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Crackup for Street Racers

June 11, 2003

By half past midnight, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel had just about given up on finding any illegal street races. That's when the cop she was riding with told her to roll down her window. From across sleeping San Fernando Valley neighborhoods came the rev of engines and the roar of hundreds of spectators.

A squadron of city and state police sealed off the streets, arrested nine people and impounded 92 cars. But what struck Greuel most about that year-ago raid was how the young men and women waited for their cars to be towed as if they were standing in line for an In-N-Out Burger. It was no big deal, and no wonder: All but three of the 92 cars were back on the streets within 24 hours.

Southern Californians lucky enough not to live near roads-turned-racetracks are like Greuel before she rolled down her window: Illegal racing is out of earshot and invisible, no more real than the plot of a summer blockbuster movie. In truth, this car-culture center has long been a hub of illegal racing.

The hit movie that led the box office last weekend portrays street racing as all flashy cars and flashier babes, delighting its mostly young, mostly male audiences and vexing the cops. In reality, street races have cost five lives across Southern California in the last six weeks alone, including those of a 74-year-old Huntington Beach woman killed when a racer in Santa Ana swerved into oncoming traffic and a 15-year-old playing basketball outside his house in Bell Gardens who died after teenage drag racers smashed into him. He would have been 16 -- old enough to drive -- the next day.

Some races start spontaneously. Arranged races like the one Greuel saw draw hordes. With spotters and cell phones, crowds can dissolve in an instant, only to regather at another prearranged site. For police to find them takes stealth and planning -- and time away from other duties.

Police and youth groups offer the carrot of racing on real tracks with audiences, prizes and supervision. But discouraging this decades-old practice cries out for a big stick as well, and Greuel came up with one. On Tuesday, the City Council passed an ordinance that would allow cops to confiscate rather than merely impound cars used to race illegally. Owners will have 10 days to appeal, but there will be no more quick in and out. That, Greuel figures, should get their attention.

People who think that these are just kids out having a good time have their windows rolled up -- or are living in a Hollywood movie.

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