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Youths Seek Deadly Rush on State's Rural Roads

Drag racing: Despite its dangers, it remains a rite of passage, aided now with high-tech trappings.

April 14, 2002|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRESNO — Like generations of Central Valley youth before them, they had come to a lonely road in the middle of farm country looking for a shot of adrenaline. It was past midnight, the cops nowhere to be found, and two tricked-out cars, engines revving, squared off at the starting line.

A crowd of 300 teens and young adults packed the flat two-lane road that cleaved a wheat field and an almond orchard. Sitting on lawn chairs and munching fast food, they craned their necks to get a better look.

But the big race on this Saturday night in late March never took place.

Instead, according to police and witnesses, a third car happened to be heading up the same straightaway. The driver, numbed by beer and blinded by headlights, sideswiped one of the race cars and then plowed into a cluster of spectators, killing two teenagers and injuring five others.

By the time the hospital helicopter touched down in the field 15 miles outside Fresno, the crowd had disappeared into the warm spring night. But the racers and their fans would be back soon enough, police said, if not on this stretch of rural road, then surely another.

From the farm fields of the San Joaquin Valley, where daring to race beneath the stars is viewed as almost a rite of passage, to the streets of San Diego, where speed demons talk in muscle-car lingo and mimic characters from the movie "The Fast and the Furious," youths in California are dying in illegal drag races.

In the last five months, at least eight teenagers and young adults have been killed and nearly two dozen injured while drag racing on California streets and rural lanes.

Last November, on a narrow road in Merced, three seniors at Golden Valley High School died while racing a schoolmate. The two cars were going 100 mph when they collided side-by-side and crashed into an almond orchard, one car exploding into flames and the other shearing in half.

In January, two young men in San Diego were killed in a similar race. Last month, a drag racer in Oceanside died after crashing into a palm tree. And just this month, two junior college students were killed and six others injured when a group of young men and women challenged one another to a race on a residential road in Chula Vista. One of the two souped-up Japanese imports was going 115 mph.

"This is a statewide problem," said Fresno-based California Highway Patrol Officer Axel Reyes. "It's a big problem in Sacramento and San Diego, and we're having our share in Fresno, too. We know where they are and what they're doing, but it's hard to catch them in the act. They've got police scanners and lookouts, and how do you sneak up on so many people gathered at 2 in the morning on a country road?

"I can't tell you how many times I've come across them a little too late. I'll see 50 to 100 cars passing me the other way. What can you do?"

Nine Arrested in Last Week's Raid

San Diego is using a $400,000 state grant to create an anti-drag-racing campaign that includes undercover investigations and public service announcements warning of the dangers. Last week, police there arrested nine people and impounded their cars during a Friday night raid on a suspected illegal drag race location. More than 150 spectators had gone to the site.

There is no such crackdown planned in the San Joaquin Valley, though the CHP is looking for ways to add to its graveyard shift of five units patrolling all of Fresno County. Three years ago, about 300 teens and young adults, some from as far away as Los Angeles and Arizona, were caught by Fresno police at a popular drag-racing spot on the outskirts of town. More than 100 cars were cited for illegal smog systems and exhaust pipes.

"We're talking about another big operation, but it comes down to funding and personnel," Reyes said.

It's tempting for parents to believe that kids in this forever farm belt, looking for ways to spice up life, are simply following a tradition no different than dragging the Main. This is, after all, the valley that inspired the movie "American Graffiti," George Lucas' tribute to bored teens, cruising and street racing.

After decades of population boom, the towns along California 99 stand more urban than hick. Even so, illegal drag racing remains a popular way for youths to cap off a weekend night, much as it still does in the industrial stretches of the San Fernando Valley and Orange County.

But though police say it's impossible to measure whether kids are racing more today, these hot rods are different from the big Chevys, Plymouths and Pontiacs that used to burn rubber through the fig orchards of north Fresno. These machines--Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans and a dwindling number of American muscle cars that remain popular with purists--have been rebuilt with special exhaust systems and fuel tanks that turbocharge the engine.

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