July 10, 2005
Drivers itching to race their light, powerful cars can be dangerous enough. Add in youthful bravado, and it can be downright deadly. Deadly not only for those who choose to participate in illegal street racing, but also for innocent motorists or pedestrians who might suffer the consequences of a race gone bad.
Colorado Springs police and those close to the local racing scene said the problem is getting worse here, especially on North Academy Boulevard and North Powers Boulevard on Friday and S a t u r d a y nights. Patrol officers said it happens on most weekend nights during the summer. “I won’t even drive North Academy on Friday nights,” said Nadine Gaydos, 28, of Colorado Springs, who owns a 1994 Twin Turbo Toyota Supra. Gaydos, a car enthusiast who’s part of an effort to provide street racers a local outlet, said she’s sick of people challenging her because of the car she drives. Evidence of illegal street racing is not hard to spot — or, rather, hear. Residents and business owners in those areas have complained to police about the modified racing exhausts piercing the night air with whines from revved engines. “You can almost set your watch to it: From 11:30 (p.m.) to 1:30 (a.m.) — it’s constant,” said Jerry Offutt, 49, who lives near Academy Boulevard and Flintridge Drive. “It’s a combination of those motorcycles and the little street racers,” he said. “Some sound like fullblown dragsters.” Groups of sleek cars and sport motorcycles pool in the parking lots of gas stations, grocery stores, auto-parts stores or fast food restaurants along those arterials. Although it’s perfectly legal to park, the gatherings can be meeting places to arrange illegal street races. “We have seen an increase in major accidents” from street racing, said Colorado Springs Sgt. L.C. Morgan, who investigates major crashes. “It’s these inexperienced drivers going really fast — that’s what really scares us.” Colorado Springs police say 19 percent of traffic fatalities in Colorado Springs from 2002 to 2004 were because of street racing. That’s 15 people killed in the past three years. Police said 41 people suffered serious injuries in street-racing traffic crashes in that same period. “The numbers are increasing in (racing) vehicles and motorcycles and areas where this is taking place,” said Lt. Robert Driscoll, who works the midnight shift at the new Stetson Hills police substation. “The likelihood that something tragic is going to happen is increasing.” Those numbers, coupled with complaints from the public, prompted police to act. But their actions are only part of a recent community effort to help send illegal street racers to a permanent pit stop. “We’re talking about the safety of citizens here, so it really is a public health issue,” said Maile Gray, director of DRIVE SMART Colorado Springs, a nonprofit that promotes safe driving. “A few people are putting not only their lives at risk, but they’re endangering average citizens minding their own business.” Gray brought some San Diego police to Colorado Springs last month to show how they got control of California street racing. The typical illegal street race here goes from “light to light” and is impromptu, police and race enthusiasts said. They usually involve younger drivers who buy lighter but powerful cars that they modify to boost speed. Driscoll said the new streetracing cars are nothing like the muscle cars of the 1970s. Those had powerful engines, but also a lot of metal wrapped around the car’s occupants. “These lighter cars, with high-performance engines, means the speed is greater and they just crumple a lot easier,” Driscoll said. The advent of cell phones and text messaging makes it easier for participants to arrange a race. Occasionally, trailing cars will block traffic as racers streak from street lights, Driscoll said. Police have met with groups of car enthusiasts to explain the city’s noise ordinances, offer free car inspections and outline the harsh penalties for street racing — a 12-point ticket that will mean loss of a license for 16- to 18-year-olds. “What we tried to do is create an educational component to let them know this is dangerous,” Morgan said. “In addition to that, we’re now extending our enforcement arm. We’re trying to use all the tools in the box. “We’re thinking let’s go to the ounce of prevention now, instead of looking for a pound of cure down the road.” The pound of cure came down on the drivers of an Isuzu and Saturn on Friday night. At the Stetson Hills substation, more than 20 officers planned a street racing sting. Several undercover cars were used to spot street racing-related infractions. They radioed to officers in patrol cars and on motorcycles. Officer Pat Turecheck, an investigator of major crashes, drove one of the undercover cars. It didn’t take long before the throaty roar of a modified dual exhaust from an Isuzu Stylus caught her ear about 11:30 p.m. Friday. She whipped the car around on Constitution to come up behind the westbound white car, which had stopped at a light at Powers Boulevard. The Isuzu driver continued to rev his engine while at the light, and Turecheck braced for what might be a quick start. The light changed, but the Isuzu didn’t bolt. It maintained a controlled takeoff, and a gold Saturn was right next to it. Before the lights of Powers had faded from the rearview mirror, the race was on. Turecheck had to step on the accelerator to catch up to the Isuzu and Saturn, which were screaming side-by-side down Constitution at more than 55 mph in a 35-mph zone. The driver of the Saturn slowed, came alongside Turecheck’s car, looked over intently — perhaps deciding Turecheck wasn’t an officer — and sped back up to catch the Isuzu. On the radio, Turecheck called officers patrolling Academy Boulevard. Within minutes, both cars were pulled over. The 17-year-old driver of the Saturn swore to the ticketing officer he wasn’t racing, that the Isuzu owner was his friend, and why would they race? The officer handed him a 12-point speed-contest ticket that, even if the driver is able to arrange a plea deal, will still cost him 8 points, enough to suspend his license. Officers wrote 60 tickets Friday night, caught three racers and four drunken drivers. Meanwhile, some ordinary residents have begun their own crackdown. Thursday, the Police Department’s Stetson Hills Citizens Advisory Committee voted to send a letter to City Council members requesting stiffer penalties for illegal street racing, group President Mike Proctor said. Some suggestions might include confiscating cars on first offense; “fix-it” tickets requiring noise violators to fix their mufflers or lose their cars; more laws to address cars that block traffic; or laws banning street racing spectators. Even some race buffs are trying to prevent others from doing it in the street. C.J. Botts, 28, of Colorado Springs describes himself as a “gearhead” and drives a 2003 Ford Cobra. He and Jason Bovee are co-owners of www.coracing. com, a forum for racing issues. Botts and Bovee have been working with Gaydos — who runs www.coloradoracing.net — to discourage street racing, set up meetings with police and try to get a legal racing venue east of the city. “We don’t approve of races inside the city,” Botts said. “But we sometimes have no more luck trying to convince the kids not to race than police do.” “We don’t live our lives a quarter of a mile at a time,” said Bovee, trying to bust the myth that everyone who drives a fast-looking car participates in illegal street racing. Gaydos said movies like “2 Fast 2 Furious” are great action make-believe, but they give true gearheads a bad name. She said their efforts to talk, to police and potential racers, are an effort to set the record straight. “This is a quality-of-life issue, especially for those citizens who live near” these hot spots, Driscoll said. “For a longterm solution, we hope they can get a legal venue open.” But, as was obvious from the comments on www.coracing.com from racers saying they do it for the thrill of breaking the law as much as racing, Driscoll said a legal venue won’t stop that population. “Unfortunately, they’re not going away.” CITATIONS Citations, per year, given for speed contests/exhibition: 2001: 191 2002: 151 2003: 86 2004: 124 Citations given for noise violations: 2002: 357 2003: 629 2004: 640