Canyon racing: It's scary out on the street

Films and games have fulled a craze for street-racing. Tricia Wright 'drifts' through California's canyon roads
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The world wouldn't be as exciting without pioneers; those who always find an extra inch to take where most sane members of the public get off. For these people, it is living on the edge, constantly raising the bar, that brings them the buzz they crave. And if, like these brave few, careering down a twisting canyon road by night gets you going, then this latest way of risking life and limb will be right up your street.

Street racing, popularised by a wealth of recent films, computer games and a large online community, has recently taken a new craze on board. Known as canyon racing, the sport is an evolution of the Japanese touge contests, involving competitive teams, high-powered cars and tortuously twisting mountain roads.

And, thanks to Electronic Arts' latest release, Need for Speed Carbon, you can take part yourself safely on a computer monitor.

Experiencing this particular sport via a computer game isn't quite the cop-out it might sound, since it's the way many "drifters" not lucky enough to have California's canyons or a drift track on their doorstep got into the sport.

And what better way to test the game's authenticity than to get close to LA's real-life street-racing community and experience this adrenaline-pumping sport for myself?

Aside from the usual dangers of motorsport, canyon racing offers a kaleidoscope of nightmarish possibilities to sharpen the nerves. Police, determined to uncover the street racers, are a constant threat, but stand a slim chance of catching up with the racers' high-powered cars and equally impressive driving ability.

Other potential obstacles include wildlife or even just some "jackass" in the road - not to mention boulders or, as one canyon racer put it, "If you come round the corner, and there's a car stalled right in front of you, whaddya do?"

Quite. Well, at speeds of up to 110mph you'd very likely plunge 5,000 feet to a certain death, or smash into the sheer cliff face on the other side of the canyon.

And so, with much the same sense of relief you'd experience on hearing you were last in line for an injection at school, I received the news that our canyon run wasn't scheduled until the last night of our trip. First up were a couple of days of testosterone-charged, tyre-shredding, sideways action in the form of "drifting" in the north Los Angeles desert.

Drifting is one of the most intense driving experiences imaginable, for not only have these guys got their gas pedals glued to the floor, but they are simultaneously persuading the car, through frenetic spinning of the wheel and quick jerking of the handbrake, to go sideways around the bends.

And if they're good, the drivers take you effortlessly to the bounds of where you think you can take no more, and keep you there. It is with good reason that Chris Forsberg, champion of Drift 1, drifting's equivalent to Formula 1, has a sign reading "No screaming or crying" on the sun visor of his Nissan 350 Z convertible, not to mention "Live fast die young" on its side.

"Smooth like butter" was the phrase one awestruck spectator used to describe Chris's drifting agility to me as I prepared for a passenger ride around a track to which he assigned a difficulty rating of 9/10, not so much on account of there being 11 tight bends over one mile, but that they were all on a very steep gradient.

I can't say that "smooth" figured much in my mind to begin with as we burned round the track - literally, the tyres withstanding a mere four circuits under the strains of going sideways and the blistering heat of friction. My prevailing sentiment was rather the insanity of it all as I struggled with the sensation of feeling helplessly out of control, seeing first the mountains way off on the horizon, then the rocky surface of the racetrack hillside in a dizzying continuum as we glided one way, then the other. And the engine revving seemingly to within an inch of its capabilities, combined with the high-pitched screeching from the smoking tyres, only contributed to the sense of recklessness.

We weren't out of control though, rather poised on the edge, which is a powerfully addictive feeling. Chris's look of concern at the mention of canyon racing - which we were to do that very evening - jarred with my new-found sense of confidence, but I was on a roll.

It was cloak-and-dagger, ascending the canyon in the dead of night for a meeting, the details of which had spread like fire through the tight-knit racing community. If I was scratching around for a sense of safety, there it was in the form of numbers: there must have been 30 of us huddled on the mountain against the backdrop of LA lights, listening to the aggressive noise of the first convoy tearing up the canyon.

Wanting to do the deal properly the first time round, I picked as my driver the guy whose reputation as a virtuoso preceded him, famed for having been through a high-speed police chase through the canyons, coming out with his car intact and the cops nowhere.

In his Porsche Cayman S we bolted into the darkness, leader of the pack on account of his speed, borne of 10 years' experience on the canyon roads. He didn't drift round the corners - which came with an alarming frequency - rather used his split-second reactions to delay braking till as late as possible before taking them all as if we were on rails.

Do it once and, as with drifting, you just want more. Not much of an option back here in the canyon-devoid UK, but if such giants on the scene as Chris Forsberg managed to fuel their addiction via a computer game, so too can I.

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