By the first time I saw The Fast and The Furious, I had already raced a few times.
It wasn't because I was particularly old, but because I hadn't watched the film. I'll weigh in on the trend here and explain when I first saw the Fast and the Furious, and what it meant to me as an enthusiast.
The movie didn't inspire me to become an automotive enthusiast, I already was a speed junkie. It didn't make me go out and street race, I already had contacts. It didn't make me want to go out and modify my car, I had already spent too much money on it. But it did other things for me. Let me explain my context....
I grew up in a small town in a safe family. I drove a 1990 Nissan Maxima for my first car, and without telling my parents, I would try to get it up to 100mph on the weekends. For some reason, as soon as I got into that car, something clicked and I wanted to go fast.
I'm not a fearless person, I'm scared of dying. I'm scared of illness, cancer, poverty, all of the adult fears that keep our society running, but I feel less scared at over 100 mph behind the wheel than I do sitting still behind a desk. I realized that about myself, and it's been a part of me ever since.
But my family disapproved of fast cars. My mother made sure all of our cars were FWD economy cars. She didn't know that the 2001 Nissan Maxima Anniversary Edition we had would do 150mph, or that my dad's custom F-150 had a mildly built 351. Neither did I, to be honest. When my father picked up a junked project 1979 280ZX, he convinced her that he would resell it or part it out for money. For a period of about a year, I didn't think the car would ever run. As I got older, I traded my Maxima for a 1998 Mustang, in cherry red. I had to beg and plead my parents to let me insure it. I loved Mustangs, and I thought they were the coolest cars in the world. I used to go look at used 60s Mustangs for sale, just to be around them. I remember once sitting in the middle of a field staring at the vin number on a 1964 1/2 GT that had been trashed and neglected beyond repair.
Shortly after that, believe it or not, he got the old Z running.
My friends and I used to organize times on an abandoned, unlit highway on the edge of the small town I lived in. Civics would line the road. Mazda 3s, Accord Coupes, and more Mustangs and Camaros than you would find at the Republican National Convention. Occasionally, some older guys in their $30-$40,000 sportscars would show up too, just to have fun. Some nights we had 30 cars, some nights we had 2. In the background, guys and girls would swap cars, some would end up in eachother's rooms by the end of the night. At the margins, bags of weed and prescription drug were passed around, money changed hands, bets were made. It wasn't a crazy, insane dangerous society-destroying act. If anything, street racing culture was (to me) a well-planned and controlled business opportunity.
But on the outside, I was a clean whistle. Bright red mustang that "never went over 65", my mother just thought I wanted to show off.
I was riding along with my father in his 280zx, completely unaware of just how good that car had been repaired (it looked like shit on the outside). We were coming off of the highway onto a pair of sharp S-curves that had a 15mph speed limit. He asked me if I wanted to take them fast.
Now, here am I, wondering if he had heard about my weekend races, or if he was just crazy.
He takes the S-curves at around 50mph on street tires, cutting the double-lines. For someone who had mostly drag raced, those kind of G-forces blew my mind. This was a whole new side of my father (who was a rather unassuming carpenter) that I found weird. I never related very well to him already, so what were the chances that as a plucky 17-year-old when I was just getting involved in a local street racing scene, that my father would start expressing to me what were long-hid (ever since he had gotten married) histories in racing.
Later on, I watched him turn that Z 180 degrees coming off of a highway onto a side street, maintain being sideways for about half a block, and then the car would halt in the street before rolling up onto the driveway, facing the opposite direction from the highway it had come in on. The tire marks on the road would take a long time to wash off.
One day, he took me to his garage and opened up an old box of photographs stashed among the usual junk. One of the photos showed a much younger, much leaner version of him standing next to a baby-blue 1970 Dodge Challenger with a pinstripe paint job. Along with other memorabilia were build sheets, time cards, and miscellaneous photographs of the other cars.
The Challenger (which he bought new at the age of 18 or 19, if I remember right) had originally come with a 440. He had the engine thrown out and replaced with a 413 Wedge out of Chrysler Imperial Limousine. Solid roller cam, split canted valve ported heads, twin 4-barrel carburetors that kept 2 barrels each open for low throttle, and all 8 barrels open for full throttle. 14:1 compression, a very wide bore at around 460 cubic inches. The transmission was a Borg Warner T-10 with high-nickel content gears sourced and rebuilt from a retired stock car. A lot of the parts were gathered from 426 racing engines from the mid 60s, since the 413 Wedge racing-spec engine shared the basic bottom-end of the 426 hemi racecars. He would run the engine on Nitromethane, on the street. It would put down 850HP @ about 8500rpm at the crank, without a supercharger or turbo. He remembered once revving it past 10,000rpm once, but never regularly went over 8500. He never needed to, with that much power. Before you criticize, I've doubted the claim myself and actually prototyped a similar-spec engine using some professional engine tuning software (Engine Analyzer Pro). He ran a 10-second flat quarter mile at Bandimere's raceway, and was politely told not to race competitively, because the car was both way too fast for street class, but would likely be subject to tear-down to find regulation violations.
So now here is where I defend this 'tall tale'. Such a car, and such an engine, is entirely possible. Just a bit incredible. If the internal parts are built to NASCAR spec, 8500 rpm is possible with the stock stroke without exceeding tolerable mean piston acceleration levels. A built to those specs will normally only yield that power if you're getting VE's over 100%. With a VE at around 110% (which would be like having a 2psi turbo) generated through high-velocity pulse effects that kick in around the 8000rpm mark, 850HP is within the realm of possibility on nitromethane. A modern-day spec engine with fuel injection could touch 900, but that's about the limit of the displacement and RPM, whether you use old technology or new technology. Nothing outside of plasma wire arc transferring, direct injection, or forced induction could improve the power of that massive gasoline-powered air pump.
He daily drove this car, and it probably consumed (at least in fuel and tires) a considerable portion of his income in maintence. He had basically an old Mopar Nascar drive-train under the body and frame of a pony car.
He was once held overnight in jail because he was caught by a cop, a few miles from the border, after he was clocked at 165. The cop car couldn't keep up, but there happened to be a Police Helicopter in the nearby region, so they parked it on the highway to force him to stop.
A few years after driving it, it was hit by a drunk driver in a Ford F-250. The unibody was bent beyond repair, and the car was totaled. It burned down to the ground. He spent a few years with 427 Corvettes, Mustangs, and about every Mopar in the book, but eventually gave up the cars before getting married. He will never own another truly fast car in his life again. My entire life I had grown up in an 'after the fact' period in his life.
How does this all actually relate to the Fast and the Furious?
There was this one scene:
Honestly, I never liked Paul Walker's acting in the first film. It always broke the experience for me. But I know that he wasn't really acting, he actually was a car guy, and that genuinity made some sort of commentary on "The car guy". People who watched that movie were not Dominic Toretto. They related to Brian O'Conner, because he, like them, was still a normal person. He wasn't scarred, broken, or committed to a life of racing, it was just simply part of his much more complex life.
That scene made me sort of realize that the way I treated street racing was like Paul Walker's character, and the way my father treated it was reflected strongly in Vin Diesel's character, and that speech from him to Paul put the severity of the underworld into perspective the way only fiction can.
I had a good shot at college, I had good grades and exceptional talent. I was independent and had enough savings to trade my '98 Mustang for a 2004 Mustang SVT Cobra. I could drive it instead and with proper modification (which I was very, very quickly learning more about, getting more empirical and focused on) I could have fulfilled that need and desire, and right now, I'd probably own my dream 240Z with some ungodly obscene level of horsepower.
Or I could be dead. Or worse.
For me, maturing as an auto enthusiast meant accepting that no matter what I do, no matter how hard I work, there was no way for me to win both ways. I had to either be Paul Walker and work a respectable job while indulging my need for speed casually, or I could follow my father and devote my life to the art of speed. It wasn't a commitment I was ready for.
If anything, realizing that before going to college has caused me to stop racing, and stop owning and driving cars, until I feel I can prove myself in other ways. To drive fast cars right, to do it properly, (honorably, even) I would have to give up my current dreams, career, and all the time I've spent on my education. Even if I gave up my current career path and education and focused my efforts, I would maybe come within a fraction of the success and glory my father had, with all of (and perhaps more) the risk and danger of imminent death.
You can't just drop a bunch of money onto a car and call it good, you have to devote yourself to a religion of velocity.
Take it for what you will, but Dominic Toretto's Charger was a stand-in for experiences that I fantasized about, but the consequences of which were quickly made all too real to me.