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They're Off the Streets, on the Track

June 13, 2003|SHAV GLICK

It sounds foolish to say that things haven't changed in the last 50 years, yet in some ways they haven't.

When Wally Parks and friends formed what became the National Hot Rod Assn. in 1951, one of their objectives was to get street-racing teenagers off the streets and into a controlled environment where they could express their need for speed and bragging rights without endangering their lives and the lives of others.

It is still a major concern of the NHRA, particularly with the release last week of the movie "2 Fast 2 Furious," which glamorizes illegal racing with scenes of hot babes and hotter cars careening down dark highways -- always on the lookout for the cops.

"Kids everywhere are aware of the movie, so what we are trying to do is make them aware of the alternative, the safe one at our supervised drag strips," said Tom Compton, NHRA president. "We have about 140 tracks, like Irwindale, California Speedway and Palmdale, where kids of all ages can put their street-legal cars to the test, either against the clock or against one another in grudge races."

Pomona Police Chief Ralph Parker was one of the strongest supporters of the fledgling NHRA when it was formed, helping conduct its first race on the L.A. County Fairgrounds in 1953.

Today, police departments throughout the country are supporting street-legal competition on drag strips in their communities. One of the more popular side-by-side races is a young hot rodder against an officer in a police car.

Locally, there are races every Thursday night at Irwindale Speedway, Saturday evenings through August at California Speedway in Fontana, Wednesday and Friday nights at L.A. County Raceway in Palmdale and on intermittent dates at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, depending on when the Padres are out of town.

"We continue to get feedback from law enforcement that a night program works to lessen the illegal street racing activity in the area," said Bill Miller, California Speedway president. "We appreciate the efforts of San Bernardino County officials in working with us on this project."

When Irwindale opened its eighth-mile track two years ago, officials anticipated a rush of drivers but more surprising has been the turnout of spectators.

"When the gates open at 4, there's something of a 'land rush' over to the spectator fence by all the pickups and vans," said Gene Bergstrom, Irwindale drag strip director. "We have fans that are at the races every Thursday, like clockwork. They get dinner from our concessions, they cheer every run and they can't think about being anyplace else on Thursday nights. On warm nights, we get as many as 1,500 spectators.

"We try and make it fun for the racers too. We'll show new drivers how to race. Everyone appreciates a good reaction time, whatever the type of vehicle. Our price, $20 for a minimum of three runs, is a fair one. It's certainly far less than the cost of a traffic ticket, or getting a car impounded. Or worse."

When Los Angeles area police arrest drivers in apparent street-racing acts, part of the offenders' probation is attending what they call Drag Racing 101 at Irwindale. Officers from 20-25 San Gabriel valley communities hand out slips good for a night's racing to young would-be street racers.

"The way we look at it, every kid racing on a drag strip is one less kid racing on the street," Compton said. "When the police are involved as friends and not adversaries, it helps everyone."

What it usually comes down to is, can the red Camaro beat the blue Mustang, heads up, and nowhere can it be done better than on a supervised track where the outcome is settled by timing lights and not by fisticuffs. Or worse.


Shockingly, at a time of trying to get racers off the street, Ferrari comes out with a new model, the Challenge Stradale, that is designed for street racing.

"We are proud to announce that Ferrari is back in street racing after a 30-year absence," wrote Giacomo Mattioli, president of Ferrari Maserati of Beverly Hills, where the Stradale -- it's "street" in Italian -- was introduced last week. "The Challenge Stradale is a full race car for the street -- no radio, no carpets, carbon fiber cockpit and roll cage."

On the other hand, with a $200,000 asking price, it's not likely that teenagers will be racing it for the pink slip.


Seven-time supercross champion Jeremy McGrath heads a group of 13 who will be inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Among the others are flat track champions Scott Parker and Jay Springsteen, AMA executive Lin Kuchler, enduro champion Del Kuhn, racing promoter Tom Heininger, co-founder of Webco performance equipment company and president of Motorcycle Industry Council in 1972, and the 1981 U.S. Motocross des Nations team of Donnie Hansen, Danny LaPorte, Johnny O'Mara and Chuck Sun.


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