Tony Foti is a weekend drag racer who carries a gun on his day job--investigating crime as a detective in the Los Angeles Police Department's Devonshire Division.
Foti drives the LAPD Racing Team Pro-Modified Camaro, a 1,200-horsepower drag racer that reaches speeds of more than 170 m.p.h. in a quarter-mile.
With a fiberglass body styled after a Camaro, Foti's race car has the shape and look of a street car. Or, more accurately, a police car, thanks to the LAPD black-and-white paint scheme and the police light bar on the roof.
The roof lights are a gimmick to attract attention and entertain the crowds. In the staging lane, lined up for the start, Foti turns on the red-and-blue flashers when both cars are ready to go. He usually gets applause.
There was even more applause when he won his exhibition race last week at the National Hot Rod Assn. Winternationals at the Los Angeles County Fairplex in Pomona. Foti, a Simi Valley resident, turned a 7.69-second time and 175 m.p.h. against his opponents' 8:40 and 165.
"What makes Tony and his car popular is that it's a real race car, not some kind of facsimile," said Mike Lewis, the NHRA's field director.
For Foti, 43, driving a race car with the LAPD colors is payoff in itself, win or lose.
"It's a complete dream-fulfillment," Foti said, "to have a real race car, one that's professionally transported to the track, and run it at really serious speeds."
Beyond the satisfaction of racing is the reward derived from delivering a positive message to teen-agers at the track. The LAPD Racing Team, which has LAPD approval but no department funding, is part of the DARE anti-drug campaign, for which Foti is a highly visible spokesman.
"We set up booths at races where I talk to kids about the DARE program," he said, "and about getting organized racing on the strip."
Foti knows about street racers. He used to be one.
Raised in Reseda, where he moved with his family from New York in 1955, Foti bought a big-block 1970 Chevrolet Nova after high school. The Nova was a potent performer and Foti used it to compete for money in illegal street races in the Valley.
"When I joined the police force I knew I had to give up street racing," said Foti, a 22-year LAPD veteran, "and I couldn't really keep up the effort of running a competitive car on the track."
Competing on the professional drag circuit as a cop in an imitation police car has won Foti sponsorship in a sport where sponsorship is nearly everything. He found that suppliers and car-and-engine builders were easily sold on the idea of sponsoring a cop in a vehicle that looked like a police car.
"The beauty of the LAPD drag-racing program is that it doesn't matter whether the car wins or not," said Tom Alston of Sacramento, who sponsored Foti's first police race car. "He gets the attention and crowd enjoyment just by showing up, turning on the light bar and running."
The light bar relegates Foti primarily to exhibition races in the West.
The light bar, however, is an important part of the car's image, and an undeniable source of its popularity with fans. Since Foti started the LAPD racing team in 1985, other police officers and departments have taken to the track.
In October at the NHRA Winston Select Finals at Pomona, Foti drove against police race cars from Illinois, Texas, New Jersey and Nevada in a special Stop the Violence Program competition.
Foti won. The next weekend, he won the SuperCop Shootout--a national event dedicated to combatting drunken and drug-impaired driving--that drew 71 police drag-racing team entries in Las Vegas.
"Tony's racing program is terrific for the department and for our Devonshire Division," said Devonshire Division Capt. Vance Proctor.
"At our station open house, his race car is one of the things people flock to see. It gives us that opportunity to show ourselves as human beings with interests and hobbies, outside the traditional image of the police officer."
Foti, who picked up sponsorship from Chevrolet in 1990, recently acquired a second race car to run in the Super Pro class. The new car is a '95 Chevrolet Beretta donated by a Texan who saw Foti's driving and anti-drug program activity at a Bakersfield drag race.
"It's really a thrill to launch a 1,200-horsepower race car," Foti said.
"'The excitement and the rush of racing a car that fast is what makes my normal 8-to-5 job bearable."