“They aren’t easy to find,” says Robert LeBlanc, pulling on an early morning cigarette. “Crews communicate with CB radios. There are lookouts. The locations are always different places — you have to hear of them through word of mouth.”
If autonomous vehicles, mandatory speed limiters, and electric power are the future of four wheels, then the internal combustion engine is having its swan song on the streets of America’s cities in the form of sideshows. Horsepower by the hundreds shreds tires in minutes during spontaneous flurries of noise and motion, shutting down not just intersections but near enough entire neighborhoods.
Sideshows have evolved from a peacocking Sunday cruise to full-bore takeovers of streets in LA, Oakland, Detroit, Kansas City, New York, and beyond. Automatic rifles are held aloft from sunroofs. License plates are removed. Cop cars trying to break things up are enveloped in a cloud of smoke as participants loop around them, chrome rims spinning like shurikens.
Over the last two years, LeBlanc has traveled 40,000 miles and hit every contiguous state in the US in search of sideshows, capturing them through photographs that will appear in his upcoming book, A New America (out late 2019), a five-year body of work documenting today’s cultural landscape. With an invite from an organizer, he traveled to his first event at an intersection in Compton, where he found hundreds of people gathered.
“When I first rolled up, I saw a huge crowd of people and smoke rising up into the air out of the center of the gathering. You could hear the tires squealing and the engines roaring — your smell and hearing senses are heightened first,” says LeBlanc. “People were screaming and everyone was excited. Initially, I was getting sweated — someone I was with was being too flagrant with his camera and was told to leave — but I stayed and started taking pictures.”
Sideshows began in East Oakland in the early ’80s. The parking lots of Foothill Square and Eastmont Mall would fill with cherry red and apple green Falcons and Mustangs, rolling at low speed, chrome polished for hours. This was a Sunday afternoon opportunity for the ghetto glitterati to get with the opposite sex.
By the ’90s, the emphasis was still on your ride looking clean, but things were changing. Gold-plated spokes, dipping suspension, and candy paint still made the sideshow a fashion parade on four wheels, but by now those with the most power would flex it with impromptu figures of eight while the traffic was held up at an intersection.
The weekend cruise was slowly becoming the bedrock of hyphy culture. Endlessly polished paintwork was making way for dumping, gritty bass-driven rhythms pushed through 10-band ZAPCO preamps that made trunk lids rattle, while raucous parties popped up for anyone too young to get into the clubs.
The first taste of sideshows for those outside Oakland came through namechecks by the artists who frequented them. On “Side Show,” Oakland native Richie Rich rapped: “It’s a everyday thing/ Every Saturday night, brothers be tearin’ up cars/ Brothers be comin’ through swingin’ ’em.”
Into the 2000s, sideshows had started spreading out of mall parking lots and across the US. The big auto manufacturers were getting serious about muscle cars again. The retro-styled fifth-gen Ford Mustang, sixth-gen Dodge Charger, and fifth-gen Pontiac GTO started hitting the market between 2004 and 2006, giving easy access to 300-plus horsepower from tuneable V8s at affordable secondhand prices.
In the Fast & Furious era, peacocking and cruising had been replaced with horsepower and stunts. Later aided by social media and live-streaming, sideshows started having a renaissance, with streets in cities like Los Angeles getting shut down every week. Events would be tracked by police helicopters, with participants pursued by street racer task forces that posted images of the latest impounded vehicles on Instagram.
LeBlanc says his first taste in Compton got him hooked. “I eventually walked into the circle and you can see the guys swinging the cars,” he recalls. “There was just so much energy and excitement going on, it becomes instantly addicting. The real excitement for me was when I ran out into the center and started taking photos. Cars swinging around me, sometimes four or five inches from me — it’s definitely a rush I can’t get enough of.”
Anytime there’s a sideshow, negative media coverage isn’t far behind. Last year, California Highway Patrol Helicopter H-32 received a request from the Oakland Police Department to assist in monitoring a sideshow. The result was nearly 100 cars impounded.
Yakpasua Zazaboi is one of the OGs from the sideshow scene. Since the early days, he has documented sideshows in East Oakland for his documentary series Sydewayz, starring Richie Rich and Vidal Molina.
The sideshow today, says Zazaboi, isn’t so much an evolution of the original as it is a hybrid. “By definition, the sideshow didn’t evolve,” he explains. “People took the culture of sideshows and applied it to what they are doing. It was always a social space developed out on the streets, with black people out on the streets having fun. It’s absolutely exciting what is happening now — it has spread across the world. The goal was not to fuck shit up but to have fun.”
One of the growing spots for sideshows is Detroit. Despite regeneration efforts, the city is still struggling, and with a population that has shrunk from its ’50s peak of 1.85 million to approximately 673,000 today, there are a lot of empty roads. #SickAndTwistedLS1 (aka @mystic_teez28 on Instagram) is one of the most respected drivers in Motor City, lighting up the cracked asphalt in his blue Camaro.
“We do it because of the sense of freedom it gives us,” he says. “I set the bar here in Detroit for everyone that slides. Now the people who do it is not a lot, but we can have crowds of spectators in their hundreds, and people come from all over just to watch. We keep it going because the race scene is not what it used to be and it’s different. Everyone is flinging to it and the police are starting to get hip — they been on us tight. We are not as big as Cali, but we grow by the day.”
Not everyone is a fan, however. Mat Watson is the face of YouTube channel CarWow. His channel has 2.5 million subscribers and he makes a living drag racing supercars and pulling donuts. I ask him if sideshows are an accident waiting to happen.
“Hell yeah,” he replies. “It’s basically a rave for cars. It’s non-official, spontaneous, and there is very little or no health and safety. And it’s loud and crazy. The skill of some drivers is questionable, so too can be their sobriety. And the crowds often get so close, even pushing against the bonnets of cars while they do the stunts. One simple mistake could result in people getting knocked down, maimed, and even killed. My advice? Stay away.”
But people aren’t staying away. Google “sideshows” and you’ll see dozens of arrests, impounds, incidents, and crackdowns happening seemingly every week, with sideshows becoming more frequent in summertime and large crowds guaranteed.
Yakpasua Zazaboi says that, along with a project looking at sideshows outside the US, he wants to organize a regulatory board to turn the phenomenon into a recognized sport, which would help it to grow rather than get shut down. “We want to be more influential in the illegal aspects and develop some rules,” he says. “If we can get to the point where cars are cleaner and not just tearing shit up, then we will get more people involved and the sideshow will be here to stay.”