Boys Under the Hood

What makes fast-car enthusiasts furious? Cops, speed limits, and punk kids with loud mufflers and no brains.

No, no, Team Toyota balks, knowing full well the advantages of a quick blast out of the hole. "We're from the island," a friend of the Toyota owner jokes with Archibald. "We only do dead-stop starts."

Archibald gives up; the match seems doomed. The energy in the air tonight, however, is irrepressible. Word soon goes out that a challenger has been found. A Mustang is on its way.

News that the Ford would take on the Toyota reinvigorates the crowd milling around the Tower lot. At 1 a.m., rumors about the Mustang begin circulating: It will be brought in by trailer. No, two of them will be trailered in. They aren't street legal, so they can't be driven there. The delay is due to the Mustang owner sending a "spy" to look at the Toyota, talk to its owner, get a feel for the machine.

Marlon Gurley stands between his two beauties as would-be challengers arrive at Miami Subs
Colby Katz
Marlon Gurley stands between his two beauties as would-be challengers arrive at Miami Subs
A growing number of street racers and speed freaks flock in and out of Miami Subs in Davie late on Saturday nights
Colby Katz
A growing number of street racers and speed freaks flock in and out of Miami Subs in Davie late on Saturday nights

Then, in a flash, carus interruptus: At 1:15, Davie police in squad cars descend upon the parking lot. "Everybody out -- now!" yells one cop. "We have power of attorney for the shopping center. If you don't leave right now, you'll be arrested."

The synchronized ignition of engines must be audible for miles. Scores of cars snake out of the lot. They hit the road and head home -- or to another lot in a neighborhood near you.

Stop at any busy intersection in South Florida, it would seem, and you're beside an import car whose owner has ambitions of bad. You glance over, and he catches the fleeting motion of your head. He revs his engine, sets his jaw. Be heartened that many of them, to paraphrase one serious racer, are just kids with bad mufflers. There's a good chance they don't have anything under the hood that God didn't give them at the factory -- though that alone can be formidable. Still, it's hard to be sure, because the lust for modifying compact import cars for speed and looks has grown steadily in the Sunshine State. New cars show up weekly. They hang out in the parking lots of the countless shopping centers and megastores that dot the western suburbs. The local cops roust them; they scramble to the streets; a short time later, they've reconvened at a synonymous lot a few miles away. Repeat again. Possibly again.

For the sake of categorization, call them the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The Good are the head turners: show cars that bounce and hiss on compressed-air suspension, sporting $6,000 paint jobs and filled with electronic toys. By the estimate of one longtime South Florida car buff, about 1,000 of these high-end beauties cruise the tri-county area.

The Bad slip their big money under the hood, sometimes spending thousands of dollars to drop their quarter-mile drag time by one second. Their cars might have a few exterior flourishes, but their pride comes from blowing the doors off the next guy. The serious contenders -- say, those who can cover a quarter-mile in under 13 seconds -- number relatively few.

You've undoubtedly seen the Ugly: the 16-year-olds with loud mufflers and no common sense. Sound and fury, signifying nothing -- they annoy the serious buffs, draw police like flies to roadkill, and menace the driving public.

While the aficionados make such distinctions, most police officers don't. They see instead the dozen or so deaths the Florida Highway Patrol attributes to drag racing during the past three years in South Florida. Davie police are especially apprehensive after the racing-related deaths of three motorists on Stirling Road two years ago. Although the logic seems convoluted, police in almost every municipality routinely eject parked car buffs onto the streets in the name of public safety.

This itinerant lifestyle is a constant source of bitching for the import devotees. After a squad car orders about 50 people into the Davie Miami Subs on a late Saturday night, the topic gets another work over. "Just give us a place to race," says 41-year-old Petrov, who shaves his head and is wearing a red muscle shirt and thick gold necklace. "If they don't want us to race, the county should build a place for us to go."

Aren't the police creating a greater hazard, posits Gurley, by chasing everyone out onto the streets? "We're here instead of partying, drinking, taking drugs. It's a hobby. It's about the people as much as the cars."

Indeed, most of the evenings are spent chatting, flirting, talking trash, greeting new arrivals, and discussing tips for squeezing out a few extra horses. And then there's the speed. A week later -- same place, same late hour -- Gurley, who owns Perfection Automotive in Hollywood, approaches. "I'll show you why we do this," he says beside his RX-7. Beneath the hood lies a 1.3-liter turbocharged rotary engine. The interior is stripped of nonessentials to reduce weight. He crawls in, and the motor rumbles as he backs the car out. He talks via walkie-talkie with several compatriots following him. The suspension is jarring: If you close your eyes, you can imagine riding in an old quarter-ton pickup. It's a deceiving notion. Gurley turns onto an approach to I-595 while his friends follow abreast in the lanes behind him, blocking any interlopers. Rolling ever so slowly, he floors the RX-7, which jerks to attention; nevertheless, the initial thrust is nothing compared to the turbo kick, which comes a second and a half later. There's a Star Trek warp-drive sensation, and the street lights are blurred stars. He must be nearing 100 mph before pulling back, but it's hard to tell; the gauges seem distorted too.

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