THE THRILL THAT KILLS

James Dean may be gone, but street racing lives. A new generation of drivers is rushing along public roads-bedevilling police and endangering bystanders.

Life,PAUL-MARK RENDON September 17 2001

THE THRILL THAT KILLS

James Dean may be gone, but street racing lives. A new generation of drivers is rushing along public roads-bedevilling police and endangering bystanders.

Life,PAUL-MARK RENDON September 17 2001

THE THRILL THAT KILLS

Life

James Dean may be gone, but street racing lives. A new generation of drivers is rushing along public roads-bedevilling police and endangering bystanders.

PAUL-MARK RENDON

It's 3 a.m. and, with the exception of an all-night coffee shop, the plaza in Woodbridge, just north of Toronto, is shut tight. Yet the parking lot is buzzing with people, most of them young, and their cars—all of them hot. It’s the place and time for enthusiasts of street racing—illegal drag racing on public roads—to gather, trade stories and make the bets that fuel the frenzy. For drivers addicted to the adrenaline rush of a sizzling quarter-mile, the street scene is the easiest way to get a fix. “When I’m racing, I don’t think about anything but winning,” says Jimmy Vervitas, a 23-year-old graphic-design student with a souped-up Volkswagen Golf. “AU I wanna do is smoke the guy. The police don’t come into my mind—nothing. I’ll shoot as much nitrous as I’ve got left in the car. I’ll do whatever I have to.”

Street racing. At one time, that meant James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, John Travolta in Grease and real-life, pompadour-coiffed misanthropes in leather jackets and dungarees racing big-block Chevys. The movies, stars and cars have all changed: this summer, it was Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious, and the rides of choice are hopped-up Japanese imports— especially blondas and Acuras—nicknamed “rice rockets” that, at the high end, burn designer fuels and cover the quartermile in 12 tire-smoking, ear-shattering seconds from a standing start.

No question, street racing can be exciting: once a site is agreed to and the cars edge up to the start line, spectators stand within a few steps of racers who reach speeds of 160 km/h and more. But it can also be extremely dangerous: there’s no room for error on a drag strip, let alone on a public street, where unexpected traffic, uneven roads and inexperienced drivers, some as young as 16, form a deadly combination. In Vancouver alone, police count six fatalities from street racing in the past year.

More ominous, with the popularity of

The Fast and the Furious, racers appear to be growing bolder, staging showdowns closer to city centres. Toronto police are investigating an accident last month in which two men were killed and five others injured when a sports car lost control at high speed and caused a five-car pile-up. One witness reported seeing a second vehicle speeding near the scene. The accident occurred at 9:30 on a Sunday night on a busy street. But the danger to drivers and to innocent bystanders doesn’t seem to deter hard-core racers. “You talk to them and show them pictures and tell them about the things that could happen,” says York Regional Police Sgt. Frank Auld, who patrols the suburbs north ofToronto. “But there will always be an element that wants to go out and race on the street.”

A big element, apparently. Around Toronto, close to 1,000 people and their modified cars gather at the designated meeting places each weekend. When a bet is placed, cellphones begin to ring, nods are exchanged, and squadrons of sleek, iridescent cars make their way onto the street, their engines roaring as they barrel towards a straightaway where the king of the street receives a weekly coronation. And for guys like Jimmy Vervitas, laying claim to the crown is a serious business. He’s put nearly $40,000 in upgrades into his green Volkswagen Golf since he bought it three years ago. “I would be embarrassed if I lost a race,” he says. “I’m a guy to the fullest—I want to win.”

Once a race site is chosen, someone marks the start line and then measures the quarter-mile on an odometer. “We go to that trouble if the race is for money,” Vervitas explains. “If it isn’t, we just estimate.” As hundreds of onlookers line the street, waiting anxiously for the race to begin, two cars line up alongside each other. In between, a flagger or starter signals to each driver. “I take a look behind me, take a look ahead of me, just to make sure my thoughts are collected,” Vervitas says. “And when the hands drop, I just give her all she’s got.”

Police are trying to give it all they’ve got,

too. In Vancouver, Insp. Ken Davies says he’s assigned nearly 40 officers to his Smooth Operator squad, specially formed to put the brakes on street racing. Davies claims police have chased most racers off Vancouver streets, but not from the suburbs. In fact, the sport there has taken a most dangerous turn with the popularity of hat races, also known as kamikaze or cannonball runs. Drivers put money in a hat, sometimes as much as $ 1,000 per car. The money is taken to an undisclosed location from which a call is made, informing the drivers where the cash awaits. The first one there gets all the money. It was during one such early morning hat race that 33-year-old Jerry Kithithee died. Kithithee was walking across a residential street when three cars approached at roughly 200 km/h in a 50-km/h zone. He was hit by one of the cars and thrown 80 m by the impact. “He was dead before he hit the ground,” says Davies.

For deterrence, cops try to make their presence felt: at the Woodbridge plaza on a recent Saturday night, a York Regional Police chopper kept watch from a few hundred metres overhead, its spotlight

scanning the debris-strewn pavement. And officers wade into the gatherings in parking lots issuing tickets to drivers of race-ready cars. Auld, who works in nearby Markham, says drivers in such situations are “either charged with trespassing if they don’t leave the plazas, or under the Highway Traffic Act if they’re on the road. And if they’re caught racing by our officers, they’re not charged with racing—they’re being charged with dangerous operation, which now is a criminal offence. It gives you a criminal record, and you lose your licence if convicted.”

Recognizing the dangers of racing on the street, 23-year-old Kevin Yee says he’s pushing for something else—legitimacy of the sport. Along with three friends, Yee helped start Darknights, which promotes an annual car and culture exhibition and recently hosted street-style racing at an established track southwest of Toronto. Yee, who says street racing is still very much a passion, says he and his partners are trying to get people to realize the benefits of a controlled environment. “On the track, you get a time slip; on the street, you don’t,” he says. “So racing on the track

makes a lot more sense if you’re really serious about it.” What’s more, he adds, is that at the track, emergency crews are on hand in case something goes wrong. “Were saying, ‘Come to the track and do it where it’s safe,’ ” Yee says. He and his partners are planning to incorporate an education campaign highlighting the dangers of street racing into future Darknights events.

Though popular, the Darknights alternative isn’t going to wipe out the action on the street. “That’s never, ever gonna happen,” Vervitas says, explaining: “There’s always going to be a situation where there’s heated argument and no one wants to waste their time and say, ‘We’ll settle this at the racetrack.’ Well pick a road, we’ll do it for this much and then we’ll go home.” On this point, racers and cops agree. Auld, a 20-year police veteran, says kids will always race cars, cops will always chase them, and bad things will sometimes happen. “I know that,” he says with a note of resignation, “for a fact.”