The Fast and the Frustrated

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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.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern