The Fast and the Frustrated

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.