Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Race Craze Grips Capital

Baghdadis take a break from daily troubles at weekly car races on outskirts of city.
By Hisham Alwan

The US army Humvee sped onto the dry lakebed in a cloud of dust. Revving its motor, the driver took a spin around the track under the watchful eyes of Baghdad race fans.

The Iraqi racers responded to the challenge - first a deep-blue BMW peeled out behind, followed by two other cars.

Despite the Hummer's powerful acceleration, its weight made for wide turns. When the local driver’s BMW won, the crowd erupted with applause.

It was another memorable Friday at this makeshift racetrack in the Jadriya lakebed by the side of the Tigris River, where Iraqi speed merchants and fans hold informal races every weekend and holiday.

Drivers bring their own cars - some specially modified for racing - for spins around the track, while motorcycle owners compete in their own events.

There's no finish line - the crowd declares a winner - but disputes are rare, even in the case of collisions, as it is agreed beforehand that drivers have no right to claim damages and must bear the costs of their own repairs.

Winners are awarded small cash prizes or sometimes a watch or a new set of tires, paid for by the 750-dinar (half US dollar) admission fee charged to spectators.

While rich owners with expensive cars have an advantage, the fans fondly recall a May race when a BMW was beaten by a 1970 Nasser, an Egyptian-made version of the Fiat.

Despite the rough-and-ready nature of the competition, the ministry of sports and youth has endorsed the event, which is watched over by officials from the government's Cars and Motorcycle Racing Commission.

"At first we invited our friends and they came with their friends, and that's how this track came to be well known," said commissioner Khaled Youssef.

"We then discussed the idea with the minister, and he set up the commission."

Inevitably, there are some safety issues. At first, spectators collected by the side of the track, but in May a BMW spun out of control and hospitalised a fan.

The fan, 27-year-old Muhammed Ali, was back at the track the very next week, but spectators now prefer to gather on top of a small hill, slightly removed from the races.

Regardless of the risk, supporters say, it's better than the pre-war alternative.

"This track helps us to have some fun times," said 17-year-old Samer Hussein, owner of a 1998 Ford and one of the youngest drivers in the competition.

"Before the war my friends and I raced near our house, and that was unsafe," said Hussein.

Even worse was the risk to spectators.

"The sons of the former officials raced and gambled all night in the streets,” said 21-year- old Mohammed Abd al-Mahdi, a resident of al-Kindi street where the races took place.

“This led to a lot of accidents caused by high speed, and because most of the drivers were drunk and too young to drive a car."

Fans hope the amateur event will help Iraqi drivers become internationally competitive.

"I hope that this track will be the first step towards making Iraq one of the countries with a renowned name in this sport," said engineer Assam al-Musfar, 37.

"However, this phenomenon needs a lot of support from local and international sports commissions, because this is the beginning of a new kind of sport in Iraq."

Hisham Alwan is an IWPR trainee.

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