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LA Street Racers

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“The biggest secret about street racers is that we don’t exist. While people are asleep in bed at 1, 2, 3 in the morning, we’re out racing.” Anonymous

Yeah, that opening quote is brimming with grandiosity. Nevertheless, the point is valid. Street racing is a fact of life. It happens in all corners of the country, and the people who are participating in it could be your neighbor, relative, coworker, or classmate. You don’t really know. These aren’t the guys you see crashing their cars into telephone poles in time to make the 11 p.m. news, either. The real racers operate in the early hours of the morning. They descend on vacant pavement in industrial areas or remote roads in far corners of their cities, run their races, and vanish into the night as quickly as they appeared. Their cars are fast. Very fast—like 10 seconds or quicker. Several of these cars make 1,000 hp to the wheels and are capable of reaching speeds of 150 mph on the street in a quarter-mile’s distance.

We spent a month mingling with the racers of Los Angeles, attempting to gain an in-depth look at their world, what they are driving, and what’s driving them. What we found was something much more sophisticated than we expected. Looking past the hype of big-money races and the trash talking that precedes them, we found a highly dedicated group of guys passionate about making power. Many of them are on the leading edge of technology, too, embracing turbochargers, fuel injection with home-brewed engine- management systems, and E85 fuel rather than gasoline. Most are doing the work themselves, learning what works by trial and error. They aren’t afraid to assemble an engine one week only to remove it from the car the next because the cam doesn’t work with the heads, or because the torque converter doesn’t match the engine’s powerband. The majority of them are doing this on a tight budget, too. Very few L.A. street racers have a surplus of cash. The rest get by with what they’ve got, often pooling their resources with friends.

Before going further, we must clearly state that Car Craft does not endorse street racing. It is illegal, it is reckless, and it can be deadly. However, so is driving and texting, yet that doesn’t stop some people from engaging in those activities. So while we’re not endorsing street racing, we can’t ignore it and the technology these guys are using to make their cars fast.

Our guide through this shadowy world is a dude named Fabian, a street racer from years ago and a long-time member of the Brotherhood of Street Racers. The Brotherhood traces its roots back to the street-racing scene of South Central Los Angeles in the ’60s. Since its inception, the group has lobbied the city and the county of Los Angeles to provide a safe venue for people to race their cars, and for a while it operated a successful dragstrip on Terminal Island near the Port of Los Angeles. Fabian’s decades-long affiliation with the group means he knows nearly everyone in the scene: new-school dudes and OGs. We spent many hours with him, crisscrossing not only Los Angeles County, but Orange and San Bernardino Counties as well, immersing ourselves in the culture. We met an amazing cast of characters, from guys with gang affiliations to successful entrepreneurs and businessmen; one racer was even in the process of getting a doctorate degree in psychology. No kidding—Dr. Streetracer, PhD. Imagine the bench-racing therapy sessions he could provide.

The Individuals

A good place to start is with Jorge (call him George) Cota. He lives in a modest house in Compton and builds his cars with nothing but used parts. Among his other projects, he’s got an S-10 pickup and a Vega, both powered by small-block Chevys. He scours the swap meets religiously, buys parts from websites like RacingJunk.com, and trades parts with friends. He picked up some Manley valvesprings for $20 online and paid a friend $400 for the Procharger.

The Cottage Industry

More guys were running homemade EFI kits than we expected to see, and a few of them were combining EFI with a homemade turbo kit running on E85. Nelson Pineda has made a name for himself as the guy who builds MegaSquirt ECMs. After building one for his personal car and discovering it wasn’t as difficult as he imagined it would be, other people began asking him to assemble ECMs for their cars. He’s nearly done with the tune-up on the car in the background—an ’86 Olds Cutlass with a TPI engine swap, a turbo kit that Nelson made himself, and MegaSquirt’s MS3 controller that allows sequential triggering of the fuel injectors and coil-on plug ignition with individual cylinder spark-timing control.

Group Effort

Mexican Juice

The racing arm of the car club Mexican Juice is centered literally within the shadow of the Compton Courthouse. The guys seemed proud of this and asked if I would photograph their cars in front of the courthouse. Something told me they were probably as familiar with the building’s interior as they were of the exterior. Among the group here are Jorge Cota, Lalo Mojarro, Jerry Herrera, Antonio Arias, Jose Madrigal, Chuy Mojarro, and some other guys who didn’t want their names published.

Lalo owns the ’72 Ford Courier, which can be found in a plethora of YouTube videos if you type “Mexican Juice Courier” in the search box. Specific details are sketchy, but the engine is a small-block Ford (we’re assuming it’s a 351 W with a stroker crank). We do know the short-block was assembled by Manny Rodriquez, aka Mustang Manny. It’s backed by a Performance Automatic C4 and a 9-inch rear axle. As this is being written, Lalo’s got the top end apart, building a custom turbo kit. His Courier is one of the fastest cars currently on the street, and, as he put it, “I had to step up my game, ’cause everyone’s coming after me. He’s owned the Courier for about five years but has had the engine for 10. Prior to the Courier, this engine powered a Fox-body Mustang Lalo used to race.

Jerry Herrera owns the black ’87 Mustang. He arrived late the day we took these pictures because he got stopped by the cops on the way to Lalo’s. After lifting off the hood, he muttered an incoherent response to our questions about the small-block Chevy where a 5.0L Ford used to be. One of his friends volunteered that the engine was a 283. Yeah right, with those huge fuel lines feeding that Dominator? We didn’t believe it for a second. What we were able to pry out of Jerry is that the engine needs to run on race gas and that the rest of the drivetrain consists of a TH400 trans and a beefed-up 8.8 rear axle.

It’s clear Lalo and his friends are also into vintage Japanese cars. We realize this may be a serious turn-off to some of our traditional audience, but it would behoove us to pay attention. These cars are all built with new technology SR20 engines out of Japanese market Silvias. With MegaSquirt or AEM computers and upgraded turbochargers, these cars would embarrass a lot of domestics that line up next to them. The import guys were the technology drivers of the scene a few years ago, experimenting with engine swaps, turbochargers, and fuel injection. Now, many of them are building turbocharged EFI V8s and terrorizing the traditional carburetor guys.

Lalo and his friends are able to build all these cars because they pool their resources. One guy might have an engine, another may have the transmission to donate to the build. Their friend, Ricky Arias, is a welder and was helping to make a custom set of headers for the twin-turbo system Lalo was assembling for his Courier. “We don’t have as much money as some of the other guys out there, but after taking care of my family and paying my bills, I put the rest into my cars,” he said.

Matt Sendejas and the IROC King

Here’s another group of guys on the scene. Meet Steve Cohen, Carlos Salazar, Roijau Law, Kevin Clark, Matt Sendejas, and Eric Outland (left to right in the main photo). Matt’s in his forties and was an avid racer until he was involved in an accident a few years ago. Now he prefers to stay on the sidelines and offer guidance to Kevin, who is 27. Kevin began hanging out in Matt’s old shop in Inglewood when he was 17 and really got into working on cars. The guys call Kevin “Smokey” because he smokes his competition. Kevin used to drive a low- 10s/high-9-second IROC-Z on the street, earning the moniker IROC King (thus the tattoos on his hands). He sold the Camaro but kept the 383 engine, dropping it into this lighter Mustang that the guys pooled their money to buy as a roller for $600. The transmission is a TH350, also out of Kevin’s IROC, while the rear axle is a Ford 8.8.

Matt says street racing is much more exciting than racing at the track. Part of the thrill involves not getting caught, and racers will spend hours trying to evade the cops. Rivalries and trash talk just ramp up the thrill factor even more. “Some rivalries go back 20 years,” he says. “There’s nothing better than beating a faster car. And the fastest car doesn’t always win on the street. The driver is as important, if not more, than the car is. There’s no red light on the street.”

Things have changed a lot since he was active, though. “It used to be about who had the faster car. Now, it seems like it’s more about the money,” Matt says. Fabian adds, “You can earn more money in one night of street racing than you will spend in one weekend at the track. Lots of guys can’t afford going to the track, and that’s why they race on the streets. But that is changing, too. Races start at $1,000, gasoline costs a lot now, and if you get caught, the fees and possible jail time pile up really fast. For lots of guys, it’s even too expensive to race on the streets.”

The Entrepreneurs

As with any group of people sharing a common interest, some individuals will rise above the others, depending on their talents. Thus, the street-racing scene has spawned hundreds of small businesses.

Racers’ Edge Tuning

Racers’ Edge Tuning in Downey is a shop we’ve featured several times in the magazine. Owner Greg Monroe started the business tuning Modular-powered Mustangs but has since branched out to include the LS Chevy and new Hemi, and will even work on carbureted stuff. Parked in the back corner of the shop is his personal project: a Fox-body Mustang with an LS2 Chevy. “I’m calling it the Street Sweeper, because it’s gonna clean up,” he said, wryly adding, “At least until someone else builds something faster.” It’s important to note that, just as in all competitive sports, once you take down the top dog, everyone comes gunning for you. The title of Fastest Car gets passed around frequently. Running nitrous is practically a given, “Everyone runs nitrous,” Fabian tells us from the beginning of this project. It’s the cheapest power-adder in terms of initial cost—and it is the easiest to hide if you’re trying to sucker someone. After that, Greg prefers turbocharging. “It’s time consuming to figure out the tune-up. Once you do, you then have to learn how to spool the turbo and launch the car so it doesn’t bog off the line,” he says. Being a good driver is just as important as having an excessive amount of power.

Manny’s Hardcore Performance

Way out in Fontana within earshot of Auto Club Speedway, you will find Mustang Manny’s shop, Manny’s Hardcore Performance. Thirty-year-old Manny Rodriguez is a former Ford dealership mechanic and street racer turned shop owner, opening the doors to MHP about three years ago. He specializes in pushrod and Modular Mustangs and Lightning trucks, but he says he works on just about any American rear-drive car. He built the engine in Lalo Mojarro’s 10-second Lightning and helps work on Jerry Herrara’s SBC Mustang.

The blue Mustang in the accompanying pictures belongs to Manny, and it’s constructed with a good combination of factory parts that guys on a budget could replicate pretty easily. Starting with a junkyard block, Manny adds an Explorer/Mountaineer intake manifold, Lightning fuel injectors, and a mass airflow sensor. With good cylinder heads, a matching cam, and some nitrous, you will have a solid 10.30s car. If you want more and have more cash to spend, he recommends a turbo kit from On 3 Performance. The kit itself is very complete and fits well, but he likes to upgrade to a better turbocharger when he’s building the car for himself. With a turbo application, Manny says to ditch the car’s AOD trans and install a C4 with upgraded clutches and a manual valvebody.

For Mod-motor guys, Manny says you need boost and nitrous. “They don’t work NA, the engine is too small.” Weighing in on your author’s Crown Victoria, for example, Manny suggested I “swap in the engine from a Terminator Cobra (’03–’04 supercharged 32-valve 4.6), port the blower, run 16 pounds of boost, bolt in a 2,600-stall converter, and it would make 460 hp at the wheels.” Any of our readers want to see that happen?

Custom Performance Racing

Viewers of the Nat Geo channel will know CPR and its flat-black LS-powered ’72 240Z. CPR is owned by 27-year-old Martin Marinov. He got his start building engines and custom headers and setting up cars for friends out of his garage. His business grew by word of mouth, and soon he was setting up shop in a warehouse in Gardena. His philosophy is to start with a high-compression small-block, run it on E85, control it with MegaSquirt or an AEM computer, and bolt in the power-adder of your choice. His Z used to have a Gen I small-block Chevy, but he wanted to upgrade to higher-flowing, 15-degree cylinder heads. Looking at the cost involved, he decided to swap in an LS engine. “It was cheaper, plus it’s 150 pounds lighter,” he says. When asked about the best platform on which to build a race car, Martin says it doesn’t really matter that much. “Even the worst car can be built to go fast. The process involves a lot of trial and error in deciding on the right combination of cylinder heads, cams, and power-adders. After that, pinion angle, shock valving, and mounting angles need to be dialed in to make the car hook. Finally, you have to find the right combination of tire dimensions and gear to both launch the car and still pull on the top end of the track.”

As an example of a car that is fast but shouldn’t be, check out CPR employee Jim Rios’ Chevelle wagon. He’s owned it for more than 10 years and has just finished dropping in a 14.0:1 small-block Chevy. With forged internals, CPR-ported Procomp heads, and a huge shot of nitrous, it makes 1,000 to the wheels through a TH400 and 12-bolt rear. He’s anticipating 9.40-second e.t.’s out of this 3,900-pound car the next time he takes it to the track.

Flow Technology Racing Heads

Want some heads ported but don’t have a lot of money? Drop them off at Juan Mendoza’s shop in Garden Grove. According to Fabian, Juan is a genius when it comes to porting cylinder heads, and judging by the collection of Wallys casually sitting in his lobby, it’s clear he knows what he’s doing. Juan is 72 years old; he doesn’t have a website, a Facebook page, or a Twitter feed. You need to deal with him one-on-one in his shop, but we guarantee it’s worth the trip.

American Custom Cam

Need a custom cam grind? Look up American Custom Cam in Covina. Owner Joseph Bray took the business over from his father, Joe Sr., nearly 30 years ago and can grind a cam for any engine you can dream up. In his core pile, we saw everything from Model T camshafts to a 6-foot-long cam for Detroit Diesel tractor engines, along with a smattering of obscure motorcycle, forklift, and vintage British sports-car cams in between. He didn’t want a lot of pictures taken, but we did manage to shoot a photo of the template of the cam profiles for a Ferrari V12.

QMP Racing Engines

Based in Chatsworth, QMP Racing Engines is no stranger to the pages of Car Craft. It has a reputation as a high-end company building extreme-horsepower engines, and we suspect it may have been responsible for the engines in at least a few of the cars we’ve featured in this article, even though QMP co-owner Mike Consolo denies it. However, he was able to tell us that, in theory, street racers are making 1,000 hp to the wheels and getting there by way of high-compression, big-displacement small-blocks running on E85 or a mix of 91-octane and race gas. Generally, they are also using nitrous or forced induction as a power-adder.

“Street racing is as big as going to the track is,” Mike says, meaning there are as many people street racing as there were attending the test-and-tune nights before all our local dragstrips closed. “It’s insane how much power the engines are making. Street racing is harder on engines than racing at the track, and we have to cater our work to the customer’s needs.” Unlike at a track, street-race engines need to be able operate in normal driving conditions. Even if the car is trailered to a race, it needs to drive from where the trailer is parked (often several blocks away) and idle during all the starting-line shenanigans without overheating while making upward of 1,000 hp. And it has to last because the guy can’t afford to rebuild the engine after every race.

To build an engine that will make this much power, Mike says ring-seal and head-gasket technology has become a critical factor in planning a customer’s build. Off-the-shelf LS or Modular Ford rings won’t hold the excessive cylinder pressures in a high-compression, forced-induction, street-race engine. He’s been working with Total Seal to develop stainless-steel ring material, once normally reserved for race-only engines. “It used to be that a good race engine with stainless rings lasted maybe 10 to 15 passes before it needed to be rebuilt. Stainless is a harder material than cast-iron or moly-faced rings found in street engines. They wear the cylinders quickly, and ring seal goes away. We’ve developed honing procedures that let us run stainless rings in a street-race engine that seal well and last a long time,” Mike says. Of course, lasting a long time is a relative term when dealing with the engines in a street racer’s car, but Mike says his (theoretical) customers bring engines back because they either pushed too hard and broke the engine or because they want more power, not because ring seal went away.

“I’ve heard all these guys do strokers,” Mike says (theoretically, of course). “If I were to build an engine for a street racer, I’d build for horsepower rather than torque. Too much torque is hard to control on the street. Building for horsepower lets you catch the other guy on the top end.” Mike also says they sleeve a lot of engine blocks to gain maximum displacement. “With sleeves, we can put a 3.700-inch bore inside a stock-looking 4.6 and a 4.165 bore in an LS3.” Those are increases of 0.170- and 0.100-inch, respectively, and both go a long way in building extra compression and power. “The sleeves hold all the cylinders true, and that also improves ring seal. Plus, because they’re made from ductile iron, they expand less than factory castings, especially in aluminum blocks. We can run tighter piston-to-wall clearances than we would in a stock-bore engine.” Mike adds.

Among other tricks Mike’s heard of for building horsepower in a stock-looking engine is improving valvetrain efficiency. Using shaft-mount rocker arms, polished valvesprings, and titanium retainers stabilizes the valvetrain and allows for higher-revving engines. “Not all cylinder heads need to be ported—stock LS3 heads work really well—but all cylinder heads will benefit from a good valve job and bowl-blending,” Mike says. Following QMP’s formula, you’d be able to build an engine that would dominate on the street. In theory, of course.

The Cover Stars

We wish to thank everyone who showed up for this month’s cover shoot. Because most of the cars are shrouded in a thick veil of fake tire smoke, here are the names of the folks and their cars.

Even with all the time we spent preparing this article, we realize we’ve only just scratched the surface of the scene here. We will continue to follow up with the guys we met and will also expand our scope to look at other parts of the country. Know a good scene near you? Email us at CarCraft@carcraft.com.

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