Inside Sydney's adrenalin-fueled world of illegal street racing
A slight nod of the head. A squint. Pursed lips. And it’s on. Engines growl, and the cars edge forward an inch, then two. Sweat beads and blood boils. Something burns inside. They can feel it. Then all they see is green.
What happens in the next 10 seconds is about more than just who has the most horsepower and better torque. This is the form of illegal street and drag racing that police fear most: hot-blooded drivers in an impromptu road duel. It is unorganised, begins in an instant, often ends in tragedy and is near impossible to stop.
Large-scale illegal street races organised online can be broken up, while legal drags are contained in relatively safe environments, according to the state’s top traffic cop, Superintendent John Hartley. But in the unorganized, particularly reckless breed of motor sport there are no rules, niceties or etiquette among drivers. The winner can be the first to reach top speed, the first to the next set of traffic lights or simply the first to walk away from a twisted pile of steel and glass wrapped around a power pole.
Losers are invariably the innocent unfortunates in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as Alan Howle, 71, and his wife of 50 years, Judith, 70, who were killed after being caught in the middle of an alleged drag race on the Great Western Highway.
‘‘This is high-risk, high-speed behaviour and every time there is a street race there is the chance that someone will be killed, whether that be the driver, a passenger or bystanders,’’ Hartley says.
It has been almost three years since Joanne Mourani, 20, and fiancé Robert Peov, 21, were killed in a high-speed race on Milperra Rd. For their families, time has not diminished the pain of knowing they died needlessly in a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
‘‘Every time I see an accident like this it gives me a chill,’’ cousin Charlene Samrani says of the crash that killed the Howels. ‘‘Don’t people learn? It either takes a lot for someone to realise how dangerous this type of behaviour can be . . . or they just don’t care about anyone else.’’
Joanne and Robert were just weeks away from their wedding day when Peov’s turbo-charged Nissan Skyline GT-R hit a power pole. It is believed Peov, who was on his green P-plates, swerved to avoid an oncoming 4WD while racing a silver car that was seen speeding from the crash site. The impact cut the Skyline in half, throwing debris in a 50m radius. Among it was scattered a UB40 CD, a boxing-glove trinket and deck of Uno cards — wild card facing up.
Samrani says Robert’s younger brother Chindi, who was in the back seat of the smashed car, came out of a coma remembering nothing from the accident. The driver of the silver car was never found.
‘‘The day it happened was the worst of my life. We got a phone call about 2am or 2.30am and when I went to see the car I just freaked out,’’ she says. ‘‘The worst is when you see her family thinking, ‘She should still be here with us’. They are struggling because they never got to say goodbye and all because of a stupid race. But over time with family and loved ones we’ve been able to keep it together.’’
Alan and Judith Howle’s seven children and 15 grandchildren will need each other to survive the grief that comes with losing loved ones to an alleged street race.
Two Holden Commodores heading west on the Great Western Highway at St Marys struck the couple’s Toyota Camry as it was turning right off the highway and into Charles Hackett Drive shortly after 6.30pm. The impact flung Alan Howle from the car, killing him instantly. Judith Howle died before she could be freed from the wreck.
Robert James Borkowski, 37, of Claremont Meadows, faced Central Local Court charged with two counts of dangerous driving occasioning death, one of negligent driving occasioning death and one of illegal street racing. Police allege Borkowski, a chicken delivery driver, was behind the wheel of the Holden Commodore. The case has been adjourned to Penrith Local Court. Police are yet to charge a second man allegedly involved in the incident.
The Howle family, who farewelled their loved ones at a funeral service at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church, have backed a campaign to jail street racers and for their cars to be taken away permanently, as current NSW street racing laws do not carry jail terms.
Hartley says it is almost impossible, however, to stop heat-of-the moment races, so they focus their operations on breaking up organised street meets and known hot spots.
‘‘While most of it is opportune, there is some organised street racing activity that is prepared or planned on websites,’’ he says. ‘‘A lot of these are not just street racing either. There are also gatherings to admire the vehicles. But with that comes a lot of anti-social behaviour — burn-outs and loud music — which affects the public.’’
The popularity of organised races can be seasonal, often tapering off in the winter months. Generational change also brings more fodder for the road cannons in the form of new P-platers or 20-somethings with shiny new toys.
‘‘The huge influx of high-powered Japanese turbo-charged vehicles such as the Nissan Silvia has increased the availability of street racing vehicles for a lot less money over the past 10 years,’’ Hartley says.
The organised illegal street race is where police have had most success in developing ways to infiltrate the sub-culture. They monitor about 30 different websites and on-line forums and have insiders tipping them off when and where a meet will be going down. Websites such as wrx.com.au, hot4s.com, highoctane.com, boostcruising.com/forums, toymods.org.au, and tuned- 4street.com are melting pots for car enthusiasts talking shop.
As police get more sophisticated in their approach, however, so do the racers. The so-called hoons are using digital scanners to monitor police radios and are communicating among themselves via CB radios and text messages to set up illegal races at short notice and stay ahead of the law. Lookouts are often posted at both ends of a street to watch for patrol cars and, depending on how intense the ‘‘heat’’ is, meets can last for anything from 10 minutes to two hours.
When there is big cash in the kitty, it pays to be prepared. Mick (not his real name) has organised large-scale illegal street races for seven years and says up to $4000 can be on the line at any time.
‘‘Sometimes people will race to settle fights between groups on the street. They might be arguing over cars, girls, money, workshops . . . whatever,’’ he says. ‘‘Whoever wins the race gets the say. If you are winning you get street cred, you get the respect. Winner takes all.''
Courtney Shearer, 28, knows the risks of illegal drag racing but says he would only stop if the cops confiscate his VY Holden Commodore 6. "I street race for the adrenaline. I love it. I like going fast,’’ Shearer, of Mount Annan, says. ‘‘There’s danger everywhere. You could walk outside and be hit by lightning. I’d only stop if they took my car away.’’
When they have the time and the place, a night of racing can be split into teams of 10 cars, each pair taking turns off the grid. Streets cutting through industrial estates in Enfield, Orange Grove and Ingleburn are well-known starting points. Many of the favourite street racing areas across Sydney have been targeted by police over the years, only for new hot spots to spring up elsewhere.
Milperra Rd, where Peov and Mourani died, was once one of the worst areas until a major police crackdown.
‘‘We had some street racing in Milperra and shut the whole place down,’’ says Detective Inspector Ian Pryde, the Bankstown Police Crime Manager. ‘‘Anyone who was in that area, whether they were involved or not — police went through their cars and [gave them a defect notice] if necessary.’’
As Sydney’s urban sprawl moves west, these large industrial estates, busy by day and near deserted at night, make for perfect after-dark racetracks. On Wednesday and Thursday nights this week, police targeted the Great Western Highway between Wentworthville and Kingswood, along with the M4 and the M7. Newcastle’s Kooragang Island is a constant problem for police, while Anzac Pde at La Perouse and The Grand Parade at Brighton-Le Sands have been hot spots at various stages.
For years, The Rocks was a favourite before police eliminated the racing element. It then became an unofficial gathering point for street racers to admire their cars until the murder of two young men at a gathering of these car enthusiasts in 2005 prompted police to clamp down even harder. Keyvan Ghajaloo, 24, and Naser Ghaderi, 25, were shot in a drive-by shooting while standing with friends among the hotted-up vehicles on Hickson Rd.
The Rocks was such a notorious spot for rev-heads it got its own stage in the popular street racing game, Project Gotham 2 on Xbox (right). Designers took 15,000 digital photographs of The Rocks and Circular Quay to get the look and feel of the famous strip right for the game. It caused a storm on release in 2003 with its tag line: ‘‘Burn up a storm past famous landmarks such as the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.’’
Illegal street racing has reached cult status in pop-culture mediums such as video games and movies. The most popular of these are The Fast And The Furious and its sequel, Tokyo Drift. Home videos are also littered across YouTube and hundreds of illegal street racing clubs have sprung up on Facebook.
Delivery may be different, but they all paint a similar picture of an underground culture that glorifies danger and caters to all races, classes and creeds.
‘‘It is a form of desire, of friendship, separate to homoerotic desire but similar,’’ says Glen Fuller, of the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney. Fuller, who has spent years in the field researching hoon culture, completing a doctorate on modified car culture and enthusiasm.
‘‘I talk about it in terms of a homo-social — not homo-erotic — masculine desire among men, mediated by the cars,’’ he says. ‘‘There may be some kind of erotic undertone, which can get quite weird, because it may not be between people — it can be with the car itself.’’
James Brines, from Penrith, recently spent $10,000 on his Nissan Skyline Turbo. With an investment like that, it would be naive to think the 22-year-old wouldn’t find somewhere to knock it in a little. Instead of taking his chances in a street race, Brines prefers to tear down the quarter mile at Western Sydney International Dragway in 13.6 seconds, where he can reach a top speed of 161km/h.
‘‘It’s all about the adrenaline rush of racing and getting the adrenaline out of the system,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s legal, it’s safe and you can’t get pulled over. You can race your mates for $45, which is much less than if you get a speeding fine.’’
Every week, 180 drivers race their high-performance cars at the home of Australian motor sport in Eastern Creek. It’s called Wicked Wednesdays Off-Street Racing, and the night pays homage to burning rubber. Except this time, it’s in a controlled and monitored environment.
Young men push their heavily modified vehicles to the limit, getting high on the speed and the rush of challenging their mates to a run down the quarter mile. For them, this represents a legitimate sport and there is nothing they hate more than to see the words ‘‘illegal drag race’’ in the media after a fatal accident.
They distance themselves from the practice by calling all forms of illegal racing street races. That’s not to say, however, that these same legal racers have never been involved in the more illicit form of their chosen sport, as Brines readily admits.
‘‘I raced [on the streets] about two years ago. I did it for the thrill of it,’’ he says. ‘‘You just drive along and see someone driving a done-up car. Then you pull up at a set of traffic lights and give the person a nod. When it goes green you just hit it.’’
Safe venues not enough to satisfy
There is nothing drag racers hate more than calling illegal drag racers simply ‘‘drag racers’’. Car enthusiasts and elite sportsmen who race safely and professionally take a dim view of the illegal street and drag racing culture.
Western Sydney International Dragway managing director Tony Beuk says events such as Wicked Wednesdays give drivers the chance to take racing off the street and into a controlled environment. Cars are examined upon entry to make sure they are safe to race and drivers must wear a helmet, trousers and long-sleeve shirts for protection.
‘‘There are a number of reasons people come to the event. Firstly, there is the safety aspect,’’ Beuk says. ‘‘It’s also a social environment. A lot of people have pride in their car and enjoy showing it off. The message that should be clear is that drag racing belongs at a venue such as this and not on public streets.’’
While the message may be heard, that does not mean it will be followed. Despite being an L-plater at the time, 17-year-old Shane Russell, who races safely at Wicked Wednesday, took on a Nissan 180SX one night to test the speed and acceleration of his Hyundai Excel.
‘‘I was on my way down to the shop and a car pulled up and a guy gave me a nod so I raced him,’’ he says. ‘‘I just wanted to see how my car went in a race.’’
Justin Russo, 33, of Rossmore, is not so relaxed.
‘‘I think the people racing on the streets are immature kids with big egos,’’ he says. ‘‘Most people here view it [street racing] as pretty stupid. I don’t know why people do it. It’s silly when you can come here and race each Wednesday safely.’’
Geoff Develin, former head of Canberra’s now defunct dragway, says the closure of legal raceways has forced illegal racing back on the streets. Develin has helped form the Australian Motorists’ Party, which will contest the 2008 ACT election and then consider campaigning federally after that.
‘‘To combat illegal street racing you need three components: education, tough laws and an alternative facility,’’ Develin says. ‘‘We are taking a hard look at the revenue-raising theme from current traffic infringements and want to change the focus to safety and education.’’
Many drivers say the costs of events such as Wicked Wednesdays are prohibitive, so young drivers — particularly P-platers — prefer to race for free. They say unless there are organised off-street races on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, young drivers will continue to race at hot spots around the city.
‘‘Every P-plater with a quick car will race because people just love doing it,’’ one young driver, who can't be legally identified, says. ‘‘It’s been around forever and it’s here to stay.’’
Memento buried with devoted couple who valued family
The red leather album was a cherished birthday present — put together by 22 family members to mark their mother and grandmother’s 70th. During the past two months, Judith Howle would open the photo album daily and look at the family she and Alan, her husband of 50 years, had raised.
With seven children, 15 grandchildren and a great-grandchild on the way, family was the world to the Howles.
‘‘She didn’t want anything fancy. Mum wasn’t into cars, stereos or televisions — it was family and her children that were number one to her,’’ daughter Deborah Tuma said.
With messages of love and memories of the time they shared together, the album came to symbolise everything Mr and Mrs Howle cared for — family. Now that celebration of life is buried with them after the couple were killed in an alleged drag race.
From the small country town of Bowraville on the mid-North Coast before moving to St Marys in the 1960s to start a family, Mr Howle worked for Australia Post and later bought a local newsagency and a general store called The Little Aussie Battler.
‘‘They were just two humble country people, a couple of battlers who raised seven children. They were gentle, loving parents and great role models,’’ Mrs Tuma said. ‘‘Over 50 years of marriage they became the best of friends and couldn’t live without each other."
Mrs Tuma said she wanted people to know how much of a loss her parents were — in the hope that no one else will have to suffer the same pain. ‘‘The last time we were all together was on Mother’s Day. It breaks my heart that my three-year-old daughter Elly will grow up not knowing them," she said.
FAMILY PLEA AS DRIVER IS CHARGED
Devastated by grief, the seven children of alleged drag race victims Alan and Judith Howle are leading a growing chorus calling for the Government to get tough on street racing.
The group, pictured at a family gathering two months ago, pleaded for tougher laws as one driver was charged over the crash that killed their parents. While their calls for tougher penalties were echoed by a magistrate and the State Opposition, they appear to have fallen on deaf ears as Police Minister David Campbell insisted heavy penalties in place were already a tough enough deterrent.
The Howles were killed when their Toyota Camry, driven by Mrs Howle, 70, was struck at high speed on the Great Western Highway at St Marys. The impact flung Mr Howle, 71, from the car, killing him instantly.
The couple’s daughter, Deborah Tuma, pleaded for tougher penalties to spare other families similar grief.
‘‘Next time someone decides to put their foot on the pedal for a 10-second thrill, I hope they realise the devastation this has caused this family — the devastation it has caused to hundreds of people’s lives,’’ Mrs Tuma said. ‘‘I hope the story of my parents ensures something is done to prevent others from taking the lives of innocent people.’’
In a separate incident at Bankstown Local Court yesterday, Magistrate Anthony Spence foreshadowed a need for tougher laws as he sentenced two P-platers clocked travelling at 110km/h in a 60km/h school zone in May. The youths, 17, were caught in Newton Rd, Wetherill Park in May, the court heard. They pleaded guilty to one charge each of organising, promoting or taking part in a race between vehicles. Mr Spence warned that if they continued racing, they would go to prison.
A Claremont Meadows man, 38, was last night charged over the crash which killed the Howles. He is accused of dangerous driving causing death, negligent driving causing death and an offence relating to street racing.
a dangerous game
LIFE AS A HIGH-SPEed hoon: INSIDE the street-racing sub-culture
Stunned motionless by fear, the elderly woman watched her life flash by as an out-of-control car sped past. Two cars were locked in an illegal street race towards the woman’s Lakemba home as she celebrated her 100th birthday with family and friends on the front lawn. The woman had survived two World Wars and a Great Depression to reach her milestone, but almost didn't see the end of it as one car mounted the curb, and narrowly missed her, before ploughing into a neighbour’s house in a pile of rubble and smoke.
It was more than 10 years ago before the Street and Illegal Drag Racing Act was rushed through Parliament in 1996 to combat a growing car hoon culture in Sydney. That incident was used to illustrate how important it was to pass the laws. It was only a matter of time, it was feared, before someone found themselves in the way of a reckless street race and was killed.
Those fears were realised when a couple were killed at St Marys on Sunday night. Early indications suggest they were caught in the crossfire of an alleged street race. The deaths have shown it is time to again toughen the state’s anti-hoon laws and bring them into line with other states that carry jail terms for such reckless behaviour.
Under NSW law, judges have the power to confiscate cars, disqualify licences for 12 months and issue a maximum $2200 fine. Owners also have to pay the bill for storage and return of their cars. Since the laws were introduced, police have confiscated 3381 cars — 177 this year alone.
In Queensland, jail terms for hoons treating roads like race tracks were increased in March from a three-year penalty to five years when an offender is found to have engaged in excessive speeding, street racing or time trialling. If that dangerous driving results in someone being killed or seriously injured, there is a maximum jail term of 14 years.
But there is little police or legislators can do to completely eradicate these adrenalin junkies. Street and drag racing are said to have begun in the US in the 1930s during the era of prohibition. Alcohol smugglers wanting to outrun the law made their vehicles more powerful and with better handling and suspension.
Today, it is the illegality of street racing that attracts hoons and revheads to the ‘‘sport’’. On forums at autocult.com.au a street racer calling himself RaybrigNSX recently bragged about drag racing on public roads and the thrill of risking getting caught.
‘‘I dragged this Alfa last night. I know there are hundreds of cameras above the toll way, but there is something deeper inside, racing makes the blood boil. Feels good,’’ RaybrigNSX said.
The state’s top traffic cop Chief Superintendent John Hartley said it was because of this attitude that our roads would never be totally free from illegal street racing.
‘‘There is no doubt when young people are surveyed and spoken to they say they get the thrill out of the illegal activity,’’ Supt Hartley said. ‘‘There will always be illegal racing. We can go a long way to eradicating organised races but what we can’t eliminate is the spur of the moment decision between two young men to race on the road.’’
Over the years, various street racing hot spots across Sydney have been targeted and busted up — only for more venues to reappear the next year when the next batch of P-platers comes through. The Rocks was for many years a favourite before police got serious about breaking that area up. In Newcastle, Kooragang Island remains a notorious drag strip. Anzac Pde at La Perouse and The Grand Pde at Brighton-le-Sands at various stages have been blighted by late-night drag races. As Sydney’s urban sprawl spreads further west, there are more opportunities for racers.
‘‘They tend to gather in quiet industrial areas where they can have their races late at night,’’ Supt Hartley said. ‘‘So many industrial estates have opened up across the whole of western Sydney — increasing the opportunities for them.’’
Police monitor about 30 different websites to break up organised drag races, including wrx.com.au, hot4s- .com, highoctane.com, boostcruising- .com/forums, toymods.org.au and tuned4street.com.
Defining who is behind the wheel of an illegal street race can be tricky. Car enthusiasts blame the media for painting them all as hoons and rev-heads with one broad stroke without making clear the difference between illegal street racing and legal drag racing. It would be equally wrong to say all who race legally at strips such as Western Sydney International Dragway at Eastern Creek have never taken the beast for a spin in a back street. Australian National Drag Racing Association spokesman Rob Sharp said those who spent countless amounts of time and money on their vehicles were not looking for the crude rush of an illegal drag at a set of traffic lights.
‘‘It is more of an engineering challenge for me. All my racing is done in a safe controlled environment so I can explore the equipment and my own capabilities,’’ he said.