Bangkok's fast and furious

Bangkok's fast and furious

Illegal drag racers not only compete with each other for prestige and prizes, but also have to be quicker than the police

‘So where is it?” I asked Pong for the fifth time.

Top gear: A modified car tears down Kaset-Nawamin Road, one of Bangkok’s most popular racing strips. The location of races is usually revealed at short notice to thwart police.

“I just woke up,” he said at a quarter past five, not noticing that I had called him four times throughout the day.

For an underground drag racer like Pong, life often begins at night.

Pong was part of team “One Point”, and a large crowd was expected to gather that Thursday to witness street-style drag racing organised by a group called “Fight Night Club” (FNC).

I had met Pong four years ago through a mutual friend, but it wasn’t until recently that I learned he was one of the kingpins of illegal street racing in Bangkok.

Pong couldn’t provide me with an exact location, which changes all the time to avoid the news leaking to the police. What was certain was that it was around the Kaset-Nawamin area.

The starting point, he said, is not determined until half an hour before the race starts.

Pong told me to be in the area at 10pm.

Street cred: Pong’s car for ‘One Point’, which he races for fame and to boost business.

NEED FOR SPEED

Prasoet Manukit Road is more commonly known as Kaset-Nawamin Road, which begins at Kasetsart intersection on Phahon Yothin Road, and runs east until its end at the intersection with Nawamin Road. It is ideal for racing as more than half a kilometre of the route is dead straight.

This time, the race was delayed due to the heavy rain, which was unusual for December. FNC usually organises these races at the start of a long holiday, which that weekend was Friday to Sunday.

At three in the morning, Pong told me that the starting line would be in front of Nawamin City Avenue, located right beside Kaset-Nawamin Road at an intersection.

A few minutes after Spectrum had arrived, it looked like Pong was starting to back out.

“I’m fleeing the cops. Just wait there, [the other racers] are arriving,” he said. I didn’t get to meet Pong in person that night.

Hundreds of spectators had gathered to witness the racing — mainly young men, many with girlfriends in tow. The speedily arranged races are usually publicised via the Line app. After 10 minutes, throngs started to gather on the main road. Some spectators, including me, walked up to the skyway, which had a good view of the intersection. Dozens of modified cars were parked on the other side of the road, opposite Nawamin City Avenue.

Then came the squeal of brakes and plumes of smoke from the burning rubber.

Every few seconds, pairs of cars would race to the finish line, which was usually 400 metres away from the starting point right at the start of the intersection. Most of the cars were regular models — such as Hondas and Toyotas — with body kits, tweaked engines and fat racing tyres. Cars from the One Point team even had the club’s name emblazoned across the back windscreen.

Sometimes light sticks would be used to signal the start of a race, but that night the racers took off without a starter.

The racing only lasted for 10 minutes before sounds of car horns honked in a cacophony.

“Let’s go,” said a guy on the skyway. It was a signal that the police had arrived.

PLAYING CAT AND MOUSE

A police pickup managed to block one of the cars — a white Honda. A man and woman stepped out of the car to talk to the police.

Police encounters are typical during street races, but the actual number of incidents are not recorded.

In 2013, a total of 262 complaints related to car and motorcycle racing were made in Bangkok through the Traffic Police Division’s hotline, although most involved motorcycles.

Kaset-Nawamin Road is listed as one of the top popular racing routes, along with Phetchaburi, Rama IV and Vibhavadi Rangsit roads.

Once the traffic police receive a complaint, they are quick to mobilise.

Traffic Police Division commander Pol Maj Gen Apisit Muangkasem said sometimes a tactic called kuan hai taek (scattering the crowd) is used, which involves mobilising vehicles to the scene and flashing headlamps in an attempt to make the racers aware of the authorities’ presence and to disrupt the racing.

Making an arrest is a tougher task, which requires a large police presence — three officers to one racer — and multiple vehicles to block intersections. Most of the time, private vehicles are used, such as six-wheel trucks or trailers owned by logistics companies.

Start your engines: Clockwise from above, modified racing cars make their way along Kaset-Nawamin Road; police are often poorly equipped to track down racers; participants make their way to the start line; a race gets under way.

“It’s like riding an elephant to catch a grasshopper,” Pol Maj Gen Apisit said, using a Thai idiom which means investing a lot for little gain.

Racing on the roadway is illegal under article 134 of the 1979 Land Traffic Act, unless granted permission from a traffic officer. The penalty is a fine of 2,000-10,000 baht and/or not less than three months of imprisonment.

Even bystanders are considered supporters, and face the same penalty.

But Pol Maj Gen Apisit said the charge is rarely laid as it is difficult to gather evidence or witnesses to present to the court. This includes identifying who the organiser is, whether or not a race really occurred, as well as the location of the start and finish line.

As a result, officers attempt to charge the wrongdoers with reckless driving, which carries a similar penalty. Other possible offences include speeding and using modified car parts.

Pol Maj Gen Apisit attributed the root of the problem to young people who are not doing well at school and their attempts to be accepted in society. “They want to be perceived as courageous and not afraid of death,” he said.

Despite ongoing negotiations with the police, the racing continued, although less frequently. One policeman watched on beside the road.

Pong says sometimes he likes to play cat and mouse with the authorities by waiting for them to approach, open the door, and drive away while they are stepping out of the police car. He would repeat the process many times until reinforcement came.

By half past four, as more taxis appeared on the streets, the crowd died out.

In pursuit: Pol Maj Gen Apisit said making arrests can be challenging.

THE FIGHT NIGHT CLUB

FNC’s Facebook page has more than 24,700 likes. Each post attracts up to 2,000 likes and dozens of comments.

A post on Dec 21 said: “Get yourselves ready big time for tonight’s end-of-the-year event. If you miss tonight, you might have to wait until next year. 2am, same time, you know the rest.”

Another, on Dec 5, said: “The team has been trying to seek alternative routes in order to support the large number of participating cars, but we have experienced many problems. Thank you for your support, and we apologise for not being able to provide fun. We will make further announcements about future events.”

On the day of the race Spectrum attended, an FNC Facebook post mentioned the venue as the MaxValu supermarket near Laksi from midnight onwards — nowhere near Kaset-Nawamin. But police know that these are attempts to misdirect them. Sometimes the exact location will be posted and quickly deleted.

“They have other channels of communicating, such as the Line application, but we sometimes know about the whereabouts from our sources, who might be relatives of policemen,” Pol Maj Gen Apisit said at his office. “But on the other hand, [these sources] are the ones who participate in races themselves without letting us know.”

But he denied claims that many racers were released due to their connections with politicians.

“Some racers are rich and are sons of phuyai [senior figures], but we don’t help them,” he said. “When there’s an arrest, we cooperate with the media in order to show our innocence and to prevent the abuse of power.”

There are many street racing gangs in Thailand, but the well-known ones include One Point, Nagaoka, Naraka and Mikado. Mostly the teams will race against each other for bragging rights, but occasionally they will compete for prize money, often in the hundreds of thousands of baht.

One Point has hundreds of members, and the head of the team is the son of a former deputy minister. “Other gangs have mafias, gangsters and drug dealers as the boss, but they all can’t beat a politician,” said 36-year-old Pong, who has been a member since he was 18.

“Our group may be small, but everyone feels kreng jai [considerate] towards us because of our age, because of everything. So if we lose, it is a loss of face, especially since we’re older.”

If certain that they will lose, racers often come up with an excuse, such as their car broke down, Pong said. This can easily be accomplished by increasing the boost on a turbo engine, resulting in engine failure.

Competition between gangs is fierce, and often leads to gun fights. Pong’s own alias is “Pun Lun”, which in Thai means “accidental discharge”.

“These days, there are more observers than participants, and the races are much fiercer. Lots of accidents occur,” Pong said. “In the old days, racers had more manners.”

Each gang has a “showcase car”, and being able to beat it would result in instant fame for the rival gang. The racing is not usually for money, but four months ago, One Point won 260,000 baht in a race with another team.

One Point organises races through the FNC, in part because it would boost their business of selling modified racing cars.

“We organise races for a purpose — because teenagers who attend them will want to own these cars,” Pong said. “Places that produce the best modified cars become famous, and that in itself will result in more customers.”

Sitting idle: Above and below, organising street races helps boost business at associated car centres, though business has been slow since the coup.

A SHADY BUSINESS

Pong is a manager of a car centre which has been operating for six years and sells second-hand racing cars and imported parts from Japan.

Located on Nawamin Road, the place is known among the racing community as being owned by One Point. “Some people are afraid to come in because of One Point’s notoriety as gangsters,” Pong said.

There were 15 cars on sale that day, ranging from 300,000 baht to an 8.5-million-baht grey Ford Mustang. Most are former racing cars owned by One Point members.

Clients range from 15-year-olds, where a popular choice would be a Honda Civic, to people in their fifties. Nowadays, modified eco cars are a hit among college students, Pong said.

Although entirely possible, customers would not use these cars as their primary ones, as they have manual gears, a stiff clutch and loud exhaust pipe. Instead, they are used for racing purposes, either on the streets or on the tracks, or driving around at night.

Pong estimates that there are less than 10 places in the country with a primary business of selling racing cars.

Many years ago, the centre would sell 20-30 cars a month, but now the number has dropped to only four to five. Business has been sluggish for more than a year, but things became worse since the military came into power following the May 22 coup last year, Pong said.

A large number of the centre’s clients gain a significant amount of money from underground businesses, such as drugs, football gambling and debt collection, which underwent a huge crackdown by the army.

“The economy is down, drugs aren’t sold, gambling dens are closed, it’s all a mess,” Pong said. “But my car easily sells once people know it’s mine.” n

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