illustrations by Ian Harkey
I got interested in street racing circuitously. Literally circuitously, because I started with oval track racing, not straight-line drag racing. The first time I ever thought to drive a fast car was when I heard of The Rusty Wallace Driving Experience, a business that will fire-suit you up and put you behind the wheel of a stock car. A roommate of mine, a tobacco-chewing South Carolinian girl who grew up with more than a passing knowledge of NASCAR, tried out the Driving Experience at Memphis International Raceway. When she came back with custom-printed photos of herself in the pit, helmet in hand like a total badass, I thought, “I should try that.”
So at 9 a.m. on a late summer morning this past August, I met a crowd of mostly older men in a small room for a one-hour crash course (no pun) in the ins-and-outs of momentum driving. An instructor wearing cargo shorts and a company-issue grey polo drew a map on a whiteboard. “Here,” he pointed to a green box scribbled in dry erase marker across the big black circle I took to represent the track, “is where you start smelling the Goodyears heating up. The rubber is bouncing off your windshield and” — he looked around the room with a practiced dramatic pause — “then you’re really cooking.”
After being given earphones (so a spotter who, I was cautioned, “might sound like a total Boomhauer from West Virginia” could instruct me while I was behind the wheel) and a helmet (so I “wouldn’t see Jesus today”), I was packed into a small black car. Car is a general term, in that it both includes my Toyota Prius and the metal cage into which I was casually strapped by a skinny teenager, a “buckler” for Rusty Wallace. “Just breathe,” said the teenager assuredly.
As soon as I hit the pavement, the spotter yelled, “Go! Go! Go!” in my ear and I was in fourth gear, passing slower cars, hitting my marks — green for go, orange for let off the gas — lapping the track at what felt like a million miles an hour. I’m sure I wasn’t actually going that fast (I don’t really know how fast I went. I was too nervous to look down at the dash.) but it definitely wasn’t my usual Sunday afternoon fare. After six laps that felt simultaneously like nothing and an eternity, I pulled off onto the black cement apron, drenched in sweat and completely hooked.
There’s a reason that when someone really wants something, they are called “driven.” As soon as I was out of the car, I wanted back in it.
“Midnight Madness has a lot in common with the Delta Fair, if you replaced the roller coasters with drifting tracks.”
It wasn’t a big leap to get interested in drag racing. Memphis is less a NASCAR town, more of a street scene. These things are hard to measure, but we purportedly have one of the biggest street racing communities in the country. Events are held every weekend around town, and some of the biggest Memphis races are attended by several thousand people.
A handful of guys that could pass as Southern-fried versions of Vin Diesel were hanging around the Memphis International Raceway on a Friday night in early September. The Raceway, formerly known as Memphis Motorsports Park, is a multi-functional course located north of the city. A hairpin-like road course connects to a drag strip, which parallels a four-mile oval track, all of which are accessible via the oil-streaked “Victory Lane.” The venue hosts regular (legal) driving events called “Street Warriorz,” “Nitro Jam,” and “Test N Tune.” The return of the racetrack (it closed from 2009 until 2011) has been a boon for the racing community. “Five years ago,” one racer told me, “it just wasn’t poppin’ like it is now.”
I was at an event called Midnight Madness with Yanni Manousakis, who has a much cooler car than me, a 2004 Volkswagen GLI turbo with lowered suspension. His car is slammed, as in, slammed to the ground. The lowered center of gravity allows for better handling.
Manousakis is a 27-year-old Air Force veteran with long hair that he keeps pulled back in a loose bun. Though he’s worked in welding and in private security, teaching cops to hotwire cars, Manousakis’ style is more relaxed than it is Rambo. He grew up in Nutbush, the neighborhood north of Summer Avenue’s long strip of automotive shops and secondhand stores. If you google “Nutbush Memphis” one of the first results is a heavily autotuned rap by a guy called Whiteboy Scott, the video for which is mostly just shots of people cleaning their cars. “We bendin’ through the city,” raps Whiteboy Scott while a bright blue car with raised suspension and impressive rims cruises down a side street, “headed to MLK park.”
It is a good area to grow up in if you’re interested in learning your way around a garage, which Manousakis was. By the time he was in high school, he worked for Garvin Hershey, who runs Rod Shop of Memphis. “We had to fabricate a lot of parts at Rod Shop, stuff they don’t make anymore,” says Manousakis. “We were inventing things all the time.” He got into drag racing around the same time.
Midnight Madness has a lot in common with the Delta Fair, if you replaced the roller coasters with drifting tracks and drags. A long line of food vendors backed up to the drag strip, including a yellow Pronto Pups stand and a place where you could get around a dozen different kinds of stacked and fried meat plates. Nearby, a man wielding what looked to be a tire iron ushered people towards The Wall of Death, a silo-shaped wooden cylinder in which stunt motorcyclists were riding in centrifugal circles.
We bought tickets to do ride-alongs with the drifters. Drifting (think: Tokyo Drift ) is a style where drivers oversteer their cars, causing the rear wheels of the vehicles to lose traction and slip forward. The point is to angle your car so that your front wheels are pointed forward, while the vehicle itself is pointed sideways. If this makes no sense on paper, trust me, it makes no sense in action either. It is an unnatural feeling to face sideways in a car while you simultaneously move forward.
My turn to ride came with a driver whose hood had been removed to reveal an arachnid-looking engine, tubes snaking in and out of a gleaming black body. Manousakis said, “Hey, if anything happens, just do this.” He crossed his arms in front of his face and lowered his head to his chest. I must have looked scared as he passed me a too-large loaner helmet because he followed that up with, “It’ll be fine.”
It was fine. It was more than fine. It was great. The driver gunned it, then banked hard left, and we slid agilely in a nonsensical direction, only to pull out and do the same move all over again, reversed. “Did you see the driver’s feet?” Manousakis asked me after I exited the vehicle, heart pounding. I didn’t. “You should watch them next time. It’s really cool — kind of like a dance.”
We headed towards the drag strip and past a music stage where a band of aging rockers billed as “Every Mother’s Nightmare” pounded out something heavy, Southern, and lovelorn. We found a place in the metal stands while cars lined up, two at a time, at the beginning of the quarter-mile run. Numbers flashed on jumbo screens near the end of the track. This was bracket racing, a measured and standardized version of the “grudge” racing that happens on the street.
To an untrained eye, a few tribes stand out at the Raceway: Mustang guys, hyped on their V8 engines and custom plates. Other muscle-car people who drive Chevy Camaros or Pontiac Firebirds. Old school classic car collectors whose vehicles sport massive hood scoops. Drifters with slick tires and no hoods, and crotch rocketers on Suzuki Hayabusas. More men than women, but a few women, especially on the bikes. Manousakis is into sleeper cars — low-budget, high-production models like the Honda Civic that have been retrofitted with bigger engines. Specifically, he likes Toyotas, so much that people call him “Mr. 2,” after the Toyota MR2. The cool thing about sleeper cars, he says, is that you have to put in work. The satisfaction is in winning against people who bought their speed, rather than sculpted it.
The stands near the strip were full of ranks of teenage boys, families, women wearing “Proud Southern Gun Owner” shirts, military-looking older guys, and punk kids drinking sodas. Several people stood with their fingers pushed through the chainlink fence, as close to the action as possible. Cars grouped behind the drag strip, waiting in a mock traffic jam for their turn. A couple of shiny Chevys arrived on the slick black pavement. Behind me, I heard someone comment on “the Corvette sinkhole” and another person say, “That’s why this country is in debt.”
We hadn’t been watching the races for long when blue police lights appeared in the distance, flashing over cars on a neighboring road. The crowd half paid attention. Seeing police at these events isn’t uncommon. “They shouldn’t look at plates out here,” says Manousakis. “But they probably do. Trying to catch people headed to street races.”
T he Memphis races are no secret, at least not if you are curious. It’s easy enough to search on Youtube for “street races Memphis” and come across videos of drivers taking a strip at high speeds, an iPhone videographer offhandedly commenting on the action (“I’m not betting on anything but a Corvette” or “Y’all gotta fishtail out of here” or “You got them racing tires, son”). The pictures on these videos are mostly low quality, blurred by headlamps and street lights, but in some it is possible to make out crowds of people standing on the sidewalk, gathered to watch as the Mustangs or sleek Chevys pair off to gun it, to hook and go.
Drag racing on the street is a Class B misdemeanor, defined as “the use of any motor vehicle for the purpose of ascertaining the maximum speed obtainable by the vehicle,” “comparing relative speeds,” “accepting a challenge,” and to participate illegally you don’t necessarily have to be in the car. You can be a facilitator, or the guy who shines the “go” light. If you hit someone while racing, the charge is upgraded to vehicular assault. If you kill someone, it becomes vehicular homicide, a class C felony, the same class of felony in Tennessee as crimes of passion.
“If something were to happen, we are risking everything,” says Tony Yeager, a drag racer who runs Mid-South Street Cars, a group that supports the local street racing community. The 33-year-old auto mechanic has been racing cars and bikes most of his life. He’s quick to say the sport is as much a passion as it is an addiction. “If we wrecked and killed somebody, well, guess what. We’re gone,” he says. “When an accident happens it is too late; you lose your life, your family, your business.
“But then again,” he says, “it’s what we do.”
I first met Yeager at a South Memphis drag, hemmed in by drab administration buildings and dark factories, a few weeks after Midnight Madness. During the day, the street handles mostly truck traffic. The only visible clue to its more notorious purpose — its regular nighttime use — is a set of deep skid marks, the collective work of the thousands of drivers who have spun their wheels there in preparation for races.
Maybe 40 people were there to watch a few cars do tests, one at a time. People had brought cars — “serious drag cars” says Yeager, as distinct from stock models — on trailers, and were loading and unloading them to run. Smoke from burnouts (when drivers lock their brake and floor the gas, causing the tires to spin and heat up) filled the air. I heard a mom shout, “Get out of there, Aiden!” and watched as a young kid, 12 years old at most, run from the street back to the sidewalk. I’d been hesitant to speak to people but Yeager, a straightforward guy with an Arkansas accent, introduced himself.
Yeager’s group is mostly older, not “kids slinging donuts,” and they gamble: $500 to $1,000 a race. “More money, more risk,” he said. “The faster you are, the bigger risk you are taking in the street — 150, 160, 170 miles per hour in a quarter mile.” They are a more organized group than many, into the mechanics of racing over the party. “We’re gonna make sure everybody is safe before we do it,” Yeager told me. “We are breaking the law but we don’t look at it as breaking the law, we are looking at it as fun. No harm, no foul, that kind of thing.”
We hadn’t been out there long, an hour at most, when a police officer showed up. Later, Yeager told me, “Right now the police are hot on it. They always come. They don’t usually write tickets but they always come. There are days we’ve been out there for 10 minutes and days we’ve been out there for 13 hours.” (Other people I asked corroborated: It depends on the officer and it depends on the night. A man I spoke to who came out to spectate told me, “I’ve seen them rope off the street and tow cars.”)
The officer pulled up slowly, lights flashing through the clouded air, and told us via megaphone to clear the street. I remembered a video I’d watched online of a race that got broken up at a different spot in town, where an officer had pulled a driver out of his car. “Get on the ground, smartass!” the policeman yelled, out of frame. “Just get on the fucking ground.” This time, the interaction was over quickly — uneventful, standard. The officer left.
A few minutes later, a couple of big SUVs pulled up beside each other, ready to race. Someone, probably Yeager, shouted, “Get that shit to Rivergate!,” referring to the other main industrial area where people race, near President’s Island, which has a reputation for being rowdier. The cars drove off.
“If we wrecked and killed somebody, well, guess what, we’re gone. You lose your life, your family, your business.”
It was at the end of this same drag where Jessie Moore died, in an accident that crumpled the 20-year-old’s red Honda Civic and killed him instantaneously. At the time of Moore’s accident, which happened in the early hours of a Sunday morning in April 2013, a small group of racers and onlookers were on site. Friends and family say Moore had gone to try and sell his car. He spent the evening talking to other spectators, and possibly raced a few times. A little after 1 a.m., the Fayette County native attempted to make a U-turn on the dark street, not seeing in time the group of muscle cars that barreled towards him at 100 miles an hour.
Ontario Brown, the driver of the Mustang that t-boned into Moore’s driver’s side door, remembers noticing two red lights in front of him prior to the crash and banking left. The next thing he remembers is sitting in his car, unsure of how he got there or why a bone was poking out of his wrist. A photo taken after the crash shows Moore’s car, illuminated by red ambulance lights, metal peeled back around a collapsed frame. Brown’s orange-red Mustang sits nearby, its hood jammed towards its windshield.
It wasn’t until half an hour later, as Brown was being transported away by a team of paramedics, that it hit him. He thought, “I really just hit some innocent dude.” The 22-year-old, who’d been street racing for years without incident, was in shock.
A handful of accidents over the past decade can be attributed to the races. Most non-critical, the result of what Yeager refers to as “young punks doing stupid crap.” But fatal accidents do happen. Almost exactly a year after Moore’s accident, a 19-year-old named Keleian Braden died during a race, on a narrow strip in East Memphis.
The infrequency of fatal drag racing accidents is outsized by the speed with which they happen, the drama augmented by the fact that there is usually a crowd, and people filming. As Michelle Smith, Jessie Moore’s mother, put it, “It can happen in a second,” she says. “A quick second. I wouldn’t wish this pain on anyone.”
The next and last time I went t o the street races, on a Saturday night when there were more people out, I saw a bike almost clip another bike. A Suzuki had been racing and was returning to the start line, where another bike moved at the wrong time. It was a close call. “That would have been it right there,” commented a man near to me.
I’d watched the race grow from a couple kids on bikes to a full-blown event. Before the cops arrived, scattering us quickly, a Mustang club was racing, ten cars thick. People sat on the hoods of their vehicles, drinking Coronas and leaning forward as the racers sped away. The feeling was remarkably different from at the track, at once more exciting and more relaxed. I remembered what Yeager had said: “It’s a different atmosphere. It’s a whole different way of life.”
The whole street was blocked off; the sidewalk swarmed with people. It was cold and we all wore jackets. I chatted with a guy who said he’d come down just to watch for the past five years. His car was a cheap Honda, nothing to write home about. “I don’t really go to the club,” he shrugged. “I do this.”
I thought about what he’d said minutes later, while I was ducking and running from the blue lights, hoping that this wasn’t one of the nights the police wanted to tow cars. There’s a lot of different kinds of fun in the world: You can go to the club, or you can do this.
If death is in the room,” said the writer George Saunders — talking about fiction, though he easily could have been talking about racing — “it is pretty interesting.” The allure of the sport exists in equal proportion to its hazards.
Ontario Brown, the driver of the Mustang that t-boned into Moore’s driver’s side door, no longer has a license. He never went to trial for the vehicular homicide of Jessie Moore, but he will have the felony on his record for life. “Everybody goes in and they think, ‘Yeah, yeah, that could be dangerous,’” Brown says. “It’s not always about you. Sometimes it is about the next person driving.”
Brown served several months in jail and is currently on probation. He is in school now, studying medical administration. He may one day be on the other side of the fence, working in a hospital when some kid comes in battered from a car accident.
He got lucky. And he hasn’t lost his love of cars.
“I’m not gonna sit here and lie,” Brown says. “I’m still gonna race at the track. It’s been a passion for me since I was a little kid, and it’s going to continue to be my passion probably ’til I’m gone.
“It’s just something that’s born in you,” he says. “It’s in you.”