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Some Saudis play daring game of pedal to the metal

The Ford Mustang paused at the corner, as if to catch its breath, then plunged forward, wheels screeching, toward the crowd. Three dozen onlookers dived for the sidewalk, but the Mustang swerved and spun crazily down the highway, then skidded to a stop. A red Mercedes at full speed roared past just inches from its bumper, and the Mustang's driver bent back over the wheel and hit the accelerator again, his red head scarf flapping out the window.

A thick haze of burnt rubber descended over the crowd. Thousands of Saudis packed along the Dammam Coastal Road roared their approval.

The occasion? Dammam's soccer team beat Jeddah's Thursday night 2-1 in overtime. The Eastern Province took the national Federation Cup. And in a conservative Moslem country where public entertainments of any kind are normally forbidden, Saudi Arabia's own version of soccer hooligans took to the streets.

Only in a country where gasoline costs 53 cents a gallon and cars still come big, loud and mean do public celebrations take the form of automotive gladiator displays.

Saudi Arabia may adore its soccer players, but its real heroes are clearly the tawfeet _ "those who spin the wheel very fast," one onlooker translated. They are madcap stunt drivers who make a public display of propelling their vehicles backward, forward, sideways and in combinations thereof at unnerving rates of speed past thousands of cheering, soccer-thirsty Saudis at tournament time.

"It's dangerous," admitted a weary-looking police officer surveying the spectacle. "But what can we do? This is the life."

Nights in Dammam, or anywhere else in Saudi Arabia, aren't ordinarily like this. For most Saudis, a night on the town means driving over to a friend's house for a cup of tea and a game of cards.

There are no cinemas, no bars, no discotheques. Saudis have an aversion to public displays of any kind, and this limits most discourse on the streets to quiet embraces and hushed conversations.

On Thursday, the sound of screeching tires, roaring motors and wild applause could be heard from the Persian Gulf all the way into downtown Dammam. A large brown pickup truck careened down the Coastal Road and almost plowed into the crowd, its bed full of Saudis with their red-and-white checked ghutras wrapped around their faces, Bedouin-style.

One of them waved a huge wrench in the air as the truck sped out of sight. A Toyota picked up speed behind it, a toddler in the back seat holding to the window for dear life. A woman's black veil streamed out on the passenger side.

"It's because, you know, football (soccer) is the most important game in Saudi Arabia," an onlooker explained. "Nobody here doesn't play. Each one in Saudi Arabia has to play, or he's not a man."

"In these kinds of occasions, people are a little violent," admitted Saad Mofarreh, who runs an Arabic translation service. "Because most of us are under pressure, a lot of pressure, either social pressure or many kinds of pressure. These kinds of events help you lose it. Even if it's scary, I like it. I hate dull life. I like action."

Ali Fouzan, a schoolteacher, said: "I think this is _ what they call it _ power. Power. They want to do something. They keep something inside, and they want to show it, by the cars, by the speed, by the crowd."

The tawfeet have become fixtures at soccer celebrations all over the country, increasingly worrying law enforcement officials who have to haul victims to the hospitals in the aftermath.

It became worse when the tawfeet began showing up during the Moslem holy month of Ramadan, staging what the locals call the "Death Race" south of the causeway to Bahrain in which two cars approach each other head-on at top speed.

"The winner will be the last person to pull out," Mofarreh explained. "Many people died."

Recently a new law was passed making stunt driving an offense punishable by three days in jail and a public lashing _ not that it has stopped anyone.

A local newspaper editor was making his way through the crowd Thursday night, photographing the spectators and shaking his head in disgust.

A whoop rose from the crowd as a Toyota pickup and an aging Chevrolet Nova started chasing each other in a crazy circle, inching closer to the spectators who by now were swarming across the street. The Toyota suddenly broke away and sped off, and a panicked scream rose from the crowd as the brown pickup with the mad Bedouins came roaring back, veering dangerously toward the curb.

"It is crazy, and soon the police will come," remarked a young man who said his name was Rayed. "The police catch them, they go to jail. But the people here, they love it. Everyone has a friend who knows how to do it, or he himself does it, because here, everyone has to have a car. All your friends are in all parts of the city, and gasoline is cheap. Why not? People come, and we see who is the good driver."

Abdul Rahman, a young businessman, commented: "Sometimes, you have to feel like a child. Our society is very reserved _ in what you wear, what you do, how you behave in the streets. On an occasion like this, everyone will feel free. Do you understand?"