Street racing of automobiles has been an American tradition since the early 1950s and probably long before. It’s not hard to imagine the first owners of Model T Fords staring each other down as they ran their “Tin Lizzies” down the rutted roads of the early 20th century. But the hey-day of street racing was the “I Like Ike” era when kids in souped-up Chevys and Fords would race for car titles and teenage glory.
Today’s street racers are in many ways exactly like their grandparents who raced in the ‘50s. They are rebellious, high on horsepower and adrenaline, they feel indestructible, and they are influenced by Hollywood. Their grandparents were urged to rebel and race by such films as “East of Eden” and “The Wild One.” And today’s street racing boom followed the success of the 2001 movie “The Fast and the Furious.” Really, the only thing that’s ever changed in the long history of American street racing is the cars and the fashions worn by the participants.
Contemporary street racing is just as exciting for its devotees as it was for the ducktail and leather jacket generation. It’s all about the speed, the flash, the guts, the adrenaline, and the danger.
And as many communities have discovered, street racing can be extremely dangerous for the driver, the spectators, and innocent motorists and bystanders. Consider the following fatal incidents that have been linked to street racing:
• A drag race in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., ended in a fiery crash that killed four people and injured three others. The drivers of the cars involved did not know each other, but made a spontaneous decision to race. The victims were in their teens and twenties.
• On an early spring day in Munster, Ind., a young mother was getting ready to take her children home from a play date with friends. Suddenly she heard a loud noise. She called out for her six-year-old son, but it was too late. A drag race had claimed not only his life, but the lives of three others.
• A 23-year-old man drag racing at what police estimate to be speeds of more than 100 miles per hour was killed in a popular street racing spot in the Queens borough of New York City. Despite police efforts to patrol the area, reports say that up to 100 spectators could gather in minutes if word got out that a race was about to happen.
Drag racing can also be hazardous for law enforcement officers who attempt to stop it. In Boone County, Ky., a deputy sheriff suffered broken bones and head injuries after he deployed spike strips onto the road to stop a chase that began with a drag race. The cars that were racing went over the spikes and, while the deputy was removing them, he was hit by another car.
These are just a few of the tragic street racing incidents that have been reported nationwide. Street racing has become a serious problem for law enforcement. Many officers believe it’s getting worse, and they are working to find ways to crack down on street racing and offer safer alternatives to street racing enthusiasts.
Racing for Education
Sgt. Chuck Williams of the Phoenix Police Department is part of “Racing for Education,” one of the more successful local street racing interdiction programs. He credits its success, in part, to his own past, saying he knows first hand why street racing is so popular, and he believes he can use his experience to reach the kids. “I’m just like them,” he says. “I used to street race. This is kind of my penance. I used to run away from cops.”
Today, Williams has feet in both worlds. He is a cop, but he still drag races. Phoenix PD’s “Racing for Education” was launched with a worn-out patrol car, a 1989 Chevy Caprice. The car lived a second life after being recycled and rebuilt for racing.
Of course, it’s hard to get “The Fast and the Furious” generation excited about racing a car that was built when they were infants, no matter how souped up it is. In 2000, Williams took over the program with one of his first goals to replace the Caprice with something that would capture the imagination of young drivers. “We needed a better mouse trap to get their attention. Something that would say, ‘See, look at us. We’re cool too,’” he says.
The new car is named “Blackout,” and Williams says Blackout Racing is now the home of “the quickest and fastest multipurpose police cruiser on the planet.” Blackout is a 1995 Chevrolet Caprice four-door, retired police cruiser that is equipped with a 6.2-liter stroked LT4 engine that generates 520 horsepower.
Blackout Racing’s mission is to show young drivers how high-speed racing can be done safely and to show that racing can be fun as well as safe when done under the proper conditions.
Williams also goes out and meets with the kids. He then gives them the opportunity to meet on the track to race him or to settle their grudges with other kids. He says if they race against him he tells them that they have two options: “If I win, I get bragging rights. If I lose, you get bragging rights and a high five. Best of all, no one gets a ticket.”
Williams takes pride in relating to the kids. He tries to bridge the generation gap by showing them that he is not some “high and mighty” member of law enforcement. More importantly, he urges them to race on the track, not on the streets.
Racing for Education has raised more than $25,000 in donations. It has also received a lot of support from the Phoenix business community.
Williams says he has no statistical evidence that his program is a success. However, he speaks to more than 10,000 kids per year about the hazards of street racing. So he believes he is having an impact. “If I save one person, then it is a successful day,” he says.
In San Diego, street racing had been a serious problem for years and it soon reached epidemic proportions. Eventually, the local racing devotees got so out of control that the state’s Office of Public Safety approached the San Diego Police Department with an offer of a grant to establish a program to combat the problem. So in 2001, a full-time street racing unit dubbed “Dragnet” was established.
“We used non-traditional means of enforcement,” says Det. John Austin. “We did pretty much what the kids would not expect. We would go out and document an incident, and we might take action at that time. Or we would show up at a house of a young racer weeks or months later with an arrest warrant.”
At one location, the Dragnet team documented more than 2,000 cars in one night. “So we knew we had a big problem on our hands. In 2001, we had 16 fatalities and 31 serious injuries,” Austin says.
The Dragnet team decided to establish a multi-pronged approach of enforcement and education. The Dragnet officers addressed the kids, the teachers, the parents, and the media. They also tried an innovative approach of using the Internet.
“We contacted the Internet sites promoting local street racing activities and established moderated forums so that when forum members logged on, the first thing they saw was the cops. It gave them an opportunity to ask questions and get straight answers,” Austin explains.
The Dragnet team also trained other police officers, who spread their message and their methods to other departments. With the receipt of a second grant, more money was then devoted to training throughout the state. This training included hands-on visual training by experts on illegal modification of cars and how to do enforcement of street racing activities. “We look at training of street officers as a force multiplier. If they know what we know, and can look for it, it will have a bigger impact,” says Austin.