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The Comedy of Errors

Nottingham's Fast and Furious

1 April 04 words: Kevin Harvey

 Like it or not, the illegal racing phenomenon has become an established (though unofficial) feature of the city's night scene.

 

Like it or not, the illegal racing phenomenon has become an established (though unofficial) feature of the city's night scene. It is as fixed a city centre hallmark as Robin Hood's statue or the Market Square lion that informs this magazine's title. It takes place every weekend in Nottingham city centre and has been established for a decade. Over the years it has successfully ridden out complaints from the public, the occasional accident and police prosecution. The flow is fast. In the short distance between Broad Marsh and Canal Street the cars generate a ferocious and deafening speed.

For a long time now I've wanted to find out more about Nottingham's late night racing scene, or as the participants themselves a little euphemistically call it 'cruising'. I doubt that few people have never witnessed the cruising or failed to see the colourful array of cars that congregate about the 'circuit' (the Collin Street-Canal Street-Greyfriar Gate loop) at weekends.

Ever since I first witnessed it ten or so years ago, the spectacle of these speedsters, in anything from a Ford Fiesta upwards, treating the city centre loop as earnestly as a Formula One race track, has always fascinated me. There's something faintly absurd but somehow romantic about it. 

Such is the fascination that has brought me to the circuit this bitter Sunday evening. God it's cold tonight, perhaps the coldest night of the new year so far. Ten o'clock and already a serious frost has set in (if it weren't for the liberal sprinkling of road salt, the conditions under wheel would be treacherous). But already there's a fair amount of cruising taking place.

Every minute new drivers arrive on the scene, smoothly filtering into the existing circuit flow or parking up to watch events and gas with fellow petrol-heads. But there's no sign of any serious racing yet: just the occasional competitive spurt between shavers on mopeds. The scene is vibrant but orderly. One of restrained potential. The serious stuff, I sense, is to take place later on.

I approach a group of likely lads parked up at the entrance to the Arndale Car Park. Bonnets are up and a couple of them appear to be checking their oil and water (I know little about cars). Perhaps it's my height that makes them leery of me.

"Not Old Bill, are you, mate?"

I explain that I'm writing a feature for a local online magazine and wish to know what goes on in order that I might best inform its readers. But the lads don't seem convinced and delve beneath their bonnets again, returning to the vital fluids.

Where you from, mate? I ask an affable looking lad who has just surfaced from the engine of a Vauxall Corsa.

"Lincoln. All of us are."

How long you been coming down to Nottingham?

"About a year."

And what's the big attraction here? Do you race at all?

"No, mate, I don't race."

What do you come down for then?

"To look at modified cars."

What's a modified car?

"A car that's been modified."

I suspect that I'm unlikely to be supplied with any more fruitful answers and withdraw, leaving the Lincoln lads under their bonnets.

As I walk away, I ponder their reluctance to speak openly. Mention of 'Old Bill' brings to mind the controversy which has continually attended activities at the circuit and the recent conversation I had with a former police traffic inspector.

During the summer and autumn of last year (2003), responding to complaints from nearby residents and pedestrians (mainly late night revellers and club-goers), he was responsible for police operations at the circuit. Cars were routinely pulled over, driving documents scrutinised and sometimes the three lane flow of traffic along Collin Street was restricted to a one lane crawl.

Since then, powers made  available to the police by the 2002 Police Reform Act have supposedly reduced the number of nuisance drivers down from 200-300 to a handful.

At the top of Collin Street, parked just past the bus stops, I spot a Ford Escort Mark something or other sporting a tail fin that looks as if it's been hacked off a commercial airliner.

The driver, a young woman (no more than twenty-five), is talking to a man with a large, professional-looking camera over his shoulder. Soon we're all conversing, though it is evident that 'J', the driver, is a little suspicious of me and so talks tentatively. 

The photographer  rightly recognises my good intentions and reassures her. He produces a large photograph of J perched on top of a speed camera. I recognise the camera. It's the one on Queen's Drive with the spray gun smile.

J invites me to have a closer look at her car. Like many on the circuit, it is no ordinary vehicle. It's been modified... that is it possess enhanced technical specifications (so I learn at last), of which the key components appear to be a turbo engine, alloy wheels, body kit and bucket seats.

Bucket seats?

"Yeah, they're seats that keep you upright. They give you extra support round corners and that."

But J's Escort has not so much been modified as what I'd more accurately  describe as glamorised, for it boasts all manner of finery and sumptuous extras: television, PlayStation and, her piece de resistance: generous stretches of shag pile carpet.

"And that's nothing," she informs me. "I know some cars round here that have bars in them."

The more I get to know J, the more it's evident that she possesses status on the circuit (especially with the lads). Her mobile trills constantly (new arrivals rolling in on the scene wanting to meet up) and, when her phone isn't ringing, she calls up and waves affectionately at cruisers as they pass. For her, the circuit allows friends to meet up and socialise.

"We come to show off our cars and take them for a spin. Everyone knows everybody down here."

Do you ever race?

"No, we cruise," she replies, emphasising the word 'cruise' with a knowing smile.

Christ! (I'm startled by a pack of competing engines that blurt past.) You call that cruising?

"What we want is some space. If the council gave us a place then we could go elsewhere. That wouldn't bother the police."

I mouth a response but by now the noise is too overpowering for speech. Now is not the time for talking but cruising, which is beginning to heat up. As if realising this, J briskly but politely breaks off our conversation and then tucks, folds, squeezes herself into the driver's seat (a bucket). Before I've regained the pavement, she's gone, one of the many cars which are stoking up the circuit.

It's midnight and I've crossed the carriageway, rather hazardously, to join a group of spectators on the opposite side of Collin Street. The traffic around the circuit has now boiled down to a pure essence of cruising. Gone now the public transport only the occasional taxi or police car passes by.

A popular sprint is from Ocean to Ocean (one complete lap of the circuit). Sometimes the circuit is extended to take in the full length of Canal Street (round the London Road island and back again). The traffic lights situated along the route conveniently facilitate the contests (you race from light to light or simply pass through them if the colours are favourable). I learn all this from some cruisers up from Leicester for the night...

"Nottingham's the best place to come on Sunday," says the driver of a Renault Megan-cum-Clio type hatchback. "I'm hoping to see a crash tonight. There were some tools on bikes here earlier on."

What? Bicycles?

"Yeah, you get all sorts coming down. Look at them over there..."

He points to a group of club-dressed girls on the pedestrian crossing further down Collin Street. To applauding horns, they are lifting up their tops at the waiting traffic. One of the girls remains on the crossing after the lights have changed; the others have to pull her on to the pavement. They walk away laughing.

"Never mind the cars, it's worth coming down just for that." Says the passenger of a nearby Subaru.

Do you get any romances? You know, love on the circuit? 

"No, but you get some good-looking chicks," says the passenger.    

Through the cruisers powerful network of mobile phones, word gets round that an unmarked police car is on the scene. There's tangible unease as attempts are made to identify the vehicle. Speed around the circuit drops. A few cars cautiously pull out and join the search from the sidelines.

"Why should we? We're not doing any harm. There's no kids round here... no one lives here. Only taxis bother us and they're the worst drivers of all."

The appearance of police vehicles is a common obstacle for the cruisers. Though it's no offence to meet up at and drive (sensibly) around the circuit, the police routinely monitor the roads for drivers who use vehicles irresponsibly. During previous operations, cruisers who were caught driving without due care and attention risked, if identified on more than one occasion, having their cars impounded. Given the powers available to the police, I ask the Leicester lads whether using a designated space off road would be a good alternative

"Yeah. And making it legal, having a proper place, would make it less fun. People come here to show off in front of everyone else. People like to watch. Making it legal wouldn't be as good. No one would go."

"The only way they'll stop us coming here is by putting speed bumps down."

The appearance (whether actual or imagined) of the secret police car seems to have drained the circuit of its energy; it has suddenly become a lot calmer and quieter. Only a handful of determined cruisers continue to do the rounds. Now there are nearly as many taxis tooling along. But this hiatus, be it temporary or terminal, provides me with a neat opportunity to try a spot of cruising myself. Given the tame state of the circuit, conditions now seem perfect for a beginner...

A Ford Mondeo 1.8 diesel estate with a driver who obsessively cleaves to speed limits is unlikely to turn heads. But as I chug down Maid Marian Way and filter into the circuit, I'm suddenly possessed by the need for speed. I seize the middle lane and take on a taxi. The lights at the crossing ahead catch us, but I pass through fearlessly, indifferent to running a red.  

I'm boldly unaware of the police car round the sharp bend that follows. Taking the corner stupidly fast, uncertain which lane I'm gliding into (though certain I'm gliding through most of them), I struggle to right myself before drawing level with the law.

Pulling up, in a frenzy of braking, at the side of him, I stare straight ahead, imploring God for the lights to change. After years pass, we set off together, side by side, and he shoots me a wry, knowing look, as if to say, "You? At your age? In that thing?"

And with this admonishment, rather than complete the circuit in a respectable time, I sensibly abort my attempt, leaving it all to the cruisers, and drive slowly all the way home. 

The flow is fast (absurdly fast) but at the same time miraculously controlled. In the short distance between the pedestrian crossing outside Broad Marsh to the bend that sharply cuts round into Canal Street, the cars generate a ferocious and deafening speed.

The spurts are carefully synchronised: when a patrol car momentarily appears, the collective pace, with all those turbo disc brakes, is quickly brought down to licit limits. As soon as the police leave the circuit, the cruising quickly resumes - as though it had never been interrupted. 

Perhaps, among other things I can't quite explain, it's the sense of communality evident among the cruisers, the confederacy and determination which brings them every weekend to the city centre. 

 

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