Close to the edge

"Ask any racer, any real racer. It doesn't matter if you win by an inch or a mile; winning's winning." - Vin Diesel as Dom in "The Fast and the Furious."

Jenny Phan

Films such as “The Fast and the Furious” have spawned a rage for the hardcore, underground, drug-dealing, spit-in-your face life of the stereotypical Asian street racing crew. Although street racing provides an undeniable adrenaline rush, we must remember life is not a movie.

On campus, street racers drive up and down University and Washington avenues with their tinted windows, shiny rims and blindingly bright paint jobs that have professors shaking their heads, slack-jawed students clinging to their books and police officers ready to whip out their batons and cuffs.

Their mufflers roar, and the University, from west to east, now feels the presence of these meticulously assembled, revamped and totally modified piece of art.

The fad for heavily modified import cars began in California, then jumped to the East Coast and moved inland until even Minnesotans were obsessed with the car modification culture. Some people dream of fancy houses, luxury vacations, wedding bells or rock stardom. Participants in street racing culture dream of a car that is all their own.

“It’s my car,” said Adam Knauer, a third-year computer science student, who maintains that his interest in modified cars is best understood as a form of art.

“Movies and media portray the street racing life all wrong,” Knauer said. The media only portrays one side of the street racers, and they forget to show “the car enthusiast that loves to work on cars, goes to the track and then goes back to work on the car.”

Knauer, who drives a ’94 Honda Prelude, has had his share of run-ins with the police as well as stares from strangers. There are definitely people out there that get competitive and egotistical about their cars, and that’s when trouble usually starts, Knauer said, “But I do it just to look cool. It also is a big confidence booster.”

Films such as “The Fast and the Furious” have promoted a stereotype of street-racers as the living-on-the-edge maniacs. Racers are portrayed as gangsters, drug dealers and thugs who roam the streets looking for trouble.

Minnesota’s major street-racing crews are widely known for their flashy cars and constant quarrels. Crews are composed of groups of friends that have similar interest in cars, said Tien Troung, a student at North Hennepin Community College who has been modifying cars since before he had his license.

Major street-racing crews in Minnesota include Strictly Performance, Redline Performance, Propulsun Performance and Illusion Performance. Most street-racers have either heard of these crews or are involved with them.

Knauer says the reasons for conflict between crews find their roots in the peculiarly intimate bond that exists between driver and machine: “A mother will get defensive of her daughter, just as a street-racer will be defensive of his car,” Knauer said.

Tony Weng, a business management student in the College of Liberal Arts, has been modifying cars since 1999. Weng said there are definite characterizations one can make about a person based on which car he or she drives: “Parents will look down on any guy who has a modified car. It looks bad. If you have an Acura, BMW, Mercedes or Lexus you will be seen as a rich kid. No car is poor.”

Weng said the street-racing scene has died down in recent years.

“New cars come out now that look good enough. Less after-market parts need to be added,” said Weng, who upgraded to a bright yellow Lexus after his blue Civic SI was stolen and stripped of its parts in 2001.

Weng, who used to work on his car three to five times per week, said one of the reasons people trade in their cheaper modified imports for higher-end cars is thefts such as the one he suffered. “Civics and Integras are the most stolen cars,” he said. Luxury cars such as Lexuses have laser-cut keys, which making copying a key harder, Weng said.

“It takes a long time to hotwire a Lexus,” he said.

Modifying cars is a very addictive hobby, not to mention expensive and time consuming. The body kit must be painted each year, and if the car has turbo, the oil must be changed every 1,000-1,500 miles, twice as often as a regular car’s oil. Fuel efficiency declines when the horsepower is increased, Weng said.

“It is a life they choose,” Weng said, remembering his own youthful obsession with modification, “As you get older, your preferences change.”

Between ages 17 and 19, the average street racer prefers a Honda Civic or Acura Integra because they are cheap to buy and easy to modify. By age 20 the average racer wants to move up to a Lexus or a Mercedes, but they still modify their vehicles. When racers have a solid career, the preferred car becomes a super car like the Dodge Viper or Acura NSX. Though the performance of the car increases at each stage, racers still want to modify the car, Weng said.

The truly addicted street racers even drop out of school to work full time for the modifications done to the car.

“Import cars start cheap,” Weng said, “And as soon as you make money you add a little bit more to your car. It adds up.” With all the parts a street-racer puts in a car, over time, the parts can cost more than the car itself.

The major local hot spot for car racing used to be in Rock Falls, Wis. “It’s not the same anymore,” Truong said sadly, “It’s died down a lot.”

The street-racing scene has changed markedly in these past few years and with the change there has been a surge in the popularity of different types of cars. However, that has never stopped the dreamers who see car modification with the same sense of wonder that originally motivated them to begin their quest for speed.

“It’s like when you’re a little kid, you dream about nice, fast cars. You look at others and you just want to be like them,” Troung said.