Wednesday, August 5th, 2009
Natasha and Dmitri met me at the train platform. It was after midnight in June in Tver and the sky still had sunlight in it. “Do you like Russian fast driving?” Dmitri asked me as I sat down in the backseat. I put on my seatbelt. Natasha, with brown hair and blue eyes, smiled at me from shotgun and turned up the stereo. Dmitri hit the gas.
We changed cars for a red, tuned-up Mazda with a turbocharger and custom spoiler. I got in the back. Dmitri drove us over the river, the sky a dark blue, to a warehouse parking lot. About a dozen cars were parked waiting. Boys and girls stood around them smoking cigarettes and drinking beer out of cans.
The city of Tver (56°21′N 35°55′E) is more than 800 years old. It once competed with Moscow for the capital seat of Russia. But the Moscow-engineered murder of a prince in the 14th century undercut the momentum the city had gained, and in 2009 only about 400,000 people live there. It is also where the Volga and Tversta rivers flow together. There are only three bridges in the city, so in the winter people walk from one part of the city to the other across the frozen Volga.
The race organizer handed out disclaimers to the drivers. Dmitri paid the 500-ruble entry fee. We got back in the car and Natasha translated the disclaimer. She spoke good English and savored the opportunity to use it, smiling as she read.
Street racing is your choice.
It is your choice to speed or break traffic laws.
We know you must drive fast, but please, be safe.
If you break the law and there is police, we are not knowing who you are.
A man with a clipboard and a stopwatch stood at the exit of the parking lot. The cars lined up–Nissans, Toyotas, Subarus, and Russian Ladas–and drove away at two-minute intervals. We were eighth out of nine cars to leave the lot. When it came time to leave, Dmitri popped the clutch and we threw up rocks headed south into the city.
“I love this,” Natasha turned around and told me. “I love the speed.”
Dmitri sat alert with his back off the seat as he sped over the river, one hand on the wheel, one hand on the shifter, only speaking to ask Natasha where the next checkpoint was and the best way to get there. He drove the Mazda hard to the first checkpoint at Liberty Park. We found a green Lada with it’s hazard lights on and Dmitri gave them his name. Then we took off again. We chased a black Honda, nearly catching her multiple times. We drove 90 miles an hour through the city, over the Volga bridges, past statues of Vladimir Lenin and Aleksandr Pushkin.
En route to the fourth checkpoint, on the outskirts of the city, we passed a power plant with three smokestacks, each standing alone, red bands across their middles, thin vapor still escaping into the white night. Before we came to our next goal, we had to stop at a police checkpoint. Dmitri handed the officer his documents and swore as we drove away for the time we had lost.
We sped back to the center of the city, and as we entered into a large roundabout, 20 miles an hour over the speed limit, Dmitri cut in front of a new, white Audi sedan. The roundabout shot us out headed north into traffic and as we fought to find an opening the car pulled alongside us. The driver was a short, pudgy man with dyed blonde hair. He had his window rolled down and yelled, furious. Dmitri smiled and changed lanes, swerving around a car. He chased us, honking and flashing his lights.
He came along our left side. Dmitri said yelled something in Russian and the driver hollered back. Then, with a slight pump of the brakes and a downshift, Dmitri turned right onto a side street. The turn was too quick for him to follow and we were gone.
Then the battle with the black Honda was back on. We caught up to her at the gas station checkpoint. She cut us off driving out of the lot and for the next two checkpoints it was a dogfight-trading the lead several times, nearly colliding almost as many. Through it all Natasha laughed, Dmitri drove at attention, and I held on in the backseat.
The race ended back at the warehouse. Stars spotted the sky-the night just turning black. We waited for the last car to come in. She didn’t win but the organizers gave the driver of the Honda a bottle of champagne because she was the only woman driver. We finished sixth. After the parking lot cleared, we went to the store and bought beer and vodka to take back to Dmitri’s flat. We stayed up until the sky turned back to white.Bart Schaneman is an American writer. He writes about his travels and about Nebraska. Read more of his writing at http://bartschaneman.wordpress.com and http://rainfollowstheplow.wordpress.com.