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Cops Are Behind Fast Teens

Uniformed officers hit the track in their squad cars against high-octane youths in efforts to slow drag-racing's deadly toll. They may win by losing.

June 06, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SONOMA, Calif. — Liz Miles remembers the first night she showed a cop the awesome power that lurks beneath the hood of her bright orange 1968 Chevrolet Camaro -- the 350-cubic-inch engine she rebuilt herself after school.

The cop was a Goober, street slang for some fool who runs with an automatic transmission, and the 17-year-old knew the contest was over before she even hit the accelerator. "I looked over at him -- through my illegally tinted windows -- and thought, 'There's no way you can catch me.' "

Pedal to the metal, she soared with the adrenaline rush of beating a black-and-white off the line -- watching that cherry-top recede in her rearview mirror as the groupies along the blacktop began to roar.

Fifteen breathless seconds later, Miles urged her muscle car across the finish line first, the hapless officer lagging half a dozen car lengths behind. After that the high school senior was hooked, a convert to a legal new venue for her high-velocity escapades: Not the winding back roads of the wine country, but a quarter-mile strip at the local speedway.

Every Wednesday night between May and November, the fast and furious of a new generation test their mettle against police normally out to squelch their adrenaline-amping fun. They take on uniformed officers in their own squad cars -- lights flashing, sirens blaring, no holds barred.

The dozen police agencies that comprise the "Top the Cops" program at Infineon Raceway, a short spin north of the Golden Gate Bridge, say there's a method to their apparent madness: Illicit street racing has moved from rural roads to crowded suburban thoroughfares, causing more accidents and imperiling bystanders.

From San Ysidro to Santa Rosa, the illegal duels rev into high gear each summer, when young drivers are more prone to mimic the antics of such movies as "2 Fast 2 Furious," due out today, the sequel to the 2001 summer hit about the supercharged world of L.A. street racing.

All this spring, California Highway Patrol officers statewide have been gearing up to thwart teens who want to match the unbridled action they see on the movie screen.

"We saw a rise in the racing after the first 'Fast and the Furious' came out and we expect another one with this movie," said CHP spokesman Max Hartley. "School is about to get out and we have a lot of kids with nothing but time on their hands. For us, this movie could not have been released at a worse time."

Plenty of young people own the same Hondas, Ford Mustangs and Acuras featured in the "Fast and Furious" movies, many with dangerous nitrous oxide added to boost performance.

"They see the stunts and they say, 'Wow, I can do that in my car,' " said Hartley. "They don't realize that these are movie sets with stunt drivers performing on closed streets. But we won't stand for it. When this movie comes out, we're going to be out there as well. And we're going to be aggressive."

Authorities recite a litany of grim statistics: In the last decade, more than 68,000 teenagers have died in auto crashes, making motor vehicle mishaps the leading cause of death for young adults nationwide, according to the Insurance Group for Highway Safety. The number of fatal crashes nationwide attributed to street racing rose to 135 in 2002, up from 72 the year before, federal statistics show.

From 2001 to 2002, the number of citations issued for street racing and "exhibition of speed" in California rose more than 10%, according to the CHP.

"These contests have been around as long as kids have souped up their cars," said Santa Rosa Police Officer Alan Schellerup. "But now there's more traffic, more people to get in the way. The cars weigh less but run so fast they can literally break apart upon impact. It makes drag racing a more fatal endeavor."

Communities have tried to battle the trend by passing laws to confiscate cars caught street racing. Even spectators can face $1,000 fines and six months in jail.

Top the Cops, along with a similar program in San Diego and "Beat the Heat" races in Texas and elsewhere, allows teenage drivers to test their limits in a structured setting where cars are checked by mechanics and seat belts are mandatory. So far the California races have been unmarred by crash or injury.

But there's another benefit: a bit of relaxed face-time between two groups usually pitted as sworn enemies.

"When they started racing, the kids called every cop a bad guy and officers figured every teen was a ticket waiting to happen," said Infineon manager Georgia Seipel. "Now there's less stereotyping on both sides."

Many cops are themselves car buffs, so the competition gets fierce. One veteran was caught breaking the rules--sneaking a set of racing tires onto his patrol car for extra speed. For many teens, the mere glimpse of a standard-issue police Ford Crown Victoria can be a menacing sight. But not out at the track.

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