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.

On our own now, we drive east, toward lights and civilization. There's no sign of the CXI crowd, and Steven doesn't miss them. While they were around, none of the other imports would dare to race his Subaru. Imprezas are rare, and people overestimate the car's power when it's clumped with those 'Vettes. The thing to do, he explains, is to find other cars in his class, then cruise with them, accumulating a big pack of import racers with no civilians to muck things up.

Steven shows me how to distinguish racers from civvies. The cars with stickers across the tops of their windshields are definitely looking for action, but also the ones with fat tailpipes or colored fog lights or badges on back announcing equipment not standard from the factory. And then there are the "stealth racers," the ones he recognizes only because he has seen them race before. He points out a silver Acura sedan with no stickers or badges, no clues to its secret life.

An oncoming car with fog lights pulls into the U-turn lane. Another import is joining us; we're starting to build a pack. But it's only a beginning. This time of night, Steven laments, it's just a lot of U-turns.

Near the 610 Loop, we head back west, back toward the wide-open spaces. A Civic hatchback pulls alongside us and begins a stop-and-start, brake-tap dance -- an invitation to race. Steven brightens. Beside the car, at the next red light, he floors the gas. I'm thrown deep into my seat; the Subaru's motor whines aggressively, a mosquito declaring war. We pull a few inches ahead, but Steven misses a shift, and in a split second the Civic surges past. In maybe five seconds the race is over, our top speed around 50 mph.

Dejected, Steven slows to the speed limit. It's one thing to lose to a car that outclasses his, but he hates losing because of a driving mistake. He apologizes, but I've hardly noticed that we lost. I'm still exhilarated, drunk on acceleration.

We cruise past Babies R Us. A few months ago hundreds of import racers would park there; it was like a gigantic underground car show. But Babies R Us hired a security guard who ran everyone off, and since then, the import drivers haven't really regrouped. Here and there, Steven spots little clumps of imports parked three or four at a time in the strip-mall lots.

We cruise a few more long laps, up and down Westheimer, looking for races, looking at cars, waiting for a crowd to gather at the Shell station. Steven says he usually doesn't tell prospective girlfriends about his car -- it might scare them away -- and the women he has told didn't understand at all. Isn't street racing illegal? You mean, you don't turn the a/c on in the summer? And what's with the yellow film on your windows? Girls like Amanda, he says, they're pretty rare.

Around two-thirty we decide to try the Shell station one last time. There'll be racing out here till dawn, but Steven needs to get home for a few hours' sleep. Tomorrow morning he's planning to compete in the Stock Car Club of America race, a performance competition that involves driving around pylons. It's in Hitchcock, so he'll have to leave his house at six-thirty -- that is, in about four hours.

This time we're in luck: There are cars in the Shell lot. At the stoplight, we pull into the left-turn lane, behind a line of other racers, and wait for the green arrow. Steven laughs about this obedience to the traffic rules: We're out in the dark middle of nowhere, no cops or civilians visible for miles, about to break the law by racing -- and those drivers hesitate to make an illegal left-hand turn?

When the light finally changes, the cars in front of us turn left onto the side street, then pull into the Shell. Steven instead U-turns on Westheimer and stops in front of the station. It's a clear challenge to anybody there, a declaration that he's ready to race any car -- domestic, import, turbo, whatever. We sit there for a couple of minutes, waiting, but no one pulls alongside us. Steven shrugs, disappointed.

He parks just inside the Shell's exit onto Westheimer, facing the street, and when we get out he leaves the engine running and the doors unlocked. If the crowd scatters, he warns me, dive back in the car. It means the cops are here.

After a few minutes three imports line up on Westheimer, one in each eastbound lane. An Asian teenager stands in the road, a few feet in front of the cars, his arm outstretched. He slices the air -- Go! -- and the cars zoom off.

In theory, the race is a quarter-mile, but hardly anybody runs it that precisely. When it's obvious that you've lost, Steven explains, you give up, let off the gas. And if you're neck and neck after a quarter-mile, well, you keep accelerating till it's obvious who's won. In a race like that, an import might hit 90 miles an hour, even 100.

We watch three Civic hatchbacks, all SIs: a good race, evenly matched, won by a white-blue car Steven hasn't seen out here before. Every few minutes a new race starts, sometimes between two cars, usually three.

A guy driving an Avalon keeps losing, but keeps returning for more races. Sometimes a winner turns on his hazard lights, the equivalent of dancing at the goalpost. Steven thinks that's okay if you beat a car that's significantly better than yours -- say, if his Subaru beats a domestic -- but rude if you're in the same class, and completely obnoxious if your car is significantly better. The Lexus blowing nitrous against the pathetic Avalon? No way that guy should blink his hazards if he wins; he's got no right.

By now around 30 people are standing outside at the Shell. They're mostly in their teens and twenties, mostly white and Asian, mostly racers; three short-skirted women seem to have drifted here from the Richmond clubs. Back toward the gas pumps, a hood is propped open, and a cluster of white guys is admiring someone's modified engine.

A Buick Regal pulls into the Shell. It belongs to Trish, one of the rare female street racers -- in her forties, Steven says, married with kids. He limps over to talk. They're discussing pistons when the crowd scatters.

I can't tell where the signal came from. Maybe somebody heard something on a police scanner; maybe somebody yelled "Cops!" just for the hell of it, to watch us all run.

And run we do. I sprint back to the Subaru. Steven's close behind me, never mind his bad ankle. His Subaru is one of the first cars out of the lot, and we cruise east at the head of a huge pack of fleeing racers. Steven and I are both grinning like juvenile delinquents.

Close to James Coney Island he spots Kevin's car in the oncoming traffic. The 'Vette U-turns and catches up to us in seconds. "Where've you been?" Kevin yells out his window. We missed the serious action: A pack of 'Vettes commandeered I-10 -- that is, they formed a rolling blockade, one 'Vette in each lane of the highway, running at about 30 miles an hour so that civilian traffic backed up behind them. When enough freeway yawned open ahead, the 'Vettes took off. Twenty of them! Kevin exults. He hit 170!

From the passenger seat, Amanda waves: an import girl swept away by domestic royalty. But I don't feel bad about having missed the spectacle, the thundering herd of 'Vettes running full-throttle, blowing nitrous, in all their glory. Of course they're powerful; of course they're fast. I expect speed from a 'Vette.

I don't expect it from an import -- from an Impreza or a Del Sol or a Civic hatchback. The domestic drivers are right: Imports are relatively cheap, and relatively slow, and their tiny engines do whine. The most impressive thing about an import is its driver's willingness to race, even if he's not in the top rank, for the plain joy of racing.

At James Coney Island Steven lets me out at my car. It's around 3 a.m. We haven't won any races. And that's fine.

E-mail Lisa Gray at lisagray@alumni.rice.edu.

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