The air around the two men's heads seems ready to explode. "Motherf*cker, you know you don't deserve to ride that bike," spits Ronnie, rocking back on his heels and stabbing the muggy night air with an indignant finger. "You know what color your stripes are, dog? They f*cking yellow. You a coward. Get yo' ass home before yo' get hurt." There is now a palpable fear that the next retort will be the thunder crack of a 9mm handgun.
It's midnight on a Wednesday night in August in the small town of Forestville, just off the 495, the beltway that encircles Washington D.C. We stand in the parking lot of a neon-lit restaurant called Cranberries. It's an unremarkable modern red brick joint in a strip mall surrounded by the other mundane stores that you see all over America: Burger King, RadioShack, Wal-Mart...
But far from mundane, the parking lot this night is a tangle of exhaust smoke and screaming engines, pulsing with 100 gleaming sportbikes. The riders wear doo-rags and high-end Vanson leathers. T-shirts, with images of murdered rap heroes Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, are worn over the top. Gold-capped grilles glitter in the amber haze of street lights, along with candy-painted tanks and chromed wheels. Many riders have patches on their jackets declaring membership in motorcycle clubs like Baad Boys Sport Riders or the Maryland Rebels.
Many bikes are Suzuki Hayabusas tricked out with LED underlighting, bullet casings set into the brake levers and $5000 custom paint jobs. "I got something for the poh-lice too," says one rider, pressing the button hidden inside the fairing of his GSX-R1000. The license plate at the back snaps up into the tailsection, out of view.
Sharper eyes notice some of the other modifications. Swingarms have been extended, bikes dropped to only a few inches of clearance. Or, as one spectator describes it: "Those bitches dipped right on the ground." And if you look closely, you will see nitrous bottles mounted under the subframes.
Japanese engineers toil to make these bikes carve corners, but the riders here are only interested in one thing: maximum acceleration for blistering 11/44-mile sprints in illegal, late-night street races. And the smack talk and hustle, the acid insults, are all part of the pre-race warm-up. If you insult someone boldly enough, maybe they'll get angry and throw down to race-more often than not when they shouldn't.
Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, illegal motorcycle street racing is huge business. The most popular form is drag racing; it's the purest test of the sheer accelerative power of the machine, and it's usually over before the police show up. Riders become legends through an undergound nexus of contacts. Some travel the country like pool hustlers, setting up races for money, whistling in and out of towns and stripping the uninformed of their mountains of cash. The best of them, guys like "Shine" and Johnny Locklear, operate more like hired gunslingers from the Wild West with secretive, well-funded sponsors backing them. 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, told us: "It's big money involved, that's for sure. It's fast money, too-tax free from the inner city, know what I mean? These guys aren't Michael Jordan or Donald Trump, but they can 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." Another unnamed source from South Carolina, the "sport's" hotbed, 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 dude who stands 6'2" with an arch wit, and now he's cascading insults on a man he thinks he can goad into a race. His prospective opponent, overweight and knock-kneed with a blue bandana, soon stalks back to his glistening white Suzuki Hayabusa, the slurs still ringing in his ears. "Yo! And take that bandana off," Ronnie shouts after him. "You don't deserve to wear that neither." Ronnie winks. "This is how the hustle starts," he says conspiratorially. "I wanna get inside his head before we race."
Soon a deal is struck with a more serious contender in black leathers and a pencil moustache. The money is "locked up." We leave in a 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 is prayer. Or redemption.
Onlookers weigh each rider's 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; the other rides a Kawasaki ZX10. "You better not spray me," spits Ronnie. Spraying is slang for using nitrous oxide, an oxidizing agent that burns fuel faster and increases power by 35 percent. They examine each other's bikes in a bid to detect hidden nitrous bottles that would give an unfair advantage.
Then they discuss the terms of the race. "Gimme three and the break," says Ronnie. This means he gets three bike lengths at the line and leaves first, the other rider reacting to him. They agree, as the other rider has the faster bike and is around 60 pounds lighter than Ronnie. One of Ronnie's cohorts, like a boxing trainer, boosts his confidence. "Dog, when you drop the hammer on that motherf*cker 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 seen."
The race set, they head out to a dark, two-lane highway without streetlights. Spectators walk down the roadside to where they can watch. Traffic streams past.
Once the road clears, Ronnie and his adversary taxi into the lane, occasionally turning their heads back to make sure no cars are coming from behind. Then they start to burn their tires, sending thick silver clouds of smoke into the trees at the roadside. Each guns the throttle and jumps the bike up to an imaginary start line. The bikes roar as tachs hover over red lines.
The revs drop sharply and then the bikes thunder off. 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 160 mph down a public road that is still carrying people home from bars or to red-eye work shifts. Two of their cohorts are at the makeshift finish line with the wagered 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. Panic: People stream in different directions, hurriedly firing up bikes and speeding off into the night. If the police showed up, Ronnie advised me earlier, I should drive his Jeep and trailer to a pre-arranged rendezvous. I act as instructed, crawling slowly past the police. Ronnie's long-since gone.
American biker culture has always been synonymous with Harleys and outlaw bike gangs like the Hell's Angels and Banditos. Today, though, there is a new breed of motorcycle outlaw. One who has even less respect for the police, and one who idolizes speed and technology. Rappers like DMX have deified sports bikes like the Hayabusa to the MTV audience, and these are the disciples. Diametrically opposed to the hackneyed white motorcycle culture and rural Harley idyll, these riders (mostly African-American) come from the inner city streets of New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.
Street racers congregate on web sites like psychobike.com under pseudonyms like Burnout and Badbusa. I posted a message asking for help in writing this article and was met first with derision-most suspected I was a cop. But a racer with the moniker "Ronraceme" offered to play along. "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 Washington D.C., particularly 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. "Don't take no pictures of my tags," he asked politely. Turned out he was a D.C. police officer.
Ronnie, at 38, is older than most of the other street racers. He grew up during the '80s crack epidemic that 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 World War II. "Every day, at any time, I could be ducking bullets and breaking away," says Ronnie. One of his street racing mentors, Ricky Dobbins, was murdered, shot eight times a block from his house in D.C. Another of Ronnie's friends, Kevin Gardner, was killed in a 160 mph crash. Yet another, Willie 'Doodie' Sams, was shot dead at a street race meeting in an argument over a girl. Ronnie hasn't escaped totally unscathed. He has a cruel looking scar on his right inner forearm from when he was once held up at knifepoint. "I told the sucker he would have to bring a pistol if he was going to rob me."
By day Ronnie works as a building superintendent, but by night he competes in races all over the East Coast, sponsored by a building contractor in Connecticut. Ronnie first started racing in his early teens on a 1978 Honda CB400 in the grimy warehouse district on D.C.'s V Street. Since then, the motorcycles have evolved and the horsepower has increased massively-as have the sums of money gambled. Shortly after we met, he traveled 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-otherwise I wouldn't be leaving there with all my money and my bike."
The highways around New York and Connecticut, notably Route 24 and the Bruckner Expressway, are notorious spots for big money races. Racers deploy several cars to slow and stop the traffic-in essence forming a solid roadblock. While the traffic is halted and stopped, racers have free reign to run the 11/44-mile without interference. When the race is 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 148 mph when he shot past," explains Ronnie, disgustedly. "He sprayed me."
Engineering bikes to look as stock as possible has become an art form to street racers. "Nitrous is easily hidden on a bike, especially these new 10-ounce 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." Suspicions that someone may be spraying are sometimes aroused when racers turn their headlight on and off before the race. This often means they are arming their nitrous system.
Engines in successful street racing bikes often cost as much as $15,000. Stock parts are quickly replaced with bigger blocks and aftermarket stroker crankshafts. To keep the bikes from pulling wheelies off the line, and losing precious split-seconds, the front ends are weighted, squashing the suspension. The battery is moved to the front fairing and swingarms are often extended to ridiculous lengths. Standard street racer kits also includes air shifters, and riders experiment with VP C45 race fuel that costs as much as $210 for five gallons. "You never know what the other guy has," says Ronnie. "So you bring the most badass thing you got."
Other forms of cheating are standard play. Ronnie says he has seen racers pretend to drop something and, while looking around, will accelerate off the line. If the race is started by a flagman, Ronnie will use a friend who, just before dropping his arms to signify the start, will stamp his foot milliseconds before to give Ronnie the advantage. Other less scrupulous racers have been known to douse a lane on the highway with oil before a race.
Cheating-even winning-often has its drawbacks on the streets. Racers hear about bikes and riders that have won, often in suspicious circumstances, through the Internet. Then both bike and rider can find it hard to get races. It's crucial to be anonymous to get big money bets. Ronnie might intentionally lose a race as a ploy just so he could line up others with unsuspecting wankers a week later. "They know me, though," laments Ronnie. "It's hard for me to get a race anywhere now." Ironically, success and notoriety in street racing are bad things.
Danger is part and parcel of street racing-a situation that lately has caused many of the best to limit their riding to "sanctioned" grudge racing at legit drag strips as part of programs like AMA/Prostar's "Streetbike Chaos" or the MIROCK Series' "Afterdark Underground."
"I been laid 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 who was once probably the most famous street racer in the States and is now one of the most widely respected pro drag racers. He acted as consultant and as a stunt rider on the film Biker Boyz and was even sponsored by Factory Kawasaki for years. "Course, I had to stop street racing then," he says.
I meet Gadson at Rockingham Raceway ("The Rock") in North Carolina, the epicenter for the sport. The Rock offers street racers a safer place to race. "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 and a Carolina drawl. "So now we got 'em all here with the bikes, the bling, the 50 Cent and all that crap."
Afterdark Underground is as close as you can get to street racing without the cops showing up. Modifications to bikes are closely guarded secrets. During practice runs no times are posted up, as this would give bettors an unfair advantage. Once or twice the scoreboard unintentionally lights up, leading to furious cursing in the direction of the announcers box: "Yo motherf*cker, you do that one more time and I'll bust a cap in your ass!" shouts one, gesticulating wildly. His investment in the race may well have been compromised.
Each year that Earwood offers an Afterdark program attendance has quadrupled. "Road racing is for the wine and cheese crowd," says Earwood. "What we have here is the backbone of America. Listen to hip-hop, the music booming in the pits-the rhythm is the same as drag racing.
"Of course, I hear there is some betting that goes on 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, when you're not paying tax, must be like winning $60,000 in the real world."
The buzz tonight is all about Richard Gadson, Rickey's nephew and protg, who Rickey has been training to assume his not inconsiderable mantle. The Gadsons are from Philadelphia and have lined up a race with a local Carolina outfit. 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-R1000. A man with a white baseball cap and a doo-rag handles the money, as bets are taken and the conditions of the race are "discussed" with stern words. An hour or so later the bikes can barely make it to the start line through the members of the shouting horde, who have tight rolls of Benjamins gripped in their fists. Most bet on Richard Gadson.
The bikes creep to the line. Gadson folds his body tight around the tank, his eyes dipped behind the fairing. And with a little preamble, green lights flash, and the bikes blister off the line like rockets. Gadson leaves first. Everything seems to happen in slow motion, despite the fact that they hit the end of the 11/44-mile in 8 seconds. Giant scoreboards at the end of the track, without showing times, declare Swerve-the local-the winner.
This is a total shock. 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 it's my fault-the other bike was just too fast"
Amid the scrum, one man in a greasy baseball cap whispers, "That GSX-R is the fastest on the East Coast-the custom crank came all the way from England." Eventually, the Gadsons concede defeat, and though more grudge races are lined up, few have any money left to bet. The only real drama comes when a no-name New York racer throws caution to the wind and races street racing legend Keith "Shine" Dennis. He loses, both times.
A few weeks later, I meet Ronnie again in Philadelphia, at a bike shop in one of the toughest parts of the city. As the stacks he races for get bigger, street racing becomes more dangerous-both in terms of whom he gambles against and also in terms of the sheer speed and ferocity of the machines he rides. He's not going to give it up, though.
"I'll never stop this," he says. "The only problem I have is that it takes a long time just to get a race off." That said, there is an unspoken code of respect among street racers. Despite the tough talk and the insults, there is a loyalty to each other. "We call each other's mothers all sorts of names, but you know for sure these guys would have your back in any situation," he says.
Any losses he had earlier in the year have long been forgotten. Again, he lines up races in garbled cell phone conversations. "I'm like a crackhead, man," he says. "The dope man looking for one more high." And with that he streams off into the night with a fistful of dollars and a screaming engine.
In the world of cable TV programming, the SPEED Channel's "Pinks" really is a low-buck, grassroots effort. It's been this way from the beginning, when the grudge racing show first gained attention on the Internet, beckoning high-octane gamblers to race in front of the cameras for the right to keep their ride. Only difference is "Pinks" is now the number-one-rated reality show on SPEED Channel (You mean it's not "Texas Hardtails?" -Ed.).
SSB recently caught up with 42-year old "Pinks" host and creator Rich Christensen as he eyeballed exotic hardware at the tony Barrett-Jackson automobile auction-a radical departure from the claptrap drag strips where his popular TV show takes place. "I've been working 15 years for this moment," Christensen told us (declining to expand on his stint as a soap opera actor...). "I've had hundreds of ideas shot down by the networks, and now we're the number-one reality show on SPEED."
"Pinks" makes for undeniably good reality TV. Although the action is occasionally spotty (sometimes reminding you why you no longer hang out in the Pizza Hut parking lot on Friday night after high school football games), it more often than not effectively captures the free-form, anything-can-happen world of underground street racing, and occasionally hits the mark dead-on.
The vast majority of the shows focus on high-stakes grudge matches between car racers, but occasionally bike owners race for pink slips. One recently taped episode focused on the high-dollar, high-tech world of East Coast 60-inch drag bikes, matching up none other than Maryland International Raceway track operator (and 60-inch record holder) Jason Miller with perennial MIROCK 60-Inch champion Mikey Slowe. Miller scored lots of free swag from parts purveyors, and trash mouths were trucked in all the way from Philly to provide a Greek chorus and make for better TV. Another just-in-the-can episode had well-known motorcycle drag racer Chris "C.J." Johnson playing his game to perfection: Let's just hope that the notoriously four-wheel-centric SPEED Channel doesn't lose its nerve and cut the bike programming at the last minute, in favor of more grudge matches between cages.
"Here's the deal with bikes," said Christensen. "My original concept was 85 percent bikes, 15 percent cars. But once it got going, the network wanted more cars. I'm still gonna shoot six specials with motorcycles. I'm looking for all kinds of bikes. I'm gonna take motorcycles to whole 'nother level once we get going. That's what I ride, that's where I live. The guys out there in leathers? That's intense!"
But Christensen says in the end that it's the off-track action-the wheeling and dealing, the trash talking-that makes "Pinks" such great TV. "I'm a radio/TV major-I can barely put gas in a car. But what I love is the human drama in the negotiation. At the end of 'Pinks,' you should know everything you need to know about that person. When you're put in that pressure cooker, we're gonna see how you react. I mean, a guy lost his $70,000 Nova on my show last week."
A Nova? Once again we're back at that Pizza Hut, with Boston tunes blaring through Jenson Triaxials...
Two-wheeled or four, "Pinks" (check it out online at www.pinks.tv) will continue shooting at MIR, Tulsa Raceway Park, Speedworld Motorplex (Surprise, Arizona) and a yet-to-be-determined track in Florida. "SPEED's very pleased, and they're giving us 100 percent support," Christensen says. "We'll just keep doing all the hard work to keep delivering the best show possible." And no doubt we'll get to see plenty of big mouths-car and bike owners alike-lose their rides.