Midnight Mayhem actually begins at 10 p.m., and its violence is
generally limited to blown engines and dropped
transmissions--although a Porsche 911 once spontaneously
combusted in the parking lot, to the delight of everyone but its
owner. Otherwise, the spectacle of amateur drag racing on a
pro-groomed strip is exactly what it sounds like: a mad, loud,
brutish assault on land speed records, insofar as spidery Honda
CRXs and lumbering Escalades can be tweaked toward 12-second
It happens every other Friday night just north of Las Vegas, at
an elevation sufficient for the teens who line up in their
Supras and Mustangs at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to look out
at the other Strip in the desert, a twinkling neon avenue where
the top speed--this is so sad--can't be more than 20 mph. The
teens (not everyone is an adolescent, actually; some middle-aged
couples wait in Corvettes, reliving a rather strange date night)
idle in a 400-vehicle promenade of horsepower, everything from
old-school muscle cars to feather-light imports.
Soon enough, though, they're signaled two at a time to the
starting line. The light drops green, their tires squeal, and
they're off into the night--80, 90, 130 mph, disappearing down
the strip in a warp-speed effect. Then they get back in the
growling line of cars and do it again, and again, until the track
closes at 2 a.m.
Even for Vegas, which reinvents itself seasonally, Midnight
Mayhem is an upstart tradition. This is only its third year. It
began when the ever-entrepreneurial folks at Las Vegas Motor
Speedway, which has more than a dozen tracks, including the drag
strip and a 1.5-mile superspeedway, were thinking about new ways
to keep their facility lit. Those folks make their nut with one
NASCAR event every March; kids paying $10 a pop to use the drag
strip (fans pay $5 to watch) are hardly going to swamp the till.
Mostly it occurred to Speedway officials that here was this
wonderful venue, yet kids were turning industrial parking lots
and fresh-paved suburban straightaways into the far deadlier set
of The Fast and the Furious.
When those officials floated the idea of institutionalizing
illegal street racing, there was some resistance from the racers.
The fun of it, for at least some, is that it's illegal. The
explosive growth of Las Vegas, which has created hard-to-police
desert thoroughfares, makes for one of the biggest street-racing
cultures in the country. And at least some of its appeal is its
scant regard for minimum ages and maximum speeds.
It is nothing, say Las Vegas Metro police officers, for 1,200
cars to materialize at a Terrible Herbst gas station, then just
as quickly disperse and regroup on the beltway or some eight-lane
strip somewhere else under the Nevada moonlight. According to
Juddi Lin, who was a mainstay at these events until she cracked
up her car and got $1,300 in fines, it was just like the movies:
racing six abreast sometimes, as much as $5,000 on the line when
wildly illegal eight-second race cars appear, then scattering
into the night air when the troopers arrive. "It's crazy," Lin
says. "The street racers end up off-roading for hours, driving
along railroad tracks to get away. Except the cops have
Police sergeant Keith Bowers says the city has been lucky, with
only one death it can attribute to street racing. (San Diego has
had 16.) But that low number can't hold as the problem continues
to grow. When a street race draws 3,000 people--with strippers
performing and bartenders serving--it is impossible to police,
even when it can be located. "We couldn't even get to the races,"
Bowers says. "They'd just block the way."
Midnight Mayhem, for Lin and the 400 other racers who show up on
Friday nights, is better, safer and much cheaper (especially
after the city passed an ordinance in March authorizing fines up
to $1,000 for spectators at illegal street races). The drivers
simply show up, beginning at 9 p.m. (there is a safety check, and
an inspection to determine whether the car is street legal),
choose an opponent if they wish, peel out and get in line.
They don't even need to make their times public; many cars are
suspiciously chalked N/T (no time), which indicates that Midnight
Mayhem may not have replaced illegal street racing as much as it
has become a preliminary for it. "We can't kid ourselves," says
Highway Patrol trooper Angie Wolff.
It is, in any case, a fascinating assembly. On any given race
night you will see a wide variety of wheeled transportation
adapted to sprints yet still capable of milk runs: everything
from Mom's minivan (not so many) to a yellow Dodge Viper (not so
many) and every kind of import and muscle car in between (mostly
these). Some are almost show cars, humming in their ghostly
queue, their undercarriages lit by green neon. Many more are
simply heaps of almost indeterminate badge, primer-coated,
crusted with Bondo, hoods missing, but throttling at a sound
level indicating that more care has been taken with the moving
parts. As Speedway spokesman John Bisci points out, "You
sometimes have to make a choice, do you want to look good or go
The fans who gather for these events, as many as 2,500, enjoy a
kind of underage club (no alcohol served, though there is a DJ
and other ancillary attractions) and clearly favor the more
plebeian rides. The poor fellow with the yellow Dodge Viper seems
to arouse the underdog spirit beyond all proportion to his
enviable means. The fans gather at the rail and howl in
satisfaction when he's inevitably beaten by an import that sounds
like a chain saw. "They hate the yellow Viper," Bisci says. "Hate
It is much easier to cheer old Chevelles, deceptive Dodge
compacts, little Civics. Even pickup trucks. Two diesels square
off and, depleting the ozone layer and national oil reserves
alike, chug away under a cloud of black smoke. Two Escalades, one
burdened with an arena-strength sound system, the other with
seven flat video screens inside, pair up. (Audio wins; it was
turbocharged.) Much more popular is the gray-primered 1970 Camaro
with the license propped up on the dashboard. Goes pretty good,
A new white Supra, though, feels too store-bought to appeal to
this crowd. The driver squirrels it around in the water box
(show-off!), revs menacingly at the light and then, right at the
green, seizes up, dead. This is not the only Las Vegas strip
joint where a rear end has gone out on a Friday night, but it's
probably the only one where the event draws a two-minute standing
ovation. "Bringing your mama's car to the strip," sighs the
public address announcer. "Sounds good, looks good...." The crowd
And so it goes, into the wee hours, the fumes of so much
acceleration forming a petroleum mist over the track, the whining
buzz of four-cylinders underscoring the throatier roar of V-8s.
They just keep going, two by two, as fast as they can.
For more about sports in Nevada and the other 49 states, go to
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK SUBSTANCE OVER STYLE Drag racing fans root for the older cars, whose owners have put the most time into what's under the hood (if there is one).
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK GO! The speedway has made an illicit thrill legal.
COLOR PHOTO: WORTH CANOY/ICON SMI (NASCAR) OPEN HOUSE The LVMS makes enough off NASCAR to light the strip for drag racers such as Lin and even motorcyclists.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS [See caption above]
On any given race night you will see everything from Mom's
minivan to a yellow Dodge Viper and every kind of import and
muscle car in between.