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Meet the Illegal Moped Racers of Jakarta

"You can never get enough of the adrenaline rush. And being on a chase with a cop makes a race a lot more fun."
October 8, 2015, 12:00am

All photos by the author

Like most places, Indonesia is home to young men who get off on fast driving. In Jakarta, the nation's capital, roadside mechanics provide a place for friends interested in balapan liar (illegal racing) to meet and trick out their bikes. This is how race teams develop, with drivers (they call them jockeys) nominated to represent the shop.

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The race at night in city backstreets, with teams squaring off for money, status, and allegedly girls. But accidents are frequent and jockeys are sometimes killed in accidents. This is one of the reasons Jakarta has recently cracked down on balapan liar, with the local council considering whether to build a legal race track. With the cops paying increased attention to them, many racers are laying low for the time being. We caught up with three of them to talk about racing, winning, and what they think of law enforcement's efforts to shut them down.

Andri, 19

VICE: Hey Andri, can you take me through how a race gets organized?
Andri: Say I have a workshop and Amoy has a workshop as well. What happens is that Amoy's middleman comes over and they're like, You want to play with us? Before I say yes or no, I look at my bike's stats. If they're below Amoy's, then it's a no. But if they're exactly the same, then we're game. We call it proposing. Amoy's middleman proposes to me. From there, Amoy's middleman and my middleman settle on the bet. Amoy might throw in IDR 200,000 (about $15) as a wager. Price depends on the head count. If Amoy flakes out, then we take his 200,000.


After that?
Then we'll meet up at the agreed spot. Say, a shopping center. We've also by then decided on the exact time and the distance. Then we'll start the race.

How many people participate?
It depends. Could be 20 or 30. Considering the number of passersby who would like to join, the numbers greatly vary.

Do people win money for themselves or for their workshop?
For the workshop. Nobody—unless they don't belong to a workshop—wins for themselves. The individuals merely gain satisfaction. On top of that, the name of the workshop becomes famous and so does the jockey. Whoa, this bike rules—we'll never stand a chance, people will say. For the losers, they'll usually check their bikes until the stats are better than the opponents.

Are there any female drivers?
Yes, but not so many.

I've noticed how quiet the scene is at the moment. This is because of the cops?
Yes, it's become hard. The cops used to only scare us. Now they use tear gas to split us up.

Yes, first the cops try to scare us away, so we'll oblige… for a while. After they leave, we reconvene and replay the race. Then the cops start to get really pissed and start firing tear gas.

That's pretty nuts.
They only use it to disperse the race. From there on, we split and move to another track in east Jakarta.

Pei, 23

I heard the race is usually between folks from different automobile workshops.
Pei: It mostly is, but not always. Sometimes we see a couple of our friends and we often invite them out to race with us.


Do you guys bet on every race?
Absolutely, but how much depends on the agreement. Either the opponent decides or we decide, but we always agree on things before starting a race.

Have you ever been caught by the police?
I was caught by a cop. It was about a week ago.

What did they do to you?
They asked for credentials—driver's license, car license, ID, you know, the usual sort of stuff.

Why do you race?
It's my hobby! You can never get enough of the adrenaline rush. And being on a chase with a cop makes a race a lot more fun.

What kind of bikes do you guys usually use for a race?
Custom-made. We gather the spare parts from different shops. But the skeletal form of the bike itself is already the mass-produced one; we just add the spare parts to increase the speed.

Sam, 24

How do you feel about the fact this is illegal?
Sam: Drag racing has always been a part of this city. We've been doing this in the streets of Kemayoran for a long time, since early 2000s to be exact.

So why do you think the police are so against drag racing?
It disturbs people, I guess. People need to rest don't they? Because we usually do this thing at, like, 2 or 3 AM.

Outside of racing, do opposing workshops fight?
No, it's all cool outside of racing. The cops are the only ones who have a problem with us.

But I've heard they won't arrest you?
Yeah, they only ask for our papers. When we have them all, then we're scot free. The most important thing is that our bikes are legal. They don't even make us pay. Unless we do criminal stuff, which we don't.


Do you ever race drunk?
No, never.

I take it accidents happen a lot.
Yeah, every time [laughs].

Has anyone died while racing?
Several times, actually. From the time it started until now, people either die or become paralyzed. That's why we try to race cleanly.

Have you ever been caught by the police or involved in a crash?
I got into a crash actually. Almost broke a leg. I was being chased by the cops and totalled my bike. That was about two years ago.

Was it worth it?
Not really but we see no reason to stop now. It's not even about the money. The most important prize is self-satisfaction. We feel elated when our bikes win.

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