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Six cylinders and the smell of burning rubber

  • 2002-08-15
  • Sara Toth
Young Estonians are getting crazy about another Western youth culture classic - drag racing. Sara Toth reports.

On the outskirts of Tallinn, two workmen jump out of a ditch they are digging when they hear a roar that is louder and meaner than anything else on the streets. Using their hands as visors against Tallinn's evening sun, they watch as the car's speed causes it to swerve on the smooth pavement.

The gutsy sound is produced by the 1982 Camaro of Lauri Kuriks, 29, one of a growing number of drag racers in Estonia. The vehicle's speedometer is broken, but when he stopped, Kuriks guessed he had been driving at about 100 miles (160 kilometers) per hour-about three times the speed limit.

Kuriks insists this was only a special demonstration and that he doesn't often break traffic rules.

"I don't mind if people stare," says Kuriks, who is also a salesman at TopParts in Tallinn. "It was a shock for me the first time I heard this kind of car."

The need for speed

Until independence, Kuriks and other Estonians only knew about Camaros, Mustangs and Corvettes from "Nightrider" and other shows on Finnish television. But when these cars started trickling into Estonia in 1991, they made an even bigger impression because the sounds of their motors drowned out the sputtering Ladas and Moskvitches.

"I have this very distinct memory of getting out of a movie theater and seeing a Corvette accelerate while going uphill," said Martin Varik, 25, a friend of Kuriks, who in 2000 started Estonia's first online community for American car fans. "Just the sound of it got me interested. I was 16 then and I knew I wanted one of these cars."

Now Kuriks and Varik own two of the approximately 400 American-built muscle cars in Estonia. This number is expected to jump next year when Estonia sheds the excise tax on imported cars to comply with European Union standards. Currently the tax, which is based on a car's age and cylinder size, can double the price of a set of American wheels.

Because more cars coming into Estonia will probably add to the racing craze, police are preparing for more illegal street racing while companies are eyeing advertising opportunities at official race events. This growing distinction between illegal street racing and official drag racing has caused a split in the Estonian car community.

When imported American, Japanese and European cars came to Estonia in the mid-1990s, racing was illegal. So owners of all types of cars met at night in parking lots and on long, straight roads in Tallinn. Even at these unofficial events, American cars, mostly 70s and 80s models with larger engine capacities, competed against other American cars. And the smaller and newer European and Japanese cars raced each other.

In 1997, Estonian owners of American cars organized a legal race at a former Soviet airstrip in Tartu. Now there are a series of five every summer and companies help sponsor the events. Since these official races began, illegal street racing has basically stopped among American cars.

"People got more mature, and there were enough legal races," Varik said.

Meanwhile illegal street racing got more popular among those who owned European and Japanese cars because these became more affordable at the end of the 90s. Last fall, with the opening of "The Fast and The Furious," an American film glorifying street racing with new Japanese and European cars, more young Estonians were participating in these nighttime races.

"There were people who knew (about street racing) before, but for the masses this movie was the key," said one Tallinn street racer, who only identified himself as Crac.

In recent months as many as 300 cars have been showing up on Thursday nights to race and cruise around the large parking lot at Rocca al Mare, a shopping center on Paldiski Road outside Tallinn's city center, according to police.

"It gained so much popularity it became dangerous to the health of the community," said Indrek Raudjalg, a spokesman for the Estonian Board of Police. "But it's not a crime, just a traffic violation. The punishment is a ticket or possibly getting your license taken away."

In addition to the drivers, sometimes up to 1,000 people come just to watch.

"These are just young people who have nothing else to do," Raudjalg said. "This is their hobby. Of course, it is interesting to watch because the cars are often beautiful and expensive."

Most cars at these races accelerate up to 100 kilometers per hour. Even though this doesn't sound fast when compared to scenes on Arizona freeways in "The Fast and the Furious," it is dangerous because the parking lot at Rocca al Mare is only 300 meters long, with observers standing only a few feet away from the race path, according to the policeman.

"If a car loses control, then people can die because they stand so close to the (race) corridors," Raudjalg said.

Street racing also came to the attention of police in Tartu two months ago when they broke up a race in a shopping center parking lot.

"This is a very new thing in Estonia," said Indrek Puala of the Tartu Police Department. "And we need to figure out effective ways to deal with it."

Vroom boom

While police are concentrating on combating illegal racing, Estonian companies are paying more attention to the drivers who participate in official events. Janik Minkovski owns the Navako transport company that began sponsoring Kuriks and his Camaro last year. He used to race his Lada in the state-sponsored car rallies in the Soviet days.

"The cars are quite changed from the Soviet times. They were all the same back then, and were all sponsored by the government's sporting organization," Minkovski said. "Now its more about image. It's good for your company's image to go around the streets. Every year more people are watching these races."

Perhaps the interest in racing and remodeling cars is growing because more Estonians are buying new and better cars. According to Aripaev, an Estonian business daily, the number of new cars purchased in the country has doubled over the last three years. In 1999, Estonians bought about 7,600 news cars; in the first six months of this year, 7,571 new cars were sold.

While official drag racers get frustrated that illegal street races may give the whole sport a negative reputation, they said the biggest obstacle to the growth of automobile racing in Estonia is the lack of qualified mechanics. Especially for American or Japanese cars, mechanics need to know English to follow manuals or online advice about repairs. And many of Estonia's mechanics were trained on Ladas, not on Corvettes or Audis, which have larger engines.

"And we all know that a fast Lada isn't really very fast at all," Varik said.

But Estonians have gotten a lot of help and advice from Finnish car owners and mechanics, who have started coming to Estonian events.

"The Finns are 20 years ahead of us in experience with racing, and they are very helpful" said Partel Roos, 26, who helped Varik develop his American car forum at www.torque.ee.

Estonians often rent timing systems for races from Finland and hope to adopt more of Finland's safety standards, which include roll cages inside cars and sticky racing surfaces for traction.

"The safety here is far from perfect," Roos said. "It's quite a miracle no one has gotten hurt."

Kuriks recently raced his Camaro against a Mustang on an airstrip near Haapsalu. A rope was the only barrier between the speeding cars and the crowd that lined the track. And it was not clear who won, because the homemade Estonian timing system malfunctioned.

But those involved are still optimists.

"Racing in Estonia will get better," Kuriks said with a smile. "This is just the beginning.