The driver who on a recent Sunday was seen spinning doughnuts on the Golden Gate Bridge was either a trailblazer or a damned fool, depending on who you talk to.
"He was probably high as a kite," Fillmore rapper and sideshow connoisseur San Quinn surmises. "Whoever it was was sick for that — he could fall off the side of the bridge."
Trailblazer or fool, the driver may have been signaling to San Francisco the return of so-called "sideshows" — stunts or impromptu car exhibitions, usually on a public street or freeway. Until recently, they'd been a thing of the past.
Quinn, who recently changed his stage handle to Juan W. Garza (his real name is Quincy Brooks), says that sideshows were mainly an Oakland phenomenon, owing perhaps to the East Bay city's geography: wider, flatter, spread-out streets made it more suitable for doughnuts and drag racing — and less accessible to cops.
"In the '90s, that's when it really started," Quinn says, remembering how crowds would gather along Foothill and MacArthur boulevards to watch the spectacle. At that time, he says, a stronger economy, based partly on the drug trade, had enabled some participants to buy '72 Cutlasses or '89 Mustang 5.0s, or even fancy European cars. Basketball players would roll up in half-million-dollar Bentleys. Quinn would show off the '69 Malibu that had become his point of pride: steel gray paint, white leather interior.
It's not exactly clear why sideshows began dying off after 2007, or why they popped up again recently in areas that had never before witnessed the trend. About a week before the Golden Gate Bridge doughnut stunt, three sideshows occurred on a single Sunday in Oakland, creating traffic snarls on the 580 and 880 freeways. The pageantry began at Port of Oakland, paused at the Bay Bridge toll plaza, and at one point amassed roughly a hundred cars. Bystanders sat on the shoulder of the freeway, filming with cellphones and posting the footage to YouTube.
It was a highly coordinated effort, Oakland CHP spokesman Sean Wilkenfeld says. Over four years of monitoring Oakland's highways, he's grown familiar with the routine: Three cars will swerve from side to side on a freeway so no one can pass them, then they'll slow down until traffic bleeds off. The cars in front keep moving, which opens space for a 15-minute expo. Cars spin doughnuts, motorcyclists pop wheelies, passengers hang out the side doors of speeding vehicles.
"They're a huge public safety hazard," Wilkenfeld says, adding that the danger ripples out: Motorists approaching the show have to slam on their brakes, while drivers on the other side of the freeway get distracted and rubberneck.
And yet, the lure of the sideshow persists. In San Quinn's heyday they were organized by word of mouth and promoted via pager; now they're driven by social media. Changing technology has probably contributed to the revival of the once-sputtering trend. Evidently, it won't stall out just yet.