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Street Racing's a Way of Life and Death

Today's opening of the movie sequel '2 Fast 2 Furious' stokes fears of those who know the toll of a growing and illegal practice.

June 06, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

It's the dead of night on the industrial edge of Ontario, and the streets are abandoned. From the darkness, more than 100 pairs of headlights appear in the distance, a conga line of souped-up Nissan Sentras, Honda Civics and Acura Integras speeding this way.

With minutes, the screech of tires and acrid smell of burning rubber fill the air along Greystone Drive, a lonely straightaway paralleling the Pomona Freeway and now lined with a pumped-up crowd of cheering, beer-drinking spectators.

After being blown out in two races, Alfred Mendoza, 21, of Victorville veers off the impromptu racetrack in his 1993 red Integra. It's a deceptive hot- rod, with a Pizza Hut delivery sign planted on the roof and $7,000 in power-packed modifications under the hood.

"I want to race again.... It's just the adrenaline," said Mendoza, who has received four fix-it tickets and one $130 citation for racing over the past year. "And when the cops chase you, it's cool too."

This is the scene in Ontario and many other Southland cities every weekend. And police fear it's only going to get worse with today's release of the movie "2 Fast 2 Furious," the sequel to the hit film "The Fast and the Furious" about illicit car competitions on the streets of Los Angeles.

"The movie glorifies illegal street racing," said Ontario Officer Jeff Higbee, who heads the city's multi-agency street-racing task force. "It makes it look safe and it gets their adrenaline going, and it gets them psyched up to do it. They think they can go out and do it all night and nothing happens. Let me tell you from experience: Stuff does happen. People die in street races."

Southern California has been hit with a rash of fatal street races over the last few months, and police fear the death toll will creep higher now that the school year is ending and teenagers have the freedom to stay out late.

On Tuesday night, teenage drag racers collided on a street in Bell Gardens and one crashed into a boy playing basketball outside his house. The boy, who was killed, would have turned 16 on Wednesday.

On May 14, an 18-year-old high school student racing on an Ontario street died after crashing head-on into another car. The week before, a 21-year-old college student died in San Diego after he lost control of his vehicle and slammed into a tree -- at more than 100 mph.

Earlier in May, a 74-year-old Huntington Beach woman was killed when a racer swerved into oncoming traffic in Santa Ana and slammed into her car head-on. And days before, a 16-year-old Ramona girl died when she lost control of her car during a race and plunged down an embankment.

Cities in Southern California and across the nation have imposed harsh new penalties on street racers, as well as on spectators who come to cheer them on. Corona passed an ordinance in May that allows police to seize the cars of street racers. In October, San Diego made watching a street race illegal, and Los Angeles passed a law the same month stiffening penalties for spectators. Two months ago, San Diego gave police the authority to sell the vehicles of repeat offenders.

"We've had a couple of fatalities," said Corona Mayor Jeffrey Bennett. "They light up their tires and take off -- and lose control and kill themselves."

Teenagers racing fast cars is nothing new, in real life or on the silver screen. Street racers interviewed in the Inland Empire last week remember going to their first race with an uncle or older brother. And "American Graffiti," "Rebel Without a Cause" and many other films feature prominent racing scenes. But when "The Fast and the Furious" came out in the summer of 2001, police across the nation witnessed an alarming rise in racing.

The stunt racing in "The Fast and the Furious" and "2 Fast 2 Furious" appears to be far more extreme than almost anything that takes place on local roadways, but even the movie studio appeared concerned about copycats.

On the sequel's official Web site, a Universal Pictures disclaimer admonishes readers: "The motor vehicle action sequences depicted in this film are dangerous.... No attempts should be made to duplicate any action, driving or car play scenes herein portrayed."

But the same Web site boasts that the cars in the film topped 180 mph. It also tells readers that nitrous oxide can "safely double or even triple the horsepower of virtually any car."

Calls to a Universal spokeswoman were not returned.

In the Inland Empire, police trying to crack down on the roaming street racing cliques said it's a nearly impossible chore. When police break up a race, drivers just hit the accelerator and, using a buzzing network of cell phones, pick a new location.

On the night of May 30 in Ontario, more than two dozen officers in patrol cars, motorcycles and undercover units swarmed Ontario Mills Mall, a well-known gathering spot for street racers that attracts drivers from as far as Arizona and Oakland. Police pulled over dozens of cars, many with the telltale deep-throated chug of a modified exhaust pipe.

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