This almost-comically overwritten attempt at hanging out with boy racers (and “chick racers”) was commissioned by a magazine about some 15 or 16 years ago…maybe a bit longer. I can’t quite remember. What I do remember is I was in a car with the man known as Blink – then a photographer, and ever since a gig-organiser, publican, indie figurehead…we talked about this when I had Blink in for the podcast. And I’ve since done a dig in the ‘files’, found it, resisted the urge to ‘clean it up in any way’ and decided to (re)publish and be damned. This was an early experiment in desperate-to-be-Gonzo feature writing. One that didn’t work out and that I never returned to.
There’s a new club in Wellington. Friday night – I’m keen. Meet at 11.30 I’m told. We’ll head out soon after. I love secrets. Prepare myself with a beer or two and then wait to be picked up. Soon after 11.30 we take off, a couple of laps of the city, scope the town in general, it’s busy, midnight madness is about to erupt, the sky is blue/black like Superman’s hair and there are cars everywhere, and people wandering – drunk, or wanting to be – down Courtney Place. I can’t see this ‘new’ club, it’ll be good to do something different, go somewhere different, meet some new people – see what others do, you know…
Before midnight we’re driving around Cambridge Terrace/Kent Terrace and the Basin Reserve area, there are flocks of cars lining those streets. Boy-Racers, as they’re termed (both affectionately, within their own group – and derogatorily, from the outside). Boy-Racers and, I guess Girl-Racers (though someone tells me they’re referred to in-house as ‘Chick-Racers’) anyway there’s about an 80/20 distribution of male/female.
We circle again, notice what is dubbed the “first casualty” of the evening. A car rolls forward into another at the bottom of Courtney Place, at the lights, it’s a low-impact crash but leaves a hell of a mess. They’re not on their way to check out the new club, they were perhaps just leaving some of the old ones. We leave the central city at this point and head out to the Meeting Point, this new club, you see, is mobile.
We’re early to a meeting of The Midnight Motor Racers, 11.49PM – the stipulated time is, obviously enough, midnight. Even so, there’s about 20 cars already, parked but there’s plenty of life left in a lot of the engines, within five minutes the congregation has easily doubled in size. A further five minutes and the swarm arrives: 80-100 cars, each carrying at least two people. We revved our engines and took place in the queue – no different to lining up outside any other club I figured, as seconds later the traffic slowed to a crawl – on the motorway and heading away from Wellington. No bouncers in this club, no ID required to get in – driver’s license assumed – but there’s no stress at being 20, 18, or 16, presuming the drinking age is lowered further as pub-owners’ expectations are further raised.
12.17AM arrive in Petone. First stop (outside The Meeting Point) and a brief “doughnut session” ensues. The cars arrive, mostly slow, single file, as if a funeral procession, forming a large circle, some lights stay on, some switch to park, others are snapped off abruptly. One at a time, with a random precision, cars enter the ring and spin wildly, “pulling doughnuts”, I am told. I nod. There’s no pattern to say who will enter and when, but there’s no confusion. Organised chaos, I’m inclined to say. It’s a brief session, lasting less than five minutes, whether someone smelled a rat? – amidst the warm burn of rubber I can’t smell a thing – so maybe boredom was already seeping in. One thing that was seeping in was the atmosphere: a warm soup fills the air, a thick black film of grit begins, already, to soak into my skin. There are no questions asked by anyone else, therefore no ones to answer any of mine. Buckle the belts again, we’re off.
At 12.35AM I make a note that a plain-clothes cop in a mufti car has pulled a car over en route to the next unspoken location. He’s one of ours, I can tell – the car pulled over that is, not the plain-clothes cop.
The next part of the trip has been referred to as The Race, misleading in the sense that nobody speeds. I haven’t read the Road Code since that nervous time near School Certificate exams, but if my memory serves me well I can vouch from that knowledge that most, if not all, road-rules are keenly observed. Speed limits for certain are adhered to. Open road, so it’s 100km/h and The Race refers more to the single file of cars following, searching, the next locale. Some soldiers are lost along the way, most seem to stick in however, the pace – as already suggested, is not brisk.
We’re in Porirua, or thereabouts (that’s all I can say) when the race ends. We turn a corner, find the pack. Sleeves of vehicles lie straight down either side of the street’s arms. Flanked by 30-odd cars on either side, each vehicle slowly chugs up the middle, like those awful school-social folk dances, man and machine (as it’s predominantly male) are melded, ready. Part of the ceremony seems to be this drive throught the friendly gauntlet; friendly in the sense that all assembled are here for the same thing. I don’t see too many inter-car-conversations, most keep within their own group, to the point of staying inside the car, even when parked. We make our way through the parked cars and, find a spot for ourselves eventually, merge with the head. It appears as though drag-strip races are the order of the day, the prize at the end of the race for all those that have accurately treasure-hunted their way along the telltale trail. But this rainbow-ride’s pot of gold is short-lived, before anything is confirmed, before I can be sure that racing of any kind has the potential to place a police car arrives. I know now why most stay in their car, the arrival of the swimming red siren is greeted like a dose of the flu, essentially it’s a deterrent to planned events. And like flu symptoms, the treatment for this seems also contagious – we flee. Cars amble, no race – around corners, up cul-de-sacs, down hills, all looking for an original place to hide and spy, inevitably forming clusters and sub-groups within the pack gang.
Three minutes go by, as I spend all of them counting the three minutes that eventually tick up in total. It seems as though all the cars are – at this point – being piloted by a Curious George, fronts of vehicles peek eager back round the same corners, down from cul-de-sacs or up from hills. All manner of cars are present: from the more typical of this stock (CRX) to the less likely Vitara shape – or Urban Assault Vehicle, or Remuera Bus as they’ve come to be known…all involved, no feeling of insecurity – comfort within such surroundings.
On our way down the hill, away from intended action we’re caught in a long mobile suspect-lineup. The red siren signals in tandem, an extra police car parked up waiting. We are filed through slowly, some cars are holding ground on the road’s side; anxious looks splash across some of the drivers’ faces. Not fully licensed? This is the smug summation from within our car. Every car is checked: license, warrant, registration. The policeman speaks these words as if introduction to his character, and, for all purposes it is. That, in this case, is his name – it’s what he’s there for. And legally, it’s all they can do; they’ve witnessed nothing. Whether anything is suspected is irrelevant – all that can be done is the laboured line of routine that the police are enforcing. From this random stop/check I can guess that with the roadside waiting tactics forced on some of the younger, not-quite-fully-qualified-drivers, certain quotas will be filled. It seems likely that one or two arrests, on these grounds, at least – will be made. Fallen angels. Clipped wings. The police in this area have essentially done all they can do – that being, their job.
It was 1AM when our ships first docked in this area. Now it’s closer to 2 o’clock, wading through a river of casual interrogation has taken its toll – an hour is missing and, more concerning, we’re hungry. Trusty service-station stop is all part of it: a pie and a coke and while our driver doesn’t exactly want to admit that we’ve fallen of the trail, being in the second half of the police check, I notice two other cars filled with likely contenders. They’re lost too and even more loath to admit it.
“You lost?” one racer asks. My reply is a muffled “first time”. Before anything else can be added, we subtract ourselves from the equation, our car revs flat on the forecourt and, again, we’re off. Travelling not a lot further, we find The Area. Not many got lost, or if they did, a road-smell bought them back; like anything in the wild, you smell your own…and whilst the aroma is not yet toxic, a re-entry to the doughnut spins suggests the air will darken and thicken once again.
We’re parked, following the cue of many others, watching, as cars take turns again, this time entering on to a raised turf mound. It’s soon apparent that there’s a main course to be served after this repeat appetizer: one-on-one drag races. Finally.
There’s a light in the middle indicating racers to ready: two by two cars enter this arc. There’s a flag-drop, but falling short of cliché there’s no Daisy-Duke-type character in the middle, just, as I am told by one onlooker, “the organiser”.
At least one or two and maybe several of the assorted cars, again lined up as spectators, contains a police-scanner. “That way”, or so the explanation has it, “they can’t catch us. They [the police] can’t do anything if they don’t see it”. No conviction without evidence.
I’m certainly glad that someone, outside of the car, has started talking to me. In-between races, some cars are plodding their way back, mad, wounded bulls. Others prance, show-pony-like; the winners. But there’s no malice, no ill feeling, no contempt for competitors, all is fair and even between those that step up to the plate.
Being not entirely cut out for this, it was spectacular foresight that just as I began to tire of, the tyres, as it were; it seemed some of the other bystanders did too. One car slid forward, a crocodile re-entering the water from riverbed, spectator becomes performer. Tyres screeching, whistling, humming, the road solid beneath as the spin increased. The air became black, the clouds seemed lapsed against time, taking turns to move both faster and slower than the air would seem to comply with – and the crowd of enthusiasts began to rave and cheer and scream more and more…I checked to see they weren’t selling hotdogs.
The smell of burnt, worn rubber permeated the soft corners of the early morning. “The most familiar smell this side of Ma Higgins’ cookies”, I said to someone not listening, clearly wrapped up in a blanket or warm tyre rubber.
All I can picture, as the car circled endlessly, chasing itself in a race that can’t be won, is the drum solo Ringo Starr used to perform in Hamburg at early Beatles gigs. The car is spinning still and my head is picturing Ringo’s sticks pounding the snare drum; one at a time, faster, faster, rolling with a train-like efficiency. Finally, when it seems he can’t hit any quicker, or louder, his foot bites down on the bass pedal while his left hand lunges up to whack a cymbal: BANG! In this case, with the car, the cymbal crash is a tyre blowing. Sparks, like concert floodlights, snap, crackle and pop from beneath the chassis; the crowd worked to near frenzy, reveling the delight of this tyre blowing. Am I supposed to think this is a good thing? This tyre popping? To all else gathered, it certainly is! I join the claps and cheers. In the context, being there, seeing it happen in this time and place, it had all the importance and skill of a good conversion kick; a buzzer-beating basketball shot; the winning goal; a master-stroke of arm in pool, pen on paper or brush on canvas; we indeed were being shown THE MONEY!
And the money involved? $200 for a new tyre no doubt, but all in a night’s entertainment. And it is, in that sense both entertainment and sport – as ridiculous yet vital, and skilful as Professional Wrestling. Certainly, as I start to talk more and more to some of the regulars, it’s apparent that this club – The Midnight Motor Racers – is taken very seriously. They enjoy what they do. Car enthusiasts, Petrol-Heads, Boy-Racers, call them what you will – to them, they’re essentially doing what a sportsperson does in the off-season, whether it be Rugby players changing to Touch, Cricketers moving in-door or land-locked surfers having a bit of practice/fun at the skateboard bowl. It’s both serious and fun. It is – for many of them – a sport, a hobby and a way of life.
The concern of course, regarding police-involvement and citizens complaints, is over noise, pollution and road damage, and most threatening, the hazard to other motorists and dangers to the drivers and spectators.
I’ve been told several different stories about the Midnight Motor Racers, not all can be confirmed. One fable has it put that on Thursdays a “doughnut workshop” is available for those struggling to learn that most ardent boy-racer test of skill and flare. Different accounts have suggested that this happens every night, others have suggested weekends only, some say only Fridays. But I am told for sure, on the night in question, by one avid racer, that this has been happening on and off for a year at least. And the police have done nothing more than make their presence known (as was the case earlier in this evening). And there have been no injuries, accidents or problems.
Targeted sites are always industrial areas, they’re not, obviously, racing down the main highway. It’s a passion that persists within the hearts and minds of many. It was hard to get a full head-count, but up to 200 cars get involved. It’s evident that this, to many, is the week’s highlight.
And I think back to the first doughnut session of the evening; a large circle with cars upping the ante on each entry. There’s no fundamental difference between this and a musician’s Jam Night.
I’m getting overly sentimental, the smell of oil, rubber and warm, rich road-roast has fuddled my brain. I am excited. I have been well entertained. I’ve spent no money (except for the pie and coke) and this is Friday night. Any other club would’ve cost, conservatively, a hell of a lot more, to keep my interest for three hours. It’s time though, to walk away.
3AM we buckle back in and head out for home. Our driver, inspired by the evening’s frenzy, takes us on our own little doughnut spin, figure eights, before we leave. The car’s tyres are working hard against the gravel, we’re spinning viciously, yet controlled. I can feel myself working hard to stay balanced, safe all the while however, never in fear. We leave the scene of the…crime? No, no crime tonight. The only car crash witnessed was in town earlier, a frustrated motorist at city lights. No release, maybe if he’d “joined the club”, so to speak, he’d have avoided the oft-sited urban road rage.
3.12AM we’ve noticed other cars of our kind on the road, we can safely assume that the events of this evening have ceased, whether forced or volunteered, we remain unsure. A trip back to the earlier planned location, scene of the police stop, shows other vehicles perusing the site, scanning – no action. We hit the motorway towards the city.
3.16AM notice driving through a suburb, that a police car has pulled a vehicle over. The vehicle itself seems to slyly wink at us as we sift past. Like the members of Fight Club, we know and they know and that’s how it is, you get the feeling no one stops and talks about this in the street. It just happens week after week. And whether it happens again next week, or for weeks after, every night, or just some nights, it’s not certain.
3.46AM I crawl through my bedroom window – forgot the keys again. Four hours’ free entertainment, all new to me. And was it a rush? Just like the sound of the engine as it revs, pulses, hums, and purrs, so too will I, in my sleep. Fun, fast, furious. This was my introduction to a new club, one I didn’t know about, but one I am already tempted to visit again. If, and when…