Racing on the Streets

What’s become of Honolulu’s displaced speed demons?

When Hawai‘i Raceway Park closed at the end of March, many O‘ahu residents feared thrill-seekers, bereft of their racetrack, would take their hobby to the streets.

Not so, say police and serious racers. Though O‘ahu’s racing community remains active in trying to save its favorite sport, most are not taking to the streets, but to alternatives—different places, different hobbies, or plain patience, until O‘ahu finds a new facility.

On your mark, get set, wait. Jenson Kona will tweak his car until a new track opens. photo: Scott Kubo

If anything, racing on the streets has decreased, according to statistics from the Hawai‘i State Judiciary. The first three months after the racetrack closed, from April to June, saw 145 citations for racing on highways—a 19 percent drop from the 173 citations issued during the same time last year.

“We haven’t noticed an increase [in street racing],” says Sgt. Ryan Nishibun, of the selective enforcement unit, which targets nighttime speed, drug and alcohol offenders.

One reason may be that the streets offer a crude measuring stick in comparison to the racetrack, where drivers who take speed seriously battled using precise clocking.

“If you have a fast car, most times, you don’t have anything to prove on the street,” says Jenson Kona, who has raced 25 cars over nine years. “The people that wouldn’t come to the track as much—you’d be more likely to find them driving on the street instead of the more serious people. They’re saying they have no place to race. But I’m like, ‘You were never at the track! Why are you saying that now?’”

And police are nabbing potential racers early with reconstruction citations: tickets for modifications to a vehicle. Last year, from April to June, police cited 905 cars for reconstruction. Over the same three-month period this year, police issued 1,082 citations—a 19 percent jump. Violations can be avoided with an inspection and state-issued permit, but some racers say the process is too arduous and costly.

Nishibun says he has observed a surge of Sunday motorcycle racing. “From what the patrol guys say and what the complaints are, there are a lot more motorcycles racing, especially on the H-3.”

Resources allowing, some race-car enthusiasts will continue to race on Neighbor Islands or the Mainland. Elliot Loo, for one, is chipping in with two of his friends to ship a Toyota MR-2 to Maui. The car will stay at his friend’s auntie’s house, and they hope to fly up once a month and take turns on runs at Maui Raceway Park. But not everyone can do what Loo is doing.

Kona immediately sold his racecar when the track closed, even though he’s been on the track since the age of 14 and was winning races in the highest class of drivers. Kona saw a car in a garage as a quickly withering investment and feared waiting to sell would only find a dissolved market.

“A lot of guys just have their cars sitting in their garages, and that’s a waste,” he says. “There’s no track, so no one’s going to buy it.”

Recently, though, he missed the sport too much and bought a car to fix up until there’s a new venue.

The task of finding a new track has been a winding road of legal entanglements and disagreements within the racing community. Aloha Stadium officials, however, announced last month that it would open a three-month trial of slalom racing on the lower Halawa parking lot. With average speeds of 30 to 40 mph, these obstacle course races may not see the high speeds drift, road, and dirt track racers are used to—but, hey, it’s not like you’re allowed to go much faster on the streets.