Since the days of Elvis, Eisenhower and the Edsel, illegal street racing has flourished on deserted roads in the San Fernando Valley. Driving at breakneck speeds, dragsters must stay one step ahead of the law and seconds ahead of an opponent as they vie to be crowned the new King of the Road.
But in the last couple of years, valley street racers, in souped-up cars and motorcycles, have raised the stakes. No longer do friends and foes oppose each other only for the pure enjoyment of it. Money in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, is gambled on fast wheels and fearless nerves. Racers, faced with investing thousands of dollars in new motors and other expensive auto parts, say winning a race must reap more than momentary pride.
"I've put 20 grand into my car in four years," said Steve, 23, who repairs radiators and whose most recent motor in his 1969 Chevelle cost $5,000. "I don't have a savings account. Half of my check every week goes into my car. Who wants to beat up their motor for nothing?"
Racers bet against their competition with cash fronted by spectators who make their own--and frequently larger--side bets. Betting is usually in the $50 to $200 range.
Some dragsters complain that the new financial risks have diluted the original spirit of street racing--all-out anarchy.
But, considering the crowds who show up every Wednesday and Sunday nights, racing in the Valley remains a spirited pastime. Dozens--about 10 of whom race regularly--gather at fast-food hangouts, usually Arby's in Reseda on Wednesdays and Tommy's in Sepulveda on Sundays, to plan the night's races.
Even when police force them to flee one location, the dragsters migrate via caravan to the next prearranged meeting place.
On one recent Sunday night, in the span of about half an hour, two police cars chased 50 racers from Tommy's to a Winchell's at Chatsworth Street and Zelzah Avenue in Granada Hills to the Lumber City parking lot on Sepulveda Boulevard in Mission Hills.
"It's very obvious when they cluster and make their moves," said Sgt. Dennis Zine, supervisor of the Los Angeles Police Department's valley traffic safety team. "We have the air unit and other units in the vicinity to spot their moves."
Each time, the officers flashed their lights and asked the crowd to disperse. Everyone vanished in a matter of minutes.
"I think they're through for the night," one officer said after chasing the racers from the Lumber City lot.
But minutes later, the pack had gathered at Canoga Avenue and Lassen Street in Chatsworth, one of their frequent racing sites. They completed one race before the police arrived.
"They think street racers are a bunch of 16-year-old kids in Mom's cars," said Robert, 21. "But they don't realize how organized it can be."
Said Ed, 27, a racer since he was a teen-ager: "Escaping the cops kind of adds to it all. It's like we're doing something, and let's see if we can get away with it."
In the last decade, Los Angeles Police Department undercover operations have resulted in the arrest and prosecution of dozens of street racers, although valley officers in recent years have focused their attention on other crimes.
"With the gang activities and the drug problems, those are more of a priority than the street racers," said Zine, who added that complaints about racers from residents have dropped significantly in recent years.
He estimated that it would require a 25-man task force eight hours of work to apprehend the people who race in the valley on an average evening, and "a police department has only so many resources." Street racing is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine, usually about $600, and a possible jail sentence.
In September, 1980, a 50-man valley police task force arrested 46 people for street racing and curfew violations on San Fernando Road in Sylmar. Before those arrests, Zine said, there had been eight reported drag-racing-related deaths in 18 months. He said recent figures are not available, but the danger remains. "Their fun gets people killed," he said.
Zine said he didn't realize that the dragsters and their supporters bet more than a few dollars.
"I thought it was just nickel-and-dime stuff," he said. "That's organized gambling, and that's illegal. They weren't doing that in the past."
'Big Giant Party'
None of today's racers knows when or how the drag-racing tradition began in the Valley. They recall an attachment to automobiles in their adolescent years, often passed on by parents, and soon discovered the streets as a natural outlet for their passion. Bored with the routine of valley night life, they discovered their niche in the social strata.
"It's like one big giant party," Ed said. "You see people and friends of yours you don't see anywhere else."