It’s New Year’s Eve. A friend and I are walking to Tooting Bec tube station en route to a party when a tuned BMW blasts past. It was definitely doing more than the 30mph speed limit. I told my friend in no uncertain terms that I thought that was a d*** move. Yet, after this morning, I’m not so sure if I was right.
I love cars, even the most vulgarly tuned ones. However, doing 40mph in a 30 zone is not on, simply because you’re putting yourself and others at unnecessary risk. Despite this, the Enfield street racers have made me realise there’s so much more to it than what Superintendent Nigel Brookes calls, “anti-social behaviour”.
Brookes was being interviewed for a video report that is currently up on the BBC News website titled, Inside the world of street racing, about the street racers of Enfield in North London. It covers not only why they race but importantly, why they do it at night.
Racer ‘Leo’ says in the interview, “When we do it we don’t put it anyone else at risk because we do it at times of the day where there’s no other cars on the road“. The reason for the night running then, isn’t because of a desire to keep people up at night, and its not just for the reason that the roads are quiet. Its also so an ordinary driver doesn’t get caught up in an accident if one happens.
Now I’m not suggesting that street racing is a good thing or should be encouraged. I’m not suggesting that Nigel Brookes is wrong because what ‘Leo’ and co are engaged in is dangerous and can lead to tragic consequences.
In spite of this, I don’t think increasing the number of speed cameras and enacting a “public spaces protection order which means that using a vehicle in an anti-social manner becomes a criminal offence”, will make the situation better. It will make it worse. Here’s why.
Its a classic case of psychological rebellion. Tell a someone not to think of elephants and they’ll rebel and think of elephants. Correspondingly, tell a young person they can’t do something and guess what, they’ll find a way to do it. And if you restrict them, they’ll try even harder.
So all that will happen is that these drivers will move from Enfield to another area of London. The problem won’t be solved, it will just move. Its not like this is the first time this has happened either.
The situation the street racer is facing is similar, socio-culturally speaking, to the one faced by the youths of the 1950s and 60s in London and Liverpool. Back then both cities were recovering from war time and were in poor economic health. Young people were taking to the streets to play on old cars and unstable bomb sites.
Understandably something had to change before someone got hurt. So local organisations created youth clubs where young people could still do the same things, (climb, dance, shout etc), to the same degree but could do so without angering the local community.
The same needs to happen now with street racers. In their defence I can see why they drive and race, its a vent. Like them I love driving, I love the art of it and tuning cars is an artform. For them as for me, driving and racing is an outlet, a way to take a break from the realities of work, to relax.
Why do I not street race then? Why do I not trip the [traffic] light fantastic? Primarily its because driving in the city doesn’t provide the same excitement for me as driving a 70mph go kart which I race for my university. Secondly, I drive a grey Vauxhall Astra, so I have as much street cred as a pair of crocks at a football match.
Importantly though, these guys don’t have that outlet that myself and a few hundred university students do. The only two options they have are to stay at home, which they won’t do, or they can go on a track day, an activity that involves high fees.
Disappointingly, the BBC News report doesn’t include these numbers, but when you find them, they are rather high. Silverstone for example, charges a minimum of £285 whilst Brands Hatch, the closest circuit to London, £139. Even excluding the cost of fuel this is expensive.
On the subject of places to go another racer ‘Kyle’ states, “If we had somewhere legal for us to go and do what we love doing, we’d have no reason to be anywhere else. I mean we did have a local race track and that just got recently shut down. So we’ve got one less place to go to.“
So what is the solution? Track days are too few and too expensive for the drivers to attend so they race on the streets where they don’t want to be but not have no choice but to use. The councils those streets fall in won’t spent any money on the problem because no organisation wants to be seen to encourage ‘anti-social behaviour’.
The solution lies, oddly enough, in America. Back in 2013 Top Gear’s Clarkson, Hammond and May drove three sports cars across the US. In Las Vegas they found local drivers drag racing their modified cars against the Police and Fire departments. The resulting competition meant that those drivers were less likely to race on the streets. What’s more satisfying than beating each other? Answer, beating those who tried to stop you.
How to apply to this to the UK then? Well as a nation we may be short of political unity at the moment, but we do have a lot of race tracks, quite a few of which are unused during weekday evenings.
Fill those few hours with an opportunity for the police and the racers to ask, “What you got then?” once a week. The races wouldn’t have to be long, they don’t need to be judging by Elite London Racing’s videos.
As a goodwill incentive each driver would have to pay a £40 entry. Not cheap but consider that track days are few and expensive. Add to this the fact that a crash into a gravel trap will be a lot less painful and less dangerous and costly than a run into a post or a house.
So, instead of judging and condemning the racers of Enfield, maybe we need to take a step back. The authorities need to work to understand rather than to stop them.
Racers like ‘Leo’, ‘Kyle’ and ‘Ben’ are not the problem, they are part of the solution.
As ‘Ben’ says at the end of the report, “We’re just normal people that want to have fun in cars“.