Vanz Boys _ illegal street racers riding for girls and glory
Teen motorcycle gangs tear up quiet city streets on their modified rides, revelling in the thrills and danger. And those charged with keeping the peace say there is little chance of slowing them down
"Even though we try to avoid the police they are part of the thrill," says 22-year-old motorcycle street racer Aod.
AND THE GIRLS WHO LOVE THEM: Vanz boys ride to a race site on Father’s Day with their ‘sagoi’ girls on the backs of their bikes. The girls, who are attracted to dangerous boys, get off the bikes before the races start. (Photo by Pornprom Sarttarbhaya)
"Those who are fast enough to get away from the police are considered heroes. We have an expression among our group _ 'no cops, no fun'."
Aod is a former member of a gang of young men from Klong Toey who race modified motorcycles for excitement, prestige and the right to have the pick of the prettiest girls who idolise the street racers. Collectively, they are known as Vanz Boys _ pronounced whaanz, the sound the hotted-up motorbikes make when the throttle is gunned.
Holidays like Father's Day this past Wednesday are major occasions for the Vanz Boys as they like to race then and on Friday and Saturday nights, often with the approval and understanding of police who will let them drag on city streets as long as they don't go past midnight.
About 100 motorcyclists were out in force in the early hours of Thursday morning following Father's Day, doing stunts on Kanchanapisek Rd in Taling Chan district when a 17-year-old girl died when she fell off the back of a bike and was run over by a truck.
But in recent weeks there has been a violent side to the duelling gangs.
On Nov 10, three young men were shot dead and four others injured as they were chased by a rival gang through Thon Buri and Chom Thong districts. A 15-year-old boy slightly wounded in the attack said the other gang chased them after insults were exchanged.
Last weekend, there was a shootout at the Rama 2 Hospital in Bang Khun Thian district when an emergency worker was mistaken for a gang rival. The motorcycle gang members opened fire on the emergency worker's truck. A 17-year-old girl in the truck suffered a neck wound. The gang followed the vehicle to the hospital and shot at the truck as it tried to park.
Spectrum spoke to former gang members, "trophy" girls, police, psychologists and mechanics who do work on modifying the small-engined motorcycles _ some can hit speeds up to 160km per hour _ to try and understand the mentality of the boy racers.
I WAS A VANZ BOY
Aod (not his real name), who has retired from the gang scene in Klong Toey, raced motorbikes for three years. He says there are two simple reasons for racing: girls and peer fame.
"The girls that are attracted to Vanz Boys are called sagoi girls," says Aod. "These girls are studying in junior high school and vocational colleges."
"Sagoi girls come to watch the bike races and are also the girlfriends of Vanz boys. The boys with the fastest bikes usually get a lot of girls. We sometimes race with another gang to improve our reputation as well as to win new girlfriends, but we don't steal each others' girlfriends within our group."
Aod joined the gang when he was 16 years old. He says they have 30-50 members at any given time with riders usually carrying a pillion passenger. Aod's gang has no name, but gangs are often known by the motorcycle shop that does the modifications, which consists of stripping the bike of excess weight and beefing up the horsepower of small-sized engines.
SHATTERED PEACE: This glass wall was broken in a shootout at the Rama 2 Hospital in Bang Khun Thian district when an emergency worker was mistaken for a gang rival by a motorcycle racer. (Photo by Pornprom Sarttarbhaya)
Racing is on Friday and Saturday nights and public holidays like Father's Day, Songkran and New Year's Day.
"Part of it is because we know the police won't set up checkpoints on those days," he said. "I am not sure if it is still like that at the moment."
Aod says although they are often labelled "annoying brats" by the public and their parents, they have no qualms about blocking busy roads to stage their street races and are excited about trying to outrun police.
"The reason that Vanz Boys gangs block public roads to race bikes is that it's cool," he says. "Breaking the law and getting away with it is really cool.
"Another reason we use public roads for racing is they have the best conditions for racing and there are many shortcuts and detours we can use to get away from the police."
Aod said if they are stopped by police the gang sometimes pays 5,000 baht to be let go, but bribes are only paid to police they know well.
He admitted there are some criminal activities in the gang, but said he avoided drug sellers as he was only interested in high-speed racing.
"In my group there are some who sell drugs and use the gang as a channel to sell to other gang members. I don't really like those kind of people because I don't want to get involved with their activities," he said.
"The violence created by Vanz Boys is usually from the bigger gangs. All of the gang leaders, including mine, have a gun. Most of them use it to protect themselves from other gangs. It can also be used to issue a warning to other gang members that there is a police checkpoint ahead by firing a shot in the air."
Aod says there is no fear of accidents among gang members, and having a scar is considered a badge of honour.
He gave the racing away to concentrate on playing music at night clubs with his band. However, his biggest fear while he was a Vanz Boy was not the prospect of juvenile detention if caught by police, but the wrath of his parents.
His father never found out Aod was in a gang, but he did suspect he was involved in some form of illegal high-speed racing.
"I was racing in the gang for only three years before I quit," he said. "Part of it was because my father started to become suspicious as I had so many accidents. So he sold my bike and I didn't have one to use for races."
Aod said the ambition of all gang members was to be considered top dog and earn the right to race at the track at Rangsit-Nakorn Nayok Klong 5 where police allow riders with modified bikes to race. "Those who get to race there are considered the star racers," he said.
CONFESSIONS OF A SAGOI GIRL
Bee, 16, has only been on the Vanz Boys scene for a few months but she already understands the rules of attraction. The boy racers' dress code is skin-tight jeans with a black T-shirt while the sagoi girls are expected to wear cut-off jeans and skimpy tops.
"The boys think it's cool to get a girl to ride pillion," she says. "For me, they wouldn't look so cool without us on their bikes. I think they need us to make them look good."
PARTY’S OVER: police break up a race held last month on Loy Krathong night on Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road. Males arrested must take off their shirts so that police can distinguish between them and onlookers. (Photo by Pornprom Sarttarbhaya)
A friend took her to her first bike race on Rama III Road. Initially she was scared of the police but that fear soon disappeared when she ended up on the back of one of the Vanz Boys' motorbikes.
"I am not sure why I like it, but it is a good feeling to know that I get get to hang out with famous boys who have fast and beautiful bikes," she says. "Whoever wins the race gets to date me."
"I am quite scared of the police, but only because I don't want my parents to know about it.
"When I go out at night to watch the races, I usually tell them that I am hungry and I want to go out to eat noodles. By the time I came back, my mother is already asleep."
Bee says she still gets scared but adds: "Will I stop going with Vanz boys? I don't think so. At least not for a while."
PIMP MY RIDE
Spectrum was put into contact with a motorcycle modifier who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity. He is a former Vanz Boy himself and his sole business is hot-rodding motorbikes for street racing.
DRIVING FORCE: Pol Lt Col Sanong Seanmanee, a traffic police inspector at the Vibhavadi Rangsit traffic control centre and creator of the Vanz Laew Pai Nai project, with seized motorbikes.He sees it as a quid pro quo arrangement _ the better his bikes do in races, the more his reputation grows and the more business his Klong Ton shop attracts. The racers consider him the best modifier in Bangkok.''The Vanz kids who promote the modification shop will get a special rate from the shop,'' he says. (Photo by Pornprom Sarttarbhaya)
He says it costs 30,000 to 40,000 baht to modify a regular bike for street racing.
''The motorbikes that Vanz Boy gangs bring to modify are normal bikes that are sold in the market,'' he says. ''When we modify the bike for them, we do an engine tune-up, replace the power pistons, change the exhaust pipe to make the bike louder and adjust the engine from 125cc to be 150-180cc.
''The whole point is to make the bike as small and light as possible. Then other kinds of decoration can come later.
''The racing bike normally has nothing but the flat seat and small body of the bike that covers the engine. The wheels have to be as skinny as possible. We call this kind of bike tua lek [a small one].''
Jeeradetch ''Wat'' Jumpapan, 39, is a reformed modifier. Originally from Khon Kaen province, he moved to Bangkok in 1990 and worked for free at a motorcycle repair shop for several years before gaining enough experience to work as head mechanic for a major motorcycle company for four years.
Eventually he opened his own motorcycle repair business in Bang Mot and discovered his best customers were Vanz Boys.
HITTING THE BRAKES: NGO is a well-known motorcycle gang. These bikes were seized by police. (Photo by Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai)
''At first, I thought it was a great deal,'' he said. ''I was making at least 8,000-10,000 baht from each motorcycle I modified. There were more than 10 motorbikes from Vanz Boys for me to fix per month. But after a while, I realised it took a lot of time and energy.''
The Vanz Boys were too demanding in what they asked for in parts and modifications and Mr Jeeradetch spent a lot of time running around different shops to fill the orders. In the end, it wasn't worth it.
Another reason he stopped modifying motorbikes was the negative feedback from his community.
''My neighbours started to look at me in a bad way,'' he said. ''When I tested the engine to see if it is working, it made a really loud noise that annoyed the whole neighbourhood and during the testing session the engine released a lot of smoke that fouled the air.
''The bike owners also gave my shop a bad name. They were all young kids engaging in inappropriate behaviour for people their age such as smoking, using foul language, being loud and interrupting the privacy of my neighbours. They ended up scaring off my regular customers who wanted simple work done such as a flat tyre repaired or an oil change _ so I ended up have no other customers but the Vanz Boys.''
Mr Jeeradetch's shop now carries a police banner which discourages bike modifications.
THE POLICE STRATEGY
Bang Mot police station deputy superintendent and head of the traffic police's rapid-response centre Pol Lt Col Thawatchai Srisurang noticed the Vanz Boys were a major problem when he was assigned to the area four years ago.
''The No1 problem we had at that time was the Vanz Boy gang problem,'' he said. ''They did a lot of bike racing on Wutthakat Road. Even though they didn't harm anyone they blocked the whole street at about 2am which is illegal.''
Things changed when he ordered a major crackdown on one race night, blocking the main streets, shortcuts and detours and forcing the fleeing racers onto a bridge where they were blocked by a parked firetruck.
''There were around 80 motorcycles caught that night,'' he said. ''Since then there has been no more motorcycle racing in the Bang Mot police station area, but I know that all the kids who live in this area go out for the bike races somewhere else''.
Pol Lt Col Thawatchai has now taken what he thinks is an innovative approach by launching the Patrol Motorbike Clinic Project.
The project aims to kill two birds with one stone. Pol Lt Col Thawatchai said the police station has 16 working motorbikes which are old and need constant repairs. Many of the spare parts have been discontinued by the manufacturers.
Police came to the realisation that the best improviser when it came to bike repairs was Mr Jeeradetch, the racing bike modifier.
Pol Lt Col Thawatchai believes that having the police motorbikes repaired at Mr Jeeradetch's utilises the mechanic's skills for legal work and sends a message to Vanz Boys to keep away from the shop.
''Skills like his shouldn't be wasted and used to support illegal activity like the Vanz Boy gangs,'' he said.
Pol Lt Col Thawatchai said they had been ordered by the new police commander, Gen Adul Saengsingkaew, to clean up the motorcycle gangs by engaging the public.
He believes that stopping bike modification will address the problem at its roots. ''The gangs will have fewer motorcycles to use for racing if there is no one helping them with the modifications,'' he says.
Motorbike modification shops can also be charged for supporting the illegal racing.
Pol Lt Col Thawatchai also wants to conduct a door-knocking campaign to instruct families of known Vanz Boys on the illegality of street racing.
''Parents need to know that when the kids get arrested for racing, the parents are also guilty,'' he said.
''They can be charged for supporting the illegal activity.''
Pol Lt Col Sanong Seanmanee from the Vibhavadi-Rangsit traffic control centre has established the Vanz Laew Pai Nai (Where do the Vanz go?) project which aims to take the message into schools.
Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road is one of the main racing thoroughfares and Lt Col Sanong noticed that arrests were having little impact. ''One thing I noticed after so many arrests is that there are always new faces in the group,'' he said. ''For example, I arrest 100 people one week and the following week we arrest a whole new set of another 100 kids.''
Metropolitan Police Bureau policy requires officers who arrest motorcycle gang members to visit their homes for a follow-up once the court process is concluded. Lt Col Sanong said that after talking to the parents he realised a better solution may be to speak to schoolchildren in the area.
''When I go in the schools, I usually educate them on basic knowledge of the law,'' he said.
''These kids only know that riding a bike with no helmet and driving licence is illegal. What they don't know is that if they get arrested, their parents may face penalties of up to three months in prison with a fine up to 30,000 baht.''
Popular racing roads for Vanz Boys are Kanchanaphisek, Ratchaphruek, Rama III, Vibhavadi-Rangsit, Bang Na-Trat, Kaset-Nawamin, Suvinthawong, Chaeng Watthana, Sri Nakarin and Kamphaeng Phet 6.
Lt Col Sanong said they seize hundreds of motorbikes every week. ''I have been here for four years and this problem doesn't seem to get better,'' he added.
Normally the only law gang members break is blocking a public road for illegal racing, but Lt Col Sanong says the situation can quickly turn violent if trouble breaks out between rival gangs.
Gang numbers can swell to 400-600 on race night, and the majority of those arrested are aged under 18. Most of those arrested are spectators who are legally culpable for supporting the illegal activities of the racers and face the same penalties of a maximum three months' jail and a fine of up to 30,000 baht, Lt Col Sanong said.
Penalties for motorcycle modifiers are a maximum of two months' jail and a fine of 20,000 baht.
Lt Col Sanong warned against vigilantism after reports that frustrated motorists had attacked the Vanz Boys sparking payback.
''My best advice for people who happen to be in the middle of these kids while they race their bikes or get stuck in traffic during the race is to calm down and wait. Don't get furious or try to hurt them. Afterwards call 191 to report the incident.
''One good thing about them is that they only block the street for a very short period of time.
''Once they finish racing, they will move on and come back again much later.''
But Lt Col Sanong added that some Vanz Boys are slower to learn than others. One raced from 15 years of age until 30 when he was arrested and his face splashed across TV screens and newspapers.
He served three months in prison, but the real punishment was for his son who had to leave school because of the ridicule from other students.
''He thought his son shouldn't pay the price for what he did wrong and he quit racing bikes for good,'' said Lt Col Sanong
WILD ONES: A group of Vanz Boys take over the streets of Bangkok on Father’s Day. (Photo by Pornprom Sarttarbhaya)
RACING HORMONES GET TEENS ON THE ROAD
Praphaiphun Phoomvuthisarn, a retired lecturer from Chulalongkorn University and an expert in teen mental health, shared her expertise with Spectrum regarding the mentality that leads to street racing.
''As children enter their teenage years they go through a lot of changes. Hormones affect them physically and mentally, and they start secondary education, which adds more stress to their lives,'' said Ms Praphaiphun.
''It's a difficult time for children. Adults start to treat them differently, like grown-ups, and the changes they're going through put them under a lot of pressure. They feel the only people who really understand them are their friends who are going through the same changes. That's why their friends are the most influential people in their lives at this age.
''All teenagers want to be seen as individuals _ they want to be famous, they want to be noticed and they want to be known. They usually make friends with people who share their interests. Some play sport, some play music. Some get into trouble. But no matter what they do, they will usually do it in a group.
''This is why we see motorcycle gangs racing bikes and doing things together in big groups. They want to race because they want to be noticed, they want to be known for being good at something. I think teenagers' families, educational institutions and society in general can use this factor to help these kids.
''Unfortunately, many teachers ignore badly behaved students _ they concentrate on the well-behaved kids and the bad kids are forgotten. But research in the US and Europe shows that with the appropriate guidance and support, these troubled kids can actually do very well academically.
''But our government has never put teenage development on the agenda. Everyone seems to forget that these children are the future. We should be helping teenagers by offering activities for them to do. The private sector offers some activities for teenagers such as singing contests, talent shows, dancing competitions and beauty contests. It's good, but there's not enough variety.
''One of the best ways to help would be to have government-supported sport centres in each community for kids to use for free. Since they like to do things in a group, why not provide them with a place where they can do things together?
''But the parents play the most important role in shaping their kids into good adults. From 13 to 15, teenagers are like boats trying to navigate rapids. It can be a rough ride, but if the parents steer the boat correctly, it will reach the right destination.
''Many parents get it wrong by controlling their teenage children too rigidly, or by not exerting any control at all. Something too tight or too loose is never good.''
CHANGING GEARS: Bang Mot police station deputy superintendent Pol Lt Col Thawatchai Srisurang launched the the Patrol Motorbike Clinic Project, under which motorcycle modification shops repair police bikes.
About the author
Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai