The fast and the conspicuous

11 October 2010

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

Two vehicles line-up at a street light. The light turns green and they take off as fast as they know how.

Illegal street racing has been going on ever since the first cars rolled off the production line. Over the years, speeds have increased and so has the technology. The first production car had a top speed of 64–72 km/h, while the fastest recorded speed for a modern production car is 431.072 km/h.

It’s easy to see how people are able to accept the notion that street racing does not hurt anyone when everything they see in movies seems to confirm it. Videos of illegal street races are downloaded off the web, fuelling the desires of those unable to see the dangers in it. YouTube currently lists over 323,000 videos on street racing, with the most popular having had 7,953,706 views

‘Niko’ is a blustery and confident car enthusiast who stands 6’2″ with a quick wit and a sly smile. ‘Come on,’ he says. ‘Now the fun begins’.

‘If you aren’t scared, a car like this can easily scare you’, he says, a proud owner of a Nissan GT-R.

Niko’s car is a GT-R R33, also known as ‘Godzilla’, a shining example of stock bodywork. The obligatory set of racing wheels aside, there’s nothing that really hints at what it may be capable of. It’s only when you pop the bonnet that you find a pair of top-mounted turbochargers sitting aside an RB26 engine — a 2·6 litre V6 engine, with twin turbos. Even if you know nothing about engines, you instinctively nod and admire with respect.

‘It’s the best car in the world, when you want to have fun’ says Niko.

You might think that it would good for the occasional ride down to the supermarket, or around the city — until you start the ignition. It takes a couple of seconds while the injectors try to spray a bit of petrol into the cylinders, and then all of a sudden it happens, the engine catches and comes to life with a deep rip.

The thunderous sound of the exhaust fuses with the ear-piercing hiss and whine of the twin fuel pumps and you realise that there is absolutely no sound like it — deadening all other sounds. The idle quickly settles to around 1000 rpm, but constantly jerks, hunting up and down, wanting to pounce and maul the road in typical race car fashion.

Don’t not expect an immediate electrifying response. It takes awhile for the turbochargers to spool up. However, the sluggish response is soon forgotten once you hit 5,500-rpm, catapulting the car forward. Keep the accelerator pedal floored and what follows will leave you totally astonished.

In what seems like a split second, you hit 8,000-rpm as the turbos begin their demonic whistle, and the exhaust expels copious amounts of hot gasses. Shift into the next gear and the acceleration gives no sign of dying off, as it bellows and bruises the air around it.

There’s so much power available that the torque steers from all four wheels and virtually veers left and right as you desperately fight the steering wheel in an attempt to keep straight.

‘This is what high-power vehicles are all about’ says Niko, monster acceleration in every gear with equally impressive and relentless grip. Japanese engineers toil to make these cars carve corners.

Under Victoria’s anti-hoon laws, drivers exceeding the speed limit by more than 45km/h or engaging in dangerous driving behaviour will have their vehicle impounded for 48 hours. Hoon-related offences include burnouts, doughnuts, drag racing, and speeding.

Victoria police have impounded an average of 10 cars a day since the Victorian Government introduced hoon laws in June 2006. Deputy Commissioner Ken Lay said that the State’s police are now focusing even greater attention on hoons.

‘The fact that we have impounded 10,000 of these hoons [vehicles] shows that some people have just not got the message. Speed and dangerous driver behaviour kills, and it is time for everyone, not just some, to wake up and realise that,’ he says.

Back on the road, we arrive to the sound of screaming tyres. A group of cars fly through the intersection sideways in perfect synchronicity. When they hit the first set of lights, they all pull 180-degree turns and line up again waiting for the light to turn green. As soon as the light changes, the cars are off drifting back and forth down the street until they hit the corner for the last big power slide. All four corners are crowded with people watching and screaming as the cars come dangerously close to them.

The cars are gutted and loud, consumed in a tangle of exhaust smoke and screaming engines. They line up and do massive parallel burnouts, then line up again and launch. That seems to be the sign for the action to begin. The rest of the street—a semi-industrial neighbourhood in Melbourne’s northern suburbs — is filled with some of the wildest performance cars on the streets of Melbourne. BMW Z3s and Z4s, Mazda RX-7s and RX-8s, Audis, Holdens, Fords, Mitsubishis, and the occasional Porsche, though it is Japanese cars that dominate the landscape. The owners stand next to their cars, sizing-up their rivals, very masculine, very ‘mine is bigger than yours’.

Male drivers represent about 96 per cent of drivers caught hooning. First time offenders can have their vehicle impounded or immobilised for 48 hours. Second time offenders risk having their vehicle impounded for three months and third time offenders may lose their vehicle forever.

Once the street clears, two cars taxi into position the drivers occasionally turning their heads back to make sure no cars are coming from behind. According to Niko, the most popular form of racing is drag racing; it is the purest test of the sheer accelerative power of the machine. They start to burn their tyres, sending thick silver clouds of smoke into the crisp night sky. Each guns the accelerator and jumps the car up to an imaginary start line. The cars roar as tachos hover over red lines. ‘You are allowed to buy the cars, but not use them to their full potential’, says Niko in mock exasperation.

The revs drop sharply and then the cars thunder off. The noise splits the air with an ear-piercing howl as they go up the gear range and eventually out of sight doing over 200 km/h down a public road that is still carrying people home from a night out, or to work.

The sun is coming up. I’m exhausted, my ears are ringing and the high-octane fumes have stung my nose. This is street racing in Melbourne and no doubt, it will be here again next weekend. We call it a night; it is time to head home.

George Galanis is currently completing a Bachelor of Journalism at La Trobe University .