Opinion: There’s got to be a better way to address illegal street racing

Posted by on March 9th, 2021 at 3:18 pm

The morning after on NE Marine Drive.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The other day while biking on NE Marine Drive bike path northwest of Smith & Bybee Lakes I came across remnants of what looked like a wild night: Shards of plastic from broken car headlights and a large piece of a Ford Mustang fender. A few feet away from the path I rode on, the street was covered in circular skidmarks. It wasn’t the first time I’d come face-to-face with Portland’s street racing culture, and it probably won’t be the last.

The risk to public safety and the potential for police intervention to go terribly wrong is too high to ignore.

Groups of Portlanders have been getting together to show off tricked-out cars and raise hell on two wheels since the 1950s when hot rods were all the rage. The faces and the cars have changed a lot since then, but the spirit is the same. Unfortunately there’s also been several deaths and injuries at these events in recent years. According to news and police reports, they’re growing in size, and taking place in ever-riskier locations.

Back in November the Portland Police responded to one such meet-up in outer east Portland (Airport Way and 122nd) where hundreds of people and vehicles gathered. By the end of the night officers had sixteen vehicles towed, fourteen people (between the ages of 19 and 24) were arrested and three minors in a stolen car were released to their parents. They issued eight citations and used spike stripes on two vehicles when drivers tried to flee. The PPB referred to the event as a “street takeover”.

On other nights, big crowds have taken over high-profile locations like the Fremont and Interstate bridges, the Highway 26 tunnel under the west hills, and even busy urban intersections like Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and Columbia.

“While the dangerous and illegal speed racing events have been a problem for years in Portland,” the PPB wrote in a statement. “Lately participants and spectators have been more aggressive. There has been an uptick in street takeovers, where participants block traffic to perform stunts… PPB learned that the speed racing events were advertised on social media and invited participants from other states.”

Months ago while biking in that same area of Marine Drive late at night I saw dozens of people and their cars packed around the edges of a large parking lot. In the middle someone was spinning doughnuts and burning the rubber off their tires as a huge plume cloud of smoke drifted skywards. People were cheering and hanging out. It looked like everyone was having a really good time. I kept didn’t stick around long and as I pedaled home I was surprised at my reaction: I wasn’t mad about it at all. I figured, at least they were doing it in a safe place.

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I’ve been following the street racing trend for a few years. I worry about it because of the threat these out-of-control drivers pose to innocent bystanders — especially people not inside cars. But I also understand the attraction. I used to do a lot of dangerous stuff on the streets as a bored suburban kid. I understand the social draw, the adrenaline rush, and the positive community that can build around events like these. In some ways this burnout and street racing culture reminds me of the bike subcultures I’ve covered like the Zoobombers, massive group rides, freak bike gangs, and so on.

“From the beginning we learned that we aren’t the full solution, and there are some folks who don’t want to join the navy, they want to be pirates.”
— Mark Wigginton, PIR Interim Track Manager

As I rode home that one night I remember being happy that at least they were doing these dangerous things in a far-off industrial area where the only people at risk where those who signed up to be there.

We shouldn’t ignore the risks these events pose to innocent people; but it seems to me there could be other ways to address this issue that don’t include the typical whack-a-mole police enforcement response (and the huge invitation to injustice that represents).

When we outlawed skateboarding everywhere, we realized people still need places to skate so we built a network of skateparks. Can we do something similar for these street racing/burnout meet-ups?

After posting something about this on Twitter a few months ago I learned that illegal street racing has been on the radar of local leaders since the early 2000s.

Portland author Jeff Zurschmeide, who wrote a book on Portland International Raceway, said attracting young people who are enamored with driving fast was why the track started the Late Night Drags program. Nearly every Friday and Saturday night (March through October), PIR lets anyone get on the track to race friends and “sample the world of drag racing.” “We’ve even got a dedicated burnout box as part of the drag strip,” Zurschmeide added.

In fact, it was those same hot rod enthusiasts from the 1950s I mentioned above that used to meet in north Portland and hold illegal races in Vanport on the paved roads that eventually became PIR.

When I reached out to PIR Interim Track Manager Mark Wigginton he confirmed the Late Night Drags program was created in 2002 in direct response to street racing, “Because it was killing people around Portland.” But it has never really caught on with the folks it was created for, he said. “We see some crossover with the street racers, but not a lot,” he shared. “From the beginning we learned that we aren’t the full solution, and there are some folks who don’t want to join the navy, they want to be pirates.”

Zurschmeide agreed. “There are always those for whom it’s not a question of having no venue, but the thrill of doing their racing illegally.”

I agree with them about the outlaw tendencies. But maybe it’s time to re-brand the Late Night Drags for a new audience? Or find new messages — and messengers — to reach these young people? Are there other locations where these meet-ups and races could safely take place? We have two new leaders in charge of transportation (Jo Ann Hardesty) and parks (Carmen Rubio) in Portland. Perhaps they’ll see this as an opportunity for community engagement and collaboration?

Maybe I’m being a Pollyanna on this issue, but the status quo seems bad. As a very vulnerable road user, it sends a chill down my spine whenever I see these broken car parts and skidmarks on the street and I worry the way things are going we’ll only see more deaths and injuries. In my opinion, the risk to public safety and the potential for police intervention to go terribly wrong is too high to ignore.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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Nate
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Nate

15 years ago I was part of this group you’re talking about. We’d meet at the 24 hour Starbucks in beaverton for a few hours before heading out to the same industrial areas you mentioned people being arrested at. We knew PIR had drag racing available, and we went a few times, but nowhere near as often as we’d just go find some quiet road.

Our reason was two fold: the first and biggest was cost. We, like those arrested, were broke teenagers. And on a Friday night when you could fill your tank, cruise with friends, or for the same price just get entry in to PIR to maybe get a couple passes in, the answer was easy. It also took lots of convincing, you didn’t want to go to PIR alone, you wanted all your friends there like they’d be out at T6. Suddenly a night of hanging out has a bill of $1,000 associated with it. Cheaper than an inevitable tow/ticket, but planning wasn’t something we were known for as teens. That gets me to the other reason we rarely went: spontaneity.

But one thing not touched on here is that while the group is still very much fast car enthusiast based, the trends have changed to not even have a place like PIR on their radar. Even though we didn’t use PIR much when I was younger due to cost, it at least supported drag racing. The side shows/stunting aren’t ever going to be placated by those types of venues.

Detroit has set up space to support this, Atlanta, Sacramento and Kansas City have or are looking in to it. Portland should do the same.

Gary B
Guest
Gary B

While I am not nearly as sympathetic to these folks as JM is, I do appreciate learning more from your insights. I must say, the “broke teenagers” line amuses me. I’m far from broke (thankfully), and replacing tires on a car is a major cost for me. But as you said, planning isn’t really a teenager forte.

The Dude
Guest
The Dude

Here in Vancouver, British Columbia, they impound (take) the car when the police officer witnesses the racing, as well as when the driver is stopped for excessive speed. It has effectively controlled the problem in a place filled with high-end exotic sports cars, rendering it an occasional, isolated nuisance.

Immediately seizing the instrumentality of a crime is consistent with US Constitution due process and is done routinely in the US for drug crimes. Look up your “civil asset forfeiture” laws.

The answer is obvious. There is a clearly legal “better way.” It is only a matter of political will. BC has it and OR doesn’t, unfortunately.

Steve C
Guest
Steve C

Oh wow, I can’t believe we didn’t think of that? Oh wait, that’s what Oakland has been doing for 40 years and sideshows (what is depicted in the Oregonian video is not street racing per se) hasn’t stopped. It is not an effective deterrent apparently.

The Dude
Guest
The Dude

Maybe if Oakland PD weren’t spending so much of their time harassing people based on their race, they could get their actual job done.

Steve C
Guest
Steve C

Don’t necessarily disagree, in principle. The police would get a lot more public safety work done if they weren’t using racist tactics. But many people see the years of harsh and unsafe attempts to stop sideshows in Oakland as perfect examples of disproportionate and racist harassment of the POC community. It’s a complex issue, not simply solved by saying “arrest them and impound the cars!” You yourself say that to make this effective the police would need to stop using race based harassment, which to be honest, is unfortunately not going to stop any time soon. Calling on the police to stop this brings with it a lot more complexity than you make it seem from the original post.

The Dude
Guest
The Dude

Indeed. But that’s the dysfunction that plagues American society on every level. Good luck, cause the decline is accelerating.

Jerome Hafener
Guest
Jerome Hafener

That’s great. Love Vancouver (BC)! Unfortunately down here in southern Cascadia we don’t believe in enforcement. 🙁

Chopwatch
Guest
Chopwatch

Another thing needed is more frequent license/registration/insurance please stops for expired and missing plates given the number of hit and runs that happen. I think if we religiously stop people with tags and make sure their insurance is current, we can get a lot of nuisance activity vehicles off the road that illegally exists on the public right of way without insurance.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

Pretty simple solution. Video tape them doing illegal stuff. Stop them. Smash the cars. These folks identify with their cars as part of personality. Don’t just seize them. Part of the punishment should be forcing them to crush the car they love so much.

Chopwatch
Guest
Chopwatch

Keep in mind the lienholder has done nothing wrong. You’re hurting their collateral.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

I don’t care if a bank takes a hit.

bendite
Guest
bendite

Doesn’t it get declared an illegal assembly and the cops nuke the area with tear gas and fire away with munitions?

Marvin Himmelfarb
Guest
Marvin Himmelfarb

Only if the racers were trying to burn the police to death inside their cars.

DNP
Guest
DNP

Do you actually think that police resort to tear gas and munitions only when presented with life and death situations? They’ve killed when no threat has been made to their life. It stands to reasons they use non lethal force for even less. You wouldn’t need to attend or watch a single protest to be able to make that logical conclusion.

Todd/Boulanger
Guest
Todd/Boulanger

Well this Portland street racing bingeing gets chased over to Vancouver on the old SR-501 (Lower River Road) by PPB…so if its quiet in NoPo than its likely over in our hood…we can hear them gathering or dispersing…and visa versa. Its a car cancer (mental health disease) on both sides of the river and needs real leadership to end. (But I worry that the ‘excess car culture’ may have greater tacit support within local PDs like recent reports of support for alt right / capitol(s) take overs. ‘Boyz will be boys’.)
https://www.columbian.com/news/2020/may/23/illegal-street-racing-hits-vancouver-as-activity-spills-over-from-portland/

qqq
Guest
qqq

Definitely it would be nice to have some places to do it legally. Racing might be tough to accommodate anywhere but PIR, but meetups/drifting/etc. just need large paved areas without other people around, such as industrial areas have. People who are interested in participating would obviously be the best source of identifying what would work.

dwk
Guest
dwk

While on this subject, what little video exists of what looks like a street racer in training that jumped the curb and killed the 9 year old girl in Gresham. Absoluting crushing and little coverage of the “person” who jumped a curb a high speed ending the life of a little girl. Someone should cover it, another “stayed at the scene, gets away with it.”
This is the worst example of killed while walking on sidewalk in a long time. Somehow missing in all our violence in the city.
The mothers story is heartbreaking, enough to BAN cars.

dwk
Guest
dwk

Report this morning the little girls body was thrown 100 yards… No arrest made yet, no comment from Gresham police… WTF?

Drsdrs
Guest
Drsdrs

The rampant illegal racing culture was a significant factor that played into my decision to move out of St Johns. I couldn’t walk out of my house at night or open my windows without hearing revving engines and squealing tires in the distance. Even though the majority of the activity was concentrated in the industrial areas, the cars would frequently spill into residential neighborhoods before and after events. Most of the participant cars are heavily modified and extremely loud. For me, it was a serious quality of life issue to have to live near a street racing hot spot.

I wish we did more to enforce emissions controls (and illegal mufflers) in Oregon. Safety issues aside, you shouldn’t be able to get away with driving around in city streets with straight pipes. There should be mobile or fixed and dispersed tailpipe emission and sound monitoring. I know that Virginia and other states flag and pull over vehicles that are polluting due to deactivated or removed exhaust systems. People that are found to be violating emissions regulations on the street have to fix the problem and go to a deq site to prove that they are compliant. Oregon should do the same. Enforcement should not be limited to a biannual inspection at the time of registration renewal. But what vehicle laws are enforced these days?

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

I’ve been hearing a lot of Priuses (Prii?) around town with straight pipes these days…

drs
Guest
drs

Yes, though I think the catalytic converter theft is an unrelated issue, which is also a massive problem.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Sorry. That was the joke. Or, at least an attempt at one.

drs
Guest
drs

Sorry for missing the sarcasm

PTB
Guest
PTB

I’m personally super pissed by blacked out windows. This isn’t the Sun Belt. I’m on a bike or walking, I need to see you see me before I cross in front of you at a 4 way stop.

drs
Guest
drs

Those are illegal in Oregon, too, aren’t they?

Kittens
Subscriber
Kittens

It’s just another example of the sad decay of Portland and general descent into semi-anarchy.

Willful blocking of the public‘s passage was rightfully called out when we had the fires last summer and vigilantes set up roadblocks to “protect” their communities. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now.

Side note: the current DA is a really unfit for the office and needs to step aside. He has set a tone and agenda based on political expediency which has allowed this petty lawlessness to reign unchecked. .

Geoff Grummon-Beale
Guest
Geoff Grummon-Beale

The racing doesn’t just happen at night. Last fall I was riding back from Kelly Point on the Marine Drive path on a Sunday afternoon. People were drag racing on Marine Drive. The spectators/participants were all parked in the driveway of one of the businesses as well as ON the bike path, completely blocking it.

Audrey
Guest
Audrey

I agree with the article’s sentiment, especially the danger factor. I’ll add it also creates terrible noise pollution, having recently moved to N Portland and hearing 3+ hours of squealing tires from illegal street racing on Columbia Ave feels horribly invasive and frustrating. It’s all around awful.

Gary B
Guest
Gary B

I agree a safe(ish) place to do it is part of the solution. But I also want to note there are other impacts to the public. There are often nights where I can’t open my windows because of the sounds coming from T6. And I’m like a mile away! Pity the folks that are much closer. In an overheated house that you can’t cool down at night, it’s more than a trivial bother.

PIR operates under noise restrictions and pays into a fund for their noise impacts (basically a noise tax that benefits the community in other ways). If the City is to undertake street racing/stunt sites, they’d need to be quite remote.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

That’s the issue, though. I don’t know if it’s really practical to allow anyone to operate extremely loud cars in the middle of the night in the Metro area. I can’t think of a single spot that wouldn’t disrupt neighbors somewhere. Some things just need to be illegal.

Mark
Guest
Mark

So, PIR was put in after you moved there?

Opus the Poet
Guest

A big part of it is lack of space to do it legally, as the culture has changed over the years and now the sport of choice is drifting, which is more show than speed, or another case of style over substance. It is fun both to do and to watch, and can be done with minimal modifications to the cars used. Most cars only need suspension modifications that don’t impair street driving, and can actually make the cars easier to park because the wheels will allow for more steering angle. In fact there is a school of thought in the drift community that uses cars with minimal power and driver skill to get the car sideways instead of raw power to break the tires loose and hold the drift. So emissions-legal daily-driven cars that don’t burn up lots of money outside of tires which can burn off in as little as one session.

drs
Guest
drs

Sure, burning through tires rapidly can’t cause any problems at all, right?

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/12/common-tire-chemical-implicated-mysterious-deaths-risk-salmon

FDUP
Guest
FDUP

In some ways this is no different than Critical Mass, Chariot Wars or any large Pedalpalooza ride, as long as no one not participating is getting hurt, who cares?

drs
Guest
drs

These are multi ton vehicles that are traveling at extremely high rates of speed on roads that are shared with non participant vehicles, people on bikes and people on foot. If all they were doing was spinning donuts in closed lots, it wouldn’t be a huge safety issue. But these people pose a significant hazard to those around them that is in no way comparable to mass bicycle events. Also, the cars have other signification externalities that bicycles do not, including noise and air pollution.

Furthermore, there have been instances of non participants being killed by street racers in Portland in recent years. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.koin.com/news/crashes/police-apparent-speed-racing-event-preceded-deadly-st-johns-crash/amp/

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

Well, uh, people are getting hurt

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Innocent people are getting hurt and killed.

Mark
Guest
Mark

You had me until this:

hen we outlawed skateboarding everywhere, we realized people still need places to skate so we built a network of skateparks. Can we do something similar for these street racing/burnout meet-ups?

Um, let’s see, skateboard is people powered and frankly the snowflakes didn’t like the “riff raff” and got it “outlawed” everywhere. Skateboards are a valid means of transport. On the other hand, street racing or bro’s/ladies hanging out reving engines, burnouts, racing….not the same thing. At All. Cars are weapons and tools just like guns. We wouldn’t tolerate teens hanging out brandishing guns and just firing off one or two..right?

Street racing needs to be a straight up expensive proposition. Not a felony because make everything a felony these days. It needs to be a $10,000 ticket and a tow. Second time it’s 20,000 and impound again. Third…etc. It needs to be expensive.

Racing and hurt someone? 1,000,000 fine. Money gets these kids and their snowflake parents attention.

Oh, report street racing? You get 1 percent of of the fines issued….

Problem solved.

Barney
Guest
Barney

Reading the comments it sounds like people want more enforcement of the existing traffic laws. Hmmm, with the current “defund the police” mentality that exists in Portland I don’t see problems like this getting any better. Maybe send a social worker out to talk to the racers next time.

Adam
Guest
Adam

Jonathan, I appreciate the call for constructive solutions beyond deploying law enforcement. As contrary as drifting/street racing is to my values and aesthetics, it is way more popular than most probably realize. And, even though it is hard for me to see it, there’s gotta be some positive aspects worth facilitating.

JR
Guest
JR

My biggest problem is with the impromptu chases and races on neighborhood streets that I suspect are linked to the same participants. I live near an industrial area and they still drive dangerously fast on local streets in the area, so I’m not sure catering to very dangerous behavior in one place is going to erase or diminish the risks to others that they pose.

It shouldn’t be that hard to equip the police with a bunch of heavy vehicles to block routes of escape and confiscate all the participating vehicles for all involved, fine everyone involved, and continue doing it periodically so that the “fun” isn’t worth the risk. That said, this probably isn’t the highest priority for the police right now though. There seems to be an epidemic of gun violence gripping the city now.

drs
Guest
drs

Don’t know if you caught it, but OPB Think Out Loud just did a segment on street racing in Portland:
https://www.opb.org/article/2021/02/12/portland-police-confront-increased-street-racing/

JS
Guest
JS

Come on over to the Lents neighborhood and see how fun it can be. Said no one. Ever.

Emily
Guest
Emily

People have been doing this all over town, including in the church parking lot right next to our house. They don’t give a damn about other people’s safety. It’s extremely uncaring behavior and it’s extremely dangerous. There is no comparison between this and skateboarders and Zoobombers — skateboarders and bicyclists aren’t going to crash into people and KILL them. We are being terrorized and endangered in our OWN HOME, which we need to be a safe space for us and our foster children. If nothing else stops this behavior, then police enforcement is necessary to hold these people accountable to the risk that they pose to OTHER people. If they want to endanger themselves I don’t care, but they are not allowed to endanger others. Considering how irate bike proponents usual get about street safety, it strikes me as hypocritical to be an apologist for such dangerous behavior. It’s not just bicyclists who deserve to be safe in our city.