When car meets go bad
Why I stopped organising Dubai's biggest car meet
On 4 January of this new year, just outside the hugely popular Houston Coffee & Cars meet, major hooliganism happened. There's a 20-minute YouTube video with over 125,000 views as I write, showing a succession of burnouts by muscle cars of all ilk, on a public road that becomes an impromptu drag strip - but with the public still on it, smart phones in hand, desperately trying to go viral. They should be careful what they wish for.
A Hellcat nearly T-bones a Nissan that just happened to be passing, a biker smokes up the rear tyre and almost ploughs into the crowd that has encircled him. There's a lot cheering, there's a lot of videos being made and everyone appears to be having fun, until the police move in and stop all the action. Spoilsports or saviours?
A few days later the organisers put up a post on their Instagram account announcing they are suspending the monthly gathering for two months in order to: "restructure and build a safer and more controlled event in partnership with the Houston Police Department."
They make very clear why this has happened: "We will be making drastic changes to ban the types of cars and people who continue to affect the event in this negative way so that we can stay true to our roots and cater only to those truly passionate about amazing machines and that conduct themselves appropriately without breaking rules and putting others in harms way."
Been there, done that, threw away the T-Shirt and hung up my megaphone long ago. This episode struck a chord because years ago I used to organise car meets in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. We started with 25 cars at a Jumeirah Fat Burgers in January 2011, growing organically to well over 1,000 vehicles in our penultimate meet in September 2012 in Festival City, bringing the entire shopping and leisure area pretty much to halt. It was totally awesome.
Yet, after our final event in March 2013 we decided to call it a day and stopped doing car meets. Why? Well, partly because we sh*t ourselves. Frequently. You see, it's all a laugh until it isn't.
We started these meets to encourage owners of cool rides to get together and hang out with like-minded passionate petrolheads. With such diverse communities living and working in the UAE, car culture is a great unifier and leveller. At such an event you could have royalty rocking up in a Rolls and parking next to a pimped out Toyota Corolla with scissor doors and sticker-bombed fenders. Car meets can be a great democratiser (yes, the irony of using that word in following up mentions of aristocracy is not lost), and for a while it was wonderful.
When our events were small and informal, where people just drove in, parked up and sorted themselves out, they were truly enjoyable. As they grew bigger, they had to be organised, monitored, supervised, controlled… they became work, hard work, serious work. They became a pain in the tailpipe.
They were nerve-wracking too. Revving engines was okay to an extent, but anyone driving too quick, or worst, attempting to do burnouts and donuts, had to be confronted and turfed out quickly. That's not easy in a society where many feel overly entitled. Once a colleague stopped an Emirati from bringing his car into an event because it was full: "you can't stop me from coming in, it's MY country!" he roared. To which the exasperated response was, "yes, but it's OUR event." Another event marshal had to step in and calm things down.
During most events we would be stressed throughout, then we’d go home and crash into bed so grateful that we had got through the day without any major mishap. Even a minor accident in the UAE requires a police report, anything major could easily have dire consequences for us as the organisers. We were delighted that our events attracted families, but that did mean there would always be children running around. The thought of an overexcited teenager in a Shelby Mustang letting rip and taking out a toddler on my watch, would be the reason I’d sometimes be bleary-eyed at the meets. I hadn’t slept for worry.
That record-breaking 12th meet appeared to be a massive success. It was even covered on local TV and gained huge exposure for our us and our brand. All good then? No, not at all. We had been overwhelmed with more than twice the number of vehicles we had expected. Officials only later confirmed it was over a thousand cars. We didn't have enough marshals and no safety protocols in place. If there had been any kind of emergency, we’d have run to the airport and jumped on the next flight to anywhere.
The police turned up due to the traffic chaos we'd caused. At that point it could've been game-over for us. Fortunately, and let me write this very loudly and clearly: DUBAI POLICE ARE THE BEST! (I might go back some time, you know). Honestly though, joking aside, a lot of the Dubai cops are car and bike people themselves, some of whom had attended our events. So instead of arresting our asses, they mucked in and helped out with coordinating traffic and channelling cars safely in and out.
Afterwards we took a breather. Everyone wanted us to stage another meet. We weren’t so sure. The risks were too high, the dangers too great. Giving in, we decided that if we were to do it, it would have to be done right. So we rented a large secure space; controlled entry and exit points; arranged for lighting, temporary toilets, rescue services on standby, as well as food and beverage suppliers. We had over two dozen volunteer marshals and even hired a handful of professional security to deal with any trouble. Finally we insisted that everyone register online so we could control the attendance and scale it down. Of course to do all this, we had to have sponsors.
It all went exactly as planned and worked out perfectly. Except it didn’t. Not really. Asking people to register put some people off. Many turned up without doing so and were turned away. This annoyed them further, and some commandeered a nearby car park and decided to have their own separate event, where cars did get a bit lairy because there was no one to control them. Meanwhile as organisers, the event became more about keeping sponsors happy than the car owners and attendees.
So it went from being an easy-going monthly get together to an event that consumed six weeks of our time and energy, as well as tons of investment, to actually make happen. We weren’t eccentric millionaires, and nor were we stupid, okay well not entirely stupid. So we had to ask ourselves – why are we doing these again? There had been one benefit to our success – a lot of copy-cat meets had started up. Not only were we flattered but relieved. We could just go hang out at their events instead from now on.
Never say never: with the right resources it would be tempting to do another event, but I do now have immense respect and appreciation for all those organising such things who, in most cases, have put in all their own time, effort and energy to create an event for other people to come and enjoy for free.
So in an era of burgeoning anti-car sentiment, don’t give authorities justification to ban car culture completely. When you go to a car event, the least you can do is abide by the rules and requirements; follow instructions; don’t get confrontational or drive dangerously even when technically outside or nearby the event (as it still reflects badly on the event itself); and certainly don’t complain (or threaten legal action) about people taking and posting photos of your hot-looking wife on social media, especially after you got her to drive to a car meet (packed with dudes with cameras) in a convertible supercar with the top down – oh yes, THAT happened. Sheesh. Common sense, people!
How not to do it
The worst carnage at car meets came, of course, not at Houston Cars & Coffee, but in a series of increasingly unfortunate events that began with some street racing in Los Angeles. These were captured in The Fast and the Furious documentaries, which you can now order in a sexy box set right here.