December 7, 2021

YPRQ-Shopping

Shopping Works Wonders

Inside the World of Local Street Racing

It was 4 in the morning, and my wife’s Subaru was a crumpled wreck on the side of the road in Northeast Minneapolis.

Hours earlier, I had left it in North Mississippi Regional Park on the city’s Northside neighborhood. The Minneapolis police had rolled through the lot, and a cop on a bullhorn sternly instructed all the teens and 20-somethings gathered for the Friday-night slideshow to disperse. I was there to meet my chaperone for the night, E, the 23-year-old alpha driver of the city’s late-night car scene. He texted me to look for his white 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT—a version of the soccer mom’s grocery getter that can hit 100 miles per hour in less than 10 seconds. “Just leave your car,” he said as I rode shotgun. “It’ll be fine.”

I’d go on to spend more than six hours with E, watching young men his age and younger hang out the windows of Dodge Chargers and Ford Mustangs as they whipped around and around and around in empty parking lots, buffeting a hundred teenage bystanders with huge clouds of hot gray smoke on blacktop from north Minneapolis to Eagan.

Over and over again, we peered up at the State Patrol helicopter tracking us from above and scrambled in 10 different directions at the first sight of flashing cherries, each time given half-assed chase by a modestly engaged law enforcement. Then E would get another address on his phone from the mysterious “admins” running the slideshows, and we’d head somewhere else to do it all over again.

I wondered if my knuckles would ever again approach their natural pink after getting so deeply whitened clinging to my digital recorder as E revved his speedometer like a digital slot machine, hitting 90 in the Lowry Hill Tunnel, 95 on Energy Park Drive, 140 approaching the University Avenue exit on 280. And after surviving all that, E dropped me off back in that North Mississippi Regional Park lot at 4 am, and there was my wife’s Subaru. I’d never been more relieved to see a parking ticket under a windshield wiper.

And then, driving home, I was absolutely smoked by a guy who blew a red light going 60 on Broadway, late for his UPS shift. When his car slammed like a missile into my passenger-side front quarter panel, I experienced that elastic moment you’ve seen in movies—headlights coming at me in peripheral vision as everything slows, right before accelerating real fast. The impact crashed like cymbals, the airbag deployed, his car pinballed across Broadway as my wife’s poor Subaru—with me inside of it—skittered in the opposite direction. As soon as I got out, I heard him wailing from the other side of the intersection. We both staggered toward each other and hugged in the middle of the street, elated to be alive. “I thought I killed you! I couldn’t stop! I thought I killed you!” he cried. I walked him back to his car, and he collapsed in the grass by the sidewalk, clutching his groin. A shirtless drunk rubbernecker standing in his yard called 911. The police came quickly, took both of our statements, and called in a tow truck for his Chrysler 200 and my Subaru.

What the hell had just happened?

Cars and teenagers have been a combustible mix for as long as there’ve been cars and teenagers. Doesn’t everybody have a dad or uncle who has stories about dragging University Avenue or Lake Street or an empty stretch of the then-new 694-494 loop in the classic cars the Beach Boys sang about? Chevy 409s or Plymouth Road Runners or Pontiac GTOs? Young kids recklessly pushing the limits of their automobiles is not a contemporary phenomenon. Even the seemingly made-for-social-media move the kids call “sliding”—where supercharged factory-built eight-cylinder engines bring so much power to the back wheels that they’ll spin in place, causing the car to “drift” or “slide”—is not new technology.

We called it “spinning donuts” or “whipping shitties” in the parking lots of my youth, but it didn’t coalesce as a driving culture until 1990s Oakland. Those kids had a way of dancing, and dressing, and driving—and unlike so much of the car and engine culture that’s emerged from California—from hot rods to Hells Angels—this was different in that it was Black kids making it happen. And now, all this drifting/sliding stuff has gone mainstream, juiced by the Fast and Furious movie franchise, several car-centric video games, and millions of posts on social media platforms. None of it would exist without the supercharger that is Detroit’s multibillion-dollar muscle car industry. It’s the latest, greatest youth-gone-wild menace.

The best drivers have always been city guys—and during the summer of 2020, kids from the suburbs were flooring it on their way into the city to see the best sliders every single weekend.

The pandemic was a massive factor in the slideshow’s surge. A car has always meant teenage freedom, but in 2020, a car became the only possible way out. Epidemiologists even told us that you could protect yourself from COVID by rolling the windows down and only interacting with businesses and even people from your vehicle.

So what else was there for a locked-down teen to do on a Friday night, with empty streets beckoning? It wasn’t only in the Twin Cities, either. From Atlanta to Rio, there have been reports of slideshows—impromptu meetups where hundreds of teens gather around muscle cars as their drivers “slide” in tight patterns—taking place on abandoned city streets. And so last summer, the local social media car groups organizing the late-night burnouts, like Instagram’s @kingofthelots and @mn_takeover, saw the numbers of cars congregating at their meetups shoot from 50 to 100 to 300.

The best drivers have always been city guys—whether that’s because there are just more streets or more obstacles or more cars or simply more drivers. The fastest cars and the coolest drivers have always been in the city, and that’s always been a draw for kids from the suburbs who want to test their mettle against the coolest and the fastest. During the summer of 2020, kids from the suburbs were flooring it on their way into the city to see the best sliders every single weekend. Then, in summer 2021, when the meets cranked up again, bad stuff started happening right away.

And it’s impossible to ignore factors of race and policing when considering how we react to what’s going on in our streets and intersections and parking lots.

In May, a 20-year-old driver with a suspended license, Markques Anthony Floyd, was sliding in an intersection in downtown Minneapolis when he lost control of his Infiniti G35 and whipped his car up onto a curb and into a group of teenagers, one of whom, a 14-year-old boy, suffered a traumatic brain injury. Then, during two slideshow meetups on the same night in June, two suburban kids were shot and killed in what was reported to be gang crossfire: Nicholas Enger, a 17-year-old from Cambridge, while watching cars slide on East Lake Street under the Hiawatha overpass, and Vanessa Jensen, a 19-year-old who graduated from my old high school in White Bear Lake, caught in the crossfire in north Minneapolis.

“The cops and Minneapolis Crime Watch make us seem to be bad people. But come and you’ll see kids from the ghetto, kids from the suburbs—you’ll see every different ethnicity in there.”

Ever since that weekend, authorities were finding loud engine noises in the darkness difficult to ignore. Both the MPD and the State Patrol told me they were listening to citizens concerned about “lawless behavior” on the road, including destruction of public property and hostility to law enforcement, but they wouldn’t disclose their tactics for this new problem. Media started insistently reporting on “drag racers” and “hot rodding.” Social accounts like @CrimeWatchMpls would comb police scanner activity and tweet it out. More and more people were reading or watching news stories about out-of-control kids and their cars, and the sounds from those gigantic engines and the squealing tires started to feel ubiquitous, whether coming from the Target parking lot on Lake Street or from behind the old Prudential tower on 394. People were annoyed at this loud symbol of how the cops had lost control of their dystopian post–George Floyd pandemic city.

The only way to understand what it was all about was to ask one of them for a ride.

I meet Elijah Grove, the 23-year-old known as E, on the Fourth of July. He parked his two-toned silver-and-black 2019 Dodge Charger Hellcat in my driveway, but it wouldn’t stay there long.

“This is my first interview ever,” he tells me as I climbed in.

Manufactured by Dodge in Detroit, the Hellcat is probably the most powerful and affordable street racing platform in the country. It’s got serious celeb cred right now—Billie Eilish got one for her 18th, lol—and they’re not cheap, but unlike a Porsche or a Ferrari or something exotic, you don’t have to have billions of Spotify streams to afford one. E cleans up foreclosed houses for a living, as well as selling a few of his crew’s Musty Boyz T-shirts online—he’s trying to become an influencer—and that was enough to get a loan for $65,000 to buy his Hellcat from a dealership in Red Wing. It offers the most horsepower for your buck, and the supercharged Hemi bulging up from the hood makes the most insane noises I’ve ever heard from a car. The 6.2-liter V8 sounded like it was gargling wrenches as E opened it up down Stinson Boulevard.

E was surprised that I reached out to him through Instagram DM, and I was surprised he responded, given the heat all the negative press has been bringing to the meetups. “Everybody’s pretty skeptical of the media,” he says. “Nobody’s been interviewed from the races—and I’m like, I don’t care; it’s my voice getting out.”

He grew up on the East Side of St. Paul and went to high school at Roseville. He has a wiry build and says he’s always been athletic, but in high school he bounced from baseball to football—he even tried coed cheerleading for a spell—without ever really landing on anything he was great at. As a kid he was good on a dirt bike, though, and he’s always loved cars—his dad used to take him to car shows and the drag races at University and Dale when he was a kid. E started dragging when he bought his first fast car at 16, a supercharged Pontiac Grand Prix. But it wasn’t until June 2020 that his cousin Renzo took him to his first slideshow. And when Renzo passed from an embolism while on a trip to Colorado that August, E started sliding to honor his cousin—and it turned out he was great at it.

His rise to the top of the scene was swift, and 2021 has been a big summer for him and his Hellcat. Now he wears the key to his Hellcat around his neck on an orange-and-black beaded necklace he got at a powwow—it’s become his statement piece.  He says his Insta following is only at 3,000 right now, but he was recently featured on @srt.hellcat, the main Insta Hellcat page with 200,000 followers, and he’s fresh off a win at a meetup in Chicago. Yes, they give out trophies for sliding. “They didn’t even know we were sliding up here,” he says. His finishing maneuver was to slide while hanging out the driver’s side window, putting it in neutral while his passenger threw it into first gear. He gave the trophy to Renzo’s mom.

E says he isn’t just sliding for himself. He has a third kid on the way this year, and he just moved into a new apartment over by the capitol with the mother of his children. He’s dismayed at the violence—he was sliding in north Minneapolis when Vanessa Jensen was shot and killed and had to speed away because he had one of his friend’s young sons with him. And he knows what it’s like to lose family—his father is in Faribault prison right now on drug charges, and he’s been calling him on the phone every day. (Eventually, E will get me on a call with his dad, Jarvis Thomas. “I don’t know if this is a good thing to say,” Jarvis will tell me, “but I taught him to drive it like you stole it, to be in complete control of the car, but to have fun with it. So in a way, he took a thing I was doing negative and made it a positive—that’s where my pride is.”)

E’s excited to get me out to my first meetup to see what it’s really like.

“If you listen to the cops or read Minneapolis Crime Watch, they try to make us seem to be bad people,” he says. “But actually come to one of these things, and you’ll see kids from the ghetto, you’ll see kids from the suburbs—you’ll see every different ethnicity in there.”

The night before the slideshow, video surfaced of a Charger with neon lighting up its undercarriage whipping donuts in front of the Winston Smith memorial on Lake and Lagoon in Uptown, one of the passengers hanging out a window firing a 9mm handgun into the air. A bunch of young bystanders scrambled for cover, and a 12-second video clip made the TV news. With a metro area already edgy about slideshows, it ensured more police attention on tonight’s meetup than any in the last 18 months.

When I find E in the North Mississippi Regional Park lot, I’m surprised to see he isn’t driving the Hellcat. It’s in the shop, he says. The Cherokee he’s driving is a 2015 SRT, Chrysler’s “Street and Racing Technology” division, which means its V8 is nearly 500 horsepower, capable of 150 miles per hour—plenty enough speed and power to zip from point A to B to C, but nearly impossible to slide with its grippy all-wheel drive traction.

As we leave the North Mississippi parking lot at the MPD’s request, E checks his phone. He’s logged on to Discord, a chat platform favored by Xbox gamers. All the coordinates for tonight’s meetup are disseminated on an open Discord channel, where the drivers wait for an admin to send out the next address. It comes in seconds after we leave North Mississippi. We head to the parking lot of Summit Academy, down 94 just off Highway 55 in Northside.

It’s not yet midnight, and there are about 25 cars in the lot, plus 100 teenagers milling around, nearly all of them with cell phones out, taking video. The uniform is tight pants and baggie hoodies with dozens of variations of screen printed Nike logos. E puffs on an oversize electronic vape pen, surrounded by his whole crew wearing black Musty Boyz T-shirts, with their logo on the front and a quote on the back that reads, “Get back or GET SMACKED!” E has his orange-and-black beaded Hellcat key holder around his neck. The guys, who all seem to be in the beginning stages of facial hair experimentation, outnumber the girls by at least 10 to 1.

The ladies that do show wear big hoop earrings, fake eyelashes, spackled bangs, and hot pants even tighter than the boys’ jeans. And everybody is wearing Nike sneakers—Jordans and Air Force 1s—in either all black or all white. In this first hour, the crowd is mostly white kids, but that will change over the course of the evening. The first three cars to slide are all driven by Black kids. The second car to slide, a big gray Chrysler 300, elicits a whoop and polite applause from the crowd as it drifts a figure eight pattern around two streetlight poles like a slalom skier. Fireworks go off, shimmering above the cars. White smoke, squealing tires, and fireworks—this is the perfect Instagram sport.

The cops have arrived. Have we been here an hour yet? Lights flashing, bullhorns out, ordering us to disperse. That state police helicopter is above us again, too. Back in the Grand Cherokee, E hops the curb to get out of the parking lot. I get the feeling that having an AWD Cherokee might’ve been a strategic decision tonight. He has his cell phone in his lap, and the admin lets everybody know to head to Dinkytown.

After going 90 through the Lowry Tunnel like it’s nothing, it’s past 1 am when we arrive in front of Frank and Andrea Pizza. E goes in to buy a slice and a Coke. When he comes out, a couple white kids holler at him, “Where’s the Hellcat?” He tells them it’s in the shop. E has a swagger to his gait tonight. All these kids know him, and know his car, even if his car isn’t here.

I notice cars from the Summit Academy parking lot positioned at each stoplight on this intersection, blocking traffic, awaiting more sliders. E would rather slide in parking lots, but the kids prefer to block the streets—it makes for more belligerent footage on Insta, irritates more adults. Just as the first car is about to slide, though, here come the cops, this time campus police, driving slowly down 4th Street in formation, with bullhorns squawking at us to disperse. I follow E back to the Cherokee, and in two minutes we’re on the freeway again. The admin has another address, a parking lot in Eagan.

By the time the kids are forming two big rows in the parking lot of a huge machinery corporation warehouse there, the numbers have swelled. Almost 40 cars now, and somehow double the kids. There are more blunts being rolled and smoked, and everybody seems more moony-eyed. All that tire rubbing and squealing has heated up the blacktop itself. And the fireworks have gotten bigger and louder. Some of the Black kids are complaining about the noise. “It’s probably the white kids shooting off these fireworks,” one guy says. “They’re gonna blow up this spot—12 is gonna slide in here.” (12 is slang for police.)

E’s friend TJ is going to let him use his all-black Dodge Charger Scat Pack, another of Dodge’s SRT cars with a giant Hemi V8, just a step less powerful than the Hellcat. TJ warns E that his tires are getting thin. “I have enough tire left to get around,” he says, “but not much more to slide.” E hits back, “Oh, c’mon, I take my tires down to wires every night!” E explains he’s already gone through 13 sets this summer. TJ says even though it’s 2:15 am, his aftermarket tire guy might have something for him. “Let’s see if my tire plug calls me back,” he says. Anyway, it’s E’s turn. His small crew stuffs into the back of the Scat—one girl to hang out each side—with TJ riding shotgun. Too tight of a fit to include a 45-year-old magazine reporter.

Even to my untrained eye, it’s clear that E is the best slider out there tonight. His turns are both wider and sharper, with more intricate angles and closer shaves with the light poles. The other cars seem to be in a rush—sloppy teenagers overeager to finish the pattern. Even the squealing from E’s tires has a different rhythm than the other drivers’ when he’s making big sweeps. When he’s finished, the crowd applauds as if for a brave and skilled bullfighter with duende, the Spanish concept for courage and style and soul.

And again: the police, this time Eagan’s finest. We’re back in the Cherokee, cutting against the grain of scrambling kids. We rush by the cops as if in a taunt, skirting the edge of the parking lot, shooting out to the freeway. It’s 2:30 and there’s nobody out here. E is burying the speedometer as the Chicago rapper Lil Herb’s “Fight or Flight” rat-a-tats on the Cherokee’s stereo. This is the fastest E has punched it yet. I’m trying not to let this kid see me sweat, but we’re passing people on 94 like they’re standing still, like they’re in another dimension.

E decelerates as he hits the University Avenue exit. There are two lines forming for drag racing on Energy Park Drive. When we park next to an embankment, two white kids from Hudson wearing Bass Pro Shops hats ask E where the Hellcat is. “It’s in the shop,” he says.

The kids are disappointed. “We’re in Mom’s whip tonight,” they say, staring at their Nikes.

E tells me to get in; he wants to take a run at Serenity and her flashy orange Charger R/T—she’s the only woman that I’ve seen behind the wheel of a muscle car tonight. E says drag racing is usually only for pride; he rarely sees money change hands, but it does happen. (Most of the gambling seems to be concentrated on the dice games being shot back in the lot.) It’s moot anyway—the guy waving the flag for the start screws up the timing and E smokes Serenity’s Charger without even trying.

And the cops again. We’re flushed off Energy Park. It’s after 3 am. That’s a wrap. E seems bummed on the drive back to my wife’s car.

“We shouldn’t be chased that much,” he says.

He seems surprised at the intensity of the police tonight. “The Northside is literally a war zone,” he says, “and they’re chasing us?” He wishes there were a closer track to the metro than Brainerd. Or better yet, an unused, police-approved lot where they could congregate without having to speed between venues in order to break away from the cops. He says he’s crunched some numbers, and with investors, his dream of a “slide park” could maybe be realized. He says there’s a model for this near Detroit. We get back to North Mississippi Regional Park, and the wife’s Subaru is the only car left in the lot.

Not a scratch.

A couple of weeks after our ride, E’s Hellcat is out of the shop, and he takes me and a photographer out to Energy Park, this industrial patchwork of loading docks and parking lots off Snelling in St. Paul, to demonstrate what he’s capable of in his car. Power sliding in a Hellcat with nearly 800 horsepower directed to the back end and an expert stunt driver at the steering wheel is a rare aesthetic experience. After the high-pitched squeal of wheels on blacktop, the acrid smell of burnt rubber, and the full expression of gravity as a planetary force, when it’s over, you kind of involuntarily giggle. “Never gets old,” E says.

As it gets dark, and after assuring us that there’s no meetup to potentially photograph that night, we take our leave. And then, a few hours later, E gets arrested in nearly the same spot by the Ramsey County sheriff’s deputy for reckless driving. They take his phone, he’s booked and released, and his license is suspended.

Talking to him about it later, it’s obvious that there’s a multi-jurisdictional metrowide crackdown in progress. More of his friends get arrested. A week after that, his Hellcat is impounded as possible evidence of “destruction of public property.”

E sounds depressed recounting his legal challenges. He feels like he’s being persecuted for violent crimes for which he isn’t responsible. “It’s weird,” he says. “That’s the stereotype now: Sliders are ghetto Black gangbangers in the Dodges.” He says nobody is sliding with the intention of hurting anybody, and he thinks the cops are overplaying their hand with the property damage charges. “How are they giving me felony damage to property for leaving burnout marks on the street?” he asks. “You really think locking up more sliders is gonna prevent gang violence?”

Although the MPD and the State Patrol were cagey about discussing their tactics, first-term Hennepin County Sheriff Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson, elected on a platform of transparency and equity, is more forthcoming. His cops are collecting license plate numbers and trying to convince county attorneys to prosecute under the fullest extent of the law. “Because it’s not just drag racing anymore,” he says. “There’s violence.” He cites the killings of Nicholas Enger and Vanessa Jensen. “I’m a car guy,” he says. “And a lot of my friends have nice cars, and we don’t do that; we don’t take over streets and drive like jerks.”

But his most interesting answer comes when I ask him about the culpability of the manufacturers of the incredibly powerful cars.

“It’s a private industry; they can sell whatever they want,” he says. “But in my opinion, these companies should put on some rallies. I mean, they got enough money [for] insurance premiums if something happens.”

I suggest that sliding could be the new skateboarding—it had a culture that was perceived as a menace for years, and eventually adults accepted that there was social benefit and built skate parks in every suburb. “Maybe [for] the good ones that don’t carry guns and shoot people,” Hutch says. “I’m open to ideas if we can stop people from getting hurt and killed, but again, you’re as good as the company you keep.”

Yes, sliding is 10 times as loud as skateboarding, it takes place while people sleep, and it has an inherent menace that small collections of teens riding pieces of acrylic don’t. But is charging E with a felony for burning rubber on city streets an overreaction?

According to the state Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), Minnesota is on pace for a 27 percent increase in traffic fatalities for 2021. The pandemic effect contributed to a sharp rise in reckless driving. But how many of those can be attributed to sliding or drag racing? According to the OTS, street racing accidents are underreported, but there were seven fatalities in 2020, compared to two in 2019. It seems like the real killer is speed, and speed is everywhere on the freeways, at all hours of the day. Are you more likely to be killed at a slideshow, or by somebody who’s late to work at UPS on your way home from one?

Maybe I’m still suffering from some kind of PTSD, and my rudimentary statistical analysis—we’re all amateur epidemiologists now, right?—is the flimsy framework that I’m using to make sense of what happened to me on a crazy midsummer night. Or maybe all that reckless speeding from meetup to meetup simply caught up with me on my ill-fated drive home in true actuarial fashion. Maybe it’s just the ruthless odds. I think about E, and speed, and the existential affliction of young men everywhere: always being in a rush to get somewhere, that state of being in such a hurry to make it that you haven’t even considered how much you have to lose—or worse, how much you could cost somebody else. Either way, the sun is coming up, my wife isn’t answering her phone, and her poor Subaru is totaled in the city impound lot. I decide to just walk the last mile home.


Originally published in the October 2021 issue.