It’s late Saturday night and the footpaths of Jalan Saharjo in central Jakarta are crowded with midnight spectators. They are an eclectic mix of trendy teens, late night street vendors, local gambling groups, men and women of all ages, and the curious. Word has got out that the balapan liar (illegal drags) will be racing by, and those who are still up want to watch the action.
All the entrants are young, male and hungry for an adrenaline fix. Money is another motivator, but glory is the true booty sought by the boys who risk their lives, dragging (ngetrak) in night races.
A buzz-saw hum grows louder and heads turn in expectation. In tight formation, five racers on motorbikes whiz past – wheels darting and weaving in search of smooth tarmac. A pothole at this speed would be fatal. Fat mufflers wail past the crowd spewing fumes. The acrid smell of exhaust and burnt tyres fills the night.
Blessed by the perceived invulnerability of adolescence, these nightriders reclaim the roads they are sidelined from during the day when two wheelers must make way for taxis and the ubiquitous kijang (family vehicles). Riders soup-up their bikes with extra grunt and go, at the expense of safety.
The rules are simple. To keep it fair, same model bikes race against each other. Bebek (scooter) versus bebek and ninja (motorcycle) versus ninja. The minimum number of bikes is two and the maximum is five. Speeds can reach over 150 kilometres per hour.
A predetermined finish line is usually after a landmark at the end of a particularly straight, wide road. First man over the line wins. The unspoken rule is that helmets and other protective gear are for wimps. Even headlights are usually turned off. The referee waiting at the finish line is independent and has the final say in any disputes, fights notwithstanding.
Double or nothing
After the race, punters, usually the riders’ friends and those with investments in the competing bikes, divide up the spoils from wagers. The riders assess placements and sort out their earnings.
The stakes are high, as large sums – up to two million rupiah – are up for grabs in each race. The winning joki (rider), however, takes home a small share. The bike owner takes the majority of the winnings.
The jackpot, it appears, isn’t the only attraction. It’s cool to enter and even more glorious to win. Through dragging, young men can rise above their position at the bottom of society. Often still in high school or simply unemployed, riders can forget the monotony of everyday life and become the hero of the moment.
If the police pounce on the action then all bets are off and the crowd disperses. Kids flee on their motorbikes, or crowd around food stalls trying to look inconspicuous. Several patrol cars do laps of the impromptu racetrack, checking by-standers and booking those without proper identification.
Although a perfunctory inspection of helmets and driver’s licences is undertaken, the police function as much as a protection racket as upholders of public safety. Most of these nightriders don’t have the funds to pay the hefty cut Jakarta’s police demand. Non-payment means arrest and bikes can be confiscated. They can be bought back but at a price. The drags are so often a part of Friday and Saturday nights that the police often try to pre-empt the races by placing posts at popular roads to deter draggers.
A few hours later, however, the races are back on as young guys on hotted-up 100cc bikes come speeding down Jalan Saharjo. One rider comes off his bike just after the starting line, bruising both his shin and his ego as the crowd laughs and cheers. Moments later, another two riders crash into onlookers as they try to avoid a passing kijang. A fight almost ensues as each blame the other for the crash. Bikes are wheeled away and their riders limp to the side of the road. But blood on the bitumen doesn’t discourage entrants, who continue to race until the roads are again claimed by traders going to market and the devout going to morning prayers.
Joanne Dowling (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Australian Volunteer at Aisyiyah, an Islamic organisation in Jakarta.