The Need for Speed

There’s little fame and no money for kids who live to street race. The reward is the adrenaline rush that comes from screaming past the speed limit in fifteen seconds and avoiding the cops.

Winter is hibernation time for Rhode Island’s street racers. Only a fool would venture out when the roads are wet or icy and push the speedometer toward 100-plus miles per hour. Instead they mostly stay home nights, turning to “Grand Theft Auto” and “Midnight Club II” to feed the adrenaline jones. But thrills squeezed from video games are meager ones indeed, so when February temperatures soar to sixty degrees, everyone is itching to hit the pavement. Word goes out that the tribe will gather on Saturday night.

By ten o’clock a steady stream of cars begins filling the lot at a Providence Burger King, first twenty, then forty, then more. Most are four-cylinder and six-cylinder imports—Hondas, Volkswagens and Mitsubishis—like those screaming by onscreen in The Fast and the Furious. Beyond a few Mustangs, no Detroit Iron can be seen. Muscle cars, it seems, have become toys for graying boomers. They drive them to summer cruise nights in downtown Woonsocket, where Dad can pop the hood to show off the V-eight and boogie with Mom to golden oldies. These days, street racers go for tuner cars—compact buggies, often the same models practical folk use for commuting, but modified with after-market parts and computer software that can double or even triple the horsepower. They’re packing intercoolers and turbo chargers under the hood, and nitrous oxide canisters in the trunk. And yes, that nitrous oxide is the same laughing gas that enlivened college parties in the ’70s, but today it delivers a different high: Hit the nitrous button on a tuner car and it leaps forward, like the Starship Enterprise zooming toward warp speed.

There are dream machines in that lot, cars with glistening paint jobs, fat racing tires, gaudy rims, and air foils that seem inspired by science fiction. Others are works in progress, with dings and dents and fading paint. The crowd studies each one with reverent curiosity. They lift hoods, ogle engines, bend critical ears toward thumping stereo woofers and let their fingers glide gently over tire treads. They are mostly guys in their late teens or twenties, with a few girlfriends in their midst. By day, they might drive trucks or pound nails or sit in classrooms at New England Tech, but under parking lot lights they become acceleration’s aestheticians. 

The sight of a low-slung Honda Accord moving regally toward the drive-thru prompts a collective gasp.

“The most beautiful car I’ve ever seen,” someone whispers.

“Super fuckin’ awesome,” a female voice replies.

A fast food wrapper skids past on a breeze, and someone snatches it off the ground. Kids collect litter at these events as insurance against a trespassing citation. Should a patrol car appear, that wrapper can bolster one’s claim to being a customer. The paranoia is justified. Street racing is illegal, Rhode Island cops have tried to quash the sport by crashing parking lot assemblies. They block the exits and check each car for equipment violations, every driver for warrants.

street racer “They’ll rip your car apart looking for beer,” a college guy from Warwick says. “They’ll show up and tell everyone, ‘You’re loitering.’ Or they’ll say, ‘That’s not a standard exhaust pipe.’ Then they’ll want to go over your registration. They can keep you there all night with that sort of thing.”

Such gatherings—called meets—are usually the prelude to a race, and this night is no exception. A half hour before midnight, cell phones begin ringing with calls from other meets in southern New England. Ringleaders dicker about a site. They settle on an industrial park thirty miles away, then announce the location to the crowd. Engines let forth a deep, rich growl. The Menace is roaring and loose again. In minutes the lot is nearly vacant. Those with no stomach for risking life and limb leave to search for other parties or the comfort of a warm video screen. Others set out to once more test their mettle.

Not that long ago most street races were spontaneous affairs. Two guys with hot cars would find themselves side by side at a red light. One would rev his engine, an invitation to race. When the light turned green each driver would mash his accelerator and keep it to the floor until one passed the other and emerged as victor. For obvious reasons, many speed aficionados viewed the street as the domain of twisted greaser misfits.

All that began to change when a new generation picked up the game in the mid-’90s. They play by rules similar to those used in sanctioned drag racing: Competitors hurtle down a clear, straight roadway toward a finish line a quarter-mile away; each stays in his own lane. Spectators are invited, the more the merrier. It’s still an outlaw sport, of course, but one that’s highly organized and hugely popular, both across North America and around the world. Every weekend night (weather permitting) you’ll find an illicit tourney going on somewhere in southern New England.

Let’s take a little ride.

Brockton, Massachusetts, a Sunday in April . . . close to midnight, with a spring chill in the air. At least 200 young guys are crowded together along Belmont Street.

street racersA number of them have arrived in a caravan from Providence. There are whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, city kids and suburbanites, all slapping hands and bumping shoulders, with no tensions whatsoever. On the street before them are two cars, an Acura Integra and an Acura RSX. These match-ups usually take place somewhere out of the way, perhaps in an industrial park, but not this night. The crowd is gathered on a block on a commercial thoroughfare, right in front of a Stop & Shop. Any suggestion that this is reckless or unsafe meets with firm denial. The kids note most folks are home in bed and there’s no traffic to be seen. They have side streets blocked, to ensure no one wanders onto the raceway. And the strongest drink at their party is Red Bull. Alcohol is often banned at such events, to prevent both accidents and the rowdy behavior that draws the ire of law enforcement.

Engines are rumbling, a beautiful sound. The drivers have been spinning their tires to heat the rubber and improve road grip, and the smoky stench wafts on the breeze. One spectator tells his buddies he heard on his police scanner that cops are looking for a gang of drag racers seen heading through town. They reply with raucous laughter. From down the road comes a cell phone call with the message that the route is clear. The signalman looks to each driver: Are you ready? The engines respond with a hungry roar. The drivers grip tightly to steering wheels, tense for ac-tion. The signalman’s hands drop and . . . VWOOOOOOOSH! The cars are gone, vanished, except for tiny tail lights zipping through the darkness. Inside of fifteen seconds it’s over. The whoop of a police siren comes a moment later. They all head for their vehicles, but no one hurries. The Brockton cops don’t have the manpower to make arrests, and simply want the horde to leave town.

Sometimes at a Providence meet you’ll hear one of the younger guys half-whisper “Here comes Toretto.” They’re talking about Jeff, a stocky, bearded twenty-three-year-old whose hands and clothes are perpetually smudged with the evidence of daily engine tweakings. He’s often engaged in several simultaneous conversations, switching from English to Spanish and back, with friends at the meet and on his cell phone. There are no formal leaders among local street racers, but his nickname—borrowed from Vin Diesel’s The Fast and the Furious character—is a tip off he’s one of those running the show.

Jeff’s a Renaissance do-it-yourselfer, at ease with both a wrench kit and a computer keyboard. He carries a video camera to most race events and records thirty-or forty-second clips of the high-speed action. Whenever he’s collected enough, he puts them on a disk and sells copies at meets. Some also show up on YouTube, along with hundreds of similar racing videos posted by speedsters from across the country. “You want clips or pictures, just ask,” he says. “I’ve got everything.”

Such digital know-how is common among younger gear heads, which helps explain how their clandestine community came to be. Google the phrases “street racing” or “tuner import” and the list of message forums, video postings and online automotive retailers seems endless. James, a friend of Jeff’s, runs a website called Rhode Island Street Racing ( When he took over the operation, he knew nothing about the technology, but he gave himself a crash course, and a few weeks later the forum page was hopping with tips on fighting speeding tickets and finding high performance parts. There are dozens of similar sites catering more to tuner kids elsewhere. About the only thing you won’t find online are times and dates for races. Some site operators don’t approve of the street scene; others are wary of tipping off cops who surf the net. Racers instead rely on other high-tech media—cell phones, texting, MySpace pages—to covertly pass along that information.

Despite the high tech savvy and organizational talent, the race crowd has zero political muscle. Their one issue—the dream of a drag strip to call their own—has been largely ignored by elected officials. Rhode Island car enthusiasts rave about the closest track, New England Dragway, in Epping, New Hampshire, but they also gripe about the distance.

Sometimes at a meet Jeff will pick up the topic and expound with such vigor you might think a few state senators have wandered in to hear his pitch. “We don’t even need a track,” he says. “Just give us one street, for three or four hours, maybe two nights a week. We’d park an ambulance there. Is that too much to ask?”

NitrousA street race is a dark, atavistic contest with big risks and few rewards. There’s no jackpot to be won, no trophy, no sports page glory. Sure, a guy might score a few hundred bucks from a bet, but that’s never enough to match what he spends on his car. For a few seconds, though, he might find himself transformed. He becomes… a warrior, in his mind, exactly like those once found among the Mohawks, the Yanomamo and other tribal folk.

“Respect,” says Phil Jarrie, one of those racer-warriors. “That has a lot to do with it. Before a race, you’ll hear a lot of trash talk—you’re a bad driver, you have a slow car—until you feel like you have to prove something.”

Phil typifies the breed. The twenty-eight-year-old from North Smithfield has been a backyard mechanic as long as he can remember, and he’s worked in auto body shops since his teens. He’s an easy-going sort, if you overlook his freakish craving for high velocity. He’s got a million stories about that, just like everyone else on the race scene. Piece them together and you’ll find something else—an archetypal tale, with themes straight out of the hero-warrior myths of ancient lore.

Jarrie heard the call to adventure at an early age. He was eighteen, a year out of high school, and driving around in a Chevy Blazer. A bulky SUV is usually a family car, but Jarrie turned his into a road monster by adding a superchip, a small electronic device that increased the amount of air and fuel going into the engine cylinders. “I was pushing about 250 horse out of it,” he recalls. “Some kid saw me smoking the tires and asked me, ‘Do you race that thing?’ I told him no, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come down to Providence this Saturday night?’ Part of me thought they were going to steal my truck, but I got a couple of buddies together. We got there and we saw a lot of racing going on.”

His initiation came two weeks later, when he raced an F-10 pick-up on Harris Avenue and won. More challenges followed. He owned a series of muscle cars—a Ford Taurus Show, a Monte Carlo, a Grand Prix GTP—and spent countless hours cloistered in his garage working to boost horsepower or performance. Along the way he met up with boon companions, guys ever ready to lend a hand with a socket wrench. There were also setbacks—too many tickets, hassles with cops, the loss of a $500 racing bet.

Eventually he emerged triumphant. Today he drives an oft-envied road monster, a 1996 Nissan Maxima with neon trim, strobe lights, video monitors, Maxim racing wheels, and a ten-pound nitrous tank. He also wooed and won. His wife, Becky, is a rarity—a woman who loves tuner cars and gets thrills from street racing. Several times she’s taken the wheel herself and roared to the finish line. Her own collection of speeding tickets is said to be impressive. Pressed for an explanation, she modestly replies, “Fast is fun.”

The classic folk hero always carries some magical device—an ever-sharp sword or an invisibility cloak—and the street racer is no different. For him, it’s the nitrous oxide he pumps into his car’s engine cylinders. It’s not a fuel; instead, it makes fuel burn faster, delivering a powerful horsepower surge. Jarrie’s tongue-tied when asked to describe it, but a Warwick kid with a Honda Civic is rhapsodic: “Installing the system was no problem,” he says. “Then I had to try it out. I was at a red light, and just before it changed, I decided this was the moment. The speedometer reached thirty-five, and then I hit the happy button. You hit that button and BOOM; you fly back into your seat. You really feel the boost. At first you want to spray all the time, but you use self control because you know you have to refill the bottle.

“I had a buddy who had already beat me in a race. I told him, you wanna go again, let’s go. He knew something was up, but he said okay. We raced, and I completely destroyed him. But for me, winning isn’t that important. I like the rush.”

Street racing was Jason Ayala’s chief passion in life, something he swore he could never give up. His girlfriend told him he’d become too reckless and stopped riding with him during contests. He kept racing. A judge suspended his driver’s license. He kept racing. On the evening of Saturday, April 8, 2007, the twenty-four-year-old Woonsocket mechanic knocked on a friend’s door and begged to borrow a car; there would be a midnight competition at a local industrial park, and he was desperate to go. His friend gave him the keys to a 1993 Honda hatchback.

The drag fest ended abruptly just minutes after the first race. Blue lights flashed and a voice from a loudspeaker commanded everyone to leave. Most of the kids simply drove away, but several made a show of defiance. According to police reports, an officer found himself dodging two drivers who seemed determined to force his patrol car off the road. He followed a pair of tail lights that sped down Mendon Road. As he neared a sharp curve, the officer reduced his speed. The fleeing suspect did not. The officer rounded the bend and came upon a shocking sight—a Honda wrapped around a utility pole. The driver hung limply out a window, blood trickling from his mouth.

providence policeOfficers and EMTs could detect no heartbeat. They pulled a sheet over the body and roped off the area with black-and-yellow tape. Then a distraught young woman—Ayala’s girlfriend—arrived at the scene. She tearfully told investigators they’d both been at the race park, but became separated, and she’d heard nothing from him since. She then described his tattoos. The officers checked the body. On the right leg they found “Jailisse,” the name of Ayala’s baby girl.

On the day of the funeral, hundreds of tricked-out imports jammed the streets around Woonsocket’s All Saints Church. The racers came not only to mourn, but also for a show of strength. They’d seen the news reports and heard the tragedy described as a racing fatality, a conclusion most of them could not accept. After all, Ayala did not die competing, but while running from the law. In their eyes, he was a victim of police harassment.
“I wasn’t there, but I know what happened,” Jeff would later tell a reporter. “The cops killed Jason.”

Woonsocket police have denied responsibility. Their reports show no one pursued Ayala until after he aimed his car at a police cruiser. And in the chase that followed, the officer maintains he kept his speed to a reasonable limit.

Most street dragsters bristle when the subject turns to wrecks, and with good reason. Every fatality brings down the heat, from cops, from prosecutors, from state lawmakers. You’ll hear racers compare their sport to rock-climbing and bicycling and every other recreational pastime in which people occasionally meet with tragic mishaps. And some argue an organized street race is no more dangerous than many activities of everyday life. “You don’t realize it, but there are people passing on the highway all the time doing eighty or ninety miles an hour,” says James, the racing website operator. “And while they’re at the wheel, they’re making phone calls or eating breakfast or fixing their hair at the same time.”

Nevertheless, law enforcement types claim the growing popularity of street racing has meant a steady increase in accidents and fatalities. No firm figures exist, but several organizations have attempted estimates. According to the website, racing deaths in the United States now top fifty a year. The National Hot Rod Association (which opposes street racing) puts the number at more than 100. The worst carnage to date occurred last February, at a Maryland event, when a car struck and killed eight spectators. For the record, two Rhode Islanders have died at organized street races since 2000, if the list includes Ayala’s name.

A crackdown is already in full swing, with states adopting stricter laws and harsher penalties. In Connecticut, just watching a street race is now a misdemeanor, and one night last April, Hartford police issued more than ninety citations. In California, authorities are confiscating tuner buggies and feeding them to a car-crushing machine. Rhode Island legislators passed their own get-tough law last year. First-time offenders now face up to one year in jail, a $1,000 fine, and license suspension for up to six months. Any subsequent offense is a felony. A second conviction could mean two years in prison; a third, five years. Fines and the period for license suspension increase as well.

“During the hearings on this bill, we heard a couple of young people—car enthusiasts —testify in favor,” says state Attorney General Patrick Lynch. “They told us, ‘Yes, I like racing, but I go where it’s allowed.’ If you want to race, go to the track in New Hampshire. Or better yet, go to your city councilman or legislator, and tell them, ‘Get us some land.’ ”

Providence authorities are acting, too.  In August, they bolted temporary speed bumps to the asphalt on Narragansett Avenue, a long-time gathering spot for drag racers. Some might say that came a bit too late; two weeks earlier a speedster drove an Acura through the wall of a commercial building.  No serious injuries were reported.

Ayala’s racing pals immediately cast him in the role of martyred hero. They created a roadside shrine at the accident scene, the sort that springs up whenever a wreck claims the life of someone under thirty. Farewell notes and photographs were stapled to the scarred utility pole, and flowers and toy cars encircled its base. A few days later, decals with the slogan “Props to J.” began appearing on Mazdas and Subarus.

Perhaps the greatest homage has been a ban on competitions at the Woonsocket industrial park, imposed not by cops but by racers. “Sometimes someone suggests that we head up to Woonsocket,” Jeff says. “Then we tell him, no, we can’t go there anymore. That’s where we lost our boy.”

The tragedy had a different impact on Phil Jarrie, who scarcely knew Ayala. A few days after the crash, the Providence Journal reported that police were looking for the second driver who’d forced the police cruiser off the road. The car was described as a black Nissan Maxima—the same color, make and model as Jarrie’s tuner machine. Sure enough, a Woonsocket police officer came knocking at the shop where he worked and asked to see his car. Jarrie complied. He told the cops that on the night in question he was on duty as a volunteer firefighter, and had the records to prove it. The cops then looked over his car, and failed to find a significant dent. He was off the hook.

After ruminating on the episode, Jarrie found his sympathies were with the police. “That wreck—it never should have happened,” he says. “The one that was killed, I heard he had no license. Maybe that’s why he took off. But even then, why run? You’re gonna kill somebody, or get yourself killed.”

About the same time, he got the idea of organizing a car club. He picked a name—Street Import Tunerz—and recruited his wife, Becky, and his pal, Nick, who drives a cool 2002 Volkswagen Jetta. They set up a website with an invitation for others to join. There would be cookouts, car shows and competition, but only at New England Dragway, never on the street.

“You’re in our club and you wanna race, you go with us to Epping,” he explains. “You get caught on the street, it’s three strikes, you’re out…. Everyone has to realize, when you put yourself behind the wheel, your life is in your hands. It’s just like picking up a gun. A vehicle can be one of the worst weapons out there.”

It could be a step toward the next adventure. Or maybe the Jarries know they’re closing in on thirty. They still have their dream-mobiles. On summer nights, you’ll find Becky parked in their driveway, watching DVDs on a dashboard video screen. Phil might be fussing with his nitrous oxide tank. Or perhaps he’s busy with his new speed system, something called CryO2, that gives his engine a blast of cold carbon dioxide. It’s the tuner kids’ version of domestic bliss. Woonsocket cruise nights for a new generation.