Drag racing isn’t just for American muscle cars anymore.
The summer movie "2 Fast 2 Furious" has helped alter the makes and models of side-by-side street racing.
America’s newest hot rods glamorized in the movie are foreign compact cars.
The trend has boomed so much that local race tracks such as Firebird International Raceway have paired with DragRacing.com to have Sports Compact Only racing nights.
"We started it to get racing off the streets," said Richard Walters of DragRacing.com, who helps coordinate the event at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler. "It really came out of necessity for people who couldn’t afford serious race cars. In the early ’90s Honda put a really good engine in family cars, and after the warranty was up on those cars, it allowed for them to be tweaked to where they could compete."
To be eligible for races at Firebird on compact-only nights, a car can only have a four- or six-cylinder engine and the driver must pay $10 to enter and $5 to race. Drivers must have a valid license, and drivers under the age of 16 must have a parent or legal guardian present or sign a notarized release before the driver can compete.
"The good thing about this is that it keeps people from racing on the street," said Brandon Ruiz, 27, of south Phoenix, who drives a Mitsubishi. "This thing is still street legal, but I prefer to bring it here. I mean everyone has done street racing at one time or another, but I’d rather come here. It is nice to see they have something for us."
Illegal street racing is glorified in "2 Fast 2 Furious," but many drivers seem to prefer being able to run at Firebird. Track announcer Lionel Torrez, 30, of Chandler, who has been calling races since the event’s inception in February 2002, knows it is saving lives.
"I talk to kids all day long, and the first thing they ask is ‘Do you go to the illegals?’ I say ‘I have never been,’ " Torrez said. "I don’t promote them. It’s not something that I would even condone. There’s kids wrecking and killing people. Why do that when you can come out here and pay $10 and do it and have a time slip to prove it? If you can’t prove it with a time slip, it didn’t happen, that’s the bottom line."
The cars that participate in the event look like something that might be seen at any stop light in the East Valley. Most cars that are fast don’t look tricked out like in "2 Fast 2 Furious." Rather, they are beat up with panels that don’t match, as most drivers prefer to put their money under the hood.
K.D. Roberts, 19, uses what is called his "daily driver," the car he drives around town during the day but takes to the track at night. Roberts, a mechanic for Import Life in Phoenix, uses his 1992 Honda hatchback to pick up engines but takes the stock tires off in favor of racing slicks.
Roberts, who also owns three other imports, has run a 12.7-second quarter-mile with a stock block engine in his Honda.
Other drivers such as Ruiz have gone a step further. Ruiz’s Mitsubishi began as a daily driver but has evolved into a race car. He says everything is mostly stock, but he has added NAS, which adds nitrogen to the fuel mixture, making the car go faster.
"I started it about four years ago," he said. "When I first bought the car I was running low 15s," but he has been clocked at 12.6 seconds in the quarter-mile and ran 11.9 seconds to beat a Dodge Viper.
"The only way we can afford to go faster is to do it ourselves," Ruiz said. "I worked day and night to feed this passion."
Ruiz, who is an assistant manager at a Safeway in Gilbert, sometimes questions why he spends much of his time and money working on his car.
"Sometimes I say, ‘why am I doing this?’ but when you get that goal . . . it is worth every penny. Especially when you are out there, and you are winning. There is no better feeling."
Firebird has been holding the event for compact cars pretty regularly on
Thursday nights but will put the event on hold this summer because the turnout is low during the hotter months. Walters said the event will resume in the fall, likely in late August or early September.
Other tracks such as Speedworld Motorplex in Wittman and Southwestern International Raceway in Tucson also offer street-legal racing.