Episode 96: Muscle Car City: We Are in the Movie

Aaron Naparstek: Hey, everybody. Welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Aaron Naparstek, and this is the second of a three part series called “Muscle Car City.” In part one, back in episode 92 of the podcast, I told you about how in the spring of 2021, I started noticing lots of big, loud muscle cars on New York City streets. And many of these cars had their own Instagram accounts. I began following cars on social media, and pretty soon found myself immersed in a whole world and subculture of burnouts, donuts, car meets and street takeovers. There were lots of things that fascinated me about this scene, but I think the main thing was the way that social media seemed to be supercharging some of the more toxic aspects of car culture.

Aaron: There’s nothing new about driving recklessly in a big, loud, obnoxious muscle car, but these guys were driving recklessly with Instagram handles on their cars, and posting their exploits on social media. Some of these muscle cars had tens of thousands of followers—they even had sponsors. They were media brands. With a single Instagram post, a popular muscle car account could summon hundreds of cars to any location in the city on a Saturday night.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: BHB, we outside, baby!]

Aaron: One of the cars I was following belonged to a guy who called himself Denys da Menace.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, man: Yo Denys!]

Aaron: Denys owned a Dodge Charger in frostbite blue with pink trim, and was a member of a car club called the Brooklyn Hemi Boyz. In part one, I talked with Denys and did a little ride along with him.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Aaron: This is terrifying. This is like my nightmare.]

Aaron: And he agreed to take me along to a car meet. But Denys was a busy guy. His car was in demand for music video shoots. He was driving down to big car meets in Philly and Miami. And he had a full-time job at a bank. Finally, toward the end of July, Denys got in touch to let me know that the biggest, craziest car meet of the summer was coming up. It would hit 10 or 12 locations running from Yonkers, just north of New York City, down through the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. Denys said all the big cars were coming. Everybody was going to be there—including me and The War on Cars.

Doug Gordon: We’ve had a bunch of rainy weekends in New York lately, and that means I’ve been able to wear my official War on Cars Cleverhood anorak a lot. Let me tell you, when people see that logo on the front, it sparks a lot of conversations. But more importantly, it keeps me dry. If the weather is wet, and I’m on two wheels or on my own two feet, it is my go-to garment. Now Cleverhood has just expanded the color options so you can get your own anorak in Verdant Green, Pluto Blue, Randy Red, Mister Pink or Galactic Black. I just love those names. And when you buy rain gear from Cleverhood, you’re supporting a small, independently-owned business that also supports organizations involved in the fight to make streets safer, more sustainable and more equitable. Listeners of The War on Cars receive 15 percent off their purchase in the Cleverhood store, from the official anorak to the Rover rain cape and everything in between. Visit Cleverhood.com/waroncars and enter code HOLIDAYLIGHTS—that’s all one word—at checkout. Cleverhood rain gear makes a great gift, and the team based out of Providence, Rhode Island, will ship your order out fast so it’s ready for whatever holidays you celebrate this season. Again, that’s Cleverhood.com/waroncars, coupon code HOLIDAYLIGHTS.

Aaron: Saturday afternoon, July 24. Denys and I had a plan, but it was all a little bit vague. At some point that evening, he would come and pick me up, take me to the car meet. I could ride along with him and his team for the night. I ate dinner, gathered my recording gear and waited at my desk to hear from him. Around 8:00 p.m., Denys messaged me on Instagram to tell me that the plan had changed. He was already up in Yonkers and couldn’t come pick me up. If I wanted to come, I would have to drive myself, and he would send me the top secret list of car meet locations in a few hours. This was a bummer for at least two reasons: first, it meant that I would be attending a muscle car meet in a Ford hatchback with Vermont plates and a huge luggage case on the roof. It was gonna be tough to blend in and be a fly on the wall. And second, I would be recording an episode of The War on Cars while driving around New York City in my own car.

Aaron: It was a little after midnight when I pulled into the biggest parking lot I’d ever seen in New York City—a vast expanse of asphalt in the Bronx between a K-Mart, a ShopRite and a Burlington Coat Factory, easily the size of three football fields. But it was not the wild scene of burnouts, donuts and exploding tailpipes that I expected. There were just a few groups of muscle cars parked around the lot. I found Denys standing with a handful of guys near three cars.

Aaron: Testing one, two, three. Testing one, two, three. Here with Denys.

[police sirens]

Police officer: You gotta move. You gotta get out of this lot.

Aaron: The police lights started flashing before I could even put the mic in Denys’s face.

Man: Now?

Police officer: Now.

Aaron: The cops were here, and they were kicking us out.

Aaron: So real quick, tell me where we are right now.

Denys da Menace: Somewhere in the Bronx. I haven’t been to these locations before.

Police officer: You’ve gotta go. Thank you.

Denys da Menace: We’re just having fun, man. Enjoying life.

Police officer: Okay. Well, we could call you a tow truck.

Aaron: There’s a lot of cops here now.

Denys da Menace: It’s always like this. When we do stupid stuff, there’s a lot more than this. [laughs]

Aaron: Really?

Denys da Menace: Yeah.

Aaron: Do they have, like, some—because I certainly wasn’t able to get your addresses. Like, do they have some mole on the inside, or how are they getting their information?

Denys da Menace: Who, the police?

Aaron: Yeah.

Denys da Menace: It’s just random people that you see in the corners, and they see 100 crazy cars. They want to say, “Oh, I see some crazy stuff over here. We need your help.”

Aaron: All right. We gotta get the hell out of here. So you’re going to spot number four?

Denys da Menace: Yeah.

Aaron: The evening’s next location, spot number four was just a few minutes drive away: a Home Depot parking lot tucked into the crotch of Interstate 95 and the Hutchinson Parkway. I pulled in around 12:30 a.m., and this spot was much more lively. I counted at least 80 cars. The air was thick with the smell of weed. Headlights illuminated the tarmac. Just as I arrived, a driver pulled into an open space in the middle of the parking lot, smashed his gas pedal and attempted to spin a few donuts.

[tires screeching]

Aaron: Crowd consensus seemed to be this guy didn’t know what he was doing.

Denys da Menace: I mean, he was doing it wrong. So that’s why. He was probably practicing right there.

Aaron: I found Denys da Menace hanging with his team. At some point since the first time I’d spotted his car three months earlier, Denys had changed his club affiliation. He wouldn’t tell me why, but he was no longer a member of the Brooklyn Hemi Boyz. He now had his own club called Forever Loyal Young or FLY.

Aaron: So what was that? So that was just like—was that kind of like a practice run or what? Like, you know, how does it work out here?

Denys da Menace: A lot of people practice by themselves, and a lot of people practice at smaller meets. There’s still, like, another 200 cars coming. They’re on their way.

Aaron: Wow.

Denys da Menace: But for the beginning—the beginner spinners, they start off, and then the more experienced spinners, they jump in when there’s a lot more people.

Aaron: Gotcha. Now why did the cops not, like, follow us here? They don’t care about this spot or something?

Denys da Menace: When—once they don’t see you spinning, all they care about is you just to leave. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to leave. Once you leave, they don’t bother you at all.

Aaron: Huh. Will they eventually show up here?

Denys da Menace: Oh, yeah. Like I said, every single spot they show up. It doesn’t matter if they come in a minute, it doesn’t matter if they come in two hours, they’re still gonna show up.

Aaron: Right.

Denys da Menace: This is why we made so many spots. And it can end up the whole day having only three spots. It depends how fast the cops come.

Aaron: Do you feel like kind of dealing with the cops is part of the fun of it? Or is it a hassle? Or how do you feel about the cops part of it?

Denys da Menace: Sometimes when people get locations, they—they tell the police, and the cops are in every single spot so it ruins the whole day. But it has that adrenaline rush to it once you’re here for an hour and you did everything and the cops come, now it’s like a race to get to the next spot.

Aaron: Right. All right, cool. I’ll hang out, I guess.

Denys da Menace: Yeah. There’s gonna be fireworks, there’s gonna be spinners. It’s gonna be crazy. This is actually the night where they’re saying that is gonna be the best meet of the year.

Aaron: Why? Why is that?

Denys da Menace: They got another team coming from New Jersey, a really hot team from New Jersey. And 335? Huge guy. And Victory Kings. So it’s—it’s a big meet.

Aaron: I knew those cars from Instagram. Victory Kings had something like 13,000 followers, and was sponsored by Royal Posh Auto Spa and Jimmy’s Rims and Tires. I’m That 335 had over 36,000 followers, plus a tagline that he uses on almost all of his burnout videos. “We are in the movie.” Like, we aren’t just watching The Fast and Furious, We are the fast and furious. You can go to 335’s Instagram account and purchase “We Are In the Movie” merchandise. It’s a brand.

Aaron: And now Victory Kings, I see that Instagram handle. Is that a team? Is that a guy? What is that?

Denys da Menace: It’s a guy. And it’s the same thing like 335. They’re both just one person, and they just host really crazy meets. They have so many followers, so a lot of people follow them. And once he throws a meet, everyone is there.

Aaron: So a lot of this is, like, tied to like, sort of social media clout?

Denys da Menace: Yeah, absolutely. The more followers, the more people show up.

Aaron: Like, could this scene exist without social media?

Denys da Menace: No. Social media is the key part.

[tires screeching]

Aaron: Wow.

[tires screeching]

Aaron: Wow.

Denys da Menace: Yeah.

Aaron: So what am I seeing here? What—what is that? What’s going …?

Denys da Menace: Just pulling donuts. Doing good circles. It messes up the tires, but it’s—it’s that adrenaline rush that everyone wants.

Aaron: You can really smell it too, huh?

Denys da Menace: Yeah. It’s the tires just getting destroyed. [laughs]

Aaron: Do you like that smell?

Denys da Menace: Not really. Not really.

Aaron: It was the smell that really stood out for me. I’d seen so many of these events on Instagram that I expected the revving engines, the squealing tires and billowing smoke. But the acrid scent of burnt tire rubber was a surprise. That sickly smell stuck to my clothing and clung to the inside of my nose for the rest of the night. Denys decided to take a spin. His car was full of passengers, so there was no room for me. I figured for this first one, I would just watch and record. I expected that I would have plenty of other chances that night to get inside Denys’s car if I wanted and go for a spin myself. Denys rumbled into the middle of the parking lot. A crowd gathered in a circle around his car, phones up filming.

Aaron: All right, so Denys is making a run here.

[tires screeching]

Aaron: For about 40 seconds, Denys spun in circles. His rear bumper at times nearly brushing against the crowd. He spun about eight donuts. As soon as Denys finished, other cars lined up to take their own turns. The evening’s burnouts had begun.

Aaron: All right, Denys. You did your run. How did you feel about that one?

Denys da Menace: Huh?

Aaron: How did you feel about that run?

Denys da Menace: It’s—it’s adrenaline. Because the thing is with me, when I spin, I try to go as close as possible. So I scare everybody and I hype them up at the same time. So once I go, a lot of people go right after me.

Aaron: Do you feel like your car is pretty well known, like, at this point?

Denys da Menace: I think so. [laughs] With my wrap and with the design of it, a lot of people already know who I am.

Aaron: Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, you definitely were coming close to those people over there. Like, I don’t know, you’re not worried about hitting anybody?

Denys da Menace: No, you get used to it. I used to do it really close so that I was nowhere near anybody, but now I got so used to it and so—not professional just yet, but a lot of people know what they’re doing. Cops are here.

Aaron: Oh, man.

Aaron: Did you catch that at the end? Denys said “Cops are here.” A police car had entered the parking lot and turned on its lights. You could feel the change in the crowd almost instantaneously. Suddenly, everyone was running back to their cars, trying to get out of the parking lot as quickly as they could.

Aaron: Oh, so now people are, like, literally running away.

Denys da Menace: Yeah, because now we’re actually spinning.

Aaron: Oh, I see. So we could get in trouble now?

Denys da Menace: No. Well, like I said, they don’t—see how they don’t get out of their car? They just want everyone to leave. If you don’t leave, then it’s a problem. And that was the fifth spot, and I think there’s about 11 or 12 spots.

Aaron: It was an interesting policing strategy to say the least. The dangerous cars and many intoxicated drivers had been confined to this Home Depot parking lot somewhat in the middle of nowhere. Now the police were pushing all of these cars and drivers back out onto public streets and highways. It didn’t make a ton of sense.

Aaron: Damn, people really get the fuck out.

Denys da Menace: Yeah.

Aaron: Just like scattered.

Denys da Menace: Yeah. I mean, some of them, they just started to get in this car scene, so as soon as they see the police, they just—they’re scared. But once you’ve been in the car scene a lot, you realize that—see how there’s still not a lot of people moving? Because they know the cops are just sitting in the corner and they’re waiting for you to leave. They’re not gonna—one police car is not gonna stop 300 cars.

Aaron: It took almost 15 minutes to exit the parking lot. It was a lot like leaving a stadium after a big game. After sitting in traffic for a while, I finally made my way back onto the expressway, crossing over from the Bronx to Queens, Muscle cars zipping past me at high speed.

Aaron: Driving over the Whitestone Bridge. Okay, crossed the Whitestone. Now we’re in Queens.

Aaron: Denys was up ahead, pinging my phone with messages. The cops, he said, were already at spots five and six.

Aaron: Okay. So skip spot number five. There were cops at number six. Now we’re going straight to spot number seven near the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center, somewhere over around the U.S. Open area. We’ll see how that goes.

Aaron: Spot number seven was a small overflow parking lot for the U.S. Open tennis tournament, hemmed in on three sides by highways. I exited the expressway, and immediately found myself in a gridlocked mass of hundreds of cars slowly winding their way through a spaghetti bowl of access roads. Google Maps was freaking out, switching directions every few seconds, seemingly baffled by the sudden appearance of a massive traffic jam at a time and in a place where there should have been none. As Google Maps sent our convoy on a long, slow ride to nowhere, a dozen guys riding ATVs—those four-wheel motorbikes—whizzed past me on all sides. Suddenly, an SUV lurched forward like it was going to smash into one of the motorbikes head on. One of the ATV riders veered to his left and crashed into a chain link fence. The doors of the SUV blew open, and four uniformed NYPD officers jumped out.

Aaron: The ATV rider abandoned his bike, sprinted across a highway access road and disappeared into the night. The cops didn’t run after him. They seemed satisfied with having captured the ATV. After about 20 painful minutes inching along through Flushing Meadows, I got another text from Denys that was simply the number eight. That was it. Spot number seven was done. I never even found spot number seven. And I don’t think anyone did.

Aaron: All right. So that spot, Flushing Meadows, didn’t work out. Now we’re onto spot eight. This is basically just a lot of driving around. It’s not my favorite thing.

Aaron: Spot number eight was yet another Home Depot parking lot, this one near the Sunnyside rail yard in Queens. Back on the expressway again, I found myself stuck in yet another traffic jam.

Aaron: Okay. I’m on the Grand Central Parkway, and there are a bunch of looks like ambulances or police cars up ahead. Bit of a traffic jam. Traffic jam looks fresh, like it just started. And it wouldn’t surprise me if one of our guys here managed to get in a car crash just ahead.

Aaron: The expressway narrowed down from four lanes to just one. Traffic slowed to a crawl. On my left, police examined the aftermath of a big crash. I saw a minivan, a box truck and a small sedan. No muscle cars, but hundreds of car meet participants had just ripped through here minutes before. Did one of them cause the crash? I couldn’t know. But if a speeding muscle car did cause this crash, there was a decent chance that video of it would soon be posted on Instagram.

Aaron: A popular account called Team No Hesitation posts videos of drivers filming themselves weaving in and out of traffic at high speed on New York-area expressways. If you manage to film a good video without crashing, you are Whiteline Certified. If you do film yourself crashing, then your video can be posted on an even more popular Instagram account called Team Macksauce.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Instagram: Not knowing how to drive is crazy! Team Macksauce.]

Aaron: To “mack” is to crash. And in the world of muscle car social media, crashes are great content.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Instagram: Boy, where was you goin’?]

Aaron: So it’s 1:50 a.m. I just got off—God, I don’t even know where I am.

Aaron: Finally, I exited the expressway and joined the tail end of a column of vehicles rumbling through a Queens neighborhood called Woodside. Anyone trying to sleep had to be extremely unhappy. The din of spot number eight was clearly audible from a half a mile away. The revving engines, the squealing tires, the popping tailpipes, honking horns grew louder as I approached. Spot number eight was huge—hundreds of cars and spectators on five-lane Northern Boulevard. Swarms of impatient, aggressive drivers tried to jam their cars into an already packed Home Depot parking lot. I pulled down a side street, parked a few blocks away and jogged back.

Aaron: All right. So instead of trying to get into the Home Depot parking lot, I parked across the street. Now I gotta cross the street. I might die doing that. Oh, there’s Denys da Menace. He’s out.

Aaron: It was Denys stuck in traffic, trying to cram his way into the Home Depot parking lot. I hadn’t seen him in hours, and I realized at that point I was never gonna get to spin in Denys’s car. This was it. We waved a greeting to each other, and it would be the last I’d see of him. I could get a good view of the car meet on the roof of a parking garage next door. I hustled up a ramp as cars screeched past me.

Aaron: Gotta be hundreds of people in this Home Depot parking lot. Smells—it smells like burning tires everywhere.

Aaron: Once I was up on the roof of the parking garage, the car meet was spread out before me, and finally it felt like I had arrived. A black Dodge Charger and a silver pickup truck spun donuts around a red car. I recognized other cars in the crowd from Instagram—celebrity cars. Headlight beams cut every which way through clouds of exhaust and burning rubber. Hundreds of spectators encircled the spinning cars, seemingly everyone with a phone up and filming. They were in the movie. They were making the movie. Suddenly, red and blue police lights flashed at the entrance of the parking lot.

Aaron: And here come the cops.

Aaron: The spinning stopped immediately and the crowd began scattered, running back to their cars, honking to exit the parking lot. The NYPD had arrived, and just like that, spot number eight was over. I turned to a guy next to me with a trim goatee. He’s wearing shorts and a t-shirt. He held a mountain bike with a notable set of bike balls hanging from the back of his seat, you know, the bicycle version of truck nuts, silicone testicles with LED lights inside for visibility at night.

Aaron: Do you go to a lot of these?

Tony Touch: Well, this is amazing! This is I—since I’ve been young in New York City, this—in a drag racing fashion. But now we’re doing the burnout culture? I love it, bro.

Aaron: His name was Tony Touch. He was from Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Tony Touch: But this is great for New York City. I mean, I know it’s crazy and it’s dangerous, but people need some version of, like, escapism. They have a lot of pent-up energy. So, you know, rather than turning to drugs or anything like that, look at this! How beautiful this looks right now! This is a Home Depot parking lot where people buy plumbing equipment for, you know—you know, but they just turn—look how beautiful some of these cars are! Like, these dudes probably live in their parents’ house, but they got nice cars. Like, this is cool. You gotta admire it. Just to know that there’s a community, and if anybody wants to understand the importance of right now in what we’re going through as a society, community is important. If it’s this version of it, you know, it involves adrenaline, it involves a whole bunch of energy, man. All these people are passionate about something, and the fact that—what time is it? Yo, it’s like 40 in the morning and people are fucking live. Look, there’s people standing outside the cars. Yo! And they’re doing fireworks. This is—come on, bro.

Aaron: If I had come out here trying to understand why people were drawn to this scene, Tony Touch gave me the best and most generous answer I was going to get. It was 40 in the morning and I was tired. There was one last spot on my list. Spot number 10 was a dramatic location beneath a big highway bridge surrounded by towering concrete columns. I’d seen lots of Instagram videos filmed there. I was sleepy and feeling done with this, but it was on my way home, so I figured one last spot, why not? There was no way I was ever going to do this again.

Aaron: Okay. It’s 2:20 a.m. I’m on the BQE. I’m heading to the 10th and final location on the list in Brooklyn. I’m tired. It’s a lot of driving.

Aaron: I regretted the decision to go to spot number 10 the moment I exited the expressway and found myself in yet another huge traffic jam, this one the worst yet. A seemingly infinite line of cars inching their way through an urban industrial wasteland. I wasn’t making much progress in the car, so about three quarters of a mile from the spot, I pulled over and started walking. This was a questionable move. Frustrated drivers were going every which way, reversing down one-way streets, speeding toward me on the sidewalk. No one else was out there walking but me. By the time I rounded the corner to spot number 10, it was clear that the summer’s biggest car meet was over. Police lights flashed at the end of the street, and a bunch of officers stood around as car meet participants came and went. I figured there was no way the cops would talk to me, but I’d give it a shot.

Aaron: Howdy. So this is like a pretty regular thing?

Police officer: Yeah, we’re not allowed to talk.

Aaron: Okay. Can I just …?

Police officer: You gotta go see DCPI.

Aaron: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They’ll never talk to me.

Aaron: DCPI is the NYPD’s public information office. In my experience, they’re best known for not giving information to the public, certainly not to me. I left my tape recorder running, but didn’t put my microphone in the police officer’s face, so if the rest of this is a little bit muffled, I’ll translate where needed.

Aaron: Yeah.

Police officer: Put two and two together. In all reality, they’re not hurting anybody. Remember Rocky when he was chasing the chicken around the yard? That’s all it is. Then you catch the chicken.

Aaron: Did you get that? “Put two and two together. In all reality, they’re not hurting anybody. Remember Rocky when he was chasing the chicken around the yard? That’s all it is. Then you catch the chicken.”

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Burgess Meredith: I want you to try—listen to me. I want you to try to chase this little chicken.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Sylvester Stallone: What would I chase a chicken for? It’s embarrassing, you know?]

ARCHIVE CLIP, Burgess Meredith: Because I said so. And second, because chicken chasing is how we always used to train in the old days. You catch the thing, you can catch greased lightning. Ready?]

Aaron: It was almost 3:00 a.m., and I was done chasing the chicken.

Aaron: All right, I gotta go to bed. Past my bedtime.

Aaron: And that was it. The biggest, craziest car meet of the summer was over. All that was left to do was get back in my car, sit in traffic for a while and drive—same as I’d been doing all night.

Aaron: That’s it for part two of “Muscle Car City.” Thanks for coming along for the ride. In part three, Doug, Sarah and I are going to break it all down and talk about it. There’s a lot to discuss, and you’re not gonna want to miss it.

Aaron: Please support The War on Cars on Patreon. Go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and enlist today. Starting at just $3 per month, you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content, we’ll send you stickers and other great stuff. Check out The War on Cars store for t-shirts, mugs, stickers and lots of other merchandise.

Aaron: Special thanks to our friends at Cleverhood. For 15 percent off on the best rain capes and anoraks use coupon code HOLIDAY LIGHTS when you checkout.

Aaron: And thanks as always to our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee Of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker, James Doyle and Martin Mignon. I’m Aaron Naparstek. On behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.

Man: You know how it is.

Aaron: How are you doing? What are you doing out here tonight?

Man: We’re just vibing. Trying not to get deported. But what are you doing?

Aaron: [laughs] I’m just recording.

Man: Are you the one calling the cops on us?