This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
For most race-car drivers, having an accident on the track is pretty much the worst-case scenario. But in banger racing, ramming your vehicle into a competitor’s is not only tolerated, it might win you an award. Born in the 1970s and mostly popular in the UK, Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands, the sport involves driving salvaged cars around oval-shaped tracks while other competitors try to sabotage you with wildly dangerous crashes.
One of these tracks was built in the unassuming village of Warneton, western Belgium, by a community of banger fans. Dubbed the Speedway, the race track also hosts other events, including car rallies, but it’s mostly a place for banger racers to come together, settle scores and win bragging rights.
Belgian director and photographer Julien Henry immersed himself in the world of deafening engines, grease and adrenaline for a recent project. After orbiting the scene for a few years, he ended up capturing the community both in photographs and in his upcoming fictional short film, Lynx (in French). We asked him what drew him to the sport and why people love it, despite all the risks.
VICE: Hi Julien, who are the people you photographed?
Julien: They are passionate about cars – actually, about destroying them more than anything. Most of them are mechanics, lorry drivers or scrap metal collectors.
What happens during a race?
First, people get a hold of old, beat-up cars. They salvage them, repair them, repaint them and send them out onto the tracks. The goal is either to do as many laps as possible without the car breaking down, or to cause the biggest crashes by causing other cars to drive into the walls surrounding the tracks. All this happens at 80 to 110km per hour. You have multiple categories and awards – for the best-looking car, for the car that destroyed the best-looking car, for the fastest, for the most spectacular crash and much more.
The race starts in the morning with the presentation of the cars, as drivers stand on top of their vehicle. It’s divided into three rounds, with about two hours in between. These breaks give participants the chance to try to repair their cars. You have cars that get completely crushed against the wall during the first round, so people hook them onto trucks with chains and straighten them out, they open up the engine, take it apart, put it back together and try to get the car back on the Speedway. You’d never think those old bangers would still drive, but they do. It’s unbelievable. Even if they do only one lap, it’s a victory.
Where do racers find these cars?
Mainly from ads that members of the community tag each other in. They spend huge amounts of time doing them up, only for them to be completely wrecked after the first 500 metres. I think it’s really interesting that they’re giving these cars destined for the scrapyard one final lap of glory.
How long have these tracks at Warneton existed?
In Belgium, there used to be three of these tracks, all created in the 1970s, but the Speedway is the only one left.
How badly do drivers get injured?
They’re very concerned about safety, but everything – or almost everything – is allowed during the race. No one has ever died, but a lot of people end up with displaced vertebrae, collapsed lungs and broken limbs.
So why do you think they do it?
They’ll tell you it’s for the adrenaline, to feel alive. They’re fearless, but there’s still some apprehension before getting on the track. When they start driving they completely unplug their brains. If you think about it too much, you just won’t drive into someone at over 100km an hour. Then again, these people haven’t necessarily had easy lives. This region has a high rate of unemployment, with single-crop fields as far as the eye can see, and not a lot to do. It’s a way to release some of that anger. Nobody fights around the Speedway, everything gets settled on the tracks.
Just to give you an example, one guy had his car stolen from his garage. He knew who did it, but didn’t confront them – they settled the score in the race. That’s how it goes. It’s a true passion, a way of life. It gives them the chance to be a part of something and to shine. People get a reputation for their spectacular crashes – there’s a crowd of 6,000 cheering you on. The rewards are mostly symbolic, though; all they actually win is a plastic trophy.
It’s like the track is the centre of the community.
Exactly. This is like their church. It’s where kids learn how to drive and learn about mechanics. It’s where all kinds of rites of passage take place – baptisms, weddings, and when someone is ill or dies, people go around collecting money for the family. I’ve rarely ever seen a community as united as these people are.
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