Outlawed drag races continue to thrive in South Florida

The air is electric, engines revving, flames shooting out of tailpipes. Wrapped beauties with colorful wheels and modded hoods are everywhere. The highway is empty except for the crowd of people from their mid-teens to late 20s, who stand by as if the world has stopped just for this race. 

Hundreds are gathered. It’s 3 a.m., and the night is only just beginning. A Nissan Skyline and a GTR are starting at the Haines City entrance to I-4, going head to head, $10,000 on the line. With a screech of their tires, the drivers are off going 100 mph toward Daytona. Screams erupt.

This is how Michael E., a.k.a. Mr. Midnight, a drag-racing devotee who declines to give his full name to SFMN, describes the craziest race he has ever seen. 

Midnight, a Florida native from Tampa, is currently a senior at Florida International University studying computer science. He found his passion for shooting still photos and videos at drag races about 10 years ago. The nerves, the adrenaline, it’s what makes it all work for Midnight. But it’s not for everyone, he acknowledged. 

“If you’re scared,” he says, “go to church.” 

Danger never goes away in these races, he says. People are killed, maimed, and scarred at these outlawed events.

Drifting, wheelies, donuts, and other potentially fatal road actions have ended the lives of not only those who drive the cars, but people just trying to get back home. According to press reporters, two pedestrians were killed after two cars lost control doing donuts, it occurred during a roadway festivity in Wildwood, N.J. this past Sept. 24. 

During the second annual Kerrville Airport Race Wars in central Texas, a car that lost control in a race and flew into a crowd, injuring eight and killing a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old. In Miami Gardens around late September, five people were hurt, a 64-year-old man doing doughnuts was wounded, and a 42-year-old mother of four was decapitated

On June 9, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 399, which strictly banned street takeovers and crowds taking part in these races, making it illegal to video/photograph the events. It was enacted on Oct. 1, 2022. 

From a young age, Michael has had a love of cars. He got his first one right after graduating from a high school in Tampa, a gift from his parents. It was a Dodge Charger SXT named Betty. Having a ride of his own opened a door for him. He began getting invited to car meets put on by his friends or people he knew. At these events, people brought their rides (usually jacked up) and a need for an adrenaline rush. 

“It was like the movies,” he said. “‘Fast and furious,’ ‘Need for Speed’.”

He fell in love with the whole scene: gorgeous cars, late nights, and high energy levels. After witnessing a number of races himself, he decided he wanted to take on a role. He had a few racing friends, a small following, and thought he could start his own “crew,” a group of racers and videographers. That was 2017 and was the birth of FastK2. The name came from the movie “The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift” mixed with K2, the name of synthetic cannabis – racing is an addictive high. 

“There’s never been a sequel and I wanted one so I just thought I’d start it… FastK2,” he said.

The group fell apart shortly after its creation though. They had no budget, and people were constantly fighting one another. 

After that, in 2018, he thought he should observe instead, try to find people who were already established in the underground and join them. 

It was during this time that he found the Nissan Boys, a midsize group whose area ranged from East Orlando to Jacksonville. He saw insane races, with thousands of dollars on the line,  including the aforementioned I-4 race that happened in early 2018 and paid the winner $10,000. He was a shadow man, there to learn. He hadn’t started taking photos or videos yet.

“The first couple of months with them was really like the movies,” he said. “Custom cars, custom racing.”

Soon he felt more confident working on FK2 again. He started getting people together on the weekends and organizing races. It was growing gradually. Then he began using social media as a tool, tagging people, other crews – anyone with a nice car, just letting everyone know what was going down. By 2019 he had an average of 100/150 people coming for each meetup event.

“A good, decent amount of actual enthusiasts showed up any time of the week,” he said. 

Then the pandemic hit. He decided to switch things around and thought Let me get back into video. Other crews had videos and pictures of their events and he wanted to do the same. 

“I was into videos when I was younger but I never took it seriously,” he said. “I didn’t have a camera, none of that shit.”

He bought a Nikon D 3400 and hit the streets. He got experience taking photos of anyone’s car who would let him. 

“Come June we went from Tampa to Miami, Miami to Atlanta,” he said. “We went to Memphis, Memphis to Houston. It was madness.”

A crowd surrounds as the mustang does tricks, ‘monkey’ passenger side. Photo Courtesy of Michael E.

In August 2020, while staying at a friend’s house in Jacksonville, he got caught up in a police sweep. 

“I don’t know what went down,” he said, “All I know is come like 6 a.m. a bunch of police pulls up, and pretty soon we are all in handcuffs. I’m just on the floor and they are taking all my hard drives.”

Months of footage were collected on those hard drives, he says. Though it was a drug bust and he was released soon after not being involved in the alleged crime. Being cuffed, they held his book bag filled with the drives for another week to review them before eventually releasing them back to him.

“I was kinda having a panic attack,” he said. “Everything was in there.”

Midnight continued hosting events and photographing them. He would post the time and place on social media, and the cars would roll up – ready to race.

He introduced betting and started drawing hundreds of people making an equal amount of profit. It was during this time that he rebranded himself to Midnight Road Runner, a name he got from his uncle, who called him midnight man or road runner because he was always out at night recording cars. He also created a collaboration account on Instagram called “Streetlife” with his friend Reese, expanding his business.

All of this came to a sudden stop on July 3, 2021 when he got in a near-fatal car accident in Tampa.

“All I remember is flying out of the car and then waking up in the hospital,” he said.

BMW Crash on July 3, 2021. Photo Courtesy of Michael E. 

A driver on the other side of the street lost control and crashed into his BMW. The accident was an unexpected twist of fate, given that it wasn’t part of the dangerous racing scene. He was driving down a normal street, on an average day at thankfully the speed limit. He almost died, but luckily survived. 

Doctors said there was a 91% chance that he would have been paralyzed if a disk had slipped; if he or the car would have been driving any faster (above the standard 40mph speed limit), he wouldn’t have walked again. He stayed in the hospital for weeks and had months of recovery and physical therapy after that. Now he has a metal rod in his back and braces on both sides of his spine.

“I was mad,” he said. “I realized if I had died I wouldn’t have achieved anything. I hadn’t reached my full potential.”

After the accident and his recovery, he jumped right back into the car scene, going bigger than before.

He soon began to realize that the more attention you got, the more negative attention followed you. Fear of the police and getting locked up is a big concern for those who follow this lifestyle. 

Each meets risks arrest. For him, he definitely was feeling the heat, scared his involvement could get him locked up.

“I learned too much notoriety is not a good thing,” he said

He decided then to leave what he had built in Tampa and start over in a new city, Miami. He enrolled in FIU in spring of 2022 and has been here ever since. Not wanting to totally give up on racing and cars, he adjusted to the Miami scene. At this point in his life, he is at a crossroads. He’s not sure exactly what to do with his future, though he knows he wants to continue with school.

His love of cars, fear of being arrested, and need for financial stability are pulling him in different ways.

“There is nothing really to lose but fear.” 

Olivia Guthrie is a Junior at Florida International University currently majoring in Journalism with a minor in Religious Studies. She hopes, upon graduation, to be a journalist living in a big city making video-based media. She hopes through her work she can help educate the public on issues they are facing.

Estefani Calandriello is a Junior majoring in Digital Communications and Media specializing in Broadcasting at Florida International University. She has a strong sense of enthusiasm and loves to travel and take pictures. Her desired job is to work in the entertainment industry.