When the first Fast and Furious movie was released, I was a 14-year-old in ruby-colored Roxy shorts who didn’t think about anything but Paul Walker, Blink-182, and surfing. I’d obviously never been surfing or even seen the Pacific Ocean, but I really identified with the laid-back SoCal beach vibes sold to me in the Alloy catalogs delivered to my suburban Philly home.

The closest I’d gotten to shredding the gnar was in the Pacific Sunwear in our local mall, where I felt at ease around hemp chokers and Hawaiian print shirts. My people, I thought, entering the store in a heavy coat, stuffing gloves into my pocket. When in doubt, paddle out.

Paul Walker was the ideal partner to my chill vibes lifestyle. He was the most beautiful man on planet earth: He had the vocal fry of a native Californian (Glendale—exotic), the tanned body and blond hair of a sun rat, and that smug popular-boy attitude that a girl like me—uncool, puffy, and anxious—found irresistible. His last role, as the cruel-hearted Dean Sampson in She’s All That had me practically swooning.

Cars were dead last on my list of things to care about—I didn’t bother to get my driver’s license until I was 18—but if Walker was in a film driving one, I’d be there, no questions asked. Going to see The Fast and the Furious, I told myself, would be an exercise in patience: car, car, car, HOT BOY, car, car, explosion, HOT BOY SHIRT OFF, car, fire, car.

Instead, together with a horde of my teenage friends at a theater near the mall, I sat transfixed. It wasn’t only that Paul Walker, California Bra of My Dreams, was beautiful. The movie was perfect, a deeply gratifying dopamine delivery of intense action, hyphy soundtrack, and exotic location (Los Angeles). It was a movie about cars, and you didn’t need to know a single thing about them to enjoy it. Like pouring a bag of Skittles down your throat, The Fast and the Furious was a youth-friendly sugar high worth the choking risk.

In retrospect it may have been more than the adrenaline and SoCal location that pulled me in. Though—or maybe because—The Fast and the Furious was a movie about a street-racing gang of ruffians, it placed a premium on loyalty, family, and acceptance, and it pulled off its (literal) family-values message without sacrificing a single close-up shot of Paul Walker’s baby blues in a crystal clear rearview mirror. While my preoccupation with surfing dictated that I covet no possessions but chillage and a hot-bodied man, I was unconsciously internalizing the movie’s value system: respect, loyalty, openness, work. By the 2003 release of 2 Fast 2 Furious—still without a driver’s license—I excitedly hitched a ride to the theater on the day that it came out.

In the 14 or so years since I first fell for Paul Walker, the Fast and Furious franchise has grossed over $2 billion dollars worldwide. The films are beloved by people of all stripes for their high-octane, over-the-top stunts, diverse and intensely loyal cast, the endlessly one-upped locations, and the rambunctious soundtrack choices.

In 2011, film critic Wesley Morris called the series a product of “accidental genius,” arguing that by blithely presenting a Utopian post-racial America without marketing to any particular audience, the then five-movie series was one that was casually unifying its disparate viewers. The diversity of the cast is never directly acknowledged and neither is race inequality; everything speeds by too fast for anyone to notice, which, as Morris put it, “distort[s] reality to create the illusion of revolution.” Several months after Fast Five came out, it was announced that there would not only be a sixth installment, but a seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth film as well. At the release of the seventh film this Friday, that so-called accidental genius will be put to its most extreme test yet, attempting to pull off another risky job without an essential and original member of its team. By penning “Fast Forward” in 2011, Morris squared a neat bookend onto the franchise, presciently writing the perfect final words on the Fast and Furious films not long before they would become permanently marked by tragedy.

I recently rewatched the first of the six films. There is a heart-stopping scene—before the audience learns that Walker’s character is not a street-racing vagabond but a cop—in which he and Vin Diesel race each other in an unspoken but electric moment in bonding. Walker drives so fast that a panel in the floor of his car explodes out, spitting nuts and bolts all over the pavement and emitting plumes of smoke from the hood. Watching this scene in 2015 is difficult. Two years ago, Walker died while riding in the passenger seat of a car that was pushing 100 miles per hour in a 45-mph speed zone, and I mourned him like I would have if he were a former flame. Walker’s death came during the filming of Furious 7, an obstacle director James Wan tackled by substituting in Walker’s brothers, Cody and Caleb, as his replacements and in post-production, a CGI stand-in. Walker had been in every FF movie but one (the criminally overlooked Tokyo Drift) and he would now torment the seventh movie as a ghost composite of himself.

In the second film, the locations had changed, new loyalties emerged, and more “family” members were brought into the fold. The top-bill pairing, Paul Walker (still in my heart as my future husband) and goofy everyman Tyrese Gibson, was more exciting than I could have hoped for. Ludacris, Devon Aoki, and Eva Mendes—the FF casts were always hodgepodge mixes of great-looking marginal actors playing car-obsessed geeks. And in a way that I couldn’t have articulated as a 16-year-old, they felt a great deal like my friend groups: a bunch of idiot chuckleheads looking for a little excitement in this world. I could turn my brain off and momentarily forget about fitting in with a cool crowd that demanded I subdue the parts of myself that were vastly interpreted as loser-y.

Tokyo Drift and Fast and Furious, films three and four, were released when I was 19 and 22. I finally had my driver’s license and drove a cherry red Ford Aspire, the exact same car that Deandra Reynolds buys on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. (You might be more familiar with its street name, The Crappiest Car You Can Imagine.) The “Ass-Fire,” as we called it behind its back, seemed to have been manufactured to not exceed 60 m.p.h., and in turn, I treated it like garbage. Inspired by the audacity of Bow Wow’s disgustingly over-the-top “Hulk” car from Tokyo Drift, I wasn’t careful about the Aspire’s longevity. I drove it to hell as if it were flashy and exciting, when really its only value was locomotion. On a beach vacation in my early 20s, when my friends and I had had too much to drink and were floating dangerously away with the currents, we would yell, “Tokyo drifffttttt! Everyone back to the sand! Tokyo driftttt!” That memory still hits me any time I’m tipsy in the ocean.

By Tokyo Drift’s release, I’d begun to feel more solidly accepted by the world. I had (mostly) shed the stigma of wanting to be cool, and was content with the people around me. I gave up the surfing gag, and my taste in men became slightly more adult: while my love for Walker would never—will never—fade, the allure of the pretty boy shifted into a taste for muscleman Vin, who returned in the final scene of Tokyo Drift with a coy smile and a race challenge in his Plymouth Road Runner. Vin wore tight tank tops and spoke with a deep, handsome voice, and when he showed up once more, I knew I would follow both Walker and Diesel dutifully into the fast, furious future.

A lot has been written about Vin Diesel’s love for Paul Walker, mostly by Vin Diesel himself. His Facebook page, which he refers to colloquially as Vinbook, is a fluid stream of Tumblr-aesthetic macros of inspirational quotes attributed to the actor, combined with low-grade Photoshops of Diesel wishing his fans a Happy New Year or affirming that he is “All Love.” In almost every photo, Diesel is grinning his toothy smile. The outpouring of grief from Walker’s costars after his death was, and continues to be, enormous, but Diesel, a social media mastermind, tops them all. More than half the images Diesel posted after Walker’s death are of the pair together. He affectionately refers to the deceased actor as his brother, Pablo. Last week it was announced that Diesel named his newborn daughter Pauline.

Could all of this public gesturing really be genuine? There is nothing surprising about an actor as well-known as Diesel attempting to tackle social media in order to “connect to his fans.” But Diesel—who in size and rumbling voice is as close to a cartoon character as any working action star besides maybe The Rock—has actually managed to humanize himself to thousands of people who would never otherwise have been interested. Besides his Fast and Furious credits, Diesel is not often enough on the press circuit for anyone to really care about what he is up to, and yet his Facebook is nearing 90 million loyal followers.

He rarely posts photos of lavish celebrity life (cars, watches, private jets). He doesn’t share many photos of his young children or his hot wife (whom he refers to as The Mayan Queen). He instead, perhaps unwittingly, turned himself into a shareable meme, a destiny he was bound for the minute he adopted Vin Diesel as his name. The simplicity in Diesel’s social media presence is that he is self-aware in what he is promoting: the church of Vin Diesel, and occasionally the prayer groups of those he holds dear. It was telling when a video of Diesel singing Rihanna’s “Stay” seemingly alone at a karaoke bar went viral; he responded by recording more of the same, and obliged karaoke requests during junkets for his other films. For a jacked-up tough guy with a gravelly bad boy voice, he appears to be living his happiest life, albeit one he must now face without his brother in arms. If there were any Diesel detractors out there, Vin seems like the kind of guy who would be oblivious to them.

This somewhat off-kilter, fan-driven personality is a necessary function to the popularity of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Dominic Toretto is a family man: devoted, loyal, protective. He never flinches in the face of trouble. In the first film, he tells Walker’s character Brian O’Conner that if he breaks his sister Mia’s (played by Jordana Brewster) heart, he’d break his neck. To sustain the character over the course of six films and more than a decade of fan obsession, there has to be some bleed between Vin and Dom. The way Diesel publicly and frequently declares his love for his costars in real life, it seems likely he’d say the same to their new flings. Diesel is the series’ foremost advocate and, as of the fourth installment, one of the franchises’s head producers. He is, like Walker, the only actor in the ensemble cast to appear in all but one of the films, and without him, the series would surely have extinguished long ago.

But the Fast and Furious franchise has continued triumphantly, in large part due to Diesel’s goofy accessibility. The famous rich actor who releases karaoke videos, the tough-guy movie star who cries openly and publicly about his dead best friend—Diesel’s ability to blend lavish high and relatable low is exactly what makes the franchise so successful. Fast and Furious movies mix intense super-reality with down-home regular guy stuff; they present a vivid race-blind Utopia while mourning the loss of their lead golden white boy; they invade the slums of Rio and promote the monied nightlife of Tokyo. The movies are categorically unreal on every single level (for Furious 7, stunt drivers dropped actual cars out of an airplane), but the immediacy and recognizability of the cast—and the longevity of the relationships between the characters and actors—somehow turns the outlandish stunts and plots possible, commonplace, the work of a group of normal people who, together, become extraordinary. Vin Diesel just happens to be in the driver’s seat.

Ten years after I first fell head over heels for The Fast and the Furious, I was in the living room of an apartment in a country very far away from Philadelphia. A mattress draped with a yellow sheet was pulled onto a linoleum floor. Two women, close friends of mine, sat on it with a sleeve of crumbly cookies between them. Next to me, on a scratchy orange couch, was another female friend, and the four of us, with the lights off, were laughing through the outrageous lines in Fast Five together.

In our year away together, we watched each of the movies in the empty discomfort of my apartment. The humor, the excitement, the intensity—the goofy, stupid Americanness—of the franchise helped us all stave off homesickness. That night, it was nearing the sixth or seventh time we’d run through this particular disc, which we’d bought bootleg from a DVD stall in the nearby shopping mall. Somehow, it never grew old. When Toretto consults O’Conner about their latest heist, we collectively squealed with anticipation when O’Conner tells him, “Then we’re gonna need a team.”

While other celebrities find social media adds a manipulative layer of value to their power, there isn’t that degree of limitation with the cast of the Fast and the Furious films. In photos of the series’ stars, you get the the feeling that the characters who are so loyal to each other on film are equally as devoted off screen. Inside or outside the press cycle, the ever-changing members of the FF cast generally appear to be real friends. Tyrese, Vin Diesel, The Rock, Gal Gadot, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris, everyone. They constantly and unwaveringly reinforce their support for each other, expressing the loyalty of a real family (even using the hashtag #FastFamily). We believe them because the film’s characters are bullshitters, cronies, jokers, loyal confidantes, thrill-seekers. Just like us and our friends.

In the trailer for the seventh movie, Dom tells the latest supervillain, “I don’t have friends. I got family.” The shot almost immediately cuts to an image of Brian. Disregard the cars being dropped out of planes, The Rock ripping a plaster cast from his arm, a bus nearly collapsing off a cliff. This hokey mise-en-scène reveals the beating heart of the franchise: The relationships. The family. And when we watch them tackle even riskier jobs with each new film in the series, we become part of that family, as well.

The #FastFamily is the apex of #SquadGoals: they love each other, they stick together, and, unafraid, they launch cars off of bridges, into trains, and parachute down from the sky, all while wearing dirty t-shirts and Vans, sharing a few Coronas to celebrate victory. It’s only ever barely addressed in the FF series how a bunch of mechanics and petty car thieves wield the skills to unseat evil leaders and lawless mobs in any number of foreign countries. You don’t need to be a super-trained martial-arts expert to save the world. The team is all of us, if we could just get behind the wheel of a fast enough car.

Image via Furious 7/Tara Jacoby. Contact the author at dayna.evans@gawker.com.