Crime & Justice

Illegal street racing in US: A deadly pastime popularized by Fast & Furious films

By Guillermo Azabal

Los Angeles, Jun 1 (EFE).- The outskirts of Los Angeles and hundreds of other US towns and cities are settings nearly every weekend for clandestine car races, a phenomenon that was popularized to a large degree by the 2001 hit film “The Fast & The Furious” and its sequels and is a major headache for police departments.

The roar of engines, the spewing of smoke from tailpipes and the screech of skidding cars are some of the sights and sounds at these events, where drivers compete for thousands of dollars in prize money and spectators look to create viral videos of the dangerous spectacles.

Chevrolet Camaros, Dodge Challengers and Infiniti G35s are among the models preferred by these skilled and daring motorists because they offer elevated horsepower levels and easily modifiable engines at a relatively low price.

“If you crash into another car, they kick you off the track and may damage your car or steal it from you. That’s the discipline that’s imposed,” Junior, an assistant at one clandestine racing venue in southern Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood, told Efe.

The Washington DC-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that in the past decade alone 800 people have lost their lives in incidents related to these unsanctioned street races.

California (188 deaths) and Texas (128) are the top two states on the basis of fatalities.

Wyoming, North Dakota and Wisconsin, however, are the ones with the highest number of fines handed out for holding clandestine races, an indication of the nationwide extent of the problem.

But if one place were to be called the epicenter of this phenomenon it would be Angelino Heights, a neighborhood just five kilometers (three miles) from downtown Los Angeles that is home to a convenience store, Bob’s Market, that appeared in the first Fast & Furious picture.

“It’s hell living here,” said Arturo, a local resident who said fans of the movie are constantly doing donuts outside the store.

The clandestine racing scene in Los Angeles, which expanded due in large part to social media, has prompted the LA Police Department to beef up the specialized units it created to stamp out the problem.

Many of the dozens of gangs in southern Los Angeles have extended their tentacles into these events, drawn by the lucrative gambling operation that surrounds them, LAPD Sgt. Manuel Sanchez told Efe from his patrol car.

Police raids have led to shootouts and seizures of drugs such as marijuana and methamphetamine, as well as AK-47 assault rifles.

Racers whose cars are impounded lose access to their vehicles for a month and must pay a $2,500 fine to get them back, while spectators at those events, if caught, are fined $250.

Sanchez, however, told Efe that stiffer fines are needed and that those involved in the clandestine races also should lose their driver’s licenses.

He also said these activities should be moved to professional circuits.

More effort also must be made in schools to raise awareness of the dangers, activists say.

That is the mission of Street Racing Kills, an organization founded by Lili Trujillo Puckett, a Mexican immigrant whose 16-year-old daughter Valentina was killed when a young man who was street racing crashed while driving her home.

“No one was talking about this topic when I started. I went to the police and legislators. We would’ve avoided a lot of victims” if action had been taken earlier, Trujillo told Efe from her office in Los Angeles.

Raul Contreras Jr., who now works with SRK to warn about the dangers of this illegal activity, spent 22 years in prison for a tragic incident while speed racing that resulted in a girl’s death.

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