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Citing a Need for Speed

CHP officers will show off racing vehicles at fund-raiser

July 24, 2002|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don't look now, but the California Highway Patrol officer who gave you a ticket for speeding on the freeway Tuesday might be the same fire-breathing drag truck driver revving his 1,300-horsepower engine in the lane next to you at the Saturday night drags in Palmdale.

The leather-clad rider rumbling along next to you on your Sunday motorcycle ride along Mulholland Highway in the Santa Monica Mountains might be the same 'cycle cop who busted your best friend for reckless road racing.

Their day jobs may be as traffic enforcement pros in uniform, but after hours, many of the same CHP officers are gearheads who enjoy the roar of a well-tuned V-8 or the challenge of a hot bike on a curvy road as much as you do.

Doubt it?

Then turn out Sunday at the Petersen Automotive Museum, when scores of CHP personnel show off their personal rides in a fund-raiser, sponsored by the Automobile Club of Southern California, for the CHP 11-99 Foundation.

The nonprofit organization was created 20 years ago to provide benefits for CHP personnel and their dependents or survivors during times of financial need.

Capt. Mick Rotondo, commander of the patrol's Visalia division, will be there with the 1966 Mustang he bought for $400 and turned into a show-winning replica of a rare Shelby GT 350 "Hertz" Mustang, doing all the work, except a few engine operations, on weekends in his home shop.

So will Gary Smith, a CHP sergeant from Murietta who has spent countless hours and nearly $100,000 of his own money building his fiberglass-bodied, tube-framed drag truck.

Smith, who spends much of his free time taking the truck to car shows and special events to promote the anti-drug and anti-street-racing programs he's involved with, said he fell in love with cars and drag racing as the 16-year-old son of an Illinois deputy sheriff.

His black truck, with a supercharged 1,300-horsepower engine that gulps alcohol by the gallon, is the realization of a dream.

"I swore I was going to be a drag racer one day," he said, recalling the times he would roar to the local track in his hot-rodded 1966 Volkswagen to watch the powerful drag cars rocket down the quarter-mile strip.

Smith said he sees nothing incongruous about spending the money he earns enforcing traffic laws and speed limits to build a race truck whose only purpose is speed.

Properly designed and built, a race car is loaded with safety devices, and properly used it is never raced on public streets, where laws apply and others could be endangered.

That's the message Smith tries to spread when he shows up at compact performance car shows and events with his truck, the CHP logo emblazoned on its doors, to talk about the benefits of organized drag racing versus illegal street racing.

Being a cop, he says, doesn't make him any less a car enthusiast.

Rotondo agrees. Creating the replica of the "rent-a-racer" Shelby GT that select Hertz car rental agencies carried infected him with a bug that led him to turn one of the last CHP Harley-Davidson patrol motorcycles into a custom chopper. He's now involved with two Mustang-restoring buddies in a project to create an exact replica of a 1966 Shelby GT Mustang.

Smith's truck and Rotondo's "Hertz Shelby" will be among the scores of show cars, hot rods, muscle cars, motorcycles and custom vehicles owned by CHP personnel and on display at the Petersen museum from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

The display also features a variety of CHP vehicles from television shows and movies and a selection of departmental vehicles. These include a 1955 Buick patrol car and one of the new low-profile 2002 Camaros the patrol is using in an effort to catch speeding truckers--and SUV and other passenger vehicle drivers--who often can evade citations by spotting regular-sized patrol vehicles from their elevated positions.

Admission is $10 and includes all of the museum's exhibits. Proceeds from the day will go to the CHP 11-99 Foundation.

The Petersen is at 6060 Wilshire Blvd. at Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles.

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