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Ad Libbing: Will West End still get the drift?

I was working a bit late on a Friday night and heard the familiar squeal of tires "drifting" at the intersection of Avenue B and Vine Street in Cloquet. The rumbling of loud exhaust systems and engines revving continued. As I went out to my van to head home, I noticed a "stage" in the VFW parking lot, heard music, saw lots of cars and people milling about. I hadn't seen that much activity in the West End since the West End Flourish celebration last September. I was curious.

The parking lot behind the VFW was bustling. Morgan's MoJo Army Food Wagon was serving up cheeseburgers for $5 and the area was full of interesting vehicles and a mostly younger crowd milling about. Throw in a few middle-aged dads with their young children in tow. An older gentleman got in line behind me and started asking questions. The young man in front of me filled him in.

Ryan Bridge of Bridges Customs made a plan to host Friday night car shows every other Friday throughout the summer. Everybody's welcome, he says. "So, could I show my [2008] Cadillac here?" asked the older gent. "Sure," the young man told him.

I took my cheeseburger and ginger ale and ate while strolling about. A hot pink low rider caught my attention. It was parked as if poised to give passers by a high-five, its right front tire lifted several feet off the ground. Parked next to it was a similar Caprice Classic with its trunk open, displaying an impressive system with five hydraulic cylinders 8 inches in diameter and 2 feet long with some serious banks of batteries to run it all on each side of the trunk. The paint job was equally impressive and the car's owner was meticulously spritzing the paint job and wiping it down as if preparing it for surgery.

I checked out a few other cars and watched the crowd part to make way for new arrivals. I had to find the instigator of all of this, Ryan Bridge. I spotted him walking through the crowd with a bullhorn in hand, wearing his cap backwards and a satisfied smile on his face. He filled me in on the whole affair and his hopes and plans for future Friday night gatherings.

Anyone who's spent any time in the West End knows that Ryan and his friends like to "drift" and do it with some regularity at the intersection of Vine Street and Avenue B, just outside his shop. For those not familiar with drifting in car culture, it's the practice of driving a car in a controlled skid, as if on ice. There are drifting competitions that have nothing to do with racing and a checkered flag. Instead, drivers are judged on their ability to control a vehicle in a skid.

Ryan and his friends can be seen spinning their vehicles in circles, filling the air with the sound of revving engines, squealing tires, plumes of burnt rubber and leaving their mark on the pavement. To a casual observer it may appear to be incredibly reckless. But, Ryan and his cohorts know what they're doing. They've spent hundreds of hours customizing their cars. Tweaking the suspension, removing as much weight from their cars as possible and customizing the engines to get optimal performance. Drifting is its own subculture in the car community and Ryan Bridges is in the center of it in Cloquet.

Obviously this activity hasn't gone unnoticed by the Cloquet Police Department or the city of Cloquet. Discussions are ongoing. For now, Ryan and his like-minded car enthusiasts will be allowed to gather on Friday nights as long as they keep the volume down and aren't disturbing the peace after 10 p.m. As far as the drifting, for now, that's not going to continue.

Ryan has been talking with the police, public works and other city officials about permitting that somewhere - not necessarily a public street - with the placement of cement safety barriers. The hope is to allow the drifting activity in a controlled and safe environment.

For now, Ryan and his clique in the car community will continue to gather every other Friday throughout the summer, culminating with the Bridges Customs Car Show Sept. 16 during the West End celebration hosted by the Pine Knot News. The next evening gathering is today, Friday, July 28.

As many as 200 vehicles have filled the West End with folks coming from as far away as Canada and North Dakota to attend. Cars, hot rods and drifting may not be everyone's cup of tea, but to this crowd the sound of revving engines is music to their ears and the smell of grease, oil, gasoline and burnt rubber is pleasant.

Seeing people gathering in the West End is never a bad thing.

Ideally, by planning ahead, with safety in mind, cooperation between the car community and the city of Cloquet will lead to a safe and organized place to gather, play and enjoy each other's company.

One just has to look to Duluth, who had a history of outlaw street races on Garfield Avenue, to see that with a coordinated effort good things can happen. Although postponed in recent years because of construction on I-35, the Duluth Drag Races & Car Show, the nation's only legalized 1/8 mile drag race on a public street, has attracted thousands of people annually. Could drifting do the same for Cloquet?

Who knows, perhaps more businesses who cater to the car enthusiasts will see Cloquet's West End as a good place to set up shop.

Ivan Hohnstadt is the advertising director at the Pine Knot News and an accomplished event organizer himself.

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