In early April, under a dark California sky, Jeremy was rolling at a leisurely 40 mph (65 km/h) when his juiced-up BMW slowly came into line with an almost identical car.
The two drivers lined up mirror-to-mirror and Jeremy rolled down his window. He caught the opposing driver's eye and gave a thumbs up and the two ripped down the asphalt. Jeremy's car engine is naturally aspirated, whereas the other car has a turbo—so, obviously, they had to see which one was faster.
Because of COVID-19, the public highway had turned into their own private racetrack to settle their differences. The Beamers went head to head three times over a four-mile stretch, with Jeremy winning twice, pushing speeds up to 150 mph (240 km/h). They didn’t see another vehicle the entire time.
“It was quite literally empty,” Jeremy told VICE. “I couldn't see a single light ahead of me or behind me.”
Jeremy [we’re not using his real name because he’s partaking in illegal activity] is just one of many gearheads taking to the pavement to see what their cars can do now that the coronavirus pandemic has cleared the streets and highways. Police worldwide are saying they're seeing an inverse relationship between the amount of traffic on the road and how fast cars are going. Speeding, stunting, and street racing are on the rise.
VICE spoke to street racers from around the world who all say the same thing: It’s a great time to have a fast-as-hell car and no respect for speed limits. That said, with fewer people on the roads, it has never been easier to be caught by the cops for racing, either. Jurisdictions across North America have reported that despite an astronomical drop off in traffic, there has been a massive increase in speeding tickets, compared to this time last year, For example, from March 15 to 31, Toronto police saw a 35 percent increase in speeding tickets and an almost 200 percent increase in stunt driving. It’s gotten to the point where police officers from all over are posting images of their radar guns to shame the drivers, and public officials are speaking out against street racers.
Fast enough to outrun a cop chopper
While takeovers—the Fast and the Furious-esque meetings in which racers and fans take over a public street—have been pretty much cancelled, the racers told VICE the meet-ups among clubs and racing random people you find on the highway seem to be up.
"It seems like the racing has picked up from racing two nights a week to about five or six nights a week," one racer said. "It's because people are really bored and this is one activity we can do without coming into contact with one another. It's also due to the roads being a lot more empty."
The racer said that, in the location they race, the changing of the season has also played a part because "now everyone has their summer tires on and their wheels don't spin."
The growth in street racing is happening outside of North America as well. A man who runs a popular street bike YouTube channel in India told VICE that when he goes out for a morning ride, there are far more strangers challenging him to race, either because of boredom or the empty streets. He's happily obliging the challengers.
Jeremy told VICE he went to several racing meet-ups this month, each having anywhere between 20 to 40 cars, most of them racers. Going out under the cover of darkness, the racers typically drive to a spot, run as many races as they can for 30 minutes to an hour and then move on in an attempt to avoid the attention of police.
The empty roads mean the racers have a lot more to work with and people are opening their cars up unlike ever before. Jeremy said everyone's “speeds are higher than usual."
“The intensity, the adrenaline rush, is even bigger now. It's just a different feeling,” he said. “Before, once you push it past 150, you know, you see a car in the distance you gotta start slowing down. There's nothing in the distance now. It's at the point where you don't see any lights behind you or in front of you except for the people you're with. So you're just free to go as fast as you want.“
With so little traffic and so much speed Jeremy said he thinks racers would even be able to outrun police trying to catch them using helicopters.
"Right now, I've been seeing people going 180 (190 km/h) to 200 (320 km/h). Obviously a helicopter is not going to keep up," he said.
Cannonball Run controversy
It’s not just quick races that have taken off during the pandemic, there have also been developments in long-distance racing. Recently the record for the famed Cannonball Run, the illegal cross-country race from New York City to Los Angeles most people know from the 1981 Burt Reynolds and Roger Moore movie, was broken by a team of racers who made the trip in 26 hours and 38 minutes. The crew drove a 2019 Audi with plastic fuel tanks in the back to limit their need to fill up and took advantage of the empty roads to shatter the previous record, set less than a year ago, by over 45 minutes.
Some competitors, upset by the lack of traffic the new record holders faced, are saying the new time isn’t legitimate or, at the very least, deserves an asterisk. Former record holder Ed Bolian told VICE he verified the new record himself and considers it legit, but acknowledges it's unique to this time.
“It's something that we've never encountered, where really, the entire world was shut down. That's a unique and novel advantage,” said Bolian. "That being said, there are no rules in cross-country road-racing. And so it's not that it's not a legitimate record. The question is, does that become the mark to beat?“
The record was not meant to be made public, at least not yet. The only reason the public knows is because a post showing the car and announcing the time leaked from Facebook. It's not just because they didn't want to draw the public's ire, Bolian said, but typically people who do the run stay quiet until the statute of limitations for driving-related infractions in the states they passed through are over.
Bolian said there have already been more runs. The former record holder acknowledged that, while the risks from traffic are significantly decreased, possibly spreading the coronavirus, distracting law enforcement, and interfering with first responders make street racing not worth it right now.
“Most of us in the community recognize that, yeah, this could be an advantage but this is really not the time to be doing something like this,” said Bolian.
‘Feels like you’re floating’
The mixture of limited traffic in normally busy areas and drivers yearning to see how fast they can push their car has already proven to be a fatal cocktail. On March 30, three men in their early 30s were killed in Los Angeles during a street race when two BMWs, not unlike Jeremy’s, collided. In Toronto, on the same day as the L.A. crash, a Range Rover slammed into a faux-Roman column outside of Exhibition Place, a Toronto event space. Police said there were no skid marks leading up to the crash site and the SUV was going up to 160 km/h (100 mph) in a 30 km/h (roughly 18 mph) zone. The driver was killed.
Sgt. Jason Kraft, a Toronto Police media spokesperson, told VICE that anytime anyone engages in street racing it dramatically increases the likelihood of a crash for a completely preventable reason.
“We're already seeing from our hospitals and our care providers, they're anecdotally at capacity,” said Kraft. “So anything that we can do and prevent unnecessary visits to the hospital or taking away from those essential resources is something that we all have to be mindful of and we all have a responsibility towards.”
For the racers though, the risks are worth it.
“It's not everyone's cup of tea but there is just something about being inside the car and going that fast,” said Jeremy. “It literally just feels like you're floating.”
This isn't to say street racers aren't aware of the virus and the dangers that surround it. They say they are doing their part in at least one way. Past meet-ups were raucous affairs, Jeremy said, with people mingling about, talking, and challenging each other. However, much like the traffic levels on the highway, COVID-19 has changed that as well.
“The people that are just there to spectate, they don't even get out of the car anymore,” said Jeremy. “At the actual meet-up spot, they're just driving around with their windows open. So, yeah, I've noticed that people are keeping with social distancing.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.