From the center of the ‘pit’: My summer documenting the dangerous street takeovers that gripped the city this year
After a video of drivers doing doughnuts in the middle of a West Loop intersection went viral, reporter Manny Ramos and I spent several nights trying to find out who was behind the “drifting” events that had become the talk of Chicago.
As I stood photographing cars spinning in circles, drifting and performing other stunts before a raucous crowd in a mall parking lot this summer, a teenage girl turned to me and said she was going into the “pit.”
“You coming?” she asked.
As a photojournalist who’s covered some of the biggest news events in the city in my nearly 10 years at the Sun-Times, I’m not one to shy away from a challenge. I walked with the girl into the center of the spectacle, joining about a dozen other people — all whom appeared to be several years younger than me and having the time of their lives while recording everything on their cellphones.
I started filming as a silver Dodge Charger Scat Pack did doughnuts at dangerously high speeds in a tight circle around us, at some points coming within just a few feet of the group.
After less than 30 seconds, I decided getting photos and video from that vantage point was not worth losing a limb — or my life. When the Charger driver took a short break, I hightailed it back to the outskirts.
On my way out of the pit, I spotted my colleague, Manny Ramos, a Sun-Times reporter who was covering the event with me. He shot me a look as if to say, “Are you crazy?”
What led Manny and I to that parking lot at Ford City Mall on a Friday night in August in the first place was the desire to find out who was behind these drifting events that had become the talk of Chicago.
In July, a video showing cars spinning in circles at Monroe and Clinton in the busy West Loop had gone viral. It led the City Council to quickly pass an ordinance condemning the takeovers and allowing police more power to impound cars and issue steeper fines for those taking part.
So when a source offered to take me to a drifting event, I jumped at the opportunity — and Manny quickly agreed to come, too.
Manny and I had worked some precarious assignments together, including covering rioting and looting in August 2020 on the West Side. There, we had been threatened by members of the crowd, and a Chicago Tribune photographer needed medical attention after being hit with what was thought to be a brick. I knew Manny and I would watch each other’s backs as we documented this secretive, illegal activity that almost always took place late at night.
On July 29, I had spent all day photographing Lollapalooza when a source told me about a street takeover planned for that night. I filed photos of singer Dua Lipa for Page 1 of the newspaper, then met up with Manny who was working the late shift. I smelled like an outdoor music fest, but that didn’t matter.
When we got to an industrial area near Cermak Road, Jefferson and Lumber streets, there was already a crowd and cars drifting in circles in the street. There was a party atmosphere, with people drinking and smoke billowing in the air.
But within about 15 minutes, police showed up, and everybody took off.
For the next few hours, we drove around trying to find the next location, but couldn’t track it down. We went home after midnight with some material but nowhere near enough to tell the full story.
Then we got a tip about another takeover on a Friday in mid-August, again near Cermak, Jefferson and Lumber. There, we had more time to connect with both drivers and spectators — including a couple on a date.
“We’re not bad people,” a woman named Jojo told Manny. “Every person here has a common interest, and that is to vibe and to see cars which they absolutely love.”
When that takeover was busted by cops, everyone jumped on the Stevenson Expressway. In Manny’s SUV, complete with child car seats in the back, we were barely able to keep up with the Dodge Chargers and Ford Mustangs racing to the next location.
I’m driving next time, I thought.
We caught up with the crowd at the Ford City Mall. There, we finally hit pay dirt. There were hundreds watching while as many as three cars spun out at the same time. Gravel and small rocks sprayed us, and the smell of burnt rubber filled the air.
A masked man took a turn in the “pit” in a Dodge Charger, revving its V8 hemi engine while smoke poured off the back tires. When he was done, Manny knocked on his window.
Reluctant to talk at first, the 21-year-old who went by the name of Draco on the drifting circuit soon opened up. Wearing a balaclava covering all but his eyes under his White Sox cap, he told us all about the scene and how he got involved.
“It’s an adrenaline — it’s hard to explain — but you feel free in the moment,” Draco said.
After covering a few of the events, Manny and I definitely knew what he meant; they were exhilarating. And up until that point we saw no one get hurt, no fires set, no fights or any violence and no signs of any weapons. When a private ambulance sought to get through a meetup at 31st and Wood streets, a man on a bullhorn asked everyone to get out of the way — and they quickly complied. (CTA buses, however, were not extended the same courtesy. We saw them stalled at times, waiting for the stunts to end.)
Our first story was published Aug. 26 and was read by tens of thousands of people. A member of the drifting community posted a photo of himself with the front page of the paper taped to his back. The page featured my photo of a spinning Dodge Charger with multiple people hanging from its windows.
That was the same weekend we had heard there could be a competition here between drivers from Chicago and other states.
The meetups that night and throughout the weekend seemed to have a different tone —rowdier and more lawless — than the ones we covered previously.
At 119th and Halsted, we arrived to see hundreds of people and cars. Some of the cars parked nearby had license plates from Michigan and as far away as California. One person had a life-size cardboard cutout of Mayor Lori Lightfoot. There were drones flying overhead. It was chaos.
When the first officers arrived, they tried to enter the pit and record video. But the crowd — instead of fleeing as they had at other takeovers we attended — started yelling and flipping the cops off. They also pelted officers with bottles and other objects, and the police were forced to retreat.
I was a few feet away when a masked man climbed on an unmarked police car and jumped on its windshield, smashing the glass while the officers were inside. One officer got out and chased the man, while another nearby unholstered his firearm. Everyone fled.
I photographed the entire melee. Things devolved even more as the participants left. As a cop talked to a man in the middle of 119th Street, a car sped by so close that the officer pulled the man into a bear hug to get him out of the way. I’m sure he saved the man’s life.
After attending eight takeovers over several weeks, our welcome had clearly been worn out. Earlier in the night of Aug. 26, we were told that messages had been posted in group chats warning people not to talk to us. As we were leaving, a bottle was thrown at my car, making a loud “thud” and startling me and Manny. That was the last time we went out.
Unfortunately, the takeovers have continued unabated since then and have even turned deadly: In October, three people were killed in Brighton Park when members of the crowd at a takeover got into a shootout.
I’m glad we were able to tell the story from as many perspectives as possible, and I’ll never forget what it was like to report from the center of it all.