years later.
It all started with an article. Kenneth Li, then a newspaper reporter for New York’s Daily News, got put on to the auto underworld in his Queens, New York stomping grounds while chasing a story on a car theft ring. He canned that piece after being introduced to Estevez. Fascinated by the turbo-charged import vehicles and organized races, Li profiled the then 30-year-old speedster, even riding shotgun during a contest to discover first-hand what truly keeps Estevez going. The feature, which also chronicled the quest to build a car that could zip a quarter mile in less than 10 seconds, was published in VIBE’s May 1998 issue. It was titled “Racer X,” and would be plucked by Universal Pictures as source material for a script on underground car culture.
Seven feature films later, Furious 7 is revving up to become another sure-shot blockbuster, perhaps the most action-packed and emotionally charged of the entire saga. To celebrate, VIBE popped the clutch in reverse and reunited the two men who originally push started the F&F franchise in our own publication. More than a decade after their last meeting, Li sits down with Estevez in his DRT Racing auto shop in Queens, New York to reminisce on the “Racer X” story that started it all, reflect on how authentic the movies are and how the Internet has transformed the street racing culture. —John Kennedy
VIBE: It’s been a while since the last time you two have seen each other. How long exactly has it been?
Ken Li: We haven’t seen each other since ’99. He got a beard and I got fatter. It was shortly after the story.
Rafael Estevez: We saw each other for The Fast & The Furious, when it came out. Remember, we met up on 86th Street?
Ken Li: Oh shit, that’s right!
VIBE: Ken, how’d you initially link up with Rafael?
Ken Li: I started driving pretty late in my life. In New York you really didn’t need to drive, so my dad tricked me into learning how to drive and got me a Honda Civic. I started getting into wheels off of Kissena Blvd.
Rafael Estevez: Yeah, up there on the Long Island Expressway.
Ken Li: Right. Along the LIE you see all these kids outside the front of a shop. Through one of his friends, word of mouth, I got to hang in the shop and was buying stuff for myself, for the car. A couple years later I was introduced.
Rafael Estevez: Yeah, you actually started the first story with somebody else.
Ken Li: That’s right! I was working on a story for the Daily News about kids going to the track, but I felt like there was a much more exciting story. I was looking for one story on a car theft ring and that never really gelled. I found out about Rafi and started seeing him on the streets and the track.
“[Rafael] calls like, ‘I’m in the hospital.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean you’re in the hospital? I gotta finish my story!'” — Ken Li
VIBE: When Ken was reporting the “Racer X” story, you were the big shot in the New York street racing scene.
Rafael Estevez: Well, I was the oldest guy. There’s always a new generation coming up. I was on my way out. I didn’t want to do it anymore. It stops being exciting because you’re doing it so much.
Ken Li: And I caught the tail end. Rafi was trying to create the 10-second car. I tracked him through that process and working towards that goal and actually not getting to that goal, but still breaking a record. We got close. He almost didn’t go to the track that day. You got appendicitis or something.
Rafael Estevez: Yeah, I got it the Wednesday before the weekend we were supposed to race.
Ken Li: He calls like, “I’m in the hospital.” I’m like, “What do you mean you’re in the hospital? I gotta finish my story!” [laughs]
Rafael Estevez: So I went with the stitches. The race was that Saturday. We had a bad clutch that I had to fix. That weekend was crazy.
VIBE: What was the initial reaction when the story came out? Was there much feedback?
Ken Li: I bet it was a lot different for you, but it was pretty muted. My friends who knew I was writing a story were like, “For Christ sake, it’s finally out!” It took like a year. But we were slowly starting to hear some things from the West Coast. People thought, “Why are we writing about Dominicans in Washington Heights and not about Chinese dudes who [race] in L.A.?” At the time, it was booming in Southern California. As you saw in the movie, it was babes in bikinis and DJs. Out here, it’s a completely different thing. One of the reasons why I decided to write the story in New York is because to own a car in New York is insane. I don’t even own a car now and a lot of these guys here were spending mounds to take care of these cars. The story here was so much more urgent than in Southern California, where you inherit [cars] from one generation to the next.
Rafael Estevez: That made the story more interesting. The West Coast was more like a party. The stuff here is so much more grassroots. We were in the streets. It was illegal. Also, where I originated—Washington Heights—is not the greatest part of town. We’d do this to keep busy.
“When he said, the story was going to be turned into a movie, that was a laughing matter for me. I said, ‘Oh, no. He’s crazy!'” — Rafael Estevez
Ken Li: It felt so much more exciting. Blocking off the highway in the middle of the night was just crazy. And so much more complicated.
VIBE: Did the story raise your profile in that scene?
Rafael Estevez: In a way, it did. A lot of people saw it and were excited because they already knew me. A few months before the magazine article, I had opened this place and committed to make it my life to do this. I promoted this to get more exposure since I was new to the business.
VIBE: How did this go from a magazine article to the movie, The Fast & The Furious?
Rafael Estevez: When he said, the story was going to be turned into a movie, that was a laughing matter for me. I said, “Oh, no. He’s crazy!” [laughs]
Ken Li: I got a call from one of the studios. An agent optioned it and said this will never get made. That lasted for 18 months or two years. They re-upped the option and extended it a while longer and then suddenly they were making a movie. It was random, kind of scary. At that time, another movie was in the making: Gone in Sixty Seconds with Nicholas Cage, which was about a car theft ring, except with Angelina Jolie. It came out a couple months before and we were like, “Oh crap, this is going to suck.” Nobody remembers that movie. They put out [The Fast & The Furious] during a weekend when other big features were coming out. It was a fairly new cast, and it just blew up. It was insane.
Rafael Estevez: What made it blow up was the difference in generation between the two movies. Gone in Sixty Seconds would relate to the older crowd with the Ferrari’s, but the lifestyle in The Fast & The Furious was really beginning to happen at that time. The younger crowd. Hip-hop.
“[Gone In 60 Seconds] came out a couple months before [The Fast & The Furious] and we were like, ‘Oh crap, this is going to suck.’ Nobody remembers that movie.” — Ken Li
Ken Li: And the cars were much more real. Even with all the crazy stuff on it. It’s still much closer to what the kids were doing.
Rafael Estevez: I used to call it the Front Wheel Drive Era. When we would go to the track with a front wheel drive car, they would laugh, like, “What is that?” But when they saw how fast we ran on the track, they were like, “What do you have under the hood? I want to see,” and I’d tell them, “I got a little engine. That’s all I got.” They couldn’t believe it. So, for me, it was era of when everything started. We were used to Camaros, Corvettes, [American] cars like that. Not imports. Not little Hondas.
Ken Li: It’s like a car your mom would have, go to the grocery store. A hand-me-down, that you would just turn into a monster.
VIBE: How authentic did you think The Fast & The Furious was to the street racing scene? Were there many discrepancies?
Ken Li: I didn’t see any bikinis in New York. [laughs]
Rafael Estevez: Hollywood is always going to make things extra. Some of the parts of the first movie were really good and pretty legit. There were parts that actually happened to me, like the part where Vin Diesel goes in with the RFV and parks in the garage and walks out—that was a real thing that happened to me. The scene when they’re coming to the actual race with the cars, everybody hanging out, that was pretty authentic. But some of the parts like going under the trucks [laughs] that’s just them making some excitement happen.
Ken Li: The scene in Southern California was a lot different than it was New York. Some of the races felt authentic. I don’t know if anyone got air when they jumped. [laughs] But Southern California was a big party.
“Things go wrong when you’re in a race—accidents, people get caught, police chases. That’s why we do it, out of fun and excitement.” — Rafael Estevez
I don’t know all the details about the production, but it wasn’t a big-budget thing. It probably made the movie even better and slightly more authentic that they didn’t spend a whole bunch of money on crazier looking cars, which they’re doing now. But it’s not about the street scene anymore. It’s just this whole other plot.
VIBE: Have you ever met any of the actors in the movies?
Ken Li: No. I almost didn’t even go to the opening. My girlfriend at the time was going to leave me if I didn’t go. I haven’t met Vin Diesel. I don’t even remember if I’ve talked to [Director] Rob Cohen. But we ended up driving around with one of the writers.
Rafael Estevez: I’ve never met any of the cast, any of the directors. Just that one writer.
Ken Li: Skinny white dude with glasses. We scared the shit out of this guy. [laughs] So the studio called up and said, “Hey we want to send one of the script writers out here. Can you take him around and show him the scene?” I’m like, “My car is slow as shit, so I can’t follow these guys. You’re going to have to rent a really fast car.” He was like, “Really?” He ended up renting a white Mustang and just chased these guys. He was really scared.
Rafael Estevez: Yeah, we started out early, went different places. He got lucky, because there was a race that night. He actually got to see how everything went. We were out pretty late.
Ken Li: The cops chased everyone, and everyone scattered.
Rafael Estevez: We went to like three different places the night. Everybody kept scattering, because once you start a race, it continues. The cops come here, we go to the next spot. And if they go there, we go to the next spot, until the race goes down. But it will go down, no matter what. That’s the way it happens. He got a lot of stuff to write about.
Ken Li: After the shaking stopped.
“It was a gutted-out Honda Civic, basically a thin strip metal and monster engine. He’s laughing the whole time. Meanwhile, he’s got a friend in the back seat with a bottle of Scotch and a Dixie cup. And I’m in the front seat sweating bullets.” — Ken Li
VIBE: What are some of the craziest things you’ve seen in racing?
Rafael Estevez: Things go wrong when you’re in a race—accidents, people get caught, police chases. That’s why we do it, out of fun and excitement. We used to do two types of races—drag racing and mile races. Mile races get really interesting. You’re going through five gears, going 160 mph, which at that time was insane for a streetcar. We’d go straight when we used to race, but it also has an S in-between, and then you’d come to the straightaway.
Ken Li: Having sat with Rafi through the mile race, it’s pretty insane.
Rafael Estevez: He said, “I’ve seen it, but I’ve never been in a car. Can you give me a ride back?” I was laughing the whole way.
Ken Li: I saw my life flash before my eyes. It was a gutted-out Honda Civic, basically a thin strip metal and monster engine. He’s laughing the whole time. Meanwhile, he’s got a friend in the back seat with a bottle of Scotch and a Dixie cup. And I’m in the front seat sweating bullets. It was as if everybody in front of you was accelerating into you. That’s how fast it was. There was no speedometer.
Rafael Estevez: Everything’s vibrating in the car.
VIBE: After you did the story and got to see up close this scene, did it affect your driving habits, Ken?
Ken Li: During the reporting, I was the worst kind of angry driver. I ended up probably racing other people on the highway [laughs]. After the movie came out, I was driving in Manhattan, making a turn on the corner of 13th street onto Broadway. It was raining. There were double parked cars. I was with a friend in that Honda I used to have, and I clipped a guy going across the street. I was going like two miles an hour turning the corner. I didn’t even see the guy. All I saw was his face hit my windshield. I had a heart attack. We got out the car, got him out of the middle of the street. He was fine, but after that I drive like an old person. Very careful, all the seatbelts are on. I look both ways before I make a turn. I was done.
VIBE: How about you, Rafael? When you drive, do you still have that racer in you?
Rafael Estevez: Actually nowadays, my wife drives faster than me. [laughs] She gets mad when I’m driving, like, “Hurry up, let’s get to the place.” If I really gotta get somewhere fast, I’ll drive fast. If not, I’ll drive normal. But a funny story with Ken was, he bought a car that was just like this [points at a suspended Honda]. It was an automatic. He wanted to make it a stick shift. So I’m like, “OK, I can get all the parts and make it a stick.” We finish the car in like three or four days. When I go to give him the car, he’s looking nervous. I’m like, “What?”
Ken Li: Teach me how to drive stick! [Laughs]
Rafael Estevez: He didn’t know how to drive stick. I’m like, No way this is happening at 11 o’clock at night. So we went around and around, I taught him the basics. He learned fast though.
Ken Li: I had just got caught up in the whole scene. I couldn’t see myself driving an automatic Honda Civic.
VIBE: Why did you decide to stop street racing?
Rafael Estevez: I had a lot going—a wife, kids, a business. I had more to lose then when I was by myself. And cops were getting more strict. Before there was no jail time, you’d just get a ticket and they send you home. So jail time was coming. But it will never stop. There will be a new generation. There will be some young kid that doesn’t care, has nothing to lose.
“Nowadays, my wife drives faster than me. [laughs] She gets mad when I’m driving, like, ‘Hurry up,'” — Rafael Estevez
VIBE: How has street racing evolved in the past 15 years?
Rafael Estevez: Social media made it a lot easier to keep up now. Now they talk for hours on social media, call each other out. Or they’ll post a picture of a car and say, “Who wants to run today?” And people will talk and set it up. Every street race is filmed.
Ken Li: Sounds kind of stupid. [laughs] I wonder if any of the racers got busted for a YouTube video.
Rafael Estevez: Well, on the videos they cover the plates. They don’t cover their faces though.
VIBE: Are the tricks any different? I’m sure the mechanics have come a long way.
Rafael Estevez: Well, yeah, it’s changed a lot. At that time, to make power out of a car was unheard of. Especially a Honda.
Ken Li: The car we wrote about was how much horsepower?
Rafael Estevez: 400. Back in ’97, 400 horsepower in a Honda was huge. Now we make 1,000, 1,100.
Ken Li: Now the record is six seconds?
Rafael Estevez: Yeah. Now imports are going [a quarter-mile in] six seconds. It’s changed a lot and it’s become a huge business for manufacturers. They didn’t build any parts for imports at that time; now you can go to any store and buy them. Also it’s become more of a lifestyle than a racing scene. My ex-partner here does something called Honda Day, which is huge. It started in New Jersey and now it’s gone all over the country. People come with their cars just to show and they’re rated and get trophies. They bring rappers and bikini girls keeping the crowd going crazy. And they also have drag racing. So it’s turned into a big scene where people go with their families. It’s a whole weekend.
VIBE: How has life been for each of you after The Fast & The Furious?
Ken Li: When the movie came out, I was slightly embarrassed by the whole thing. Because some of the parts were so different from what I experienced. And as a writer, I’d already got paid for the story, so I moved on. It makes for fantastic cocktail banter. [Laughs] And my nieces and nephews are psyched about it. And every one of my friends make fun of me whenever another one comes out.
Rafael Estevez: People say I never take advantage of the situation. I’m a low-key guy. I don’t like to—I haven’t got any fame out of it. I don’t want it. In my type of business, I probably could’ve taken more credit for it, but the type of movie it is, I don’t know. I’m skeptical. If you do a [Google] search on my name, a lot of stuff pops up. So probably that has helped me a little bit. Other than that, I look at the movie for what it is: A movie.
Photo Credit: Jason Chandler / Video Credit: Nick Condes & Alec Bernal