CHONBURI, Thailand: A Thai racer locked his eyes ahead, the heat shimmering from the concrete as he gripped his stripped-back motorbike before it leapt up, back wheel spinning furiously, and bounced forward with a screech of rubber.
Teenager Anawat Duangdara was among scores competing in front of enthusiastic crowds in the raucous NGO Street Drag Race in Chonburi on Sunday, which aimed to take popular — and dangerous — motorbike street racing off the roads and onto the tracks.
The 13th annual event, halted for two years during the coronavirus pandemic, gathered enthusiasts to watch semi-professional teams competing for prize money ranging from 1,500 to 60,000 baht ($40 to $1,600).
“When I was about to let the bike loose, I wasn’t scared or excited at all — I was calm,” 19-year-old Duangdara said of tackling the 200-meter course, which riders completed in around six seconds.
“I was completely in the moment and so happy. It was just speed.”
He has been racing for years, learning the ropes of running sprints, as the timed races are known, on the streets of the capital Bangkok.
Thailand has a lax attitude towards road safety and reckless driving is rarely punished, contributing to the ninth-highest fatality rate in the world.
But Duangdara acknowledged the dangers of racing on the streets.
“You have a very small window for mistakes, and if you make one you either die or you become disabled,” he explained.
“But on the race track, if you crash, you crash alone and you have medics taking care of you.”
“I have crashed a few times on the track, but I only got some scratches,” he said, despite racing in jeans and a black polo-neck with only a helmet for safety.
As dusk fell, the puttering roar of hundreds of engines took over from the steady scream of one, soon obliterating the pop music and bantering commentary.
Mechanic Samrit Khamtubtim, a former racer himself, explained why the final free-for-all rally was so important.
The 51-year-old, who hires himself out to racers looking for a day’s work, sees himself as a kind of “father figure” to many who still need that adrenaline burst — but away from the streets.
“The kids who are still growing up have a place to vent their love for speed, and that’s why the organizers let all of the kids race together on the tracks,” he said.
Shortly afterwards, the air around the starting gate was dense with exhaust smoke as hundreds of spectators gunned their bikes forward for the last round free-for-all.
The mixed crowd performed wheelies and whoops as they went full throttle, the track becoming a chaotic mess.
Saranyu Hananthisingh, 24, had driven up on his motorbike to watch the competition and was waiting for this madcap round.
“I just love the speed and I love all of the bikes — that’s why I’m here,” he said before jumping on his bike to join the roaring fray.