The Fast and the Frustrated

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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.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern