The Fast and the Frustrated

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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.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern