Postgraduate Lives: Examining the need for speed

Zannagh Hatton, PhD student at Plymouth University

Zannagh Hatton is in her early forties and has been researching boy racers

Zannagh Hatton is in her early forties and has been researching boy racers

My PhD thesis is called "Tarmac Cowboys", and it's an examination of the modern world of boy racers. "Boy racer" is a term used to describe a particular group of young men, aged between 17 and 24, who adopt a similar style in dress, music and cars. They drive sporty hatches which are "modded" - for example with huge exhaust pipes and lowered suspension - so the cars look squat and menacing.

Boy racers are often looked down upon by the police, by mainstream society and by the media. Because they meet in public spaces and drive noisy cars with loud music systems they are regarded as accidents waiting to happen. But I believe many are merely lost boys who use their cars as symbols of status and rebellion.

What I found fascinating is that they are often youngsters who have grown up in a fragmented family environment where the father is a shadowy figure in the background playing an occasional walk-on role. The group they hang out in becomes their family, one they have constructed for themselves.

Some boy racers are practically talented, but not always academically gifted. Many have been excluded from school, have dyslexia, or have dropped out of college. They talk about being invisible. They see themselves as rebels, as protesters against a system which seeks to control them and thwart their ambitions, whether that means being told "you can't drive your car here" or "you can't have this job because you aren't qualified".

My research started at various garages, and then the lads I met would parade friends of theirs. I was a bit of a novelty factor. They got kudos for "going to see the bird who's writing a book about us". However, I was brought up in a car environment - my father raced bikes and cars - so I'm knowledgeable about car performance.

The racers congregate at car-parks, at McDonald's and on industrial estates. They set out to get thrills, but when they meet it's more about showing off and demonstrating skills. Sometimes they strip race, seeing who can drive the fastest between two points, often in multistorey car-parks. But most of it is about parking up and talking; these are the "repair shops" for what's wrong in their lives and for demonstrating driving prowess. They work on a shoestring budget, often building cars from scratch, and there's a lot of swapping and transferring of skills.

I interviewed 250 boy racers and in the past three years many have been killed, in car accidents and by suicide. It's been a privilege to have been a part of their world.

I spent three years on the PhD, while working full time as a research co-ordinator for the university. It's been a bit of a nightmare combining research with a full-time job, and I have two children as well. One had a car accident a year ago as a result of boy-racer activities and was seriously injured. So I don't just research it, I live with it.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: 1st Line IT Support - Surrey - £24,000

£20000 - £24000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate IT Support Helpd...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Audit Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Audit Graduate Opportunities ar...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing Exec (SEO / PPC)

£18 - 24k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing...

FDM Group: Business and Technical IT Consultants – London, Manchester, Glasgow

21,000-24,000: FDM Group: Kick-start your career and join FDM’s award-winning ...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there