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The Fast and the Frustrated

A muscle car pulls out from the Sonic at 35th Avenue and Union Hills. "Those guys only race from there when it's about a lot of money," says an import car racer.
Emily Piraino

Shane Saunders tugs the brim of his baseball cap, pulling it down tighter over his short red hair, and stares out over the row of turbocharged Corvettes, Vipers and F-body Camaros parked behind the high-performance tuning shop where he works.

"Nobody I know says they're racing tonight," he says, shaking his head and gazing out at the orangeish hue settling over the nearby Loop 202 as dusk settles in on this mid-February afternoon and Saturday night action beckons. "I think everyone's still pretty upset about Mikey."

Normally by this time, when Saunders is wrapping up work on a Saturday at Red Line Racing, the shop he co-manages just behind Exotic Muscle in the Tempe auto shop district north of McClintock and University, the 20-year-old engine doctor can make one quick phone call and immediately find out where the street races are taking place tonight -- and who's running.

"There might be one going down tonight between a turbo TRX and a Camaro," he says, a bit doubtfully. "Or are you looking for imports?"

But this has been anything but a normal week for the Valley's growing underground of automotive speed freaks. The previous Friday, in an impromptu afternoon race on Baseline Road in Mesa, two young drivers in a small compact crashed into the side of an SUV carrying a mother and two small children, injuring everyone involved. The following night around 10, a 19- and a 20-year-old boy died when the Honda coupe they were racing in, traveling southbound on the Loop 101 approaching Chandler, flew across the median and crashed into another SUV driven by an elderly couple, who survived with injuries.

Now, the headlines are saying, a racer who Saunders actually knew and hung out with, 20-year-old Michael Esquer from Tempe, is being charged with manslaughter for colliding with another car and killing its driver during a morning street race on what was apparently his drive to work on Thursday.

According to police reports, at 9:30 a.m. that day, Esquer and another young driver in a blue Chevy pickup, 18-year-old Alex Leyvas, got into a high-speed race at the Baseline stoplight heading northbound on McClintock.

By the time the two were approaching the bridge over U.S. 60, Esquer's Honda Civic hatchback was firmly in the lead. The race came to an abrupt end when Esquer's car smashed into a red Subaru driven by a 42-year-old man who had just dropped his wife off for work at an office complex and was turning left onto McClintock to take their 10-year-old son to school. The Honda T-boned the Subaru in the driver's door, stopping Esquer's car almost dead at the point of impact and sending the other car spinning across the wide six-lane street and through a residential cinder-block wall.

The man in the Subaru, Donald Bratcher of Chandler, was pronounced dead a short time later at Maricopa County Hospital. The boy survived with minor injuries.

As a testimony to all the safety equipment installed in the Honda -- the car was equipped with a strong enough roll cage, racing seats and heavy-duty harnesses to make it NHRA-sanctioned to run the quarter-mile drag in 12 seconds at the track -- Esquer managed to survive with only a fractured femur and a broken ankle -- and criminal charges.

"We haven't referred to this as an accident," says Tempe police spokesman Sergeant Dan Masters. "We look at it as a crime."

This time, Saunders says, even the hard-core players in the secretive street-racing circles were pretty shook up by the news.

"I know a lot of people who know Mikey," says Saunders, who claims he's cut down on going to the illegal drags himself since his last bust, for attending a large street race down around 47th Avenue and Buckeye last November, also resulted in his girlfriend's arrest.

"He's a really nice kid, you know? Now he might be going to jail for a long time. And I think that's affected a lot of people."

After checking on the TRX-Camaro duel (no luck), Saunders reports that none of the regular runners he knows are much in the mood to race this Saturday night. And a midnight cruise of all the popular meet-up spots bears him out: From the industrial park streets between downtown Tempe and Sky Harbor Airport, to the warehouse district in southwest Phoenix, to the long flat roads north of the Deer Valley Airport, only a handful of the decaled, muffler-rumbling compacts that usually troll the areas are spied looking for others of their ilk to challenge. Even the usually bustling car shows at the Scottsdale Pavilions and at the Sonic at 35th Avenue and Union Hills are eerily empty.

It's a quiet that Valley police have been working determinedly to achieve since that first The Fast and the Furious movie in 2001 convinced every reckless teen with a set of keys to mom's Acura that he could drive like Dale Earnhardt Jr.

 

But Saunders, who never before let even an arrest or an impounding keep him off the street for long, winks that the calm may be short-lived.

"Call me next Saturday night," he says confidentially. "Maybe I'll be able to hook you up then."


Battered by news images of twisted metal carnage and grieving victims' relatives left in the wake of the inexplicable string of street-racing accidents -- three in a single week, and five since the beginning of the still-young year -- Valley drivers were already growing panicky the week of Michael Esquer's crash, keeping a fearful eye on all the tricked-out, racing-striped Japanese imports they suddenly began noticing in greater numbers all around them on the streets.

Last year, Phoenix police say, 163 citations were issued for illegal drag racing on city streets, and the new year is off to an even faster start.

Kent Dana, the omnipresent evening news anchor on Channel 12, even felt the need one recent evening to dispense tips on what to do should you spy a pair of flying yellow Hondas rocketing toward you in your rearview mirror. "Police say you can protect yourself from street racers," Dana advised, "by calmly moving into another lane."

Meanwhile, the Valley's secretive network of street racers had taken to dissing each wrecked speedster on the news as the work of one more idiot kid who couldn't duplicate a scene he saw on the 2 Fast 2 Furious DVD. The young drivers killed on the 101 the previous Saturday night were harshly eulogized the following Monday in the forums at azstreetracing.com, where posts of street-race wins are ironically called "kills."

"Why don't they just tell it like it is?" wrote one discussion group member. "Two dudes died because they were trying to go fast and the driver couldn't f-ing drive."

The night after Esquer's crash, as if to offer a solution to the epidemic -- and wrap up a grisly week of reporting on a positive note -- the TV news centers descended on the Friday night "run-what-you-brung" races at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler to give viewers a sample of the legal drag races held there and at Speedworld, another racetrack on the farthest opposite edge of town, off 195th Avenue and Jomax.

For about the cost of a tank of gas, the evening news crews marveled, any licensed driver with a fast car could take it to a legal, safety-supervised track any Wednesday, Friday or Saturday night and satisfy their need for speed without using the rest of us for target practice. Heck, if they get lucky in the lines at Firebird, every 30 minutes someone gets to race a cop. Back to you, Lin Sue!

Legal racing didn't quench Michael Esquer's thirst for speed, however. Race directors say he was already racing at Firebird on a regular basis, and yet he still continued to get into it on the street. Just 19 days before the crash, at the January 24 Sports Compact Only Night, Esquer's Civic finished 24th out of the 127 cars entered, crossing the quarter-mile finish line in 14.55 seconds -- better than 80 percent of the racers there, but nowhere near the 10.33-second record set that night by Paul Coggeshall, whose famous blue turbocharged '97 Civic -- dubbed the "V8 Killer" for its ability to outrace even the meanest muscle cars -- is a regular ruler at the SCO Nights.

It was the kind of time slip street racers don't brag about -- or else use as currency to lure unsuspecting challengers into racing them on the street for money. "Usually when you get a time slip from a crappy run, you show 'em that on the street," says Saunders. "'Cause if you know your car goes faster than that, you can show them that time slip and they'll run you that way. Then you take their money." Esquer, Saunders says, "always did pretty well on the street."

In fact, Esquer's cred on the street was better than anything he'd been able to back up with a time slip from the legal drag races, a dichotomy found pretty often between the performances of racers who straddle both worlds.

"A lot of times, the faster, really awesome cars don't come out to the legal races," says Trevor James, a former street racer from Tucson who now races his modified Dodge Stealth at the Firebird SCO Nights.

"Some of the guys who actually make money doing street racing, they got a lot of stuff hidden in their cars that they can't show off at the track. And they don't come to the track because their times come up -- poof! -- right on the boards for everybody to see. They like to keep an air of secrecy about how fast their cars are, so that if a thousand feet down the track they decide they wanna lift it" -- i.e., hit the nitrous button, sending an instant horsepower boost to the engine -- "they can. And if they don't, then the guy in the next lane won't be sure if he can take him the next time.

 

"It really is a different game, out on the street," James says. "It's a whole different set of rules."


They begin swarming the less-traveled streets on the far edges of town every Saturday night around 10: bright, candy-colored Mitsubishis, Hondas, Acuras and Nissans dressed up with wide, aggressively styled front bumpers, swooping side skirts and flashy stick-on graphics and pulsing with neon underbody lights and loud, rumbling cat-back exhaust kits. The muscle car guys, who tend to be older and less likely to travel in attention-getting packs, have a word for the Japanese import crowd: ricers.

"They aren't very hard to spot," chuckles Sergeant Scot Gillespie of the Phoenix Police Department, who heads a special cruising squad out of the Maryvale precinct that specifically targets the growing street-racer contingent.

"Usually, if we see one of them go by, we won't do anything. But if we see like a dozen of the Euro-racer cars riding around, we may want to follow them to see where they're going."

Comically, the racers follow the same rule of thumb to get together.

"You usually just go out driving around until you see some other cars, and then you find a nice long street -- there's a lot of 'em around," says 19-year-old Tempe race follower Dustin Fowler, who says he hasn't gone out himself since his '95 Dodge Neon was totaled in a garden-variety, non-racing-related traffic accident.

"A lot of 'em I know meet up under the Mill Avenue bridge, and then figure out a place to go," he says. "Usually they'll go way out to the Deer Valley area, or up around 51st Avenue and Beardsley. Sometimes there's a lot of cars out around the Val Vista-Gilbert Road area. At the Pavilions in Scottsdale, there's always the big car show on Saturday night, and then afterwards they'll go race down the 101 at, like, 2 or 3 in the morning."

For a long time, the Euro-car crowd would assemble at the Circle K at 19th Avenue and Deer Valley Road, under the guise of all simultaneously stopping for gas.

"It never bothered me, 'cause I like looking at the cars," says Douglas, a clerk who works the 2 to 10 p.m. shift.

But it bothered the store's owners. After a particularly bustling Saturday night, when the racers left behind a few too many Thirst Buster cups (most avoid alcohol) and succeeded in scaring off the tamer SUV-driving customers, a security guard was hired to shoo the crowd away.

They wound up gathering just two buildings down, at a seemingly non-supervised commercial fueling station that, it turns out, was later viewed on surveillance tapes by the facility's owner, former Mesa mayor Wayne Brown.

"We looked back at the tapes and saw about 20 of these cars coming and going," Brown says, replaying the stop-motion footage on a recent morning at the Brown-Evans business office 30 miles away on Country Club Drive.

"I gave the police authority to go out there and make some arrests," says the still-mayoral businessman, "but they said there's not much they can do unless they can catch them in the act."

Lieutenant Chris Medaglia of the Avondale Police Department says last year his department issued 108 citations at one big gathering out in that rural area. But most of those went to young people who'd assembled to watch the races -- an offense now considered a Class 3 misdemeanor throughout the Valley under a fairly recent criminal trespassing ordinance. The racers themselves are pretty hard to catch, and Medaglia says the convoys can be quite "sophisticated" in the way they organize on the streets.

"They'll meet somewhere and have a couple of scouts go out to a spot, to do some racing to see if any police show up," he says. "They'll go back and tell the others, and then about 10 minutes later, the whole crew shows up. They'll have another car on the main street, watching out for police cars and radioing back to the pack if they see any, in which case they all disperse -- real quick."

 

While Medaglia says a few members of his 30-car patrol unit sometimes go out in unmarked cars doing their own scouting, it's always tough to be in the right place at just the right time.

"Wherever there's a street with no lights, traffic or pedestrians that's at least a quarter-mile long, that's where they might be," he says. "And there's a whole lot of those around the Valley."

"The spots change all the time," says Saunders, gazing north from the bays of his shop just south of the Loop 202. "The cops are always trying to find out where it's at, but they're usually one weekend behind."


"Yo! Where we going, Enrique?" hollers a tall Hispanic youth in a New York Yankees baseball cap and a red vinyl jacket, hanging out in the near-empty parking lot at the Deer Valley Towne Center in the shadow of the I-17 and Loop 101 interchange. An Asian teen pulls up in a bright red Mitsubishi and asks quickly where the races are tonight.

"You gonna run that thing, or what?" challenges the Yankees fan.

Just a 30-minute drive northwest of this chilly parking lot, the popular legal Saturday night amateur drags have already been going on for several hours at Speedworld.

But the ethnically mixed group of 18 or so mostly male import drivers hanging out here in front of the Target are still trying to cook up their own illegal race at 11:57, burning up their cell phones, caravaning from one parking lot to another (rule number one: Never stay in one place too long), and sending out scouts trying to determine where the action's at -- and the cops aren't -- on the street.

"A lot of us are out here to street race 'cause we're on a low budget," says a short white kid in a wool cap and scruffy goatee. "Not all of us have the money to go out to the tracks like Firebird and Speedworld and race for $15 or $17."

It's a lame-sounding excuse, even to some of the other guys, all around 19 or 20, standing around munching on beef jerky and Big Gulps from the 7-Eleven building shielding their cars from the passing traffic. Most of these guys have already burned up that much money in gas tonight hopscotching around north Phoenix looking for a cop-free stretch of road to run on.

But there's a little more to it than the admission cost of the tracks, they say. "The thing is, there's a lot of other expenses to get your car past inspection at the track," says a young black guy in a hooded sweater and baggy jeans. "Most of us just ain't got it."

The comment points out a secret economic flaw in the PC "take-it-to-the-track" argument. Most of the kids driving souped-up ricers -- who in turn deride the older muscle car guys as discriminating "rich bastards" with more green bills than skills -- are doing it because the cars can be had relatively cheap. Many even get their Toyotas and Mazdas as hand-me-down starter vehicles when mom and dad upgrade to luxury rides. With the few hundred dollars they can scrape together from minimum-wage jobs or, Saunders says, illegal parts dealing (Sergeant Gillespie confirms chop shops fund a lot of race car makeovers), most modify their machines with the cool essentials -- flashy body kits and graphics, Greddy racing tachometers and VTec engine swaps -- but seldom spring for the heavy-duty seat belts, roll cages and other boring safety gear required to race at top speed at the track.

"Depending on how fast the car is, there are different things you have to have to be legal at an NHRA-sanctioned track," says Chuck Sundstrom, one of the race directors at Firebird responsible for inspecting each car entered into the amateur night drags.

"If you run faster than 14 seconds, you have to have a helmet -- Snell 90 or newer. If you run in the 11s, you have to have a roll bar and an after-market harness that's updated every two years. If you run in the 10s" -- the ultimate speed, which Sundstrom says only three of the imports he's seen in Arizona regularly run at -- "you have to have a fire jacket."

"The guys with the import cars and the sport compacts are the ones who always try to cheat," Sundstrom continues. "What they do is they take a stock car and they bolt nitrous and turbochargers on 'em to see how fast they can go, but they could care less about safety. We have one group from Tucson that runs some Toyota Supras. They're building cars that'll run 10 seconds, but they don't put any safety stuff in them. And they'll come out and they'll make a couple 12-second runs, then they'll blast a 10-second run.

 

"And we'll kick them out, and they'll come back again with another car -- different color, different number, different name on the tach card -- and do it again. And they've been kicked out of our track, they've been kicked out of Speedworld, and they've been kicked out of Tucson's track for doing that."

But doesn't being banned from every track in the state just give the racers an excuse to take their NOS-powered suicide bombers to the streets?

"Um, yeah, that's a possibility," Sundstrom says. "But the safety stuff's not expensive, and it's not hard to install. They think it's cheaper to skip all that and just go street racing. But it's only cheaper until they go to jail, or get a ticket, or go to prison for killing somebody. It's crazy. But that's the kind of stuff we run into, all the time."


Michael Maggiore walks to the back of the spotless high-performance Tempe tuner shop he runs with his dad, Tony, and younger brother Joe, and focuses the digital still camera on the table holding the $4,000 in car parts he's about to install in the sparkling blue 2003 Honda SI parked before it.

"This is the turbo timer," he says, describing the banquet of shiny metal delicacies while chief mechanic Carlos Gonzales hoists the car on the lift to the blaring strains of heavy-metal rap on the boom box.

"This is the E-Manage, which is a fuel and timing controller." The kit Maggiore's installing today has everything a driver needs to turn an already zippy car into a certifiable terror at the track. "This is pretty much an all-inclusive kit," he says, fondling the nitrous blow-off valve. "I mean, this is it. This is the real deal."

Tuners like Maggiore are the geek stars of the new car culture, the brainy anti-grease monkeys profiled in the slick racing magazines like Sport Compact Car and Import Tuner and sought after by a rapidly growing cult of import modifiers. On cable's Speed Channel, a trio of bickering tuners now even host their own automotive makeover show, Tuner Transformation, where the hotheaded graphics and accessories guy gets into regular shouting matches with the performance guys over hot issues like which gets more space in the trunk: the subwoofer box or the Nitrous Express bottle?

The Maggiore boys themselves have already been featured in almost two dozen magazine articles, framed around the storeroom at the family's Superior Racing Development in Tempe, one of the top shops in town with its own fleet of pro-am trophy-winning cars. Today, Michael is shooting a photo spread for yet another national magazine detailing a step-by-step power plant overhaul of this already sweet ride.

Like Shane Saunders, who works just down the street, Maggiore and his crew were also shaken up by the news reports of Michael Esquer's crash, but for a different reason. They recognized the car on the TV news, too: It was one they had worked on in the shop, performing the high-horsepower engine swap and the installation of the nitrous kit that made it such a fast machine.

"Obviously we don't condone that kind of driving, and when something like that happens, it's really sad," Maggiore says a few days after the accident. "I've personally never attended an illegal race -- if I did, I'd have a lot more money, 'cause that car is wicked fast," he says, pointing to the white '93 Civic hatchback that Team SRD races in the 10s at the legal tracks, and kind of serves as their business card.

"But we've had customers who've been to them, honestly. You can't stop them from doing it. I mean, for me, putting this turbo kit on this kid's car doesn't mean that I'm condoning him speeding. It means that I'm doing what he's come to us to do, and it's his job to be responsible and not go T-bone some school bus with it."

Maggiore feels it's wrong to point fingers at the tuner when today's high-tech Mr. Goodwrenches are only giving the adrenaline-hungry consumer the extreme-power fix they crave on the highway.

"Am I the only one who's seeing what's going on in the commercials?" Maggiore asks. "There's the Dodge commercials, where the guy's going, 'Yeah, it's got a hemi.' Now Ford has a commercial where they put their truck against a Dodge, and the guy's like, 'Hey, is that a hemi?' And the first thing they do is drag race, off a stoplight. And not only are they drag racing off a public street, but they're towing boats!"

 

The commercials aren't all hype, either: Maggiore says he's never seen so many race-worthy cars come stock off the assembly lines. "Why do you think they make Dodge Vipers with 600 horsepower now, or twin-turbo Vettes and twin-turbo Porsches? These things are readily available to anybody with the cash to buy them. Ten-second cars, right off the showroom floor."

Maggiore feels the street-racing epidemic is wrongly blamed on the teenagers. "It's the older guys with the Corvettes, Porsches, Mustangs," he says. "They're the ones who start the races with the kids in the imports."

"It's just that the kids are getting busted and getting into accidents because they're younger and driving stupid," adds Jim Harnish, an older pro race driver visiting the shop. "And sometimes, they just can't get away from the cops as fast!"

Mark Goerner, another pro driver who races for Team SRD, agrees. "It's not just the kids. I drive this car daily," says Goerner, pointing to his head-turning 2001 Acura Integra Type R. "And you wouldn't believe, every time I come to a stoplight, there's some woman in an SUV, or some old guy in a Cadillac, that peels off and takes off from the light."

"To be promoting that kind of attitude in commercials and selling race cars to anyone who can afford them -- and then punishing every little kid that's speeding -- is ridiculous," Maggiore says. "If you're gonna try to stop the street-racing frenzy, then do it all the way. Go to the source."


Derek Preston, a 31-year-old entrepreneur and the co-producer of Joyride, a raunchy but slick, locally produced DVD documenting "3,500 miles of street racing, 6 days of outlaw fun" -- not to mention hired exotic dancers stripping in a rented Jaguar -- believes he's seen the future of car culture entertainment, and it's The Fast and the Furious meets Girls Gone Wild.

"There's been a fairly well-established trail over the last four years with these type of entertainment products," he says. "These companies sell over 100,000 copies of their films, and they're very amateur. But there's a big entertainment appeal to seeing these scenes like in the big Hollywood movies really happening on the street."

Of course, the ultimate street-racing fantasy is still the indelible image of the huge impromptu roadside parties captured in the opening minutes of both Fast and the Furious movies: hot, exotic women waxing down customized candy-coated imports while stunnas show off their deafening sound systems and high-stakes racers line up to drag down deserted downtown streets for the pool of "two large" ($1,000) bills they all carry in their shirt pockets.

"The reality is, there's no street races like that," says Preston, who never once witnessed a real-life scene similar to the films on the rally's entire trek from San Francisco to Miami, including stops in Phoenix and Tucson.

"There's not a thousand kids standing around, they don't block off the bridges and have hot women waving flags for them. That's not how it happens. That's the fantasy. But that's what everybody wants to see."

At the SCO Nights at Firebird, held on a near-monthly basis, the racetrack does its best to replicate all the elements. Around the rest rooms in the parking lot, the super-customized "all show, no go" cars sit with hoods popped and windows down, showing off their elaborate in-dash DVD players and X-Box consoles.

Farther out in the lot, car audio installer Sounds Good to Me hosts a "DB Drag," where owner Mark Kelber sticks a microphone into each car that rolls up to measure the decibel level of thundering hip-hop blaring from each vibrating compact.

Lovely Asian beauties from R8cergirl clothing hawk rhinestone checker flag buckles for "the female import racer," and there's even a "Dream Body" contest on the stage by the snack bar -- which Paul Coggeshall's blonde bombshell wife DeeDee wins as well, making the trophy-hogging couple kind of the Jen and Ben of the local drag circuit.

There's only one thing missing, Preston notes: the outlaw undercurrent that makes the scenes in the movies so exciting.

"If we did a movie where we were just running around a track somewhere, who would care?" he says. "But seeing a Lamborghini doing 180 on the highway and the cops are chasing them -- that kind of thing is cooler, and it is more exciting.

"The reality is, people get killed doing things like that, and I strongly support the efforts of the racetracks to give these guys a safe place to race," he cautions. "But the appeal of breaking the law is very strong. Doing it at the track is fun, but doing it on the streets is what's exhilarating to these people."

 


Sergeant Gillespie of the Phoenix PD says there have been a few Fast and the Furious re-creations around town. In the assignment room of the Maryvale precinct, where Gillespie is just beginning his regular 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift on a recent Friday evening, the sergeant screens a surveillance video from last November showing hundreds of spectators parked and standing along an industrial park road near 47th Avenue and Buckeye, watching as turbocharged imports, domestics and even pickups tear down a quarter-mile stretch marked in chalk in front of the warehouses.

"Watch now -- this is what happens when the police show up," Gillespie says, pointing to the video of cars fleeing madly down Buckeye Road like tourists at a Spanish bull run. "Driving six or seven abreast down the road, going as fast as they can, weaving in and out. No regard for safety or anything else."

Last November, Gillespie's 34-member squad staged a major sting at this location, hiding inside a warehouse until the party was in full swing and then rolling out the squad cars in a sudden ambush worthy of the movies itself. Ten people were arrested for drag racing, facing up to $1,000 in fines and a two-year license suspension, while another 165 people -- 108 under the age of 18 -- were nabbed for spectating, requiring a day in jail and, in most cases, a hefty towed vehicle charge.

Shane Saunders, who was arrested along with his girlfriend for coming to watch the races (but wisely parked away from the scene to avoid getting his car towed), claims most of the 70 people he shared a holding tank with showed little remorse for their crime.

"Everyone that got arrested with me just said, 'Well, I guess we're going to Deer Valley next weekend,'" he says, laughing. "I'd still be doing it, too, if they didn't get my girlfriend. Seeing her in jail kind of changed my mind."

Still, the big gatherings have dropped off noticeably since the Buckeye bust, and the increased speed enforcement evident since the string of January and February accidents has made a lot of racers paranoid. Most meet-ups now involve a dozen or so dateless car nuts revving from parking lot to parking lot, waiting by their cell phones to hear of an unpatrolled stretch of asphalt.

"Is there any place around here that's not full of cops tonight?" gripes a young Mitsubishi owner at the Deer Valley Towne Center parking lot the Friday night following the previous dead weekend, this time perched behind the Jack in the Box.

"Yeah, there's a good track right there, called the 101," says a popular rich kid named Jimmy, standing beside his souped-up black BMW M3.

"Sometimes when you fly by the cops at 100 miles per hour, they just radio ahead to the next car. By then, you can be long gone off a surface street."

DPS spokesman Frank Valenzuela says racing on the Loop 101 often results when the fast and frustrated racers finally give up searching for an unpatrolled city street and get into a challenge on the long drive home.

"It's more difficult for us to catch them," Valenzuela admits. "Because on the straight-aways that they have identified as racing areas on surface streets, the officers can target those areas with patrol cars. We have to target the entire freeway system, and they probably realize that's impossible, especially with the manpower we have."

Valenzuela agrees there are stretches of the 101 where it's easy to feel you're turning the big wide corners at the Daytona 500. "There's a softness there, especially on the newer stretches with the rubberized asphalt, where, because of the reduced noise, you can feel like you've got better control and less friction."

But DPS officers have seen enough spectacular high-speed crashes, particularly on the long stretch south from Scottsdale Road down into Chandler, to know that's a false feeling of control. After eight people were killed on the roadway last year in general speeding accidents ("We don't know how many of those were races," Valenzuela notes. "Everybody here drives fast"), DPS staged a two-week crackdown in which 1,552 speeding tickets were issued.

"They see these stunts in the movies and they think they can do it on the freeway," says Valenzuela. "But these aren't skilled stunt drivers. And as we've seen, when they lose control going 120 miles per hour, they often don't get a second chance."


Barry Kirk's yellow '93 Civic hatchback, jazzed up with 17-inch rims, custom front and back fenders and fiery black graphics on the hood, has never driven as fast as it looks. His buddy Dustin Fowler, whose Neon only ran 16s at the track, says he always beat the pants off Kirk's puny 1.6-liter engine on the street.

 

But Kirk's "baby," as he affectionately calls it, has a claim to fame few other cars in Arizona share. It was one of the cars featured in the movie, making it a kind of celebrity to almost every kid racing around in a tricked-out import today.

"If you have The Fast and the Furious DVD, you can see it best in the Race Wars scene," says the friendly 21-year-old, patting the roof of his little star parked in the driveway at his mom's house in an affluent Mesa neighborhood. "There's an aerial shot that goes up above all the cars in the lot, and my car is the yellow thing smack dab in the middle. You can't miss it. That's the scene I show all my friends."

Naturally, the car attracts attention almost everywhere Kirk drives it -- which is, ironically, part of why he now feels he has to sell it.

"It's a cop magnet," he says. "Plus, people are always trying to steal it. I was sitting in a gas station one night, and my friend was buying some beer. And this guy comes up and goes, 'Let me have a ride.' I tell him, 'No,' and he pulls out a gun on me. My friend grabs the gun barrel and knees him in the stomach, we take off and he turns around and starts shooting at us."

That kind of action was a little too close to the movies, Kirk says, laughing. But there's even a bigger reason he decided to list his baby in the Auto Trader: Kirk's girlfriend is pregnant with the real thing right now.

"I'm about to have a baby and I don't need to be going to jail anymore," says the currently unemployed Kirk, still grounded because of a DUI bust a few months back that occurred while he was driving the Civic. "This is like a kid car. And soon I'm going to be having a kid myself."

Maturity, and a sense of finally having something to lose, are probably the biggest reasons street racers hang up the NOS canisters.

"I used to go to the street races, like in San Diego, back in '99," says Paul Coggeshall at the one-year-old tuner shop he now runs in Tempe called Power Xtreme. "We'd go out at, like, 2 in the morning, and there'd be a minimum of 2,000 people there. Both sides of the street would be lined with people, and hundreds of cars would be lined up to race.

"Now it's like, why take a chance? Trying to get this business going is the hardest thing. I've got way too much to lose."

For others, the constant fear of flashing red lights can begin to get a little old. "You get home and you're looking out the blinds every night, wondering if a squad car is gonna show up at your door," says Trevor James, now 27 and married. "I'm just getting too old for that."

"I'm not really into this anymore," says Barry Kirk, lovingly running his hand over the car's decaled hood in a way that suggests he's still struggling to convince himself on that matter. "Plus, most of this is fiber glass, so if I get hit with a baby in here, that's it. It's not exactly what you would call a family car."

Still, that's not to say Kirk is completely leaving behind all of his street-racing friends. Kicking the addictive adrenaline rush that comes from driving 130 mph on a deserted stretch of Valley roadway is something that can only be done with a very understanding support group.

"Call me Saturday night," he says, just out of earshot of his bulging new bride. "I know a few guys who might be doing something."

E-mail jimmy.magahern@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8478.


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