The first car pulls into the pit, and white smoke fills the air within seconds. The crowd, about 60 people bundled up in winter coats and gloves, hold phones above their heads in hopes they’ll capture the action on camera. All they can see of the bright teal Lexus are its head and taillights, but the screeching of the tires and the scent of burning rubber are unmistakable.

The driver, Nicholas Clark, is putting on a show. He swings his car, custom painted to resemble a can of Arizona Green Tea, in circles around the front left wheel, spinning on a dime and leaving hot black skids on the cold pavement. He shifts the car into neutral, picks a new pivot point, and this time drifts the car in reverse. The rear of the car comes so close to the crowd they could make out the letters on his glowing neon license plate, if any of them could read Japanese.

Two more cars pull into the pit, the makeshift arena set up in a cul-de-sac in Durham’s warehouse district. It’s past midnight, and everyone in attendance found their way here by word of mouth. The two cars, a low-riding Honda and a Subaru with a five-foot-long spoiler, take turns shooting flames out of their exhaust pipes. The noise is like a flurry of gunfire, and what happens next is predictable.

Casually, as if pulling into his own driveway, a police officer rolls into the pit. He doesn’t even flash his lights, as if the officer knows that the sight of his vehicle will begin a process that happens nearly every Friday night in Durham. 

The teenagers in the crowd make a run for it, sprinting down the service road back to their cars, but the older, more experienced drivers take their time, pack up their things, and wait for further instructions. In a few minutes, there will be a call or a text from one person or another, and the new location will be set, maybe at the Big Lots on N.C. 55. The officer might follow them, or he might decide that he has better things to do.

This is how Friday nights go for Durhammeetz, and its members never get tired of it.

“What we do is provide structure and organization for a culture that usually doesn’t have a whole lot of that,” says Dakota “SD,” the cofounder of Durhammeetz, one of the most active car meets in North Carolina. “We have a really good system of communication that helps keep us under the radar.”

The Triangle has had a thriving car culture for decades, but before 2017, car meets in Raleigh and Durham were notorious for being disorganized and sometimes dangerous events. SD founded Durhammeetz as an alternative to promote a supportive, positive-minded community that rejects violence and embraces collaboration.

“At the Raleigh meets and at the old Durham meets, sometimes you’d see guys get hot heads about something and start arguing,” he says. “Then all their boys have to back them up, you know, and things get out of hand real fast. I don’t like seeing guns pulled on somebody at an event that’s just supposed to be for fun.”

Although these meets draw law enforcement presence on a frequent basis, efforts to reach the Durham Police Department for comment were unsuccessful.

SD manages Durhammeetz with the help of some of its longtime members, including Nicholas Clark, the driver of the Arizona Tea car. Clark, 31, works at a body shop in Durham and runs his own graphic design business, the name of which is decaled onto dozens of cars at every meet.

“I’m Nick,” he introduces himself—“a.k.a. Cultured Brand.”

Keeping the meets safe and positive is a weekly chore, but the core group of drivers leads by example.

“We don’t want anyone to feel alienated or boxed out,” Clark says, “because that’s when people try to show off too much and get heated. I try to talk to everybody, make sure they feel welcome and comfortable, talk about their car, and just see what they got going on in their life. Sometimes I hear some real crazy stories, and I tell them they can lean on us if they need to.”

The meets don’t start in warehouse back lots, but in brightly lit shopping centers. This is where 50 to 100 cars and their drivers gather from 7 p.m. until 10, when the pit location is decided on by SD, Clark, and others, then passed around.

Dozens of people mill about—some with drinks in their hands and others with cigarettes—around cars blasting music out of rear-facing subwoofers, trucks lifted three feet above their axles, and Japanese performance cars with rainbow running lights. One car is wrapped with the exaggerated faces of anime characters; another has two green floodlights pointed at the sky. Two men in what looks like a ’50s-era Formula 1 racer on three wheels roll through the main strip, and everyone points and takes pictures while the driver and his passenger smile with pride.

Clark is an enthusiast of “VIP” or “presidential” cars—luxury vehicles with booth seating in the back and tables bolted to the floorboard. 

“But any kind of modification that somebody puts a lot of time and effort and personality into, I respect that,” he says.

Caleb Riley, 23, drives the anime car, a ’97 Honda Prelude in impressive condition for its age. 

“Lot of people laugh at this set-up, but I’ve worked really hard on it, and the people here know that,” he says. “I don’t care if some guy at fucking Food Lion says it’s wack—I know I’ve got my boys here who appreciate me and what I do.”

For many people who immerse themselves in the custom car lifestyle, the community becomes their main social outlet, a place to be with friends and enjoy one another’s craft. 

“It’s just like an escape from reality where you don’t have to worry about no bills, you don’t gotta worry about no personal problems you have; it’s like you step out,” Clark says. “And we like to use our cars to express ourselves. It’s almost like Sims, like a virtual reality. You can be a totally different person to who you are on the regular.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the group’s capacity for empathy and support has shone. Some members have lost jobs and had to give up their cars to help pay their bills, and other members, including SD, have started paying visits to their homes and giving rides when they are needed.

Narko Ennes lost his job in April, and now gets rides from his friends to attend Durhammeetz on Friday nights. 

“This has always been the type of place where if your car breaks down at the meet, ain’t nobody leaving until that thing is up and running again,” he says. “Even if it takes all night, you’re gonna have people here helping you.”

Ennes grew up in and out of foster care in Durham, and when he discovered Durhammeetz at age 19, he said it was the closest thing to family he’d ever known.

“I’ve got people here who know me, who check in on me, who take me to get my groceries and make sure I’m out here taking care of myself,” he says. “I don’t know what I would do if I ain’t found my people here. There’s so much love.”

This piece was originally published by UNC Media Hub

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One reply on “Durham’s Underground Car Culture Revs Up”

  1. Please cover this group’s unsafe behaviors on public roads when transitioning to their next spots. The noise pollution impact of that many cars to the suburban neighbors in the surrounding spots in those areas that late at night. And why the police acted like they didn’t know who these individuals where when WRAL did a hit piece about it a couple of months ago.

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