Vin Diesel’s “Furious 7” is poised to make $115 million at the box office this weekend, per the Hollywood Reporter, shattering April box office records. That’s an absurd amount of money, but what’s even more mind-blowing is that the captivating street-racing “Fast and the Furious” series has lasted nearly 14 years and is stronger than ever.
And still, one of the more surprising facts is how the multi-billion dollar franchise started: A magazine story.
Oh yes — good old print journalism is responsible for some of the flashiest, most action-packed movies of our time. You can give credit to Vibe magazine freelancer Kenneth Li, now the editor-in-chief at tech site Re/code. Back in May 1998, while working as a reporter for the New York Daily News, he was intrigued when he spotted the street-racing culture in Queens while visiting an auto shop. Growing up car-free in New York City, he had never seen anything like it.
“I was completely fascinated,” Li said. “It snowballed from there.”
Li wrote a story about the street-racing world for the Daily News, but pitched another, longer feature about the “underground” aspects to Vibe. It ended up being a compelling read focused on a racer named Rafael Estevez.
Estevez, a 30-year-old Dominican drag racer from Washington Heights, is considered an OG among a growing legion of young speed junkies terrorizing the back alleys, highways, and legal racetracks around New York City. The urban dragracing frenzy was started in the early ’90s by a tightly-knit crew of Asian-American boys in Southern California and is now hitting hard on the East Coast. The hundreds of kids who line New York hot spots like Francis Lewis Boulevard in Queens or the Fountain Avenue strip in Brooklyn every weekend are an urban polyglot of Puerto Rican, Dominican, Chinese, Filipino, Jamaican, Italian and other ethnicities who have one thing in common: They love hurtling metal, meat and rubber through the concrete jungle at dangerous velocities.
For the first time, Vibe dug the story out of the print archives this week and posted it online (where readers are immediately greeted with a video ad for “Furious 7”), so you can read the full article here. Back when it published, Universal Studios saw the potential and optioned it for a movie. About three years later, the first “Fast and the Furious” hit theaters, made $207 million worldwide and started an empire.
Next week, Vibe will publish a new piece involving Li. He says so far, he’s had much more attention for “Furious 7” than the other spin-offs. He guesses it’s because this film will commemorate the memory of Paul Walker, one of the movie’s stars who died in a car crash last spring.
Generally around the launch of the previous movies, Li says, he just hears from friends who still poke fun at him for not getting any residuals for the franchise. That’s right — even though the movies have grossed approximately $2.3 billion dollars worldwide, he hasn’t received compensation since his one-time payment when Universal optioned the movie. Li, involved in only the first film, says the amount was in the low six-figures, but “it wasn’t life changing.”
Still, it has to be pretty great to be the person who basically brought “The Fast and the Furious” to the public? Right?
“For the longest time, my friends blamed me for more cars in the street,” he jokes. “I didn’t invent cars, by the way!”