Tonight, tonight, the strip’s just right: An inside look at illegal drag racing in Cape Town
South Africa was ranked worst in the world for road safety last year by the International Transport Forum, and with 1,376 fatalties in car accidents during the 2013 festive season alone, our roads are a dangerous place. Adding to this is the problem of illegal street racing, particularly in the Cape Town surrounds. Over the course of several months, SHAUN SWINGLER visited a gathering of illegal street racers in Gatesville on the Cape Flats. This is his insider’s account.
On one day in March 2013, Cape Town traffic officers arrested 51 suspects during operations around the city which focused on cracking down on illegal street racing. The drivers were arrested for various offences, racing illegally, obviously, as well as failing to display licence plates and driving without licences. Over the course of the day, 1,241 speeding fines were issued.
Adrian Long, principal inspector for Cape Town traffic services, told GroundUp (the community journalism project): "Illegal drag racing is very popular amongst youngsters who often spend a large percentage of their salaries to modify their vehicles. In some instances it would be for financial gain, as many races have bets placed on the winners. Many illegal dragsters see street racing as a sport with few rules where anything goes.”
But Cape Town’s traffic services are being proactive about this problem. According to Long, traffic officials are sent out late at night and early into the morning in specialised units such as the Ghost Squad – a unit which operates in unmarked vehicles – to combat the problem. Through these interventions, Long said, more than 500 arrests and 60,000 notices have been issued.
But even with such interventions, many street racers are still dicing with impunity.
This Daily Maverick reporter visited one such gathering of illegal street racers in Gatesville on the Cape Flats over the course of several months. The gathering, known as ‘Fast and the Furious’ to locals, brings together teens and those in their early twenties in the area looking to prove their worth and justify the vast sums of money spent on their cars.
Participants collect in a car park facing a 24/7 fast food joint called Fast and the Furious – no coincidence – and dice each other along the palm tree-lined Klipfontein Road which hugs the parking lot. Spectators congregate at the roadside and watch wannabe racers in modified Golfs and Fiestas (with the odd superbike) vie for glory and bragging rights. Very little money exchanges hands during these races – they’re for fun and street cred, most of the racers say.
“We just get that feeling to race,” Junaid, a regular at Fast and the Furious, says. “There’s many guys that’s trying to build their cars, making this one better than that one. Then another bra comes with his car that is very fast – then everyone knows about him … it’s all for status.”
At one such gathering in July 2013, this reporter witnessed a police raid. Six police patrol vans and a large armoured police truck descended on the event. Most spectators fled, but three drivers were taken into custody and were later released. The police captain declined to comment at the time and one constable ordered this reporter to cease recording on his camera and leave the area.
When asked about the threat of police, Junaid is defiant. “There’s too much cars for them to take us all,” he says. “This is our roads and we take the law into our own hands.”
Junaid’s friend Kyle continues: “We come here to enjoy ourselves. We don’t do wrong stuff, man. Like drugs and murder … We just race against people.”
When it is pointed out how dangerous street racing can be for drivers and those around them, Junaid hesitates: “There are some accidents, but we mainly just come here to watch other guys.”
But there are attempts to curb illegal street racing in Cape Town.
Street2Strip is a monthly event organised by Western Province Motor Club (WPMC) which aims to do just that. Each month, Killarney race track plays host to would-be racers looking for a safer thrill. Killarney race track has been around since the 1940s and has seen drag racing in one form or another almost as long that.
Since 2008 the event attracts anything from 100-200 participants and upwards of 1,000 spectators on busy nights. Only street cars are allowed and the race is advertised as non-competitive – drivers must race for the fun of it and to improve their own personal best times.
Before a racer can get onto the drag strip, he or she must pay a nominal fee, sign an indemnity form and pass his/her car through scrutineering. The scrutineers, two burly men covered in grease, will check for obvious problems such as loose batteries, missing wheel nuts or oil leaks. Once the car has passed, the scrutineer writes a race number with white shoe polish on the driver’s rear window and they are passed onto the track to wait their turn to reach the strip.
In the queue there is motley bunch of cars: everything from dilapidated Golfs to lovingly maintained Ford Capris and R1-million Nissan GTRs.
Waiting his turn is Joe, a Subaru WRX owner. “I come here to vent,” he says, laughing. “Nah, it’s just a lot of fun. If you do it on the street there’s nobody who has your back if something goes wrong.”
“There’s no winners, either,” he continues, “It’s all about personal bests and it’s not competitive.”
Along the strip are an ambulance and fire truck ready to respond should anything go wrong.
“Racing can be dangerous,” says Paul Simon, Events Manager at WPMC, “and it’s our job to make it as safe as possible. We try to emulate what racers are looking for on the road but with the safety of the track. We think it’s awesome that we can create a safe home for street racers here – there’s been a lot of social media buzz about us in those circles.”
Ashwyn, a would-be racer from Rocklands, says: “It’s good what they’re doing because it keeps racers off the streets.”
When asked why he comes to the event: “We love cars, it’s our culture. We’ve loved them since I was this high,” he says, hands gesturing to knee-height.
“We got here late, though, so we couldn’t register. Now I’m just going to watch, get some food, and hang out with my friends.”
With that, Ashwyn heads to off to join his friends in the food queue that stretches off into the Atlantic Seaboard sunset. In doing so he also joins a global tribe of illegal speed freaks first born on the dry lake beds in the California deserts soon after the invention of the motor car.
It was, of course, The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, who made illegal drag racing sexy, with his rock ballad Racing the the Street. Recall the verse: “Some guys they just give up living/And start dying little by little/piece by piece/Some guys come home from work and wash up/and go racing in the street”. DM
Photos by Shaun Swingler.