Illegal Motorcycle Street Racing in the US
“Meet us at the light and bring your fastest bike we taking all bets and getting cash tonight….”
Ready, Get Set, Go by Xplicit, Maryland rapper and street racer.
The atmosphere seethes with an explosive volatility. “Motherfucker you know you don’t deserve to ride that bike,” spits Ronnie, rocking back on his heels and throwing his full weight behind the next insult, stamping his foot while simultaneously stabbing the muggy night air with an indignant finger. “You know what color your stripes are dog? They fucking yellow. You a coward. Get yo’ ass home before yo’ get hurt.” There is now a palpable fear that the next answer to the venomous insults flying back and forth will be the thunder-crack of a bullet from a 9mm.
It’s around midnight on a Wednesday night in August in the small town of Forestville just off 495, the beltway that encircles Washington DC. We stand in the parking lot of a neon-lit restaurant called Cranberries. It’s an unremarkable modern red brick place on a strip mall surrounded by the mundane brand name stores that you see all over America: Burger King, Radio Shack, Walmart.
But the car park is a raucous hub-hub of exhaust smoke and whining engines; teaming with around 100 gleaming high-end sports motorcycles. It’s a carnival atmosphere and the bikes’ owners have a piratical look. They wear du rags with top of the line Vanson bike leathers. T shirts are worn over the top with images of murdered rap superstars The Notorious Big and Tupac Shakur. Gold chains and gold-capped teeth glitter in the amber haze of street lights alongside waxed tanks and chromed wheels. Many have patches on the backs of their jackets declaring membership of motorcycle clubs like Baad Boys Sports Riders or the Maryland Rebels.
De rigeur are Suzuki Hyabusas tricked out with ultraviolet lights, one with bullet caps set into the brake levers, and adorned with graphics that say ‘Pimpin’ Ride’ and $5000 custom paint jobs. “And look here I got something for the po-lice too,” says one pressing the button hidden inside the fairing of his GSX 1000. The numberplate at the back snaps up out of view behind the wheel arch.
Only the informed would notice some of the other modifications which are less obvious. Swing arms have been extended, bikes dropped to only a few inches of clearance. Or, as one spectator describes it: “Those bitches dipped right in the ground.” And once or twice, if you look closely, you will see bottles of nitrous secured to mainframes or under wheel arches.
For these bikes are set up to drag race in blistering 1/4 mile sprints in illegal street races. And the smack talk and hustle, the barbed insults are all part of the pre race warm up. The theory is that if you insult someone brazenly enough they’ll react with anger and throw down to race; more often than not when they shouldn’t.
Down the eastern seaboard of the US, the shadowy world of illegal motorcycle street racing is huge business. The most popular form is drag racing; quick to do before the police come and a test of snap reflexes and the sheer accelerative power of the machine. Riders are known though an undergound nexus of contacts. Some travel the country like pool hustlers setting up races for money, whistling and out of towns and stripping the unawares of their cash. While others like ‘Shine’ and Johnny Locklear operate more like hired gunslingers from the wild west with secretive big money sponsors in well publicized races. They set up big money races with serious contenders over the internet for high stakes. Fortunes are won and lost.
As one racer from Philadelphia, who asked not to be named said: “It’s big money involved that’s for sure. It’s well known its fast money, tax free from the inner city, know what I mean? These guys aren’t Michael Jordan or Donald Trump – who else could afford to lose $40 000 on an illegal motorcycle race? People get rid of dirty money fast, if they need more they just go and make some more. Some of the motors in those bikes are worth $15 000 alone. ” And another unnamed source from South Carolina, the sport’s home, says, “I’ve seen guns pulled at street races when guys lose amounts of money that you can buy a house with.”
My main contact is Ronnie, a gap-toothed, blustery personality of 6 2 with an arch wit and now cascading insults onto a man he thinks he can goad into racing. Yet the fortyish man, overweight and knock-kneed in a blue bandana, senses that all may not go well were he to race. He stalks back to his glistening white Suzuki Hyabusa, slump shouldered, his ego battered and the slurs still ringing in his ears. “Yo! And take that bandana off,” shouts Ronnie after him. “You don’t deserve to wear that neither.” Ronnie tips me a wink. “This is how the hustle start,” he says conspiratorially. “I wanna get inside his head before we come to race.”
Soon after a deal is struck with a more serious contender in black leathers and a pencil moustache. The money is “locked up.” We leave in convoy, Ronnie with his bike on the back of a trailer pulled by a Jeep. We head deep into the night to a secret location somewhere along route 4. It turns out to be a spot behind an evangelical church. The last thing on anyone’s mind tonight though is prayer and redemption.
Punters weigh each riders’ chances, like prizefighters, and bet with each other accordingly in noisy exchanges. The riders check out each other’s bikes, Ronnie on a white and blue GSXR 1000 while the other rides a Kawasaki ZX10. “You better not spray me,” spits Ronnie, giving a vengeful glance. Spraying is slang for using nitrous, an oxidizing agent that burns fuel faster sometimes increasing power by 35%. They examine each other’s bikes in a bid to detect hidden nitrous bottles that would give an unfair advantage.
They then, angrily, discuss the terms of the race. “Gimme three and the break,” says Ronnie frowning. This means ‘let me have the advantage of leaving the line first with three bike lengths, while you react to me.’ They agree as the other rider has the faster bike and is around 60lb’s lighter than Ronnie. One of Ronnie’s cohorts, like a boxing trainer inducing confidence into his prizefighter, buoys up his spirits: “Dog, when you drop the hammer on that motherfucker he goin’ be sick.” Ronnie nods. I start to take pictures when someone whispers to me, “Better put the camera away you don’t know what jokers we got around here who don’t want their face in.”
The race set they head out to a dark two lane main highway with a steel crash barrier running along the middle with no streets light. In the damp night spectators walk though a thick hedge that leads to the roadside where they can watch. Traffic streams past, but only the most sharp-eyed motorist would spot the faces in the bushes, lit for a split second by their 70mph headlights.
The road clear, Ronnie and his adversary taxi into contingent lanes, occasionally turning their heads back to make sure no cars are coming. Then they start to burn out their tyres, sending thick black clouds of smoke wafting over into the darkness of the trees at the roadside. Each guns the throttle and jumps the bike up to an imaginary center line. The bikes roar as tachometers hover over red lines.
The revs drop sharply. And then the bikes thunder off, violently. The noise splits the air with an eardrum-piercing howl as they go up the gear range and eventually out of sight over the brow of the hill, doing 160mph down a public road that is still carrying people home from bars or into red eye shifts at work. Two of their cohorts are at the makeshift finish line with the gambled money. They act as unofficial marshals. We drift back through the trees to the parking lot waiting on their return and news of the winner.
But an uninvited guest arrives first. A Sheriff’s Department cruiser has heard the commotion and slides into the parking lot, bathing startled faces in red and blue flashing lights. The police play a constant cat and mouse game with racers. Panic: people stream in different directions, some hurriedly firing up bikes and speeding off into the night. If the police came Ronnie advised me to drive his Jeep and trailer to a pre-arranged rendezvous. I do, crawling slowly past the police, hoping I don’t have to explain myself. I look around. but Ronnie has long since gone.
American biker culture has always been synonymous with Harley’s cruising barren stretches of road in the Midwest and white bikers mimicking outlaw bike gangs like the Hells Angels and Bandidos. Black 50’s leather jackets are worn as retrospective fashion élan as homage to Marlon Brando in the Wild One and all have read Hunter Thompson’s Hells Angels. A boring cliché which has nonetheless sold Honda Rebels and black leather jackets to accountants for years.
Today, though, there is a new breed of motorcycle outlaw. One who has even less respect for the police yet one who idolizes fast speed technology. And, diametrically opposed to the hackneyed white motorcycle culture and rural Harley idyll, these riders come from the tough inner city streets of New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC. Black rappers like DMX have deified sports bikes like the Hyabusa to an MTV audience. As such, more often than not, these new riders are African American.
Street racers congregate and trade insults using websites like psychobike.com under pseudonyms like Burnout and Badbusa. I posted a message asking for help to write this article and was met first with derision, most suspecting I was a cop. But a racer with the moniker Ronraceme, came back and offered help. “I got nothing to hide,” said Ron when we first spoke on the phone.
We met over a few months at various lock-ups Ronnie has around the Washington DC ring road, one near Andrews Air Force Base where he stores his bikes. The first time we met he had a fellow street racer with him who was working on a lime green ZX10. He said, “Don’t take no pictures of my tags.” He was a Washington DC police officer.
Ronnie, at 38, is older than most of the other street racers. His loose collection of affiliates were all raised in the tough neighborhoods of Washington, DC. He grew up during the 80’s crack epidemic which led to black youths having a 1 in 12 chance of being murdered before their 45th birthday. That is double the mortality rate of American soldiers in the Second World war. “Every day, at any time, I could be ducking bullets and breaking away,” says Ronnie, whose friends often bear gunshot wounds. One of his street racing mentors, Ricky Dobbins, was brutally murdered, shot eight times, a block from his house in DC. Ronnie too hasn’t escaped totally unscathed. He has a cruel looking scar on his right inner forearm from when he was held up at knifepoint but fought back. “I told the sucker he would have to bring a pistol if he was going to deal with me.” He got nothing from Ronnie.
For years Ronnie and his friends have all been unified in their love of motorcycles. Ronnie first started racing in his early teens on a 1978 Honda CB 400 in places like the grimy warehouse district on DC’s V street. Since, the motorcycles have evolved and the horsepower has increased massively in parallel with the sums of money gambled. Another of Ronnie’s friends, Kevin Gardner, was killed in a 160 mph impact near to where they street race on a practice pass. And another, Willie ‘Doodie’ Sams was shot dead at a street race meeting in an argument over a girl.
But none of this is any deterrent. By day Ronnie works as a building superintendent, by night he competes in races up and down the country sponsored by a building contractor in Connecticut. Oftentimes he doesn’t know the background of the people he is racing. Shortly after we met he journeyed up to Philadelphia for a pre-arranged street race. “I knew I was going to win but there were 35 of them and one of me,” he confides. “The guy pulled out a wad this thick.” He spreads finger and thumb to show how much. “I coulda left there with $8000 but I knew I had to keep the bets small. I knew I wouldn’t be leaving there with all my money and my bike.”
The main highways around New York and Connecticut, notably route 24 and the Bruckner Expressway, are notorious spots for big money races. Here racers and their sponsors deploy several cars to slow and stop the traffic, in essence a solid roadblock. While the traffic is halted and stopped, racers have free reign to run the 1/4 mile without interference. The race over, the blocking cars move aside and let the traffic pass. Ronnie raced one of these for several thousand dollars a few months ago. “No-one could get by and I guess if anyone had got out to make a problem they would have been dealt with.” That said the race did not go Ronnie’s way. “I was about three bike lengths ahead at 148mph when damn, he shot past,” explains Ronnie, disgustedly. “He sprayed me.”
Engineering bikes to look as stock as possible has become an artform to street racers. Racers become experts at the tricks used to throw the race in their favor. “Nitrous is easily hidden on a bike, especially these new 10 oz bottles,” explains Ronnie. They will often be hidden inside frames, inside the fuel tank or air ducts. “I used to have an obvious one that someone would find and I’d say ‘OK you caught me, I’ll turn it off.’ What they didn’t know was that I had another one hidden inside the fuel tank or something.” Suspicions that someone may be spraying are aroused when racers turning their headlight on and off before the race. This often means they are arming their nitrous system. Or what I saw a number of times: blowtorches hidden in jackets which are quickly used before the race and out of eyesight of competitors.
Stock engines are quickly replaced with bigger blocks and aftermarket crankshafts, known as strokers, to replace factory ones and to raise horsepower. To keep the bikes from pulling wheelies off the line, and losing precious split seconds, the front ends are weighted. Triple trees are often constructed of lead and hold the forks further down, squashing the suspension. The battery is moved to the front fairing and swing arms are extended, often to ridiculous lengths. Standard street racers kit also comprises gear shifters powered by compressed air that are operated via the horn button, which cuts out missed seconds changing gear. Riders also experiment mixing fuel and make volatile concoctions with petrol like VPC45 fuel which can cost $210 for five gallons.
“You never know what the other guy has,” says Ronnie. “So you bring the most badass thing you got.” Aside from secret engine modifications other forms of cheating are standard, almost accepted forms, of play. Ronnie says he has seen racers often pretend he has dropped something and while looking around, catching his opponent off guard, he will accelerate off the line. If the race is started by a flagman he will use a friend who, just before dropping his arms to signify the start, will stamp his foot milliseconds before giving Ronnie the advantage. Other less scrupulous racers have been known to douse a lane on the highway with oil before a race, with often fatal consequences.
Yet while technology has made bikes so much faster and also offered a myriad of ways to cheat, it also has its drawbacks. Racers hear about bikes and riders that have won, often in suspicious circumstances, through the internet. From that point on both bike and rider, often the two are interchangeable, find it hard to get races. It is crucial to be anonymous in order to get big money bets. He lost the race in Maryland but, he maintains, it was a ploy just so he could line up others with unwary punters a week or so hence. However, he is still a name on the underground circuit. “They know me, “ laments Ronnie. “It’s hard for me to get a race anywhere now.” Other street racers I met would bemoan the same fate. Success and notoriety in street racing are very bad things.
“Sure I been lain down on the side of the road with a gun against my head, had my bike confiscated by the police and seen friends killed street racing,” says Rickey Gadson, a slightly built racer with bright orange wraparounds, a raffish diamond earring and a thinly disguised fierce demeanor. He is probably one of the most famous street racers. He acted as consultant and as a stunt rider on the film Biker Boyz and was even sponsored by Kawasaki for short while. “Course I had to stop street racing then,” he says. Although the most street racers get is a ticket for a few hundred dollars if caught, worse is the fear of having their motorcycles confiscated. And then there is the danger too. Gadson lost a close friend when he ploughed into a group of spectators at the side of the road in a street race as more often than not headlights aren’t used.
We are at Rockingham raceway North Carolina, an epicenter for the sport. The dragway here has been offering street racers a safer place to come off the streets for the past couple of years. Street racing has become increasingly controversial as more and more get killed or badly injured and organizations like Racers Against Street Racing a coalition of manufacturers, mothers who have lost sons and former street racers desperately try to get street racing stopped. There is little hope with the huge amounts of money involved.
Two of the biggest names in the country are here, two locals Keith ‘Shine’ Dennis and Johnny Locklear. The Carolinas have become the most famed states for the sport, fortunes are gambled here, although no-one really knows why. The reason maybe geographical. The states are situated exactly half way between the North and South along 95, the main route from Miami to New York so racers can meet here at an equidistant point. Although unlike DC and New York, it is easy to find a road here to race down with no traffic and certainly few police.
Yet the dragway offers some safety. “We convinced the racers that they wouldn’t be arrested if they came here,” says Steve Earwood, owner of the drag strip, a fiftyish man with liquid blue eyes, long thin white hair combed straight back against his skull, a Carolina drawl and a twinkling wryness. “So we got em all here with the bikes, the bling and 50 Cent all that crap.”
Each year the event has quadrupled in attendance. “Road racing is for the wine and cheese crowd,” says Earwood. “What we have here is the backbone of America. Listen to the music they like, the rhythm is the same as drag racing.
“Of course I hear there is some betting here too,” he adds with a sly grin. “But of course I would never encourage that. I hear there is a race on this evening for around $40 000, which to these guys not paying tax must be like winning $80 000 in the real world.”
The hub hub is all about Richard Gadson, Rickey’s nephew and protégé, who Rickey has been training up to assume his not inconsiderable mantle. The Gadsons are from Philadelphia and have lined up a race with a local Carolina outfit.
Ronnie and his friends from DC are here to run against some of the Carolina big guns. There are various classes run over the weekend: ‘outlaw pro street’ which are stock bikes but transformed for drag racing but with no wheelie bars to prevent the bike rearing up; ‘heavyweight hitters’ for riders over 220lbs on modified bikes with a wheelbase not exceeding 64”; ‘street ET’ which is racing on standard road bikes. The DC crew, however, run into insurmountable engine problems. Ronnie’s Hayabusa consistently turns in slow times. So most revert to gambling on the racing rather than running for serious money themselves.
Yet although all these classes draw some attention, all are here to see the event afterwards featuring Grudge Racing, as it is known, in an event called ‘After Dark Underground.’ This is as close as you can get to street racing without the cops getting involved. Modifications to bikes are closely guarded secrets. During practice runs no times are posted up as it would give bettors an unfair advantage and. Although once or twice this happens leading to furious scowls and cursing at the announcers box. “Yo motherfucker, you do that one more time and I’ll bust a cap in your ass,” shouts one, gesticulating wildly. His investment in the bike and race may well now have been compromised.
As darkness falls huddles begin to gather wagering over the big race: Richard Gadson on a Kawasaki and a local called Curtis on a bike called Swerve, a GSX 1000. A man in copious gold chains, white baseball cap and du-rag handles the money, the owner of Swerve, as bets are taken, argued about and the conditions of the race fought over in heated arguments. An hour or so later the bikes can barely get to the start line amidst the baying hordes, cussing, shouting with tight rolls of 100 dollar bills gripped in fists.
Both riders too, sweat profusely under their helmets with the thousands of dollars at stake knowing that it can be won or lost in less than nine seconds. Most bet on Richard Gadson.
The bikes taxi to the line. Gadson enfolds his body tight around the tank, his eyes dipped behind the fairing. And with little preamble green lights flash and they blister off the line like rockets. Gadson leaves the line first. Everything seems to happen in slow motion despite the fact they probably hit the end of the 1/4 mile in around 8 seconds. Giant scoreboards at the end of the track, while not showing times as they normally do, declare Swerve, the local racer the winner.
This is a total shock. There then follows shouting “cheat,” screaming and boos as money, reluctantly changes hands. The bikes return and full scale arguments kick off with furious allegations of cheating and use of nitrous. Eventually the bikes are dismantled in front of everyone, amid more shouting. Richard Gadson says to me later, anxiously: “I hope no-one thinks its my fault, the other bike was just too fast”
Amid the scrum one man in a greasy baseball cap whispers, “That GSX is the fastest on the east coast, it’s got a custom crank from England.” Eventually, the Gadsons concede defeat and although more grudge races are lined up, few have any money left to bet. A local New York racer decides to throw caution to the winds and races other local and renowned name Keith Dennis. Both times he loses.
A few weeks later I meet Ronnie again in Philadelphia at a bike workshop in one of the toughest parts of the city. As the cash stakes get ever bigger, his murky world of illegal street racing has become even more dangerous in both those he gambles against and the sheer speed and ferocity of the machines he rides. “They’ll never stop this,” he says, fixedly. “The only problem I have is that because of the money and all the ways you can cheat using technology it takes a long time just to get a race off.” That said there is a great unspoken code of respect among street racers and despite the tough talk and the insult tossing there is a loyalty to each other. “We call each others mothers all sorts of names but you know for sure these guys would have your back in any other type of situation,” he says. “Sure we’ll cheat each other but you want these guys behind you when the shit goes down in any other way.”
His losses in North Carolina have long been forgotten about. Again he lines up races in gabbled cellphone conversations. “I’m like a crackhead man,” he grins, guiltily. “The dopeman looking for one more high.” And with that he streams off into the night with a fistful of dollars and a screaming engine.