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Riding Around in Canada's Street Racing Capital

Driving around suburban Vaughan, Ontario late night, you'll spot cars decked out with LED lights, rims, tints, spoilers, and pounding sound-systems that represent the city's massive street racing scene. We visited the city to see what the roads are...

All images via Beatriz Jereza.
When you live in the suburbs, life can be painfully boring. Unless you're a soccer mom who loves to punch kids at skate parks, there's not much to do except discreetly smoking weed. But that all changes if you're a car enthusiast in one of the street racing capitals of Canada. Vaughan, Ontario is one of those places. Located in the York Region north of Toronto, Vaughan is considered a suburb, but the city was the fastest-growing municipality in Canada from 1996-2006 and the population is now nearing 300,000.


If you try to drive around Vaughan without using GPS, you'll inevitably get lost and feel stuck in some sort of bland labyrinth. The rows upon rows of creepily similar-looking lavish homes make everything in this sprawling mostly-Italian suburbia look the same—that is, until you come across the smattering of vehicles that look like they're straight out of The Fast and The Furious. They're tricked-the-fuck-out: LED lights, rims, tints, spoilers, and pounding sound-systems. It's such a popular scene that the so-called "Woodbridge Bro" has spawned a pencil-drawn ImgUr meme that encapsulates the style of local street racers. I guess I assumed that the people living here had way too much money on their hands, but in reality, it goes further.

Jenelle* experienced the reality of Vaughan's obsession with street racing firsthand. As she grew up in the area and became of legal driving age, she started feeling inferior driving around in her average automatic car next to the suped-up models on the road. Once when she was at a stoplight, two cars pulled up on either side of her to try to instigate a race. That's when she decided to start racing. She joined the online community Toronto Integras and adopted a serious interest in car modification. Eventually she earned enough at her job to afford a Honda Acura Integra Type R, a model specifically geared for performance, and a popular model for street racing and modifications.


Jenelle got out of the street racing scene seven years ago but she remembers watching illegal races on the roadways in the industrial area of Vaughan as cars hit speeds of up to 300 km/h (in a 50 km/h zone). "You had to leave your keys in the ignition in case the cops came," she said. The street racing scene, Jenelle explained, is akin to that of underground raves: they pop up spontaneously—usually at a number of places known as "The Runs"—and those who are involved find out by word of mouth. The Runs refers to a few different locations in the industrial area of Vaughan and are named for "running" cars.

I met Jenelle in a Woodbridge plaza, it was a Friday night in the humid heat of July. Security guards and cops roamed silently amongst the rows of flashy cars with bros leaning on them. Within minutes of walking around, we dodged a guard chasing a guy around a building. The place had a really ominous vibe; and felt like trouble was always looming. People self-segregated into groups and didn't really fuck with each other. As females, Jenelle and I stuck out like sore thumbs. Helicopters looking for street races flew overhead while Jenelle made a call to a friend to figure out how things went down these days. He said to wait for cars pulling out suddenly in groups.

"They're just past the back streets of industrial roads—empty ones," she said. "That's why you see the police helicopters there."


The helicopters are part of York Regional Police's yearly summer initiative called Project ERASE (Eliminate Racing Activity on Streets Everywhere).

"We're looking for vehicles in industrial areas congregating," says Andy Pattenden, a spokesperson for York Regional Police (YRP). A Project ERASE media release from June shows that YRP has already charged five different people with stunt driving in the first month of this summer, as well as impounded the cars and suspended the licences of each of these individual for seven days.

I spoke to a girl recently who was in the passenger seat of her friend's car when he participated in illegal street racing recently. While driving along a major street at night in Vaughan, another guy about his age pulled up and challenged him to a race. It's not something he typically does, but he was triggered by the other dude's rudeness. After the spontaneous rage-filled race, where he had trash thrown at his car by the other racer, they pulled over. The other driver popped his trunk, took out a baseball bat, and threatened him. This not an atypical occurrence in this area unfortunately. These kids are clearly testosterone-fueled, so it's clear why situations like these arise when they have nothing else to do.

On a night in early August, I returned to the plaza I visited with Jenelle and saw that same helicopter hovering overhead. Within ten minutes, I followed two vehicles I saw leaving at the same time heading south. I watched as they weaved in and out of traffic until they were ahead of everyone, side-by-side on a barren, dimly lit industrial road around 11 PM. They were going at least twice the speed limit—over 120 km/h—when they really got going, but it seemed to be a race between friends. After a few minutes of following them, I could tell that they were getting sketched out about me. When we stopped at a red light, one driver pulled up next to me, opened his door, and spit out onto the road. I made a U-turn.


Literally two minutes later, a suped-up Honda pulled up next to my average, automatic car at a red light. I wanted to see how easy it was to get these dudes going, so I simply looked over at him in a sly way. That was all it took. When the light turned green, he revved up quickly, his engine roared, and he sped away, playfully weaving through traffic going at least 140 km/h. I tried to follow him without going too ridiculously fast, but I soon realized that he was waiting for me. Whenever I'd get caught behind an uninvolved car, he'd slow down ahead and wait for me to catch up. It felt like it was just him and me on that road, and we were locked in this weird dance. Which I suppose is the problem—racers don't exactly pay attention to anyone else on the road. It was exhilarating. My heart was pounding. I almost ran a red light. He continued to keep pace with me, alternately speeding ahead, until I cut him off by taking a sudden right.

I had barely driven a kilometer before another car pulled up to me trying to race. I appeased him for a bit, hoping he would turn off at the plaza where the cars usually hang out. The plaza came and went though, and at this point I was pretty freaked out and ready to head back home. I made a sudden turn when he sped ahead of me and I lost him.

Once I turned, I was back in the residential area passing parks where kids get ticketed for being staying after hours. It's really no wonder such a specific subculture has developed in the area where you can't even hang out with your friends outside past dark without garnering the attention of police. When cops aren't busy busting high school kids for smoking pot, they're cracking down on the kind of activity I experienced.


"I left that life and I don't think want to go back," Jenelle said, giggling. Racers usually separate into cliques according to their type of vehicle—when Jenelle was racing, she said she only hung out with the people who were into Japanese cars. Displaying of vehicles weekly at the plaza isn't necessarily illegal itself and races don't necessarily occur afterwards.

However, cops can crack down on illegal car modifications regardless of whether the vehicle is being raced at the time or not.

Jenelle told me a story about how once when her and a friend were coming home after going to Wasaga Beach, there was a police checkpoint set up to check cars for racing modifications. They pulled over several cars at a time and had them pop their hoods and they inspected the underbody of each. She was able to slip by that time, but over the years she was involved in the scene (2000-07), she racked up about $30,000 in fines from getting pulled over on multiple occasions. Her tickets ranged from being cited for having an illegal muffler modification to driving without insurance.

"I now will never drive anything like that—something that looks super-fast, bright colour, lowered, whatever," she says. When she stopped racing, Jenelle had a light-blue Honda Civic SI with a modified VTEC motor and a Ferrari Momo racing steering wheel. She said that cops started recognizing her car and that's when she knew she had to stop. Jenelle usually raced legally at Cayuga Motor Speedway as an alternative.


"I think that more legal racetracks should be accessible and created because racing is an actual sport," she says. "It would take kids off the streets into doing something that is regulated."

Even though legal racetracks are available, there is a cost involved in using one.

"It may not be as convenient [in cost and location] as meeting up at an industrial area," Pattensen says.

Regardless of the fact that Jenelle made an effort to race legally, her car—like those of many involved in street racing in Vaughan—became bait for cops.

It's understandable why they're concerned, since 1999, 48 people have died in Ontario as a result of street racing, according to the YRP's website. The project's page also features an interactive diagram under "Mods" outlining all of the illegal car alterations you can be ticketed for.

"We put [the program] out there and make it public as a deterrent," Pattensen says. "Our message is that it's OK [to race], but don't do it on public streets."

This isn't the first time law enforcement has made an effort to officially target street racing though.

In 2007, Ontario passed laws as part of the Safer Roads for a Safer Ontario Act that are still regarded as being some of the most intense surrounding street racing in North America. Among other penalties, this increased the maximum fine for a street-racing conviction from $1,000 to $10,000. It also made it possible for police to immediately suspend licences and impound cars (for a period of seven days) of drivers going 50 km/h or more over the speed limit. Pattensen says that it's also possible for officers to impound vehicles permanently in some situations.


However, these charges don't always lead to convictions. In 2007, two men driving modified Hondas were involved in a street-racing accident that killed an 8-year-old girl in Richmond Hill, Ont. of York Region. They were able to avoid jail time even under the newly implemented law. The CBC reported in 2008 that less than a third of those charged under the new street-racing laws were convicted in the year following the implementation of the laws.

2007 was also when Jenelle ended her involvement with racing.

"My dad told me I just needed to stop driving, so I moved downtown," Jenelle says. In a place like Vaughan, you have to drive to get around. Downtown, it's often easier to take transit, so Jenelle eliminated the need for a car.

"I'm still the person in my group of friends who likes to drive…the only thing that stopped was the stupidity," she says. Even though her days of going up to 260 km/h in her modified Japanese car are over, she still has the special steering wheel from it in her parents' garage.

*Name changed for anonymity purposes