Fast car story
Fast & Furious: the true story of the street racer who inspired a billion-dollar movie franchise
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T he villain in this week’s Fast & Furious 8 is a technologically-inclined cyber-terrorist, who can wreak all kinds of real-world havoc at the touch of a button, using a litany of computer mumbo-jumbo to make cars drive themselves and submarines seemingly take on a mind of their own.
But if there’s any greater indication of how far the long-running franchise has gravitated from its humble beginnings, it’s in the story of how it all came to be, starting with a piece of longform non-fiction in a widely-read print magazine full of text and advertising in 1998.
Racer X, published in the May 1998 issue of Vibe Magazine, was the work of Kenneth Li, a freelance journalist in New York who had stumbled upon the world of illegal, underground street racing. Li initially brought the story to Vibe as he saw parallels between what he was witnessing on the streets and a story Vibe had published years prior, which explored a group of black youths who had been using inner-city architecture as their own improvised skate parks.
W hile investigating a car theft ring, Li was slowly welcomed into a world of young people who were spending every weekend blocking off highways to race one another, evading a police presence that was slowly cracking down on the sub-culture. Originated by a group of young Asian-American men in early-Nineties California, the illegal race car frenzy had slowly migrated to the East Coast, where it had caught the eye of a bevy of different faces, from Dominicans and Puerto Ricans to Italians and Jamaicans.
T hese young racers weren’t just speeding in traditional Chevys and Mustangs either, but pumped-up super cars that they would typically load with a supercharger and a tank of nitrous oxide, liquid once used to power bomber planes in World War Two. The man at the centre of Li’s story was a 30-year-old Dominican illegal race car superstar named Rafael Estevez, whose childhood love for The Dukes of Hazzard fueled his adult racing addiction.
“The Dukes pulled a lot of stunts, soared through the air, and were always getting chased by cops,” he told Li. “The best part was they would always get away.”
R acer X was so exciting in its depiction of an off-the-grid sub-culture that had developed on both coasts, and so obviously cinematic, that Hollywood soon came calling, eager to turn Li’s story into a feature film.
“I thought someone was pulling a prank on me. I called back, they wanted to learn more about the story, I got in contact with an agent — and the next thing I knew, it was optioned,” Li told the International Business Times. “I was paid in the low six figures. I was ridiculed widely when I shot my mouth off and said I bought a car and stuff like that, stuff you’d say in your 20s. The figure wasn’t life-changing, but it makes for great cocktail party banter.”
One Hollywood reader was filmmaker Rob Cohen, who was struck by the idea and began hatching it as a potential movie project alongside producer Neal H. Moritz, who had already struck gold mining American teen trends with films including I Know What You Did Last Summer and Cruel Intentions. They eventually hired Gary Scott Thompson, who had previously worked on the scripts for Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man and the direct-to-video canine detective comedy K-9: P.I.
T hompson’s original script, which was called Racer X and then Redline, was reportedly a more silent affair, with few lines of dialogue, slightly faceless characters, and a climax in which multiple characters engage in a shoot-out in an abandoned warehouse.
“They were all anti-heroes,” Thompson told Complex. “I went into Universal and told them my take: Romeo & Juliet in cars. I told them how I thought it would go, these competing [groups], with Brian and Mia meeting for this big race war.”
U niversal loved his pitch, but immediately dropped the project in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, in which two students in Colorado killed twelve of their classmates and one of their teachers, in a prolific mass-murder that quickly became a lightning rod for debate about violence in pop culture. Redline, with its criminal leads and violent love story, was suddenly the sort of project that couldn’t get off the ground.
I t wasn’t just the gang violence that the studio had a problem with, either. According to David Ayer, who was brought on during re-writes and went on to direct Suicide Squad, the studio requested more white people. “It was funny because when I was writing the parts, I wrote the L.A. I know,” he told About Film. “How many freakin’ white people do you see in L.A. when you’re not in the Westside?”
But Cohen subsequently struck upon an idea that would hopefully appease the studio along with keeping his pet project alive: effectively reboot Point Break. The original Fast and the Furious admittedly plays like something of an unofficial remake of the 1991 action classic, with the Brian character rewritten as an LAPD cop going undercover to crack a team of adrenaline-junkie thieves.
“The strange thing about the plot of the movie was it was actually closer to the kind of story I was aiming to write with [my] article,” Li told Yahoo Movies. “I was trying to uncover some car theft ring, and edited that part out of the story. Oddly, they ended up taking my story, which had nothing to do with a theft ring, and then they ended up making a movie about that.”
I t was this approach that would entice Paul Walker, who had previously worked with Cohen on the secret-society teen movie The Skulls and had been aspiring to star in something where he could both race cars and play an undercover cop (“a mash-up of Days of Thunder and Donnie Brasco”, apparently).
Weary of carrying a film entirely on his own, however, Walker requested a strong co-star who could help somewhat balance the responsibility: enter Vin Diesel, monosyllabic muscle-man and ridiculous-name-haver, who promptly signed on after coming off a star-making role in the sleeper hit Pitch Black. Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster, neither of whom had valid driving licences at the beginning of filming, then filled out the central quartet. The former’s character, Letty Ortiz, was deliberately expanded as a result of Cohen’s love for Rodriguez’s performance in the indie film Girlfight.
“What we’re doing with The Fast and the Furious, in a sense, is taking the western and re-creating it in a contemporary urban milieu,” Cohen said in 2001. “Our film deals with some of the most important themes of classic westerns – loyalty, betrayal, freedom. But instead of horses, we’ve got horsepower.”
S hooting began in the autumn of 2000 on a relatively small budget of $38 million, Cohen licencing the title of the Roger Corman B-movie The Fast and the Furious for Redline’s new moniker. But while Universal had no enormous aspirations for the film beyond turning a modest profit, their first look at the film’s dailies indicated they had something special on their hands. They swiftly decided to release the movie in the heart of summer 2001, where it ended up grossing over $200 million worldwide and spawning one of the most successful franchises in film history.
L i and Estevez remain fans of the franchise, though the latter – who now runs an auto shop in Queens, New York and reportedly “struck a deal with the studio at some point” to actually earn some money from the long-running series – is no longer such a speedster on the road.
“Nowadays, my wife drives faster than me,” he told Vibe in 2015. “She gets mad when I’m driving, like, ‘Hurry up, let’s get to the place.’ If I really gotta get somewhere fast, I’ll drive fast. If not, I’ll drive normal.”