“I live my life a quarter mile at a time. Nothing else matters. Not the mortgage, not the store … For those 10 seconds or less, I’m free.”

—Dominic Toretto, played by Vin Diesel, “The Fast and the Furious”

In pop culture, that is just a line from a movie. A movie which is spinning off its sixth sequel, has earned more than $2 billion worldwide, and has captured the attention of many people who are looking to watch something exciting on the big screen.

But for some, the action in these movies is real. They are in the streets racing for the thrill of it, racing for competition, racing for bragging rights, and racing for money. This ‘high-octane’ activity has become a part of pop culture, but there is a multicultural sub-culture that is actually living it and not just watching it on a movie screen.

“Quarter-mile, 1,320 feet, that’s what we do,” said Martin Marinov, owner of Custom Performance Racing in Gardena, describing a popular phrase within the lifestyle.

For some people there is a need for speed, which leads them to racing cars, whether it is doing it the legal way on a track or drag strip or the illegal way on the streets of Los Angeles. Auto racing is an expensive sport, and doing it legally prices many people out, which leads some racers to hit the streets. For many, the illegal version of this sport is not only more cost effective, but it has become more appealing.

“You get an adrenaline rush out of it, more so on the streets than on the track because there is the element of getting caught, or getting chased (by cops),” Marinov said. “That and there is a lot less control over what goes on in terms of actual racing on the streets verses the track. You set your own rules. It’s really open to negotiation. A lot of the guys want to set their own terms, which you can’t do at the track.”

Street racers control how they race. They set where the race starts, where it finishes, what the handicap is, if one is needed. They also do not have to follow the racing guidelines of the tracks, which have strict safety rules. Many street racers can afford to make their cars go fast, but spending the extra money to meet safety requirements can be an issue. There are also restrictions at the track that can slow the car down, which does not appeal to the typical street racer.

This sub-section of the car culture has been around since the inception of the automobile, and it has a rich tradition in the Los Angeles area. ‘Big Willie’ Robinson, who was the founding president of the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers back in the 1960s was a key figure in street racing lore. He brought organization to this illegal activity, and he was able to gain use of a drag strip on Terminal Island, which is located between the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbor.

The drag strip at Terminal Island closed down years ago, but that did not stop street racers from burning rubber, because they were racing on the streets years before the drag strip opened.

Henry Wade (a psuedonym) has been around street racing in Los Angeles since the 1960s, and he has witnessed how things have changed, and how they have stayed the same. The intersection of Florence Avenue and Main Street used to be his spot, and it was one of many spots that the racers would meet late at night before they headed to various racing spots.

Wade witnessed how the community was changed by the drug trade in the 1980s, and said that it also influenced the street racing scene.

“Before the drugs came in, like cocaine, the gangs were kind of dying out,” Wade said. “Well, they weren’t really fighting as much at that time, but then all of a sudden the drugs came in and this guy was making money, and he needed back up. So now he has Five Deuce Broadway. So-and-so has the Hoovers, so-and-so’s got Grape Street. And now they got money. Everybody went from a pop gun (pistol) or some old shotgun to guys getting M-16s. Well that’s what they did with cars too. They would spend a lot of money to fix up cars, and then bet on them.”

The gambling aspect of this sport has also attracted a certain type of crowd. These are not small bets, but thousands of dollars are being exchanged on a nightly basis, which leads to these racers pouring a lot of money into their vehicles.

“Some of those guys sell dope,” Wade said. “Or you’re doing something. That’s how you have the money. Especially now, because it costs a lot to build a car. Some guys, that’s how they make their money, that’s just what they do.”

Wade has seen some drivers get off of the street and go the professional route, but for the most part, a street racer stays in the streets.

“Some people really love this,” Wade said “That’s their life. They’re always building something. Some people don’t bet, they just like to race. A buddy of mine goes to church almost every night, and then he’ll go and race his car.”

Marinov also said that he does not bet. He enjoys building fast cars and flying down the track, but he sees how gambling, in part, fuels this sport.

“A lot of people like to put a wager on it, because they feel that there is no sense in going out there and racing just for bragging rights,” Marinov said. “There’s going to be a winner and a loser, and some people want to pick a side. So they put their money where their mouth is.”

Even though the racing and gambling aspects of this sport are illegal, that does not mean that it attracts a bunch of criminals, say participants.

“It’s a car culture,” Marinov said. “Anybody that’s a car guy, or a “gearhead,” is attracted to this type of activity. The cars are what bring people out. They unite people. The culture is a big melting pot of enthusiasts, or races, different creeds. Everything.”

Marinov notes that there are people from all ethnic backgrounds, and all walks of life. Different groups have different tastes which add to the flavor. There are import drivers who typically race Hondas. There are Chevy guys, Ford guys, and Mopar guys. The L.A. racing scene brings out a number of interesting characters, but it is far from what is seen in the movies.

“That’s kind of fictional,” Marinov said. “Obviously Hollywood likes to exaggerate things. There’s no hot girls out there. There are maybe one or two girls out there, but it’s mainly guys who are into the cars. It’s not like the movies; not one bit. It seems like in “The Fast and the Furious,” they’re racing for a good long minute there, and shifting through 17 gears. (But in reality) that’s not the way it goes down.”

Marinov also points out that the street racers typically do not have courses with twists and turns like in the movies. It’s typically a straight shot, mostly in industrial areas that have wide streets. One of the more popular areas is in South Los Angeles, just south of where the 105 and 110 freeways meet.

However, racers tend to move around a lot to avoid the police.

“If you’re coming down Main, right before you get to 135th, just look at the street,” Wade said. “It’s nothing but rubber out there. That’s where everybody tests and everybody makes passes (races), because it’s a straight shot. There’s rubber out there right now. They go south.”

One of the few similarities between street racing and the movies is that they do block off the intersections along their path to stop cross traffic, which could be deadly if they did not. This is one of the few safety precautions, however it does not prevent accidents.

“There are wrecks,” Wade said. “I’ve seen a wreck where a guy was killed.He was making a pass that he shouldn’t have, but he made the pass anyway. Usually wrecks are over dumb stuff, but anything can happen with a car.”

The other danger is getting caught in the act by law enforcement. Participants know a racer is lucky if he just gets slapped with a ticket. His car could be impounded, and even crushed if he is a repeat offender. Typically when the police show up everybody runs, and if a chase ensues that is now a felony, and extremely dangerous to the public.

Some street racers “go straight,” and even turn it into a business. Marinov took his passion and made it into a legitimate career when he opened his machine shop, which builds racing engines. He does not condone racing on the streets, but for anybody who wants a faster car, Custom Performance Racing can build them an engine.

The need for speed lives in many people, which will drive the street racing community for years to come. The quest to drive faster and to beat the next man will always have these thrill seekers hitting the streets late at night for the intense competition.