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Is a Place to Race the Solution?

July 04, 1999|VINCE KOWALICK

Street racing, unsanctioned automotive dueling on city streets that has long been a problem in the San Fernando Valley, has recently prompted law enforcement to undertake a number of preventive measures.

Despite police crackdowns--more than 300 tickets were issued at an illegal street race in Chatsworth in June--the contests continue. Some suggest that the racers be afforded a permanent local venue at which to test their mettle in a controlled environment. Racetracks at Pomona and Palmdale offer such "street legal" racing. But others argue that nothing will curb the dangerous urge.

VINCE KOWALICK asked area residents, including a police captain, a professional stock car driver and a former street racer, whether sanctioning drag racing would ease the problem.

RON SEBAN

Commanding officer, LAPD, Foothill Division

The Valley accommodates drag racing. The reason is that we have streets--San Fernando Road, Peoria Street and other ones--that are long and straight. But the streets are not made to accommodate high speeds. It's a dangerous activity. We've had people get killed. And one person getting killed is too many.

It's always going to be a problem, like prostitution or drugs, because it's just what people do. If you allow it to go unabated, the problem will get so you have several hundred kids racing until the wee hours of the morning. People say, "They're going to race someplace, why not let them race here?" But that's not a proactive way to address the problem.

For a lot of kids who have been arrested and have had their car impounded, or have been arrested for curfew, that has solved the problem. Parents take their car away or their insurance goes up. I know that from my personal experience as a kid. I got a few tickets and guess what? I stopped doing it.

We have a program with the National Hot Rod Assn. called "Operation Street Legal." We give "Get Out of Jail Free" cards to kids who we know are out there to race, but we give them to them before we catch them racing. It gives them free admission to race their cars against each other at Pomona Raceway [at L.A. County Fairgrounds]. Basically, it's open to any street-legal car, truck, van or motorcycle. They can earn points toward a track championship and they are given a paper that shows how fast they are going. They can race all day long.

Thinking back on my childhood days, I wish someone had done that with me.

KEITH SPANGLER

29, professional stock car driver, Chatsworth

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I started racing go-carts when I was 11 and I was always on the street. I almost got caught doing it. I'm sure everybody has gotten next to somebody sometime and revved their engine. There are people on the freeway going 120 mph.

I think giving racers a place to go is a good idea. If you don't, they're going to do it anyway, probably somewhere where it's not supervised and there is no safety equipment. If you could do it in a safe place, I don't see any problem with it.

But there would have to be safety [precautions]. They'd have to wear a helmet. They'd have to have a five-point safety harness in their car--two shoulder harnesses, two lap belts and one that goes through the legs. There would have to be some kind of supervision [and] an ambulance, like they have at the racetracks.

If they had a safe place like that, I think it would mean a lot less accidents. They stopped the racing over here on Plummer Street, but where do you think all the racers are going to go now? All they're doing is finding someplace else.

DAVID VOGEL

33; sales manager; Winnetka

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When I was younger, I used to cruise Van Nuys Boulevard and meet the guys who wanted to race. Then we'd pick another area and go do our racing at different wide-open roads. I had a really, really fast 1971 240-Z and I used to race it all over. The best races were always when a guy in a Mustang pulled up next to me at a light. That's how most street races get started.

You'd get away with it for an hour or so, and then the cops would show up and you'd move on to someplace else. I never got caught, but we always looked at that as part of the game.

If they could come up with a controlled atmosphere and work out the insurance issues, it would be good. But, realistically, it's not going to happen. That's the Catch-22. Giving people a place to race sounds better than letting them go out and become crazy maniacs on the street. But it would also take the fun out of it. Feasibly, it wouldn't work.

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