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Burning Rubber

The Noise of Summer: Puerto Rican Racing and the Cult of Toyota

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The drag races won't begin until midnight, but by 11 the kids are out at the car wash on North Avenue, scrubbing their Toyotas and gunning their engines.

It is an unusually cool and breezy night for summer, so Bill, a former drag racer himself, wears a long-sleeved white knit sweater. Alongside him stand his girlfriend and a scraggly crew of first-time observers that includes, of all things, a yuppie from Uptown and a Puerto Rican social worker from the University of Chicago.

"They're cleaning the cars for the main event," explains Bill, eyeing the drivers--all of them Puerto Rican. "It's part of the routine. They come here every weekend."

I've been coming here for almost ten years myself, Bill says. The cars have changed. Before, they used to drive Chevys, bigger cars, even long before I started to come. But now it's all Toyotas--the cult of the Toyotas. Just look around.

And sure enough, Toyotas, in all shapes and sizes, are all you see. There are four-doors and two-doors, Celicas and Corollas. Some that sputter and spurt, others that cruise in swiftly, their engines a fine-tuned whine.

They used to drag race on Elston or Clybourn, says Bill. Those are perfect for racing. They're long straightaways that cut through industrial zones of warehouses and factories, all but deserted on weekend nights.

But the authorities caught on. Now, every Friday and Saturday night during the summer, the cops turn on the fire hydrants along these streets. That keeps them wet, and too slippery and dangerous for dragging. But the racers got smart. They scouted out new straightaways in hidden spots across the city.

Come on, says Bill, let's meet the drivers. He approaches, then exchanges soul handshakes with a group of young people--so clean-cut they could be church choir members--in their late teens and early 20s. Most of them wear white T-shirts that bear the emblem: "Performance Corolla Engineering Club."

"Why the Toyotas?" asks the yuppie.

"They're fast, they're light," says Efrain, a skinny guy with an easy smile. "And they don't take much gas. That's important. 'Cause gas is expensive on the island."

"What island?"

"Puerto Rico," says Tony. Unlike the others, he wears a white dress shirt.

You see, Tony explains, everything they do in Puerto Rico is replicated on a much smaller scale here on the streets of the near west side.

Here we race on weekends; in Puerto Rico it's every day. Here the racing season lasts a summer; there it goes on all year round. Later tonight, dozens of people, maybe even hundreds, will come out to watch us. But on the island, there are always thousands of spectators.

"Racing's the main thing they got over there, and we're just carrying it on over here."

Tony speaks with passion and authority, and the circle of onlookers, which has grown to a dozen, listens with respect. For Tony returned only last week from Puerto Rico, bearing with him a wealth of tips on car care. Tips many of the members of the Performance Corolla Engineering Club have already tried to put into practice.

Here, many people will race, Tony continues, but ours is the only organized club.

"Yeah," cuts in Efrain, "we've had meetings every Sunday for two years now. We even had a convoy in the Puerto Rican parade."

"In Puerto Rico," says Tony, ignoring the interruption, "there are many clubs."

They fall quiet and stare as several cars pass though the car wash.

"Why do you clean the cars so much?" asks the yuppie.

Because we have pride in our possessions, Tony answers. We work hard. Many of us work at factories and live at home with our folks. We save our money for these cars--we want to make them shine.

"And the cars are even cleaner in Puerto Rico," says Efrain. "In Puerto Rico they clean their cars every day."

"Every day?" exclaims the yuppie.

"That's right," says Tony, not to be topped. "In Puerto Rico, there is no rust."

The listeners are impressed.

"Why, in Puerto Rico they take the tires off the rims before they clean the cars," Tony continues.

"You're kidding," says the yuppie.

"Nope," Tony replies. He points to a skinny man in a blue shirt who hoses down a green Toyota.

"What that guy's doing is nothing. Over there, the car washes have lifts so you can wash the bottom of your car. They even paint the bottoms of their cars.

"Here, they only use a rag to wipe the hubcaps. There, they use little brushes, like toothbrushes, to scrub the hubcaps. They'll take two to three hours on a pair of hubcaps."

"I've tried that here," says Efrain, "and people think I'm crazy."

"They have contests there with judges who wear white gloves," continues Tony. "The judges pass their hands under the fender, and if any dirt appears on the glove you are disqualified."

The group solemnly nods.

"We're thinking about having judges like that over here," Efrain adds.

One kid, driving a beat-up Corolla--one of the few less-than-immaculately kept cars in the lot--is baring his chest, so to speak. He's got his feet, at the same time, on the accelerator and the brake, pushing both to the floor. The spinning tires emit a loud screech, the pungent odor of burning rubber, and a thick cloud of smoke.

"Kid stuff," an onlooker mutters.

"But hey, it's dangerous kid stuff," adds his friend. "If you don't know what you're doing, you could kill someone. I saw this one guy once--a rookie--he got scared when he saw the smoke coming from his tires. He choked, man. He took his foot off of the brake and the car shot forward. He almost killed an old lady."

He shakes his head. "He hasn't drag raced since."

Across the parking lot, taking it all in, stands Edwin, his girlfriend at his side. He wears a sleeveless camouflage army T-shirt, and a cap that replicates the Puerto Rican flag. They lean on his freshly scrubbed Toyota, which glistens under the white glare of the streetlight.

"These kids," he says with some derision aimed at the club members, "they talk a lot. But they won't take the time from the beginning to fix their cars right. So they end up blowing their engines. I saw a Mazda racing once. The engine blew up and it caught fire. The driver was lucky I always carry an extinguisher."

"But how can that be?" asks the yuppie. "They spend hours on their car."

"That's right," adds the social worker, "they practically clean the hubcaps with toothbrushes."

Edwin stares hard, and speaks slowly, choosing his words with precision. Unlike these kids, he says, he did not begin his preparation a few hours before midnight. No, his work began early in the day. That's when he started tuning the engine, tightening the bolts, changing the plugs. And still--ever the perfectionist--he will not drag race. At least, not tonight.

"It's not ready," he says of his car, leaving it at that.

"What kind of car is it?" asks the yuppie, noticing that the brand name has been removed from the back.

Edwin smiles.

"My Corolla has so many accessories that people on the street think it's a Porsche."

He gets serious.

"In Puerto Rico, it's easy to find the finest accessories. Normal Toyota parts aren't good enough. They aren't fast; they aren't cool."

So, you have to get parts--steering wheels, hubcaps, spoilers--from Puerto Rico.

"You mean," says the yuppie, straining to understand, "you get your parts for a car made in Japan from some guy in Puerto Rico?"

Edwin nods. He has to, he has no choice. In Chicago, only Rodriguez--who runs an auto parts store somewhere on North Avenue--sells parts that come from the island.

"But Rodriguez charges too much for his parts," says Edwin. "It can cost you $5,000 to $6,000 to outfit your car."

So Edwin, fed up with the high prices and long waits, has a plan. He'll move back to the island, where the accessories are abundant and you can parade and race your car every day all year round.

By now the crowd has doubled. There must be at least 50 cars, most of them Toyotas, at the car wash. And they arrive with much flourish, screeching to a halt. The pavement shines with a thin layer of oily water.

From the distance comes a sound like a thumping bass guitar, growing steadily louder. The club members turn toward the sound in time to see a streak of red dash in from the street and screech to a halt just a few inches away from another car. The word "Alpine" in big white letters becomes clear on the windshield.

It is Johnny, the champion, in his 1986 Toyota twin-cam Corolla. He hops from his car and slaps the hands of his friends. He's a slim man, with a thin mustache. His hair is cropped short except for his rattail--a thin strand of hair that hangs over the collar of his white racing jacket.

"This car was shown at the auto show," says Eddie, a wiry youth with a Frank Zappa mustache. "It's the best in the neighborhood."

Johnny blushes, feigning modesty, while his friend displays the features that have made the car a local legend.

"It's got two Sherwood amps, 150-watt Pioneers. It will win every stereo contest."

"Stereo contest?" says the yuppie.

"Yeah, that's right," Eddie continues. "They have this contest to see which is the best stereo. You know, which stereo has the loudest, clearest sound. They check the bass. Here, you check it out."

He leans into Johnny's car and turns the volume of the radio even higher until the whole parking lot rocks to the thumping of the disco beat.

"That's cool," says the yuppie, thinking to himself, oh, this obnoxious blare sounds just like the racket my next-door neighbor, the hillbilly, makes under my window on weekend nights.

"Damn right, it's cool" says Eddie. "Now check this out." He pushes a button and the headlights on the front pop up.

"Flip-up headlights." He smiles. Johnny shrugs.

"Now watch this," Eddie continues. And he takes the yuppie to the side of the car and points to the red fins that run the length of the body just below the doors.

"Spoilers, man. They cost $800. Johnny got them from Puerto Rico."

The yuppie is overcome with confusion. "But why?" he asks.

"What do you mean, why?"

"I mean, do they make the car move faster, do they save on gas or something?"

"No, man, it's style. They're sharp; they're fast. Man, let me tell you, it's sharp. You see, it's like your woman, you want her to look cool, right? Well, you want your car to look cool, too. And you got to admit, this car does look cool.

"It's got an Alpine alarm system. Top of the line. The very best. No one's gonna steal it."

The yuppie smiles. "Impressive," he says, thinking to himself, oh, that's one of those goddamn alarms: you breathe on it, and it wails for four minutes.

"Hey, Johnny," yells Eddie. "Come on, it's time to go."

And as though some unheard whistle has sounded, the fellows bound to their cars, rushing in a steady stream onto North Avenue. The races are about to begin.

The yuppie and the social worker proudly climb into their own Toyota, which until this moment had seemed like little more than a necessary nuisance.

You know, the yuppie thinks to himself, I could fix this thing up. Pound out the dents and clean up the trash in the back. Then, I bet, I could sell it to one of these kids. It might even win one of their awards.

He steers the car into a long line--a convoy, actually--of Toyotas that winds its way through the Humboldt Park community, past some boarded-up buildings and vacant lots.

The social worker shakes his head.

"My people," says the social worker. "If they took all of the time, money, and energy they pump into these cars and poured it into this neighborhood, my God, it would change overnight."

The convoy turns right onto Chicago Avenue, passing Pulaski, when the crowd comes into view. At first, it seems more like a coincidence, as though a group of cars had broken down along the shoulder of the road. But it's obvious this crowd is no coincidence. There are hundreds of cars filled with men, women, and children of all ages.

"Oh, no," shrieks the yuppie, "we're right in the middle of it."

And sure enough, they have followed the convoy into what amounts to a prerace parade. Their dented, unwashed, baby blue Toyota, its muffler badly needing repairs, sputtering between two shiny hot rods.

"Oh no," says the yuppie, "this guy behind me is right on my tail."

On both sides of the road the throng cheers. Loud music, disco and salsa, rocks from portable radios, and the convoy--the yuppie's Toyota included--turns left onto a side street that leads into an industrial park.

Whoosh--the sound of steam explodes from one of two giant incinerators that tower over the complex. It roars like a jet plane taking off, erasing the music and honking horns. But as the steam recedes, the sounds filter back. Only this time they're even louder.

The convoy has wound its way through the industrial complex onto a straightaway blacktop that cuts into a wasteland of overgrown shrubbery. On either side of the road yet another throng--also cheering, their radios blasting--awaits. The Toyotas drive about 100 yards past the crowd, make a U-turn, and return to the start of the road, where the races will commence.

But suddenly, without warning, a blue-and-white Dodge slowly makes its way east along Chicago Avenue.

"Cops," someone shouts.

And within a flash, the orderly line disperses, and the parade is disrupted. People hop into their cars, starting their engines all at once. Cars twist and turn off the side of the road. Everywhere there is the sound of peeling rubber, shouts, and honking horns. And then, another explosion of steam bursts from the incinerators, as if to accent the madness.

The yuppie clutches his steering wheel, his face less than a foot away from the windshield. Cars swerve in and out all around him, retreating haphazardly from the single police car. And then, on the side of the road, the yuppie sees Bill, his arms waving.

"Where we going?" pleads the yuppie.

"South side, man," says Bill. "Follow me."

They fall into line, and the social worker settles back into his seat.

"You know," he says with pride, "those kids are really law-abiding. I mean, one cop comes, and look. They take off. Maybe this cult of the Toyota isn't so bad after all."

The traffic cuts south on Pulaski, pushing past Orr High School and into the devastated, all-black neighborhoods of the west side. Drunks on the corner, bottles of whiskey in their hands, stare in utter amazement as first one, then two, three, four, then countless more Toyotas pour past.

The convoy rushes past 11th Street, turns right on Roosevelt Road, and crosses several blocks west. And there, on an abandoned street corner, is another industrial park, with yet another clear, unobstructed, straightaway blacktop perfect for racing.

The yuppie sees the corner and immediately recognizes several familiar faces. There is Eddie, and Tony, and most of the Corolla Performance Engineering Club. They smile, wave their hands, and the yuppie, proud of his driving prowess, sits a little taller in his seat. All of them are survivors.

But the long trek has taken its toll. The convoy has dwindled to less than 50 of the hardest-core racers and their fans.

Once again the spectators take their place along the roadside, forming a gauntlet. They turn their radios up and kids break-dance on the corners, anxiously awaiting the moment that so far has eluded them.

The festivities begin with motorcyclists popping wheelies, as the crowd oohs and ahs in appreciation. And then suddenly Johnny, his car a blur of red in the night, returns. The crowd cheers. But Johnny slows his car, completes a U-turn, and then neatly parallel parks at the curb.

"I'm not racing in this car," he says. "No way. Man, I'll bet most of these guys don't even have insurance."

At long last, the time has arrived for the main event. A drag race: a yellow Corolla versus a black Tercel.

They approach the starting line, where a youth, thin like a reed, stands between them, barking out instructions. He throws his hands into the air, the car engines rev, and off they zoom.

The Tercel draws the early lead, but after 20 yards the Corolla, its engine roaring, moves into first. Together the cars zip past the line of spectators and complete their race another 50 yards or so away, unnoticed.

And so it goes, a blur of passing cars--red, yellow, white, and blue. The crowd cheers, talks of bets, but ultimately never knows who won the race. There seems to be no designated finish line.

Meanwhile, a black Mazda--the words El Jibaro ("the hillbilly") carefully painted on its side--has crept up just behind the starting line. It stops, and the driver, a muscular youth, gets out and crawls beneath the body. He unscrews the muffler and hops back in.

Then he turns on his engine and presses hard against the brake and accelerator, emitting a great cloud of smelly smoke and a sound that can only be described as a loud, never-ending, mechanical fart.

"My God," exclaims Bill, beside himself, "this is gonna be great."

El Jibaro drives up the street, turns, and comes back to the starting line to confront a yellow Celica with a souped-up engine.

Two black kids on bicycles exchange high-fives and, in their excitement, jump off their bikes. The crowd surges forward, laughing at the strange sounds coming from El Jibaro's exhaust.

"Watch my hands," the judge is shouting, the rest of his words lost in the rumble.

He raises his hands, and then drops them, while the crowd breaks into a boisterous cheer.

The cars are racing, raising an unbearable medley of noise, but no one is watching. A police car--perhaps the same one that disrupted the proceedings on Chicago Avenue--has come into view. It moves silently and slowly, with a steady sense of purpose. Its mere presence stirs confusion.

"The cops, the cops."

People rush to their cars and speed off. Somewhere in the distance, the racers stop. They U-turn, and sprint out of the industrial park.

Even the two black kids--who could not be accused of anything but watching--hop on their bikes in near panic.

"Let's get out of here," one yells.

"But why?" asks the yuppie.

"Cops, man," the kid shrieks, as though the answer is obvious. He pops a wheelie, and then heads out.

Within a minute nearly every car has vanished. The police turn at the end of the road and--still moving slowly--head back to Roosevelt.

"Excuse me, officer," says the yuppie, approaching the squad car. "Officer?"

Two police--a man and a woman--sit in the car. Both are young; both smile shyly.

"Excuse me, officers," repeats the yuppie. "But I just want to know. I mean, can you tell me why it is that these people do this?"

The cops shrug.

"I mean, they hardly get time to race."

The male cop smiles.

"You got me why they do it," he offers. "They just do it. Every Friday and Saturday night. We know their pattern. And they always run when they see us coming. I guess there's no other way to spend a weekend night than burning a little rubber."

His partner--the woman--smiles, rolls up the window, and they pull off, leaving the industrial street deserted and silent.

The only sound is the gentle whistle of the wind blowing through the trees.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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