The Dodge Charger revved its V8 Hemi engine, the deep rumble echoing in the parking lot of Ford City Mall as smoke poured from the back tires.
Draco hit the gas and turned the wheel, sending the Charger spinning — or drifting — in a tight circle to applause and cheers from more than 100 people.
“It’s an adrenaline — it’s hard to explain — but you feel free in the moment,” said Draco, the name the 21-year-old uses on the circuit of street drifters. “You know, it’s one of the few times where I feel I am in control of my destiny.”
A Sun-Times reporter and photographer spent several weekends at these meets, which have long drawn complaints about the noise and the disruption and the danger.
They are often organized in minutes through a social network that taps into the culture of street racing. Many times, people leaving a meet broken up by police will drive around until getting the coordinates of another meet that same night.
And despite a recent crackdown that could cost participants their cars, there is no shortage of drivers or spectators.
‘I love everything about what we do’
Draco has been going to the meets since before he had a license to drive. He fell in love watching his older brother drive at them.Cars and street stunts have taken over his life, even as his brother has left the scene and has urged him to do the same.
“It’s, you know, big brother wanting to protect the younger brother, but I love having to clean grease from my hands after working on a car,” Draco said. “I love everything about what we do.”
It’s a story that has played out in Chicago for decades. Lower Wacker Driver was a big weekend meeting place for souped-up four-cylinder cars until speedbumps put an end to them there several years ago.
The meets have scattered across the city, now drawing big muscle cars to industrial parks, empty mall parking lots, even downtown on occasion, to the displeasure of residents and their alderpersons.
“In 2016, it was just people burning out or racing and not really doing this,” Draco said. “Then COVID shut everything down, so car meets were pretty dead, but it has since made a strong come back and people started doing takeovers and shutting streets down.”
‘This is a deadly hobby’
One of those takeovers occurred last month at the intersection of Clinton and Monroe streets in the West Loop. Traffic was blocked off in all directions by makeshift blockades. A teen was charged with throwing fireworks at police.
The resulting media fallout — with videos — led the City Council to empower the Chicago Police Department to impound vehicles involved in the street stunts. The police must mail the owner “a notice of intent to impound” along with a statement of probable cause and a police report.
A Chicago police spokesperson did not know if any vehicles have since been seized. People at recent events also did not know of any impoundments.
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) led the effort to oust drag racers and drifters from Lower Wacker, and he has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the impoundment ordinance.
“Since the ordinance passed, we have seen some improvement downtown,” Reilly said. “We can’t directly correlate that to passage of the ordinance, but I do think word has gotten out that Chicago now has a very tough ordinance on the books.”
Reilly said street drifters know that if their car is caught on video, there will be cause for Chicago police to pull them over.
“We’ll eventually find your vehicle parked on a city street and we’ll simply tow it. And when you want it back, you can pay the city $5,000,” Reilly said. “This is a deadly hobby and it doesn’t belong on our city streets.”
He mentioned a 20-year-old man who was killed while drag racing his best friend on Lower Wacker Drive.
“It’s just a matter of time before there’s another fatality,” Reilly said. “If people choose to continue to break these laws, we plan to make public examples of them by strictly enforcing the new ordinance.”
Draco, who wore a black ski mask to conceal his identity from police, said the ordinance was bound to happen but has done little to stop the meets. Most drivers seen at recent events had removed their license plates.
“What I think about the ordinance is, I don’t blame them because I do understand what’s happening,” Draco said. “It’s OK to have fun and be safe about it, like how we normally do, but a couple weeks ago some were messing with the police, fighting them and throwing fireworks at them so, when you do that, of course this s--- with the ordinance is bound to happen.”
‘We’re not bad people’
Dee and Jojo were on a date night earlier this month near Cermak Road and Lumber Street, standing shoulder-to-shoulder watching cars drift in figure 8s. They asked that their last names be withheld.
“We’re not bad people,” Jojo said. “Every person here has a common interest and that is to vibe and to see cars which they absolutely love.”
“I think there is a bad misconception with these meets that it’s rowdy and uncivilized, but really we try and practice safety,” Dee added. “Everyone tries to highlight safety and there are group chats and Instagram pages that tells everyone to drive safely.”
People like Dee and Jojo rely on social media platforms like Snapchat, Instagram and even the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
Both drivers and spectators wait for the coordinates — refreshing their apps — and then rush to the location before the event is broken up by police.
As a street corner gets crowded with cars, those in the back form a barricade preventing police from breaking through. A circle is formed, the designated pit for cars to drift.
For the next 15 to 20 minutes, cars take turns spinning in tight circles, sometimes passengers hanging out of the window, as the crowd cheers.
Sometimes, when police arrive, officers won’t be able to get past the barricade with their cars and are forced to walk. They may write citations for cars parked illegally, or watch over the event until it disbands, but participants say they haven’t gotten any traffic tickets for taking part.
Once police are spotted, onlookers jog to their cars before driving away. Many of them cruise around the city until the next message comes. This cycle repeats until 2 a.m. or later.
A woman who asked to go by A.M. said she has only been going to these meets for three months. She and others stood at the center of a pit as a car drifted around them.
“We just like to be here and chill,” A.M. said. “It’s a change in gear from what our regular day-to-day lives are, so it’s fun.”