OAKLAND, CALIF. — The sound of revving engines and shrieking tires reverberates across the city, disrupting the quiet of the wee hours. The cacophony comes from an intersection, taken over by young drivers and designated as “the pit,” a proving ground where they can display acrobatic yet reckless drift-driving skills. Rings of spectators gather around a vortex of cars careening around one another — often with screaming passengers hanging out of the windows.
In East Oakland, groups of young people burn donuts — intentionally spinning a car’s rear tires, causing them to burn and leave flowing cursive patterns on the pavement — in a well-established urban cultural rite known as a sideshow.
There has been a drastic surge during the pandemic of these drivers meeting up and blocking traffic for these raucous street parties, prompting new legislation and crackdowns from law enforcement across the country.
In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a new law targeting illegal stunt-driving events in the state. That measure, increasing fines and threatening arrests, followed similar moves in the past year by Arizona, California, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas to curtail dangerous driving antics.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed a law in October threatening a six-month suspension of a driver’s license for participating in a sideshow, even as a spectator. Two months later, Oakland’s current mayor, Libby Schaaf, pointed to “reckless driving and gunfire brought on by sideshow activity” as contributing to the city’s high number of homicides. There were 134 murders in Oakland in 2021, the highest in a year since 2006.
Since the emergence of sideshows in Oakland in the late 1980s, successive mayors have railed against them. In 2005, after eight people died in sideshows over a year, former Gov. Jerry Brown, then mayor of Oakland, called for action. But sideshows continued. In 2009, following three sideshow-related deaths, the Mayor Ron Dellums made a plea for change — to no effect.
Oakland sideshows started in the late 1980s as mellow street parties where owners of magnificently restored American muscle cars — Ford Falcons, Mercury Cougars and Chevy Impalas — flaunted their automotive artistry.
A decade or so later, sideshows became the venue for the Bay Area’s hyphy movement, which was fueled by a combination of hip-hop music and frenetic dancing. After clubs let out, parking lots and intersections erupted into hip-hop raves. Oakland’s street fashion and trippy dance moves were on full display. Car stereos blasted dance anthems by budding local hip-hop legends like Mac Dre, E-40, Keak da Sneak and Richie Rich. Sideshow drivers and passengers would occasionally jump out of the car, dancing beside or on top of a slow-moving vehicle, in a move called “ghost riding the whip.” For a brief moment, Oakland was the national center of Black youth creativity.
By the 2010s, sideshows shifted again, with larger crowds commandeering busier intersections and screeching drift cars taking center stage. Now with the arrival of Instagram, spectators are snapping photos and sharing videos. The bravest try to capture the most dramatic footage by inching as close as possible to two-ton cars hurling across the pavement. There are no barriers to protect bystanders from getting sideswiped by moving vehicles. Spectator injuries and collisions between automobiles are regular occurrences, providing viral content on social media.
Drivers and event promoters use Instagram’s direct-messaging capabilities to announce sideshow times and places to their large followings. If the police catch wind of the location, organizers use Instagram to redirect the crowd to a backup spot. Evasion is part of the fun.
The Oakland Police Department monitors sideshow activity but has nearly given up trying to prevent them from happening. Capt. James Beere believes sideshows are a threat to public safety. He said that the noise, smoke and violence reported on local television news make some residents afraid to leave their homes during a sideshow.
But traffic violations, no matter how potentially dangerous, are not the city’s highest law enforcement priority. “We’re so short-staffed right now,” Captain Beere said. Responding to sideshows requires pulling officers from other patrols, he said, and homicides are a more urgent focus. City officials instead try to address complaints by installing planters, speed bumps and other traffic-calming devices to prevent sideshows.
In October 2020, the San Francisco Police Department formed its stunt driving response unit to respond when sideshows from nearby regions move en masse into the city. “When you have 100, 200, 300 cars coming from Sacramento or the Central Valley, that’s a big thing,” said Daniel Perea, the deputy chief of the department’s special operations bureau.
Mr. Perea said that sideshows were associated with looting, fireworks, weapons, explosive devices, car fires and hit-and-run incidents, and are linked to homicides from car crashes and shootings. “We’re trying to do everything we can to prevent these things from happening,” he said. The stunt driving response unit monitors Instagram communications, disrupts the event, disperses the crowd and takes enforcement action against participants. The cost of fines and storing seized vehicles can add up to about $3,500 for perpetrators.
But Mr. Perea admitted that an anti-authoritarian hot-rod culture has persisted since he was a teenager in San Francisco. “When I was young, I had a Camaro, and I loved that car. And it was fast,” he said. “But the ante has definitely gone up now.” The city reported 29 sideshow-related incidents in 2020. That grew to 77 reported incidents in 2021, although the rate of incidents is down so far in 2022.
Amit Gill, who lives in San Pablo, Calif., drove in sideshows for a few years starting in 2013. Like other Bay Area drivers who learned to perfect donuts at sideshows, he graduated to the drift days at Sonoma Raceway, which sets aside special time for drift cars, and other tracks where he gets more driving time and safety rules are obeyed. Mr. Gill stopped going to sideshows a few years ago, but he still hears tires screeching and engines roaring in his neighborhood late at night.
“When people go to the sideshows, that’s not the most chaotic thing they’ve seen,” Mr. Gill said. “We have the norm of gunshots, violence, crime rates and low education,” he said. Mr. Gill resents the residents who grouse about sideshow noise, believing them to be concerned partly about their property values in East Bay neighborhoods, where gentrification is reshaping the population.
Ken Gross, a prominent auto historian and former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, said that the rebelliousness of sideshows is also integral to mainstream motorsports.
Donut pits are becoming standard features at professional racetracks and auto industry events. Spectators enjoy the proximity to the action, where you can feel the ground vibrate, smell rubber burning and become enveloped in smoke. These adrenaline-pumping experiences draw fans to drag racing and NASCAR venues using shorter tracks. “The same primal factors people get off on doing sideshows have been going on for a long time,” Mr. Gross said.
Outlaw drivers evading the authorities is a familiar plotline in motorsports history and in movies. Ken Martin, director of historical content at the NASCAR Media Group, explained that soldiers returning home to the rural South from World War II were fearless drivers. “They weren’t afraid to push a vehicle to the limit,” he said. Logically, moonshiners enlisted the best drivers to transport alcohol illegally.
Before becoming NASCAR’s first driving icon, Junior Johnson served prison time for owning a still. However, law enforcement officials were never able to catch him on the road. Mr. Johnson’s spiritual heirs — teleported from the postwar Deep South to cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles and New Orleans — might be sideshow drivers.
“Whether you’re on the streets of Oakland or the high banks at Talladega, people like to be thought of as cool, and we’re thankful that they entertain us,” Mr. Martin said.
A handful of sideshow drivers develop enough notoriety and online reach to become quasi-professional. They leverage large Instagram followings — 100,000 users or more — to sell branded merchandise, earn sponsorships or land stunt-driving gigs for music videos. And with each new death-defying drift video in intersections, parking lots and back roads, their followers grow.
In previous generations, outlaw drivers needed to clean up their image to gain acceptance by mainstream media and officials motorsports organizations. However, this new ilk of rebel road warriors cultivates their antisocial image with irreverent and profane tag lines, maintaining street cred among enthusiasts of sideshows, hip-hop and weed. The ability to earn cash and garner celebrity increases the allure of illegal stunt driving — staged, captured and published on Instagram.
Mr. Gill maintains that novice stunt drivers living out their “Fast and Furious” fantasies for a few minutes are the least of the city’s problems.
“You’ve seen robberies happen in front of you. You’ve seen your homeboy die in front of you,” Mr. Gill said. “Why are the cops focusing on 30 kids having fun at an intersection when murders are going on all around you?”