A line of sleek sports cars pulls into a small parking lot outside of a Los Santos Customs garage. The drivers get out, take photos, and boast about their cars. This is the beginning of a car meet, a type of event enjoyed by thousands of GTA Online gearheads who love racing, customising and showing off in-game hot rods.
This particular meet unfolds with things you might expect, like joy rides and pit stops, but because this is GTA Online, there's some shooting, too. Even the police get involved.
My guide for the day is SwiftlyEpic, a young man from the UK and a member of the "AMS Tuning" crew. He is also the host of the car meet, meaning he decides the theme and meeting spot. Usually, the mandate is to let people show off their cars, no matter how expensive, in different areas around the city.
Walking around, I saw a wide array of vehicles: a neon whip with garish blue rims, a light blue classic roadster, an all-white GTR look-alike, to name a few. Some were heavily modded, meaning that some players spent thousands of in-game dollars just to get their car ready for the event.
While real-world brands don't exist in GTA Online, Rockstar has recreated specific cars so well that players often refer to vehicles by their real-life equivalent. In this case, the theme is "Nissan GTRs," meaning that players have to cruise in with cars that seem straight out of the Fast And Furious franchise. Beyond the popularity of the movies, Rockstar has given out the Elegy RH8, a two-door sports car, for free. The Elegy has become a fan favourite thanks to the price tag, and a the fact it is highly moddable.
Source: GTA Forums
It's no surprise that car culture is so prevalent within the GTA Online community: the game includes over 300 vehicles. There are even giant dump trucks and a batmobile to collect, not to mention whatever cars get added in new updates.
As such, accruing a car collection has become of the main reasons players grind for money in-game. Some of the best cars in the game cost over a million dollars, even before spending thousands on upgrading them or buying specialised storage. Some GTA fans will even create video tours of their large garages, and these clips are watched hundreds of thousands of times.
More hardcore players will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on advanced customisation for engine improvements, new body kits, and suspension alterations.
These particular car meets aren't always sleek and serious, though. Once, AMS Tuners were tasked with showing off their slowest car. Another time, a typo dictated the rules of the meet: the host wanted to limit cars to two doors, but he accidentally typed 20 doors into the invite instead. Everyone brought buses.The crew has even done non-car meets with boats, helis and motorcycles, depending on the mood.
A "car meet" where helicopters and motorcycles were allowed.
At this car meet, all of the GTRs are lined up side by side. Each car has extensive mods and aftermarket parts, such as large racing spoilers and carbon fibre hoods. There's an element of roleplaying to these proceedings: while the actual engine textures don't change when you modify them, many players have their hoods open anyway, to give the meet an authentic vibe.
As more players joined the festivities, Swiftly told me that we would all head to the airport. When I had arrived, rain enveloped everything, but by this point, the clouds were starting to part. Suddenly, I heard gunshots from behind the parking lot.
To my surprise, nobody around me seemed alarmed. Curious as to what was going on, and despite the possibility of a murderous player, I walked up to the commotion. There, I saw "ItsDeathfest" pouring lead into his car with a powerful sniper rifle.
According to Swiftly, shooting the middle of a car's tires is called "stancing," and players do it to lower the cars. Stancing is a real thing that people do outside of video games, largely for cosmetic reasons, though it doesn't usually involve shooting anything IRL. Then again, in GTA Online, stancing doesn't make tires fall off while you drive, either.
In any case, GTA Online lobbies are usually filled with gun toting maniacs, quick to shoot you and your friends. But during a car meet, bullets aren't necessarily a cause for concern. We are in a private crew lobby, after all. Car meets aren't conducted in public lobbies due to the likelihood of disruption, Swiftly said. "We would be like sitting ducks. Easy targets."
After everyone arrives at the meet-up spot, horns start blaring. The group is moving. Eventually the horns become deafening and we all hop into our GTRs and create a massive convoy.
To make sure these drives are clean and organised, the AMS Tuning crew has rules, such as "no aggressive crashing" to preserve the integrity of the fancy cars. If a player does something shitty, like blow up cars with an orbital cannon, they are kicked out and never allowed back in.
Even with these precautions, the biggest threat to the group is the in-game AI. "NPCs are the real problem," Swiftly said. "They just don't care about other cars." As we are talking about NPC drivers, a crew member ahead of me is side-swiped by a large semi.
"We believe in a conspiracy that [NPC drivers] are programmed [to drive into players aggressively] like that to make you spend more money [on fixing cars.]"
Sure enough, throughout the event, NPC cars crashed and bumped into crew members, even when the players were barely moving or were sitting completely still. Personally, I had to dodge NPCs who flew through a red light. Swiftly theorizes that driving twenty cars through small area might mess with the game somehow, but nobody knows for sure.
By this point, most hardcore GTA fans expect to contend with an out-of-whack AI.
After dodging NPCs and traffic jams, we arrive at our next destination, which is located beneath a bridge on the industrial side of Los Santos. This area seems smaller than the last, but everyone finds a spot. Here, Swiftly and ItsDeathfest told me that many of the members customise GTR-like-cars in real life, go to car shows, watch TV programs like Top Gear or play other car-focused games like Forza.
But for some members, getting to real car meets isn't easy. "In the UK, where I live, there aren't a lot of car meets around," Swiftly said. In GTA Online, however, players like Swiftly can own dozens of highly-tunable sports cars. Swiftly estimates he participated in over 100 virtual car meets last year alone.
A group photo
Back in the game, horns start blaring. We all know what it means. Usually, driving in GTA Online is nerve-wracking: you can be blown up or attacked at any moment. With that kind of environment, it's easy to forget how relaxing driving can actually be. Also, convoys make you feel like you're part of something bigger, as if you are a giant snake making its way across the city.
The feel changes depending on what part of the convoy you inhabit, too. Up front I felt like I was setting the pace for people behind me, but when I drove in the back, things felt more chill. I just had to make sure not to lose sight of the group.
Our next spot is a gas station convenience store. Many players go inside to buy drinks and snacks, just like they would in real life. And unlike most convenience store visits in GTA Online, nobody robs the place.
Making a pit stop at a convenience store. The player in the red hat is the founder of the AMS crew.
After the gas station, we meet up at the Los Santos golf course. At this point Swiftly cancels the GTR theme, so players can now appear with whatever they'd like, regardless of make, colour or model. The GTRs start to disappear.
While the crew has nearly 500 members, a smaller core of dedicated players attend every single meet-up, even though they happen nearly every other day. "You see someone's favourite car and instantly know who it is before their name pops up," Swiftly said.
As the new cars show up, Swiftly walks around and points out the regulars. "This guy over here has 7 Dukes, he loves them."
Swiftly then points to a jeep. "There used to be a glitch that let you take off the roll cage and stuff. So he never changes this jeep."
In the middle of the fray lies an old convertible. "He never changes this car," Swiftly said. "He has kept it this way since he bought it."
After everyone gets settled, they start to vote for their favourite car of the meet. GTA Online doesn't have this functionality, though, so players cast their ballot by standing on their top pick:
Someone accidentally punches me during the vote. A few moments later I received a text message in-game apologizing: "Sorry about hitting you! Accident!" At the end, the vote is tied between a shiny white supercar and a classic blue convertible.
To celebrate, players use firework launchers to shoot coloured explosions into the night sky. The meet isn't over, though: there's one last stop before the gathering ends. It's time to take these cars to the race track.
Everyone starts honking and we all head towards the long air strip in the desert. As we drive, the conversation steers towards Rockstar and the future of GTA Online. "We feel ignored," Swiftly said.
Players in AMS Tuning want more features, like the ability to sell cars to other players, auctions, and maybe even a built-in system for drag races or car meets. "Lower priced cars would be nice too!" Swiftly said.
Once at our destination, Swiftly and Deathfest09 park a car in the middle of the runway. Swiftly signals the start of a race with a salute gesture. The car horn is pressed three times and then Swiftly drops his hand from his head. The moment his hand goes down, players shoot down the track. The rules to the race are simple: first person to reach the end of the runway wins.
Despite ostensibly being a race, nobody is really concerned with counting seconds or keeping score. It's more a loose way of seeing how fast your car is compared to other players' rides.
The start point for the races. A police officer is blocking the drivers.
During this showdown, we noticed the familiar flashing lights and wailing siren of a cop car off in the distance. Turns out, someone had shot their car to "stance" it, and this set off GTA's 'wanted" system.
Fortunately, nobody got arrested: the offending player immediately called an NPC that gets rid of your wanted level in GTA Online. But while the danger was gone, the cops wouldn't actually leave the strip. One cop even walked slowly in front of the racers, putting the whole race on pause. Eventually, the cops did leave -- but not before crashing into the back of Swiftly's car.
"They can hit us, but we can't hit them," Swiftly said. "Of course."
After a few minutes, a few players leave. As the event winds down, Swiftly seems proud. "This was a good meet. Everyone was chill and we had a good number of players."
"I just love the freedom of GTA Online," Swiftly said.