The scent of burnt rubber and smoke fills the air every weekend as hundreds of decked-out cars flock to various locations throughout the city to show off their stunts to a cheering audience. “Car meets,” as they are called by those who participate in them, are an honored tradition for car enthusiasts, artists, and spectators looking for a show.
Over the summer, Chicago’s City Council passed an ordinance to crack down on street racing, but this has yet to deter the crowd from forming to watch the action or the action from taking place at all.
Elijah Smith, a 22-year-old photographer from Chicago, has been attending car meets since 2018. Smith enjoys documenting what he calls “real Chicago s–t,” and views his work as an urban version of National Geographic.
“I’ve done other photography at clubs or concerts or whatever, and people will catch you out of the corner of their eye and slightly shift,” Smith said. “I just did a baby shower a couple days ago, and I was just trying to take pictures of people laughing and whatnot. And then somebody caught me out of the corner of their eye and laughed a little harder. But nobody’s paying attention to me here.”
Smith is aware of the risks that car meets bring, being both illegal and sometimes dangerous. There is a certain level of dedication that must be present at each meet to keep people coming back each weekend.
“It’s the same sense of like, why do people go watch MMA? It’s primal,” Smith said. “Some of these people, all they know is cars. They never graduated high school. They went straight to a mechanic shop, it’s all they know how to do with their hands. That mentality leads to them wanting to build a car and then race it and get recognition because they’re also from nowhere or people just crave recognition. That’s a human thing.”
Overall, Smith says, car meets are a passion for many people, and the issues with legality surrounding them are not much of a roadblock for those who want to pursue that passion.
“You grow up in a city and you learn that culture and see how hard it is for a kid who’s 16 years old to save up all of his money to build something with his bare hands, and then risk everything he’s just worked for just for the adrenaline and the cheer of people screaming. That must feel really good,” Smith said. “Like, some people must love the f–k out of knitting. Knitting must be really dope to some people. Now imagine if knitting was illegal. You’re gonna do that in your house where you’re not allowed to do it. But you can’t drive your car in your house.”
Among the many different roles present at each car meet, the most revered are the swingers, who perform tricks like drifting and donuts for the audience. Swinging is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous aspects of car meets, and because of this, swingers are the ones most often targeted by police.
David Wright, a 20-year-old videographer who has been documenting car meets for several years, says that the most common misconception about car meets is that the people who attend them are “just a bunch of gangbangers,” and that all car meets are gang-related.
“A lot of the people are actually quite intelligent. You’re swinging a 5,000-pound box of metal around, you have to be kind of smart to be able to control that,” Wright said. “I think a lot of people think it’s violent and it’s gang-related, but a lot of the time it’s just people looking for a community.”
Community is a central theme for artists who document the street takeovers. Chloe Bartelstein, a 20-year-old photographer with a soft spot for photographing car meets, says that she has made some of her best friends by attending the meets.
“There’s so many interesting looking people, so many different looking people,” Bartelstein said. “There’s so many crazy outfits, crazy masks. Cars look cool when they’re doing tricks, and especially when there’s somebody hanging out of it.”
The process for locating and then attending car meets is complicated, and purposefully so, to keep them private. There is a multi-step verification process to make sure that those interested in attending are not undercover police officers looking to bust the meets. Those who have been verified receive locations of intersections or parking lots to “take over” for short intervals throughout the night.
“It’s very secretive,” Bartelstein said. “It’s not known about, people don’t know about it. Once you know about it, then it’s easy to get into. But you kind of need a car, or you need somebody who has a car and is willing to drive.”
Bartelstein says that one of the negative sides of the meets is how incredibly male-dominated the space is, and she hopes the future will bring more female car enthusiasts to the scene.
“I do think there’s a toxic culture. There’s a side of it that’s really toxic, and disgusting and misogynistic,” Bartelstein said. “And that’s the side that I remove myself from, and I focus on the love side of it where everybody is friends with each other and everyone is just happy to be there.”
Ultimately, car meets are dangerous. Not only are they illegal to participate in, but both drivers and onlookers actively put themselves in danger of bodily harm each weekend just to do what they love surrounded by others who share the same love that they do. But for many of those people, the risk is part of the reward.
“It’s history,” Bartelstein said. “It’s making history by documenting our generation.”
Header Illustration by Chloe Bartelstein