The roar and throb of motor engines is loud and before the race begins, the audience, made up mostly of young men – there are only a handful of women here - starts to chant for their favourite drivers. It is like a scene from the motoring action film, The Fast and The Furious here, where NIQASH was accompanying Mohammed Salem, 24, to a monthly amateur car race held in Baghdad's Jadiriyah neighbourhood.
On the way to the race in his car, Salem had made phone calls to other racers and auto enthusiasts to make sure they were going to be there.
“It would be such a good idea for the government to sponsor this race,” Salem says enthusiastically. “It attracts so many people and it could generate a lot of income. This is a global sport,” he declared.
At the racetrack, the cars are marked out in bright colours and flags in order to differentiate them from each another. Some of the drivers were also doing driving tricks known as burnouts, causing their tires to smoke, or driving around in close circles.
Salem explained that in order to race the cars’ drivers must customise their cars, making various improvements. “There are no real racing cars in Iraq so you need to change some aspects of a normal car in order to be able to be race,” he told NIQASH.
Interestingly the winners of the races don't get any prizes. Everyone here is in it for the glory and the love of motorsports. Some of the races also involve betting but Salem says he avoids those.
Salem says the Jadiriyah venue, which has an incomplete motor racing track, is just about the only place in Baghdad where this sort of event could be held. Motor races were held here before 2003 but there was no official body that ran the races. Some earlier races were sponsored by Uday, the son of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. However since then the construction of new buildings has shrunk the size of the racing area even further. It is only about 400 meters long now.
The most recent batch of semi-official racing first started here in 2011 and was organised by an Iraqi motorsports club. The events have proven so popular that they have diversified and grown. Now there is a motocross race, special burnout events, a gathering of BMW owners as well as events focussed more on motorcycles.
But Baghdad's car fanciers are more than just drag racers and different motoring events seem to be being held on the Iraqi capitals streets on an almost weekly basis now.
At the end of March a large group of SUV owners organized a parade of their vehicles through central Baghdad, to celebrate recent victories against the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The motorcade drove through Baghdad in long lines, with their car stereos blasting nationalistic songs and the passengers waving Iraqi flags.
The motorcades often happen on Fridays and Saturdays and another recent event involved the owners of BMWs driving the streets.
“The idea for the BMW parade started on a Facebook page that is run by fans and owners of BMWS,” Majid Kari, 33, one of the participants in that particular motorcade, told NIQASH. “We regularly post news on the latest models and maintenance and design, as well as how to customise the cars so that you can race them. The idea of organizing a parade for both old and new BMWs was suggested on this page and then we made it happen.”
The parade then became so popular that it's become a regular activity with more drivers coming every time, Kari continues. “But security conditions don't allow us to make it too regular.”
The BMW owners also wanted to run a race but could not because of the large numbers that wanted to race and to watch.
“The Jadiriyah track isn’t big enough to accommodate everyone,” Kari says.
Similar races and motorcades are held in other parts of Iraq – Babel, Kirkuk and Basra have seen such events fairly regularly.
Of course, as with anywhere, car racing can be dangerous – particularly when there are none of the safety measures in place – such as barriers for audiences – that one would expect at a professional motor race. In Iraq, typically “motor head” activities that involve driving tricks or doing burnouts also cause traffic and environmental nuisances.
“Deliberately doing burnouts in traffic or organising unlicensed races could lead to accidents,” says Arkan Abdul-Khaliq, a traffic officer working in Baghdad; he says he has made several young drivers pay fines on a certain bridge in Baghdad where the drivers often race one another. “They exceeded the speed limit,” Abdul-Khaliq explains.
The parades of cars are not really a problem though, he continues. “We have to check the cars at different checkpoints – the identity of the drivers and the vehicle registrations - but this is just routine,” the traffic officer