SI Vault
Hal Higdon
December 18, 1972
Malcolm's car seemed to be a real dog, but like all true street racers he was a crafty master of the oldtime drag-racing fundamental: always make them think they can beat you
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December 18, 1972

Look Slow And Be Set To Go

Malcolm's car seemed to be a real dog, but like all true street racers he was a crafty master of the oldtime drag-racing fundamental: always make them think they can beat you

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Whenever possible, Malcolm avoids raising the hood. Sometimes, however, a potential opponent will demand a peek as prerequisite to a race. Malcolm then reluctantly agrees, knowing he has mastered the black art of disguise. "I don't bother cleaning the outside of my engine," he explains. "The dirtier it looks, the better. A lot of dudes try to keep everything perfectly clean. When they raise the hood you need sunglasses. But anyone who wants to race is going to figure: you care enough to keep it clean, you may care enough to make it run." After Malcolm installed his 440, he christened it by drenching the engine compartment with a quart of oil, then driving his car up and down dusty roads. By the time he finished, the engine looked like it had been uncovered by archaeologists in some Egyptian tomb.

A street racer who has neglected to check his opponent's engine before a race will never see it afterward. "You ain't going to see my engine," snaps Malcolm after a run. "Just give me the money."

Malcolm also has mastered the gentle art of sandbagging. Once in front by a car length or so, he usually resists the temptation to pull away to a five or six length victory. Buddies of the defeated driver—who may have faster cars—stand on the sideline, see the small margin of victory, and think: "Man, I can take that dude." Buddy No. 1 challenges the next night—and loses by a car length. Malcolm steps out of his car shaking his head, wiping his brow, and dripping humility: "I sure got lucky on the start." Buddy No. 2 returns the next evening—and loses by a car length. Same principle as the pool hustler who never manages to beat his opponent badly.

The street racer stands to earn some money with such tactics—but not too much. "The most I've ever seen is $100," says Jack Kniola, leaning against the counter. "I've heard of bigger purses, but I ain't seen them. Kids talk about racing title for title. Hell, half these guys ain't got their cars paid for."

Jack glances up at one of the regulars who has just walked into the shop: "Hey, Superdeal. What's the biggest street race you ever seen—moneywise?"

Superdeal, whose real name is Dennis, considers the question. "Fifty bucks," he replies.

"When was that?"

"When Boots ran that Chevelle from Illinois couple years ago."

Kniola's eyes light up at the memory of one of the classic events in the history of Michigan City street racing. The Illinois Chevelle had appeared in town at the drive-in one evening, so low-slung that its rear bumper almost scraped the ground. The car had skinny whitewall tires, and its driver meekly indicated he might like to see how fast it would go. Boots, one of the top local racers, accepted the challenge. When they assembled for the race half an hour later on Hitchcock Road outside town, however, the whitewalls had been replaced by a massive set of rear-end slicks. When the Chevelle's engine fired, the noise was so intense that leaves began dropping off the trees. "Blew Boots' doors off," said Jack, sadly shaking his head.

Selecting a course for a street race is an art in itself. The street racers carefully scout and measure backcountry roads, painting start and finish lines exactly 440 yards apart. They consider dragging at stoplights as strictly for amateurs and only do it as a teasing tactic to attract business. They sneer at the novice racers who sometimes face off on East Michigan Boulevard, one of the main streets that continues into the country. They know its concrete surface provides such good traction it can snap the axle on a fast machine. Pros such as Malcolm prefer to run on smooth asphalt.

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