440 and Beyond: An Investigation of Illegal Street Racing in Jersey City

Copyright: mtoome / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: mtoome / 123RF Stock Photo

By Arantxa Lozada

The plaza on route 440 in Jersey City, NJ, is a popular meeting place for car racers. More specifically, the Dunkin Donuts’ parking lot serves as the first meeting point before the illegal activity takes place. On any given day or weekend around midnight, you could find a group of low riding Hondas and Toyotas and modified Mazda’s getting ready to head to illegal street races, and today is no different.

“It’s beautiful weather outside for a race,” Ivan Martinez, 22, from Jersey City says as he leans on his 1985 black Toyota Celica, GTS.

He refers to the lack of snow on the ground and the brisk 56-degree weather with clear skies. Ivan a business student from Rutgers University takes pride in his car, which he modified and built practically from scratch.

“It has a turbo engine, 1 JZ GTE motor from a Supra. I put a lot of money in this car. We all did,” nodding to his friends David and Jay, who are sitting on the curve scrolling through their Smartphone’s.

Whenever you hear the term street racing Jersey City is not high up on the radar. Street racing has been glamorized, managing to stay in pop-culture headlines such as with the death of actor Paul Walker, known for his roles in the “Fast and the Furious” trilogies, and continuing with the street racing antics that led to the arrest of pop singer Justin Bieber. But in Jersey City, street racing has taking a life of its own.

“It always starts with someone talking crap,” says mechanic David, 23, from Jersey City. “They say I’ll beat you or you got the break [a head start]. That’s how this one started.”

David receives a text from another racer, letting him know that the car meet is going to be at 12:45 a.m. in Elizabeth.

As Jay and David get into a blue 2000 Honda Civic SI, they turn to Ivan and say, “We’ll follow you.”

Whenever two racers want to challenge each other to a race, they call each other out through social media networks.

Ivan further explains, “Supposedly Rio responded to a picture that was posted on Instagram calling Jack out, so they ganna settle it.”

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Approaching a gathering crowd of teenagers and adults, ages ranging from 17-35, you can hear the excitement in their voices. Loud roaring mufflers are accompanied by the conversations, as the cars quickly approach a small plaza off the main 1&9 road, in Elizabeth. They are greeted by bright red, flashing bulbs that spell out the word Billiards located above yet another Dunkin Donuts, New China Kitchen Chinese restaurant, and Checks Cashed store.

At 1am, the plaza parking lot, which would normally be vacant, is overflowing with approximately 40 cars. The food plaza is beginning to look a lot like used car dealership. Hondas, Acuras, Toyotas, and Supras all parked along the edges of the lot with a crowd quickly forming around the two racers.

Referring to the obscene amount of people Jay states, “The police don’t say anything as long as you’re not being too loud […] What can they do? We’re not doing anything wrong. People don’t care as long as it doesn’t get crazy.”

Walking further into the other end of the plaza, you can get a stronger scent of gasoline and what appears to be 93-octane gas. Abandon truck parts are scattered throughout the lot, no stores on this end, no parking spots painted on the ground just open space filled with car fanatics eager to see who is racing. Around 80 people crowd these two drivers, 72 males and 8 females.

Rio, 33, from Union City, who drives a 1993 red Honda Civic hatchback with black rims and a white sticker the reads “Showtime,” waste no time stating, “Let’s pop hoods.”

When drivers agree to reveal what is under their hood, it symbolically locks them into the race.

“When they pop hoods, they make sure what you said was in there is correct […] no surprises,” according to Jay.

He continues to say “You can have anything you want, but when you are going to race someone, you have to tell him what you have, you have to agree on it […] if not, than you have to settle it. You have to agree, that’s the main thing.”

The two racer’s Rio and Jack begin analyze each other’s engines.

Jack is a Hispanic male with a trimmed beard that frames his face. He is wearing a white T-shirt and black sweat pants. Pulling out a yellow flashlight from his pocket, he continues to examine underneath the hood of the Civic.

Rio, a Puerto Rican Jersey City resident, checks out Jack’s all white 1997 Honda Civic Coupe, while a crowd of eager fans can’t help but take a peak at what the two drivers have to offer, whispering words like “K-series,” and “Carbon fiber.”

Both drivers seem to agree it’s a fair race because of the cars’ similar features. Both cars have a K-series engine, carbon fiber hoods [material that will lighten the weight of the car] and Lexan [plastic material meant to replace the glass in the car also to lighten the weight].

As Jack picks up his sweat pants, he turns to Rio and says, “Alright how much you throwing down?”

During a race cash prizes are usually discussed beforehand or if decided that same night members of each racer’s crew may pitch in to come up with the money.

“If you’re racing and I throw down $100 and you win, then I just made $200, but if you lose then that’s it,” explains Ivan.

The racers agree on $1,500.

Cash is being handed from all directions. A mutual party who is wearing a black hooded sweater-shirt, with a black T-shirt peaking through the bottom, and dark jeans proceeds to count the money.

A mutual party is trusted to handle the money because both racers would know who he is if anything were to happen.

The male in the black hooded sweatshirt counts and recounts the money until it adds up and then proceeds to put the roll of cash in his front pocket saying, “We good.”

In an instant the location of the race is revealed, which begins to spread like a bad rumor. “We out to 1&9,” someone in the crowd shouts.

Popular places to race in Jersey City are, “169 a highway […] another place is in Kearny, a dead-end street, but the main runs the real big ones, the $5000 races, the $10,000 races, are in the 1&9 express lane,” explains Jay.

Driving on the 1&9, one by one cars are passing each other left and right. They appear to be doing 100 mph due to the fact that Ivan is pushing 90mph and barely keeping up.

With every car that passes you can hear the wind whipping and breaking in rhythmic chimes and smell the gas coming from their cars. Loud roars echo through the streets gradually getting louder and faint. Local drivers slow down to let the racers pass them up. You can see every car weaving in and out of lanes as they frantically dodge potholes.

The cars begin to slow down to regular speeds of 60mph, which can only mean two things: either they have arrived or they cops did. In the distance you can see trucks with hazard signs and orange cones forcing you to switch lanes, the red and blue lights flashing, and a cop directing everyone to merge to their right.

“Fuck construction and fuck the police;” shouts Ivan. He calls Jay to get updated information because of course the race is still on.

Each car begins to accelerate as soon as the flashing red and blue lights are nothing more then dots in their rear view mirrors.

Sometimes it’s not the actual race that is dangerous, but the reckless driving been done to show off to your group of friends. Street racing on main roads can cause unexpected harm.

Last year, in March 2013, two Jersey City brothers, Giancarlo J. Guevara-Cabezas, 21, and Carlos J. Guevara-Cabezas, 26, were each sentenced to five years in jail after striking one pedestrian and killing another, according to NJ.com.

The two brothers were racing on Kennedy Boulevard, around 11 pm, a street that is usually known for its heavy traffic. The brothers were doing 60 mph in a zone that is usually designated to 25 mph. Giancarlo tried to pass his brother when the vehicle lost control striking a pedestrian whose body was eventually found impaled on a fence.

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Driving into Doremus Avenue in Newark, cars are already parked alongside the racers, who have started warming up.

Jay explains the every race usually has the same warm up processes. First the racers’ crew partake in changing their regular tires into racing tires, which are full blown tires with no threading, “so when the tires warm up they become very sticky causing less wheel spin,” says Jay.

Next they warm up the starting line with fire. The heat of the flame is mainly use for the tire, to cause that sticky sensation for more traction.

“They do burnouts. When you let the car stand still and the wheel spins,” says Jay, “People hold down the car while the driver accelerates with the emergency break up. Than they put the car into gear and practice launches.”

The racers have already past those steps. They are lined up waiting for the signal. A tall white male with a faint mustache, New York Yankee fitted, wearing a grey sweater and black pants, stands in front of both cars.

The other standbys and fans are scattered, some at the starting line, some at the finishing line, some are hidden in the entrances of lots, some completely parked away from sight.

But every one partly engaged in the race and constantly watching over the bridge just in case those flashing lights appear.

There is a lot to risk if those sirens catch up to you. New Jersey Law sates, “No person shall operate a motor vehicle upon a public highway for a wager or in a race or for the purpose of making a speed record.”

If caught a guilty party can face fines, penalties, points on their license, license suspension or revolt, and additional surcharges, not to mention high insurance premiums. In some cases depending on the severity of the crime jail time is also a possibility.

“When the cops come we just leave every man for themselves,” explains David.

The race is a quarter mile long. “Cars can reach up to 103 mph, really fast cars can tap out at 125 right at the quarter mile,” says Jay.

The man in the Yankees hat points to each person until they get thumbs up indicating that their ready. For a brief second everything gets quiet, but each car’s engines are roaring loud. The divers eyes are concentrated ahead no distractions.

Arms up. Arms down and they’re off.

Rio’s red Honda Civic hatchback soars into the road. He turns his hazard lights on, indicating he won. All you saw was a blur of red darting into the road. All you see is red, red, and than red flashing lights.

“Cops!” yells someone in the crowd. Everyone jets into their cars. Engines are fired, u-turns being made; it’s every man for themselves.

Jay and David race off in their car, while Ivan chased behind them. They get off the fist exit leading them to a bridge that exposes the racers below. They pull over on the shoulder lane to peak at what’s going on. They look down and it appears to be state troopers pulling over the two racers and two other cars. Each one parked on the shoulder lane.

They realize they’re holding up traffic and get back into their cars. As Ivan drives away he whispers, “Better him than me.”


Some names have been altered in order to protect the identity of the sources.