by Michael McCabe

Powerful, fast cars and motorcycles need smooth surfaces to maximize their potential velocity. Bumps, holes and inconsistencies represent certain disaster and even death at high speeds. The texture of New York City streets changed during the early 1900s from cobblestone to macadam and then to asphalt as the automobile took over. Car owners demanded a smoother ride as driving speeds increased. During the 1940s maniacal urban planner Robert Moses designed the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) and Connecting Highways because he understood the automobile was now king, and planned a ribbon of elevated highways that wrapped the City. Entire neighborhoods were demolished and generations of family life were uprooted for his “progress”.

Thank Robert Moses for street racing? His sweeping roadway plans for NYC created hundreds of miles of dead spaces beneath and around freeeways, with racers inhabiting those spaces like the undead ghosts of neighborhoods razed to make way for cars. The story of Robert Moses and his eventual nemesis, Jane Jacobs, the woman who finally stopped him, is an epic tale of hubris vs humanity.

Much of the BQE roadway was designed to be below grade, in sequential sections between overpass bridges. Moses and his planners could never have known their highway would become a perfect street racing venue, with spectators above, cars below.  When the BQE was completed in 1954, builders of fast cars quickly used the design of the BQE to their advantage.

There is a backstory behind building and racing very fast, impressive cars on New York City streets. Names are connected to the machines: on four wheels, Coney Island Ralph Landolfi, Jack Merkel, Broadway Freddy DeName and John Lobranco [follow those links for incredible stories! – ed.]. This story continues to evolve but to a large degree NYC street racing has a historical depth that remains nuanced and somewhat secret. The story reflects people and their cars as they are shaped by time, neighborhoods, culture, race, ethnicity, class and the mystery of accumulated personal sensibility.

Oral Histories from Infamous New York City Street Racers

Under the BQE: a sweet hotrod and customized Honda bob-job. [Michael McCabe]


I had a drag bike and I used to test it [on the street]. All the guys would line up on a side street and I’d test my bike before I’d take it for a run… We’d race up 86th Street to Avenue U, make a U turn, and then we’d race back. Back and forth all night, “Hey, Vinny’s racing today, he’s taking his car out; he’s taking his bike out,” they’d yell. People would line up. The street would turn into a track. It was our personal track. That was during the day. At night things changed. If you wanted to run for money or somebody would come in from a different neighborhood, we’d go to Cross Bay Boulevard or we’d go to the Connecting Highways. I had two motorcycles.  On a pure stock Kawasaki I used to ride up and I’d ask if anybody wanted to run. Somebody would step up. $500.00, $100.00 whatever. I’d tell them I’d be back in an hour… I’d go home and get my race bike which was the same exact bike but it had wheelie bars and a slick. I’d put it on a trailer and bring it back. The competition would say, “That ain’t the same bike.” This was a way to put money together to put into projects. We didn’t make much money but it all went to building fast machines.

View from the inside: a veteran street racer under the BQE. [Michael McCabe]

I remember that I bought a car off a guy; a ‘66 Chevelle. Somebody had painted it turquoise with house paint…with a friggin’ paint roller. Roller marks all over the car. A real Lower East Side classic paint job. A guy, Raoul took me under his wing and started explaining things… We’d go for test drives and he’d ask, did you hear that squeak? He’d say, that squeak means that the bushing on the shock absorber is getting dry. We could change the shocks out or… spray some WD 40 on it, get some money and six months from now the guy will need new shocks and we get some more money. I worked with him in the street for about two-three years, until I was 18 or 19. We worked at Ludlow and Stanton. Back then cops would kind of harass you about working on cars in the street, but they wouldn’t really bother you if you kept your side of the street clean. It was frowned on back then but they didn’t bust your balls too bad. Raoul knew people… He worked on some guys’ cars in the street, and they wore a badge later on in the day…

Preferring to remain anonymous to protect their fun: NYC street racers. [Michael McCabe]

I used to race cars on the street. But you gotta be able to work on your car. Over here in Brooklyn that’s tough to do unless you have a house with a garage. Me and my buddies, we all lived in buildings. That’s a different story; we had no garage. Our cars sat in the street and once you start street racing people would either steal your shit, or burn it, or break into it. Guys would hunt around for the competition cars and pour ball bearings into your oil. You’d have to try to lock up your hood. All the guys I knew had bikes so I just got into bikes. It’s a lot simpler.

I had a couple cars. I had a ’85 Cutlass, like a normal passenger style car but with a ’69 big block in it from a Chevy… a 396 big block with a turbo 400. It was a fast car for the street. I used to street race it. Guys been doing street racing forever in Brooklyn. When I was getting into it and everyone was racing around here; like Fountain Avenue, East New York area, was probably mid-‘90s. Right when I got my license. Then racing faded out because of law enforcement. A car flipped over… people died… Killed a guy, another guy lost his arm and a girl who was standing with them died also. What the city did? On Fountain Avenue, Flatland Avenue… They dug like ruts, reverse speed bumps. At night they’d come and turn the fire hydrants on and soak the avenues. You couldn’t race because the streets were soaked. So… Late Nineties I got out of it. After like five years of fucking having cars broken into… Ya know? But guys used to race for big money. I’ve seen guys almost get killed over big money. People would tell stories about the amounts… forty, fifty thousand. People didn’t believe them… but they did race for this kind of money.

Vintage street racer in a contemporary setting, under the BQE. [Michael McCabe]

Even before I owned a car I would ride out on my bicycle and watch the race on a Friday night. Fountain Avenue was the hot scene back in the late ’70s. My sister’s crowd was six or seven years older than me. So when I was like 13 or 14 it was no big deal for me to bum a ride with one of her friends and go out to the races and watch. I was really really into it even before I was 14 or 15 years old. The races went on over by the landfill. The only people you would see go through there were busses because there was a bus turn-around there. And there were garbage trucks too because that’s where they dumped the garbage for the landfill. Actually it was a big thing back in the ‘70s because it was a Mafia burial ground… There are tons of stories about the old Fountain Avenue landfill… Back when organized crime ran private sanitation and they could pretty much do whatever they wanted. It was a great spot.

There was Columbia Street which was a dead end down by the piers in Red Hook. There is a police impound there now. First and Third Avenues were racing hot spots… Down by the twenties. All those avenues down there. This is long before cell phone calls and long before beepers… Basically there would be a parking lot and everybody would just go to the parking lot. The Fountain Avenue and South Conduit Avenue spot on Linden Boulevard. You’d go there on a Friday or Saturday night; tow your car, drive your car… We would tow our car a block away and then drive it in. Let everyone think that we drove it there. Try to psyche them out… Eventually they would get to know who’s who… but at first before they knew who you were..? You could get into some races. Now-a-days the world is so small everybody knows everybody. That whole sleeper thing… That’s cool to read about in magazines but those days are over. Guys would be real secretive. These guys racing from behind tinted glass… No one knew who the hell they were. They never gave up anything. But if you were racing for money you’d have to give something up. Now, those days are over.


Michael McCabe is a New York City tattoo artist and cultural anthropologist. He is the author of New York City Horsepower, Kustom Japan, New York City Tattoo, Japanese Tattooing Now, Tattoos of Indochina, and Tattooing New York City. For New York City Horsepower, Mr. McCabe spent two years discovering and documenting underground custom motorcycle and car garages in the City, as rapid gentrification put their culture under tremendous pressure. He interviewed and photographed New York City customizers about their personal histories and creative sensibilities.


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