At dusk, they take over the road. Roaring and buzzing like locusts, the swarm of asphalt-scraping Japanese cars — with swooping rear wings and brightly colored logos — merges from the side streets of Uptown Manhattan onto the traffic-congested Henry Hudson Parkway. Zigzagging back and forth like jet-fueled go-carts, they slow to a stop, blocking off three lanes of oncoming cars in preparation for the infamous mile-long run.
A black Nissan 300ZX and a white Mitsubishi Starion pull out of the pack and creep up to the starting line. As the sun dances on the nearby river, the sound of honking horns and screaming drivers is drowned out by the sonic blast of the two engines revving for takeoff. A stocky Latino dude in a blinding yellow shirt stands in the middle of the highway and raises his hands. Both cars lurch and halt like chained pit bulls, their wheels spitting out black smoke. The hands drop.
10 mph: Off the starting line, the Nissan pulls ahead by one car length.
40 mph: Still in first gear, the driver jams the stick into second, and his head snaps back. The tires let out a brief squeal.
100 mph: The Starion pulls closer. There’s a halting moment when it looks like the Nissan might lose. It lasts about one hundredth of a second.
160 mph: Gritting his teeth, the man behind the wheel of the Nissan begins to shake from the speed; his vision is a blur. He doesn’t see the Starion closing in.
“The excitement of going fast is like nothing else. Another group gets excitement from doing drugs or whatever. Speed excites us.”
Crossing the finish line, the Nissan driver, Rafael Estevez, wins by one car length. In less than a minute, the guy in the Mitsubishi has lost $7,500. Glowing with confidence, Estevez immediately challenges him for $2,500 and offers an 18-car lead and beats him again.
Estevez, a 30-year-old Dominican drag racer from Washington Heights, is considered an OG among a growing legion of young speed junkies terrorizing the back alleys, highways, and legal racetracks around New York City. The urban dragracing frenzy was started in the early ‘90s by a tightly-knit crew of Asian-American boys in Southern California and is now hitting hard on the East Coast. The hundreds of kids who line New York hot spots like Francis Lewis Boulevard in Queens or the Fountain Avenue strip in Brooklyn every weekend are an urban polyglot of Puerto Rican, Dominican, Chinese, Filipino, Jamaican, Italian and other ethnicities who have one thing in common: They love hurtling metal, meat and rubber through the concrete jungle at dangerous velocities.
Young men have been fascinated with tweaking and tuning big block Chevys and Mustangs since the days of Rebel Without a Cause. But the new guys wouldn’t be caught dead driving the gaudy muscular beasts of yesteryear. Instead, they’re tricking out low-buck Japanese imports like Honda Civics and Acura Integras and tattooing them like skateboards with Neuspeed and Greddy car parts stickers. By stroking the engine, adding a supercharger, and hitting the “juice” (nitrous oxide: a gaseous liquid once used to boost bomber planes in WWII), they can smoke the herb in the Iroc at the stoplight. And to do it with a puny four-cylinder rice burner that your moms would drive is downright arrogant.
“It’s about power. It’s about the control of power,” philosophizes Shawn Rousseau, a chunky West Indian racer in baggy jeans and Timberland boots. He’s hanging out at the packed Eastern Autosports store in Queens, New York, where kids in the scene go to chill and tune their cars.
“The excitement of going fast is like nothing else,” says Javier Ortega, a Columbian-American who screeches his blue Honda Civic to a halt in front of the store. “Another group gets excitement from doing drugs or whatever. Speed excites us.”
Few know that excitement like Estevez. Six feet tall with stooped shoulders and a healthy gut, he writes his own rules. Forget about valor, compassion, honor; in his book, that’s all synonymous with second place.
“People say I cheat all the time,” explains Estevez, a Huck Finn grin spreading across his face. “They say I jump the line, I do this, I do that. Drag racing is war. If you bring a knife, and I bring a machine gun, you’re dead. That’s it.”
Street rule No. 1: Gun it before the hands drop.
“Whenever someone is about to go, they always do something with their body,” says Estevez. “Right before they drop the clutch, they usually pitch forward. I don’t watch the guy [in between the cars] to say go. I just wait for the other guy to move, and then I go before he does.”
Juan J. Sanchez, Estevez’s road dawg of 16 years, describes him as an unbeatable foe. “Half of the race is psychology, and mentally he’s set,” says Sanchez. “One way or another, he’ll find a way to beat you even if he’s driving the slower car.”
As a kid growing up in Washington heights, Estevez remembers being transfixed every week by TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard. “The Dukes pulled a lot of stunts, soared through the air, and were always getting chased by cops,” he recalls.
“The best part was they would always get away.”
Estevez’s own fantasies of jetting from the potbellied law came together when he first discovered “the Strip” along 190th and Amsterdam Avenue, in Upper Manhattan. Over many humid summer nights amid the caramel-colored bodega lights and din of merengue and hip-hop, a younger Estevez came to study the form of the best oldtimers. “The guy Carlito, forget it,” says Estevez, both arms going up in mock defeat. “We always used to want to race him.”
Estevez stood there for hours every weekend evening, taking mental notes: how Carlito’s body shifted moments before take off, his deadlocked gaze, the catlike smirk. It became a to-do checklist for later. Carlito quit racing before Estevez ever got to challenge him. Instead, Estevez raced his boys on a strip behind Shea Stadium. His first car was a 1972 orange Datsun 510 grocery getter that he pulled apart and reassembled hundreds of times to eke out extra juice.
“Half of the race is psychology, and mentally he’s set. One way or another, he’ll find a way to beat you even if he’s driving the slower car.”
By the time he was 16, Estevez dropped out of school to devote all his time to cars. He worked at several garages, honing his skills on other people’s autos. All the money went right back into his own machine. He constantly remade his car, forging his reputation every time he smoked another friend.
That was the heyday of street racing, when wagers soared and reputations rose and fell in the blink of an eye. But then the cops started cracking down. “It’s a real problem,” says NYPD Chief Michael Ansbro, who’s witnessed racers cutting up traffic along the mile-long strip on the Henry Hudson freeway.
“I couldn’t believe how many people were weaving in and out of traffic. I’d be doing sixty, and the next thing you know, they’re flying right by.”
Last summer, a joint operation between Highway One police and the local 24th Precinct targeted illegal racing on 190th and Amsterdam. Between July and December 1997, the police issued 310 speeding tickets and 150 summonses for various violations. Now, a marked squad car works in tandem with an unmarked car during prime weekend hours to apprehend speed demons on the Henry Hudson.
Estevez and crew are forever playing cat and mouse with the police. “I do anything I have to do to get away from the cops,” says Estevez, who’s been chased on more than one occasion. “I’m not trying to go to jail.”
In the past year or so, the street racers have found a few “new drag spots,” but they’ve also begin to turn to the legal racetracks in new Jersey and Long Island to test their mettle. To gun it against the towering digital time boards, among the heavy metal-heads in domestic Mustangs and Camaros, no special license is needed at the entry gate, run through tech inspection, and you’re ready to race.
Tacked onto Estevez’s yellowing fridge door, the flier reads in bold: DRAG WARS: THE TRISTATES FIRST IMPORT STREET DRAG. The stakes are high. Big money sponsors like Penzoil and HKS U.S.A., car magazines Turbo and Super Street, and thousands of spectators from the streets will be keeping score at the Atco Raceway in New Jersey.
Two months before the big race, the boys at Speed and Sound, a tuner shop in Yonkers, relentlessly hammer away at Estevez’s civilianissue ’92 Civic. The transformation is sick. The stock engine has been replaced with a graniteblack motor borrowed from the Acura Integra GSR. Enlarged tubes of matte silver metal called headers loop around the top of the engine bay. They are intended, along with the softball-size turbochargers affixed to the front of the GSR, to dramatically boost output.
Just three days before the event, everything starts to go wrong. Estevez is rushed to the hospital and has to be operated on for an infected appendix. That same evening, he’s back at the shop massaging his bandages as he slowly limps around the car to check everything out.
On the big day, the flatbed tow truck they ordered never shows. The car is also acting up. The turbo computer mounted on the dashboard jumps out of its saddle every time the Civic lunges forward.
“I just hope I don’t break anything,” Estevez says with fingers crossed, not sure if he means himself or the car. He drives it to the track in New Jersey.
It’s an overcast morning, with temperatures hovering near the 70s — a perfect day for racing. On the first run of the day, Estevez scores 12.02 seconds on the quarter mile. Respectable for an amateur, but no big shakes. On Estevez’s second run, it happens.
The Christmas tree lights drop down: Yellow, yellow, yellow….His wheels are squealing in their disc-brake bear traps. Green! He stuffs the accelerator. The car lurches out of the gate and disappears across the horizon.
Eleven-point-three-six seconds later, Estevez makes history, becoming the East Coast’s fastest Honda car racer. The five thousand sitting on the bleachers jump to their feet, roaring in the day’s first standing ovation. Estevez didn’t break the California Honda record of 10.61 seconds; but unlike the stripped-down trailer-towed compacts in the West, his car was driven to the track in heavy stock trim, with full glass and interior.
Back at Estevez’s tent, auto industry reps and reporters line up to shakes his hand. Lucrative endorsement deals will pay for the pricey car parts he needs to follow the race circuits up and down the eastern seaboard; and maybe, if Estevez is lucky, he’ll head to Cali, where the big boys will be waiting to take a crack at him. It’s the first glimmer of a legal career in the growing, adrenaline-charged sport of import drag racing. And it’s making him misty-eyed today. “I said I would do it, and then I did it,” Estevez says proudly.
A few days later, Estevez is streaking down Henry Hudson Parkway in the Civic, past the sparkling tiara of the New Jersey nightscape. As he floors the now record-setting ride, the cockpit rumbles with Gatling gun intensity. Over the roar, whistle, and hiss of the engine, he screams, “Do you hear that fluttering?” He checks off a list of problems. “That’s just one thing. The headers are leaking. We need to weld a differential to put more power to the ground; remap the computer.
“Every time I find another problem with the car, it makes me even happier,” he adds. “When I fix it, it means I’ll go even faster.” His eyes are lowered half-mast, nodding occasionally like he’s studying what the car has to tell him. For Estevez, it’s not the contest between racers that really matters but the abstract dialogue between the soul of a racer and his machine.
Oddly, the makeshift dash cluttered with gauges — telling him everything from water pressure to fuel mixture — is missing one key thing: a speedometer. There’s a good reason. “When you know how fast you’re going,” says Estevez, punching the throttle again, “you’ll slow down.” — By Kenneth Li (May 1998)