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


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 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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