Finally, a Legal Sideshow

RedLine Truck at Wettfest in Stockton.  (Talyah Cole)

My niece, Talyah, walked ahead of me in white sunglasses and AirPods, a 17-year old black girl with the edges of her hair laid to perfection, telling me about the process of perfecting them. She wasn’t even really tripping off of Wettfest in Stockton—car shows aren’t her thing. But when she looked through the tire smoke rising from the “donut pit,” and witnessed a dirty–Sprite-colored Chevy Silverado SS getting sideways, she turned back to me, pointed, and said, “I’ve been to car shows, but none of them had this!”

She wedged herself into the crowd to get a front-row view at the edge of the barricade, where we watched cars for a few hours in the donut pit, or donut box, hosted at the San Joaquin Fairgrounds on a square of concrete no bigger than a football field just made for people to pull up and swing donuts.

I could hardly believe my eyes. Meanwhile, at the start of September, numerous law enforcement agencies all around the Bay Area mobilized to crack down on sideshows. This past weekend, the Oakland Police Department released yet another notice that they’d patrol certain intersections, and join with other outfits from around the region to quell illegal sideshow activities in Oakland.

I’ve written two pieces about sideshows, one on how guerilla sideshows exemplify how wasteful we are, both as officers and citizens, and one raising the possibility of making sideshows legal.

I was just pipe dreaming until I heard the roar of an engine this past Sunday in Stockton, where cars were getting sideways in the donut pit. Legally.

Sitting Clean at Wettfest in Stockton
Sitting clean at Wettfest in Stockton. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Sideshows are an impromptu car show, in which drivers and spectators commandeer an intersection or highway in order to burn out, swing donuts, spin Figure-8s and more. They can attract hundreds of spectators, and they've been happening here since at least the 1980s. The cat-and-mouse dance between local authorities and sideshow goers has been going on just as long.

While this aspect of car culture is deeply intertwined with Oakland culture—and the culture of Northern California as a whole—it’s also somewhat dangerous, can become very chaotic, and on the streets, it’s illegal.

Which made the event in Stockton a possible blueprint for a way to do it legally. Attendees, like my niece, paid $20 to enter Wettfest, a family-friendly, annual car show thrown by DJ Tri Tip, Mudville Clothing Co. and Mike Alvaro. There were low-riders, hydraulic hopping competitions, big motorcycles, American-made candy-painted muscle cars, overpriced barbecue plates and Mexican food. There was even a kid's zone with an astro jump, kiddie pool, the whole nine.

If you wanted to swing donuts, you had to pay $100. That’s what San Jose native Chris Coca did. I caught him and his 1997 BMW 328i (with the Louis Vuitton pattern on the interior door panel) while we waited in line with what I’m told was nearly 100 other cars. Gearing up for his second trip to the donut pit, he told me he pulled up early that morning in anticipation. After all, this is his catharsis.

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“I don’t go to sideshows because I’m not trying to get caught up, I’m not trying to get this thing impounded,” Coca said, pointing to his car. “But having somewhere to just let myself loose—man, I love this shit.”

As the tires of a car getting sideways screeched in the background, Coca continued. “This is what keeps me going," he said. "Only once a month is when I get to get out, but when I do get out, this is the only thing on my mind—I’m relaxed.”

I asked Coca if he thinks legalization would help with the sideshow issue plaguing Oakland. His answer was one I hadn’t heard before. “It’s like a skatepark, you know?" he offered. "There’s still going to be some bad shit going on, but it’d be a lot more cool.”

He’s got a point: without skateparks, skaters would just be hitting ollies on school campuses and outside of office lobbies. “Plus skateparks give you a place where you can really shine," Coca said. "Where you can really go all in, you know?”

Chris Coca
Chris Coca sitting in his BMW, awaiting his next turn. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Going all in. That’s what Robert Pascua, Outlaw Drift Series organizer and the force behind the donut pit, says he wants drivers to do. We talked under the shade of the old horse stable, adjacent to the donut pit, about his "drifting" events—an alternative to illegal sideshows.

“We’re not going to get everyone off of the streets. I mean, I came from the streets as well, and only a few of us turned into that person who takes it to a professional level,” said Pascua, who also works as a professional stunt driver. “There will be ones that do take it and run with it. And the ones that don’t—they’ll be more a mix—they’ll hit the drifting events, and still go out in the streets. And it’s cool, nothing is wrong with that.”

As we talked, another car started swangin’ donuts in the nearly all-black-covered square of concrete as the crowd of people on all sides of the square watched.

“A lot of our good talent comes from sideshows, a lot of ‘em have a general knowledge of car control that most people don’t know," Pascua explained. "And so they excel really great in the drifting world, in my opinion.”

Robert Pascua
Robert Pascua, the force behind the donut pit.

Pascua told me how this organized daytime sideshow is legal, covered as an “active motive sport” in the speedway ownership’s contracts and multimillion dollar insurance policy. The plot of land is already home to a dirt track, a go-kart track and a sprint car track; the majority of the land is permitted for automobiles. The donut pit activity falls under the umbrella of what’s allowed at a racetrack.

“We contract with 99 Speedway, so we’re under racetrack policy, which is why everybody has to have helmets, which is why everybody has to have certain criteria to come in here. So, we basically treat the donut pit kind of like a racetrack, with less rules,” said Pascua. “We're a little more lenient, just to get people off the street and go have fun.”

He also told me about other places that host what are essentially legal sideshows, like Sonoma Speedway’s Wednesday Night Drag Racing, Sacramento’s Sac Speed Shop, and another one in Reno.

I had no idea how common this was. Pascua is in his second year of running the donut pit at Wettfest. He's been doing events like this for over five years, with a monthly series, even. And he says he’s tried to get this kind of thing going in Oakland.

“Oakland doesn’t have a racetrack," Pascua said, simply. "We’ve looked into it. I’ve looked into it. And just, in going through the city, we’d have to find somewhere that’s realistic. And, it’s just a lot of money.”

He told me that for the past couple of years, his venture was operating in the red. He’s seeing revenue now, thanks to sponsors. But the list of expenses isn’t short, starting with the concrete barricades called K-Walls.

“We have to pay for the K-Walls, the rental of the forklift, we have to move the K-Walls, I have to take time off of work just to do it,” said Pascua. “I have nine people on my staff. Not even just nine staff, I have two EMTs, fire safety with the fire truck,” said Pascua.

Not too long after that point in our conversation, one of the cars in the pit loudly hit a K-Wall, not too far from my niece. The driver tried to keep going, but fire safety came out in a vehicle with a comically over-sized front bumper to push the vehicle out of the circle.

Pascua explained to me that once a car hits a wall, it's supposed to stop driving. Of course, sometimes there's no option.

“It’s either your car gives up or your tires give up, and that’s my whole goal: to give people a place to let it all go,” said Pascua.

Who knew you could get sideways in a forklift!?
Who knew you could get sideways in a forklift!? (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Sideshows are a sort of vehicular ballet and mini destruction derby. The goal is to swing donuts and let loose, but it's done in a myriad of elegant ways. I saw someone in a beat up Volvo. Someone else got down in a newer Mustang. At one point, Pascua walked around, using the red flag like a matador's cape, signaling for a driver to swing close to the K-Wall without touching it—the audience cheered. I was anxious, watching as the car came close, but didn’t scrape.

Dangerous? Yeah, I mean, dirt got flung and rubber pieces got tossed up. Your family physician probably wound't recommend inhaling tire smoke. But I saw lots of folks out there with their kids—and I’m talking toddlers.

I pointed out my teenaged niece in the front row, and asked Pascua about the wide range of people in attendance.

“My goal is to get someone out here who never has seen this, and starts asking questions. You start asking questions, and you start wanting to know,” said Pascua, starting to walk away and tend to the needs of the event. One of the K-Walls had moved when the car hit it. Pascua jumped in a forklift to fix it back.

After doing so, he did a few swerves and got sideways in the damn forklift. Didn’t even know that was possible.

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