x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Satisfying the need for speed

Like many racers, Ahmed is an off-duty police officer. But at 3am in Ras al Khaimah's Sheikh Zayed Mosque parking lot, he assumes another identity: a member of Team Extreme.

Young men gather in the parking lot of Sheikh Zayed Mosque at 3am in Ras Al Khaimah for illegal drag racing.
Young men gather in the parking lot of Sheikh Zayed Mosque at 3am in Ras Al Khaimah for illegal drag racing.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // At 4.30am on Friday, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is filled with the prayers of the pious.

But a wee bit earlier, at 3am, the mosque parking lot is filled with illegal drag racers who have just returned from the E311 motorway.

Few Friday worshippers would ever suspect the mosque is a base for a large number of RAK's petrol heads.

"All people come here to race," says Ahmed, a man in his mid-20s. "When the police sleep, we race."

Like many racers, Ahmed is an off-duty police officer. But at 3am in the Sheikh Zayed Mosque parking lot, he assumes another identity: a racer for "Team Extreme".

"After duty I'm not the police. I'm a tourist," he says.

Ahmed and the others interviewed for this story did not give their surnames to protect their identities.

The racers arrive between 8pm and 10pm, and sit on the mosque pavement for a few hours, spitting sunflower seeds, drinking Pepsi and playing cards.

Then one driver challenges another by cruising past. The challenge is accepted after midnight, when the men leave the mosque to race on the E311 motorway.

One car will drive ahead to make sure the motorway is clear, then the race begins.

Sometimes they practise spinning their four-wheel drives around in circles. This drifting move is known as an "axiya" doughnut, where the rear wheels lose traction but the driver maintains control with the front wheels.

After the race, it's back to the mosque to unwind in the parking lot and reflect on the night.

Ahmed and his friends watch videos of drifters on an iPad. Another group plays with remote-controlled cars.

Despite their aggressive behaviour behind the wheel, the men are kind-hearted, honest and good-humoured.

They do not see fast driving as dangerous to themselves or others. For them, racing is just an innocent hobby preferable to shopping malls, shisha cafes or night clubs.

"If we go one day without racing all of us feel sick," says Ahmed's friend Mayed, 22. "Why do we love to race? Why do people love to eat?"

It is all for the glory, not money, they say.

The winner buys a meal for friends to celebrate. KFC, McDonald's and harees - home-cooked Emirati porridge - are all favoured fare for the winner's banquet at the mosque parking lot the next evening.

The mosque is chosen for its open parking lot, closeness to the Corniche and its beauty.

"Every weekend we sit here meeting friends like this because we don't have anywhere to sit in RAK, only here," says Jassim, 20, a racer from another club.

"The parking at Carrefour is not made for sitting with friends."

When they are racing, the young men have no fear of physical or legal consequences, to themselves or others.

"You have streets in RAK where police don't see you," says Jassim. "This car is safe."

His friends also believe they pose no danger to others.

"If I'm racing I'll be careful," says Jassim's friend Yasser, who races at speeds of more than 200kph. "If I see someone, no problem. I'll be careful."

The racers say none of them have crashed. But some have had run-ins with the law.

Ibrahim, also in his early 20s, stopped drag racing after his licence was confiscated by police for three months.

He has not raced since his licence was returned two months ago. Once he had to pay Dh5,000 to retrieve his car from the police pound.

On this particular Friday morning he is one of the last to leave the mosque.

The very last of the drag racers arrive at 4.15am to collect their cars before the call to prayer sounds.

They disappear into the night before the first worshippers arrive with the dawn.

azacharias@thenational.ae