Hot rod as hobby, and obsession

Passion: In dark corners of Baltimore they gather, young drivers who pour soul and paychecks into the `perfect' cars.

July 24, 2002|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Every Saturday night around 9, Danya Anthony tucks his two children into bed, hops into his souped-up Honda Civic and heads to his favorite hangout: a dimly lighted parking lot in Northwest Baltimore.

He joins dozens of others there to celebrate the weekend, not by guzzling beer or dancing to the latest techno remix, but by gawking at the hottest customized roadsters in town.

They're all here - including a turbocharged black Mustang Cobra with sparkling chrome rims, a turquoise Nissan 2000SX with a giant spoiler and painted flames, a Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 with a back window emblazoned with "The Fast and the Furious."

Clans of car freaks have been coming to this Liberty Heights Avenue parking lot and other Baltimore hot spots since the 1970s, shunning the bars and dance clubs in favor of a night of showing off their prized possessions - outrageously outfitted cars.

For these fanatics, who might spend $15,000 or more on gimmicking a vehicle, very little else matters.

"I'm married and have two kids, but I still have a dream that I have to fulfill in my car," says Anthony, 24, an Essex resident who manages an auto parts store in Baltimore. "I have to make the car the way I want it. Before I'm done, I'm going to make sure my car is the way I want it to be."

But police also have a vision of the way things should be, and sometimes the hot rodders have found themselves in trouble. Neighbors in the area of a gathering have complained about the sound of roaring engines and blaring stereos in the middle of the night.

And highway patrols don't like speeders.

On a recent Saturday night, four city police cruisers converged on a small group of hot rods that had broken off from the gathering to go racing head-to-head on a stretch of Interstate 70.

The officers, who regularly stake out the area looking for renegade racers, gave out a handful of speeding tickets - putting a damper on the evening for the drivers.

It's OK, though, because another Saturday night is just a week away. And like any counter-culture, the hot rodders say they're just misunderstood.

"If police would just come, sit back and observe what's goes on, they would learn something," Anthony said.

"We're not out there to sell nothing or buy drugs. We're just out there talking about cars and having fun."

While little known outside hot rod circles, the gatherings have grown in recent years, police and car enthusiasts say.

The car groups are not unique to Baltimore. Other enclaves are in Washington, D.C., and Richmond and Virginia Beach, Va. In Southern California, police and city officials have been trying to suppress illegal street racing for decades and are considering creating more legal venues for car races.

"This phenomenon is as old as the car," said Aaron Robinson, technical editor of Car and Driver magazine in Ann Arbor, Mich. "I think what drives them is the impulse to create machines that go and beat their comrades.

"A lot of kids put a lot of hours into these cars, so naturally they want to show it off. And a lot of it is to find out what everybody else is doing, to keep your finger on the pulse of trends."

The car-crazy culture was captured in the movie, The Fast and the Furious, released last year.

Police patrol officers involved in staking out the car gatherings say the movie has created an influx of souped-up racers. "There's no doubt about it, once the movie came out, you see more of these cars," said one of the officers, who declined to identify himself.

The drivers come from a mix of racial backgrounds and range in age from late teens to early 40s. But most are in their 20s.

On a typical night in Baltimore, the group assembled in a parking lot in front of a Salvo Auto Parts building on Liberty Heights Avenue, just inside the city line near Northern Parkway. Most of the drivers were locals, although some had made an hourlong commute from Pennsylvania.

No matter where they're from, the drivers have plenty to say about their cars.

"What you want to do is make your car stick out," said James Mejias, 19, of Aberdeen. "You want people to go home and say, `I saw this car out in Bel Air.' You want to make stories out of it. Basically, it's who's got the car that makes your jaw drop."

Mejias, standing at a gas station where some of the drivers took refuge after police chased the roadsters off a nearby lot, showed off the 1999 Acura Integra GSR that he had bought the previous day. He plans on enhancing intake and exhaust to make the engine faster.

It won't come cheap. Mejias, a forklift operator for Rite-Aid, said he is getting a second job to help pay off the $20,000 car.

"It's like, either I have my own place or I have a car," said Mejias, who lives with his parents.

Mejias began going to the Saturday night gatherings only recently. "It's a hobby," he said. "Old people used to have the hot rods."

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