The Fast and the Frustrated

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"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."

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern