The Real, True Story behind the Origins of the 'Fast & Furious' Franchise

Mark Vaughn
·15 min read
Photo credit: Universal
Photo credit: Universal

The world girds its loins for F9 June 25. This is the Fast & Furious franchise’s ninth (but by no means last) installment. So far, the franchise itself has made $5.8 billion. That places it between (I am not making this up) the Gross Domestic Products of Montenegro and Togo on the world economic scale. Look for the Group of 7 to seat Dominic Toretto soon. So amidst all that, it’s interesting to note that the original movie 20 years ago was actually based on a real racing and cultural phenomenon.

Yes, some of that stuff in the movie used to really happen. Not all of it, not the truck hijackings, the murders of racing rivals, and I never saw any girls in bikinis at real street races and virtually no DJs. At least what I remember of it.

Given that every F&F movie since the first one got increasingly more ridiculous, with La Familia reuniting for increasingly absurd plot reasons—“There’s a USB drive stuck in a collector car in Brazil!”—and with a few members of La Familia even rising from the dead, it may be difficult to imagine that the first movie, or at least the beginning of the first movie, actually had some scenes that reflected a reality some people fondly remember. The reality was called The Import Scene and for a brief moment in racing and automotive history it was huge.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Let’s start at the beginning. There has been a car scene in almost every generation for the last 75 years. Hot rodding, drag racing, and time trials on the dry lakes grew out of post-WWII prosperity and involved ’32 Ford roadsters and belly tanks dropped from P-38s. After that, the muscle car generation rose up and raced everywhere from Van Nuys Blvd. to Woodward Ave., to strips all up and down the East Coast. Then the oil embargo kind of killed things for a while and gave us—what, custom vans?—but also the Bug-Ins of the 1980s, with 10-second turbocharged VW Beetles that weighed about as much as the doors on a Dodge Charger. And then after that, somewhere in the late-80s and early ‘90s there came a whole new deal of small, front-wheel drive Honda Civics, Acura Integras, rear-drive Mazda RX-2s, 3s and 7s, Toyota Supras (the original Japanese muscle car), and a host of other cars limited only by the imaginations of those who built them.

It was this latter phase of car enthusiasm that became known as The Import Scene. No one can say precisely when it started or where it stopped, but out of it came that one ridiculous movie that, for better or worse, helped define a generation.

Photo credit: Toyota Racing
Photo credit: Toyota Racing

“Having friends in the street racing scene from back then, yeah, that story was several different friends’ lives,” said record-setting drag racer, drifter and now three-time Formula Drift championship team-owner Steph Papadakis. “So many people that I know related to that movie and felt like they told their story.”

I have argued for years that it was Papadakis on whom the character of Dom Toretto was based. They look almost exactly the same, though Papadakis is far more likely to smile and carry on a regular conversation than the monosyllabic movie character Dom. At the time, when I first wrote about the Import Scene for Autoweek in early 1996, Papadakis and his friend and fellow racer, the late Shaun Carlson, were Dom and Brian. They are both ringers for the characters. Papadakis has a shaved head, Carlson was the handsome blonde-haired blue-eyed charmer.

Photo credit: Archive Photos - Getty Images
Photo credit: Archive Photos - Getty Images

“I’m definitely not the Dom,” Papadakis said when I visited his large and impressively professional race shop recently. “I never knew the writer.”

Hey, he knew me, and I wrote about him two years before the writer in question wrote his story about import drag racing. That writer would be Ken Li, a real journalist who now works at Reuters but back in the ‘90s was a young reporter in New York who authored an article for Vibe magazine about a street racer named Rafael Estevez. It is Estevez on whom Dom is supposed to be based. Li’s experiences documenting that article were accurate and in-depth. Much of what Li described as he prowled around street races in the Washington Heights district of New York was portrayed in the opening scenes of F&F 1.

Photo credit: Universal
Photo credit: Universal

“I’m driving up to the street and it’s lined with these really tuned and tricked-out, mostly Japanese cars, slammed to the ground with all these tattooed stickers,” Li told me during a recent phone call, recalling events from nearly 25 years ago. “I’d grown up in New York my entire life, nearly my entire life, and I’d never seen that before. It was like I’ve discovered this sort of secret new underworld I never knew existed.”

It was there that he met racer Rafael Estevez, who became Dom Toretto, maybe. But Estevez was a real racer, and Li’s portrayal of him was spot on.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“My generation, we grew up watching American cars, which we never liked,” Estevez recalled in a recent phone call, again, 25 or 30 years after the fact. “We turned to imports. I started basically in the ‘80s—‘84, ‘85.”

It was something that came to consume Estevez, racing was all he did for a while. Maybe you went through a similar racing obsession. Maybe you’re still in it. For Estevez, it was a good income, way more of an income than a regular job would have provided.

“For four years I lived off racing, I was a hustler,” he said. “We raced every day. We’d meet every night after 10 o’clock, in one place or another. We would switch them up because the cops would come and we would switch to the next place, and so on and so on until we got going. I was making four or five grand a week just racing. I didn’t have a job—I didn’t need a job.”

Four or five grand a week? Heck, I should have been a racer.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“There was a lot of money in the ‘90s in Washington Heights. Every apartment must have been like a drug operation. So all these drug dealers would come out with money they’d put into their cars, and they don’t know anything about cars. And I would have my fixer-upper and make money off of them. That was the scene in the ‘90s. Exciting.”

One of Estevez’ good friends and fellow racers in those days was Kirk Miller, who raced in the Playboy Escort Endurance Series in the late-‘80s as well as in more than a few street races around New York and New Jersey. (Miller gave up street racing long ago and is now a responsible executive for AEM Performance Electronics in Southern California.) He remembers scenes that did manage to get accurately portrayed in the movie.

Photo credit: Universal
Photo credit: Universal

“The pre-race meeting and gatherings had hundreds to 1000s of people lined up to see the races,” Miller remembered. “The racing we did in New York on the West Side Highway, in the Bronx, in the George Washington Bridge area where the highway was, you’re buried on both sides, it’s slightly downhill, a couple of sweeping turns, and you’d end up down underneath the George Washington Bridge. That race was a mile. And the turns, the speeds were approaching the 200 mile an hour mark, depending on what car you’re racing. We were just doing what we could do to go as fast as we could and make a couple of bucks doing it.”

Photo credit: From the personal archive of Stephan Papadakis
Photo credit: From the personal archive of Stephan Papadakis

Something similar was happening on the West Coast. Papadakis started out street racing, intimately familiar with the delicate pre-race ritual of sand-bagging and smack talking. But as his car, a tube-frame Honda Civic he built with his friend Shaun Carlson, got faster and faster, he had to stop racing on the street.

“At the time I was 18, I realized that I can get into real trouble and be tried as an adult. It was to the point where they were trying to take people’s cars away and crushing them and I was like, ‘I’m not gonna do street racing anymore.’”

Not to mention that his race car was getting too fast for the street.

“It couldn’t be driven on the streets and all of a sudden, what am I, trailering a car to the street races? And I’d look around and see the street racing guys that had been doing it for 20 or 30 years and I didn’t see that as a direction that I wanted to go.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Luckily, as he was rising up into professional racing the scene was turning professional around him.

“At that time they started having street-legal drags like (race organizer) Frank Choi’s Battle of the Imports, IDRC, NIRA, (The Brotherhood of Street Racing’s venue at) Terminal Island, so we had an availability to go to the actual track.”

Papadakis’ yellow tube-frame Civic was the first front-wheel drive car to get into the nines and then into the eights in the quarter mile. And remember, it was still driving the front wheels only.

Photo credit: From the personal archive of Stephan Papadakis
Photo credit: From the personal archive of Stephan Papadakis

“Then we built the Civic Coupe a couple years later and ran as quick as 8.12 in the quarter-mile at 184 miles an hour. That was in 2001. And it took, man, I think five or six years before somebody beat that record. And it was the Saturn team, Lisa Kubo, I think they were the first ones into the sevens.”

Yes, Saturn. Manufacturers had started sponsoring import racers. Papadakis got sponsorship from Honda, Lisa Kubo got money from GM, Carlson was sponsored by Ford and later Chrysler. Things were really going on.

Adam Saruwatari was one of the biggest racers in the Import Scene on the West Coast, with an RX-7 and an NSX that were dominant factors in import drag racing for years. He says he got into it because he was just in the right place at the right time.

Photo credit: Universal
Photo credit: Universal

“What I observed was a whole bunch of crazy kids having a good time, doing things that were considered non-conventional, borderline insane,” Saruwatari said. “It was kind of like this lifestyle cultural thing, people would drive their vehicles to the track, race them and, you know, they’re having their barbecues and everything. So, what you talk about, I think loosely, they kind of got that family feeling you see in Fast and Furious from what was going on. I mean, obviously, there were still beefs and issues amongst groups, but for the most part, I think everyone was mostly out to have a good time.”

Around that drag racing base grew a whole cultural phenomenon.

Photo credit: Kirk Saylin
Photo credit: Kirk Saylin

“Oh, man, yeah, there was just a lot happening,” said Jim Liaw, who started out selling ads for a magazine based on the whole Import Scene before going on to co-found Formula Drift. “There was definitely a feeling of this organic, authentic energy of all this enthusiasm. There were car shows and drag races and illegal drag racing and just like a flurry of activity.”

It grew from just drag racing to drag racing and car shows like Hot Import Nights, the Import Showoff and the NOPI Nationals, big shows that rented out venues like the L.A. Convention Center and filled them with tuner Civics, live DJs and even, occasionally, “dancers” live on stage. The Scene had evolved to encompass a large number of things.

“Everyone’s going to give you a different answer about the culture because it was really, you know, it depends on which circles you were circulating in,” said Dave Coleman, who went from working for a speed parts maker to being a staff member at Sport Compact Car, to his current job as an engineering executive at Mazda, making sure Mazdas are fun to drive. “Sport Compact Car was, in some sense, a huge iconic center of that culture. In another sense, we were totally outsiders of that culture. Like, we weren’t into the scene. We were into the machine. And so there were different subcultures within the culture. There were the guys who went to the car shows and just wanted to convince themselves that making their car cool would attract the ladies, which is pretty normal in any car scene from any time in history, I guess.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

One standout about it all was that everyone, for the most part, got along. In fact, one thing the Import Scene transcended was race. While the majority of the participants, maybe half of them, were Asian, the rest were from all different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.

“It wasn’t specific to Asian Americans, there were just lots of Asian Americans in it, street culture and pop culture had more than just Asian Americans,” said RJ DeVera, who was part of a crew called Kosoku back in the day and who came to be a sort of defacto spokesman for the greater Scene. He was also featured in the Autoweek article in 1996 and, presumably from that, got a speaking role in the movie. His character was Danny Yamato and he raced in the opening four-wide drag race scene at the beginning of the movie.

Photo credit: Richard S. Chang
Photo credit: Richard S. Chang

“I think it started out being young Asian Americans to begin with, but I think it changed very quickly. And even among Asian Americans there’s so many different nationalities and backgrounds,” said Formula Drift’s Jim Liaw. “It wasn’t all rich kids that were able to afford speed parts. There were a lot of blue-collar guys, too. The diversity was actually quite wide. It showed in the makeup of the whole scene. Yeah, these guys have those type of cars and those guys like those type of cars. But it was always very, very diverse. And it continued to be more and more diverse as it grew. And the surprising part, I would say the nice part about the roots of import car culture, and even to today in our drifting world, is that it’s always been very, very inclusive.”

Photo credit: Richard S. Chang
Photo credit: Richard S. Chang

“I think it was a lot of scenes,” said Richard Chang, who was editor of Super Street magazine. “It was different across the U.S. wherever you went. There may have been a lot of Asians in LA, but ultimately it was just guys with cars. It would be different in New York where the people fixing up cars weren’t necessarily young Asians. You had Puerto Ricans, White people from Queens, it was a little bit more integrated. It was very shop-centric. There’s a shop that fixes up, say, in New York, Toyota Supras were big, whereas in LA it was more Hondas. People would hang out in that shop and the shop was the focus of that universe. If the shop built cars that raced in Englishtown (drag strip in New Jersey), that’s where that would end up. You definitely had all-Asian crews in Flushing, New York, or you went to Allentown, Pennsylvania, you’d find a 100% White population. There would always be a shop that worked on part of their inventory would be imports and that’s where that scene would develop. Florida would have its own unique scene, lotta Puerto Ricans with Mazda rotary engines, that would be an outcropping of a shop that built those types of cars. While I was working at Super Street that was the most fascinating thing was understanding the character of each local scene.”

It was something that I, your author, noticed covering The Scene back in the ‘90s and something that even F&F director Rob Cohen noticed before he directed the first movie in the franchise.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“There was something about its multicultural aspect, that this was being participated in by Asians, by Whites, by Blacks, by Hispanics, and every other combination, that got my antenna up,” Cohen said in an interview with China Global Television Network in 2018. “Because, first of all, you didn’t know anything about it. The public didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know anything about it. I had to work hard to get into an underground street race. And when I did, I saw the whole world. In that opening scene where Paul Walker goes to that conclave there and challenges Dominic and we have the four-car drag race, that is exactly my experience the night I was taken underground out to San Fernando Road and watched the gangs, the different cars, the betting going on, the watching for the cops, the whole thing. The minute I saw it I went, ‘This is amazing. This is has got to be a great movie.’”

And it was, more or less. But in the newest movie, Dom supposedly goes into outer space. Why? Who knows? Maybe to beat up the moon. The series has gotten away from the simple Import Scene it started with and now involves space travel and Charlize Theron’s awful haircut. But that’s Hollywood. At one time, flawed as it was, the movies actually reflected a little slice of racing reality, however small a slice it was. And that was kind of cool.