By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Around 1 a.m. Corvettes jam James Coney Island's front parking lot, displaying their low-slung, curvaceous selves to be admired by all the world -- or at least by all the world cruising Westheimer late on a Saturday night, all the speed aficionados and car fiends and street racers waiting for the action to begin. I park my dirty Civic off to one side, where it's not so noticeable.
Stickers on the 'Vettes proclaim their loyalty to CXI, or Conversion Xtra's, Inc., a speed shop that, like most, offers not just modifications for the car but a social circle for the driver. CXI specializes in fast domestics, 'Vettes and Mustangs, the royalty of the street-racing scene; these 'Vettes probably constitute the fastest group on Westheimer tonight. The 'Vette drivers are mostly in their thirties and forties, well groomed, their hair neatly trimmed. They look like what they are: professional men, lawyers and realtors and such. They cluster near the front windows, talking about their latest mods, occasionally glancing out the window for the reassuring sight of their 'Vettes.
I'm here with Amanda Lillard, the girlfriend of one of the CXI guys, but also a racer in her own right. Amanda is 21, blond and extraordinarily enthusiastic about cars; on the street and in the speed shops, you hear that she's "the fastest girl on Westheimer." Amanda adores her little red Del Sol, with its big SGP Racing stickers on the doors, its rims and its exhaust system and its souped-up engine. But though it's one of the fastest imports on the street, her Honda isn't in the same league as these domestics. Out on a track, her car can hit 100 mph; her boyfriend, Kevin Peters, drives a 'Vette that can do twice that. Amanda describes her relationship with Kevin -- an import girl with a domestic guy! -- as if she were Cinderella, amazed to have landed a prince. Kevin's silver car, with its custom-made wing and racing-flag diamonds painted across its butt, stands out even among the Corvette royalty; it's easily the toughest-looking 'Vette in the lot. Tonight Amanda's riding shotgun.
While Kevin orders food, Phil Twadjorski, CXI's owner, flirts shamelessly with Amanda and me, punctuating his jokes with quick little ladies'-man eyebrow lifts. The other CXI guys seem pleased simply to see Amanda. They like it that she's honestly interested in their 'Vettes, that she knows when to be impressed. Normally domestic drivers make fun of imports -- the running joke is that the foreign little engines are powered by rubber bands -- but the CXI guys don't pick on Amanda. A 1.6-liter engine is fine for a girl.
Steven Hofle limps into the restaurant on a broken ankle, and Amanda chats and laughs with him, too. Steven hangs out with the CXI guys, but he's not a 'Vette racer, doesn't even drive a domestic. Sometimes Amanda defends him when the CXI guys make fun of his Subaru, a '98 Impreza RS. "Us import drivers gotta stick together," she declares. She decides that I should ride with Steven tonight; I obviously can't keep up in my wheezing Civic.
Around one-fifteen the CXI contingent rouses itself and rumbles back onto Westheimer, a thundering herd of 'Vettes and Steven's game little Subaru. Steven seems glad for my company. He's a talker, a natural-born tour guide, happy to explain the exotic customs of his adopted habitat. Cruising Westheimer, waiting for the action to start, can get boring when he's alone.
Kevin's 'Vette pulls alongside us, its roar punctuated by two clicks. Steven shakes his head; he recognizes the clicks as the sound of a particular valve, the one attached to the nitrous oxide tank snuggled in Kevin's trunk. A nitrous system allows a car's engine to burn something like rocket fuel; nitrous is an automotive amphetamine, the street-racing equivalent of Popeye's spinach. If he were racing and heard those clicks, Steven would know right then that he'd lost; his Impreza couldn't possibly keep up.
We are driving west, toward a particular Shell station out where the strip malls give way to grass. On Westheimer, he explains, there are two kinds of street racing: the rolling races that you pick up while cruising, and the more organized ones, three cars at a time from a dead stop, that start at the Shell.
Steven's radar detector beeps every couple of minutes, and sometimes squeals a weird high-pitched ee-ee-ee-ee; he thinks maybe it's detecting cell phones. The cops usually patrol Westheimer heavily until about 2 a.m., when the clubs on Richmond close; then the cops chase drunks, not racers. He spots one cop lurking off a side road, another ticketing a speeder. A pair of black-and-whites are parked side by side in a strip-mall parking lot. We don't have to worry about them, Steven says; they're chatting with each other, deciding where to get doughnuts.
A mile or two from the Shell, we see flashing lights down the road -- cops at the race site? -- and the 'Vettes U-turn, heading back toward 610. But Steven and I continue west. Even if the cops have descended on the station, he wants me to see the place. As it turns out, no one's there at all: no cops, no racers. The flashing lights are miles down the road.