August 2005: Street Racers Dodge the Law
2 August 2005 – Toronto Star
By Morgan Campbell
Randy’s 1985 Ford Thunderbird looks like hell, parked outside a Scarborough Tim Hortons with its rusted wheel wells and dusty blue paint job that looks like it needs a final coat.
And it doesn’t quite ride like heaven, wallowing onto Ellesmere Rd., the squeak of a loose alternator belt piercing the engine’s menacing growl.
Even though this is Randy’s everyday car, it’s not built for looks or handling. With a powerful engine lifted from a cube van, and a tank of nitrous oxide for an extra boost, Randy’s car has been modified for one thing: straight-line speed.
On a good day, on a good track, the T-Bird covers a quarter-mile in just over 11 seconds, about three seconds faster than an average, unmodified sports car.
Randy likes to race three or four nights a week, and later tonight he’ll dust a couple of guys in newer, shinier, faster-looking cars.
And for police, that’s the problem with Randy: he doesn’t always race at the track. He’s one of more than 20,000 people in southern Ontario who police estimate have modified their cars to race illegally on public roads.
Heading into this summer, 29 GTA residents in the past six years had died as a result of illegal street racing, according to police. Each summer police services across the GTA step up their efforts to stop it.
The initiative, called ERASE (Eliminate Racing Activity on Streets Everywhere), is a joint effort between several government ministries and police services including Toronto, York, Peel, Durham and Halton. It’s like the RIDE program, but instead of looking for impaired drivers, police target racers and illegally modified cars.
The periodic blitzes have resulted in 1,336 charges this year, including 319 for speeding and 80 violations of the Environmental Protection Act.
But racers complain that increasing surveillance amounts to illegal profiling of car enthusiasts whose vehicles are fast and modified, but street legal. They also say police exaggerate street racing’s death toll, making their hobby a scapegoat for all types of bad driving.
Real races, they say, are comparatively safe. They happen in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, and beyond the reach of police. Using Internet chat rooms, racers spread the word about “car meets,” which involve a lot of talk about racing but often few actual races. Even when police pull people over, racers say they often escape serious charges.
The numbers support their claim – this summer, police have booked only two people for racing.
Local street racers know Randy’s rep. A pudgy man with a suntan, a ponytail and grease-stained hands, Randy fixes cars for a living and for fun. He may not be able to Pimp Your Ride, but if you limp your ride to him he’ll get you running again.
Racers also know that in 20 years of driving fast cars around the GTA, Randy has rarely refused a race. On the track or the street, as long as his car runs, he’ll line up with anyone.
For the thrill of rocketing from a standstill to 170 km/h within seconds. To see whose car is faster. Just because it’s more fun than not racing.
“Why drink a beer?” asks Randy, who is in his mid-30s. “Why watch a football game?”
He and his friends say they do it on the street because of the dearth of quarter-mile drag racing strips near Toronto. To run on a track, Randy has to drive to Cayuga, outside Hamilton, or to St. Thomas, south of London, and pay $20 or $30 to line up.
He doesn’t mind driving 500 kilometres most weekends to race, and he calls the $80 weekly gasoline tab “an inconvenience.” But he says many others won’t spend so much time and money to race legally, so they improvise.
“If there was a track closer (to Toronto), there would be a lot less racing,” Randy says.
Not that he always feels safe at the track.
Last summer, Randy says, police gave racers vouchers so they could run at Cayuga for free. When racers arrived, police and officers from the ministries of transportation and the environment inspected their cars and ticketed many of them. He says those vouchers sent a lot of racers back to the street.
Project ERASE started nine years ago. Feeling overwhelmed by street racing, three officers – one each from York Region, Peel Region and the Ontario Provincial Police – hooked up to see what they could do about it.
The project now includes 12 police services and has led to more than 5,000 charges over the past two summers.
On a Friday night in mid-June, about 25 officers trickle in to Toronto Police 31 Division, near Highway 400 and Finch Ave. W., to review last-minute instructions for the night’s blitz.
Sgt. Peter Fleming of York Region police briefs them. He cautions officers to think twice before chasing a souped-up car.
“It would be embarrassing if we were there to save lives and wound up in a collision that took lives,” he says. “Common sense is the word of the day.”
As the officers prepare to leave, an OPP report arrives as if on cue. A young man was killed when his car plunged into a ditch during a race with a friend.
The street racing death toll reaches 30.
Ten days later, waiting for other drivers inside a Scarborough Tim Hortons, Randy and his friends, fellow racers Rick and Tish, scoff at the cops’ statistics. To them, a pair of sports cars speeding between busy intersections isn’t a street race. It’s stupidity.
“(Those 30 people) weren’t all killed street racing,” Randy says. “A lot of them were killed through carelessness. How many people have been killed jaywalking?”
They feel street racing’s bad rep comes from younger drivers trying to emulate the reckless racing glorified in the 2001 film The Fast and the Furious.
“A lot of these so-called street racers are 17 years old and it’s their first car,” says Rick, who only races on tracks these days. “They’re the ones zipping through traffic like it’s the Grand Prix.”
June 17, 10: 55 p.m., Langstaff Rd., Vaughan
Const. Mike LaCroix creeps east along Langstaff Rd. in his unmarked cruiser, a black Chevrolet Impala. He has been on the road about an hour in this Project ERASE blitz, but hasn’t seen any action yet.
As LaCroix approaches Highway 400, a blue blur flashes past him. He flips on his lights and siren. “Now this is worthy of inspection,” he says.
He catches the car, a 1993 Honda Civic hatchback, on the other side of the 400.
The car’s lowered suspension causes its undercarriage to sit just inches from the ground, and its oversized, after-market tailpipe amplifies engine noise.
The officer and driver chat briefly, then LaCroix inspects the tires. If they rub against the wheel wells, the driver gets a ticket. The tires pass LaCroix’s test, but little else does. Neither the headlights nor the turn signals work properly. The driver, 20-year-old Mike Venaforo of Richmond Hill, co-operates, but sighs with frustration. “Are you going to destroy me?” he asks.
“We’ll talk about that at the end,” LaCroix says, before reading off the last of the car’s shortcomings: damaged tail lights and unsigned ownership papers. The total cost of the tickets is more than $600.
“You’re a decent guy, so I’m going to cut you a deal,” LaCroix says. “You can call a tow truck or I can call a tow truck for you. If I have to pull your plates I’ll have to put you before the courts. This car isn’t safe for the road.”
To LaCroix, it’s a normal part of Project ERASE – ridding the road of an unsafe car. But to Venaforo, it’s profiling. He thinks LaCroix stopped him because his lowered suspension, decals and fat tailpipe made him “look like” a street racer.
“This is the bulls— I go through this every night of my life,” he says. “We get bugged for everything, us guys who drive these cars. (When we park at Tim Hortons) they tell us … to leave. There was a bunch of older guys there with Fiats. They didn’t have to leave. Why are (police) always busting our chops?”
Randy and his friends expect to deal with police, but they don’t fear it. They know their rights. Randy and Rick keep a copy of the Highway Traffic Act in their cars and they quote it like scripture.
Randy has a clean driving record, but he still has collected plenty of tickets: $110 for his tinted windows, $110 for his loud engine, $110 for an improper muffler. Racing can be a tough charge to prove, so Randy believes officers scrutinize cars that look like they race, issuing tickets for things they might normally ignore.
For Randy and his friends, the tickets are just another inconvenience because they have to take time to fight charges that are usually dropped in the end.
“It’s not like we’re anti-police,” says Rick, who drives a Dodge minivan these days. “I have a problem with police abuse. I understand them wanting to stop something high-profile like street racing. But if you start getting constitutional challenges the charges get thrown out of court.” In 20 years, Randy says he has gotten only two tickets for racing. He beat both of them.
12: 10 a.m., Toys ‘R’ Us parking lot, Highway 7 and Weston Rd.
Another hour passes and LaCroix makes a few more stops, but nothing related to racing. So he heads to a parking lot where young people with fast cars gather on weekend nights, often rolling out to race afterward. All the stores in this plaza closed hours ago, but the parking lot remains jammed.
LaCroix’s Impala, though unmarked, is hardly inconspicuous. Suspicious eyes follow him.
He stops a teenager for running a yellow light, and in the 20 minutes it takes to check the licence and write a ticket, cruisers from three police services visit the parking lot. Everyone gets the message: With so many police patrolling, Woodbridge won’t see any races tonight.
At exactly 11 p.m. on a Wednesday, the familiar rumble and squeak of the Thunderbird’s engine announces Randy’s arrival at the weekly event street racers call “The Etobicoke Meet.”
About 100 people gather in the parking lot of another Tim Hortons, on Islington Ave. They drive in from Mississauga, Oshawa and as far away as Barrie. People cluster around the rear ends of automobiles, sipping coffee and talking about cars, cops and the cost of insurance.
Most are men, most of them white and under 30 years old. Some are teenagers who live with their parents and pour all their spare cash into their cars. Others, like Randy, are adults with girlfriends, wives, families.
Some of the best-looking cars are mere spectators. The lot’s full of Hondas and Nissans with decals, rear spoilers and fat tailpipes. Randy and his friends laugh, pointing out those frills don’t make the cars faster. Street racers often dismiss those as “ricers” – Japanese cars that are all show and no go.
Occasionally police roll past, but they can’t ticket people for drinking coffee in a Tim Hortons parking lot. They can clear a parking lot if the property owner grows tired of loitering drivers and asks for police intervention. It has happened at other GTA plazas, but so far car meets are still welcome here.
Minutes after Randy arrives, a small crowd forms around him as he leans on the T-Bird’s trunk. People want to know how he’s been, what tires he’s got, and if he’s going to race tonight.
Of course he will, but the truth is he’s limping. His good tires – racing slicks with just enough tread to make them street legal – are at home, and he used the last of his nitrous oxide racing the night before.
At a quarter past midnight the first cars trickle out of Tim Hortons and head toward a wide, straight stretch of road in an industrial area near the Brampton/Mississauga border.
They call this spot “HK.” Randy says they’ve been racing here for at least six years, and just about every street racer in the GTA knows about it.
Police know about it, too. They show up most Wednesdays, but by the time they arrive several races have already been run, so racers can drive home happy. They also know that unless police see you in a race – which takes less than 15 seconds – they probably won’t charge you with racing. So they plan to race until police chase them away.
Randy parks in a parking lot that connects the makeshift drag strip with Dixie Rd. and provides an easy exit if police block both ends of the raceway.
As he reaches the crest of a small rise, the strip comes into view, as do the flashing lights of a pair of Peel police cruisers.
Looks like the cops arrived early tonight.
While the other racers and spectators have scattered and regrouped at another Tim Hortons, the cops have boxed in a straggler in an unmodified, copper-coloured Acura.
As Randy and his friends drift back to their cars, some of them on cellphones canvass other racers. Should they wait for police to leave and restart the races at HK, or just head to another popular, police-patrolled racing spot, just south of the 401?
But the police don’t leave. They disappear around a corner and wait. When they hear engines roar again, they’ll pounce. No one will race at HK tonight.
Tish, a blonde with a black Mustang, says she’s heading to the other spot, with or without the folks from Tim Hortons. “I’m sick of talking,” she says, marching to her car. “I want to race.”
It’s nearly 2 a.m. when, on a stretch of road parallel to the 401, the first race of that week’s Etobicoke Meet finally lines up. It’s Tish vs. Randy. They race often and Randy always wins, but with his car compromised, tonight might be different.
When the race starts you see smoke the instant before you hear tires squeal and engines moan. Tish is faster in first and second gears and 150 metres into the 400-metre race she’s a car-length ahead.
Then Randy hits third gear.
Even without the nitrous boost his car shudders, then surges forward when he shifts into third. The roar of their engines echoes so cleanly against nearby buildings that it sounds like more cars are coming. As they zoom past you feel the wind and smell exhaust fumes and burnt rubber. Two pairs of tail lights shrink in the distance, then glow brighter as the drivers brake at the end of the run. The winner isn’t clear until the T-Bird returns. A tinted window lowers and reveals Randy’s crooked-toothed grin.
“Who won?” someone asks.
“Who do you think?” Randy asks, before zooming away.
Word has spread to other drivers that they’re racing here. In groups of two or three they arrive at the strip. A white Chevy Impala shows up, too, but he’s not racing. It’s a security guard, and soon he’s on his radio to police. Randy and his friends gather around. “These buildings all have cameras,” the guard says. “Good ones, that can catch licence plate numbers.”
Before he finishes the sentence most of the group heads back to their cars.
Tish knows a Scarborough spot where they still may be racing.
Randy would like to run some more, but he’s popped the T-Bird’s hood and shines a flashlight down into the engine. The squealing alternator belt had hinted at a bigger problem – after three races in two nights, his alternator bracket has cracked.
“If I lose the alternator, I lose the water pump,” he tells a friend. “And if I lose the pump I have to call a tow truck.”
Dejected, he shuts the hood, crosses his arms and leans on his car’s front end. Someone suggests heading back to Tim Hortons. Randy frowns. “F— that,” he says. “If I leave here I’m hopping on the highway and going home. My night is over.”
|Copyright ©2005 Toronto Star|