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Addicted to the rush of the race

  • Story Highlights
  • Illegal racing at "ridiculous" levels in U.S., one law enforcement official says
  • No national database to track street racing arrests
  • Street racers say they're drawn by adrenalin rush
  • Police struggle to find appropriate deterrents
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By Brad Lendon
CNN
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(CNN) -- Gavin Simcoe hadn't planned on nearly killing himself. He was just with a couple of buddies that night of September 25. But street racing came up. There was trash talking about whose car was faster.

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The wreck of Gavin Simcoe's 1993 Honda sits outside a Washington state high school last year.

"I said, 'I think mine can beat yours,' " Simcoe says. His friends agreed, "let's go out and do it then."

They chose a straight two-lane road. It had hills, something Simcoe needed for a running start because first gear in his 1993 Honda Civic EX didn't work.

Simcoe says he hit 110 mph really fast. But then, headlights. A car was coming out of a driveway. He swerves, rolls. He feels twigs scratch his face and envisions his parents at his funeral.

"I was thinking, not me, not me," Simcoe says. "I really thought I was going to die."

Illegal street racing has reached what one law enforcement official calls "ridiculous" levels in the United States, causing a number of deaths. Simcoe knows he's lucky to be alive.

"The fire department told me that when they see this, nine out of 10 times the kid's dead, and if they're alive then they're gonna be missing some limbs or they're gonna be a paraplegic," Simcoe says. He had a concussion, some scratches and bruises.

A few months later, the thrill of racing wasn't gone. Yeah, he'd started lecturing others on the dangers of street racing, but he also watched "The Fast and the Furious," the Hollywood hit that some experts say has brought street racing to new heights of popularity.

He wants to race again -- this time on a track. "Racing to me is like adrenalin," Simcoe says.

Authorities say more and more drivers are seeking that adrenalin high.

"The last four years it's been out of control," says Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kim Miller, public affairs officer for Troop D in Orlando.

In the 10 days ending January 1, four people in her jurisdiction died, including a teen bicyclist just riding alongside the road.

There also have been deaths in other parts of the country.

There's no database tracking street racing deaths, but a Google search hints at the scope. Police say a 21-year-old man was killed while street racing in Copiague, New York, on January 6; a Texas City, Texas, teen killed in late December racing his best friend; a 60-year-old Bakersfield, California, grandmother killed in an accident with street racers in October; a 15-year-old boy killed in an accident with street racers in Elk Grove, California, in June. Those cases are found just in the first 30 matches on a Google search of "street racing deaths."

The California Highway Patrol says it gave out 697 citations for participating in a "speed contest" in 2006. Those numbers were down from 2005, but CHP spokesman Tom Marshall says those statistics cover only highway patrol jurisdictions, not local surface streets where many races occur. Video Watch a discussion about surge in street racing »

Bryan C. Harrison, president of Evo Street Racers, which runs a Web site on street racing, says the lack of official statistics makes it impossible to say if more or fewer people are racing and dying.

"I often caution anyone who claims a specific trend ... because often it is very misleading and statistically inaccurate," Harrison says, but "one death is one too many."

How they roll

Police and street racing experts say there are at least three types of challenges:

• spontaneous contests between drivers who wind up at the same red light or stop sign on public roads;

• roving parties where racers and their followers take over highways;

• planned events where racers stage contests for money, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. See how street racing poses problems on U.S. roads »

The first two kinds give those who think of themselves as true street racers a bad name, says Johnny Wong, a 21-year-old Pasadena, California, man who says he's been street racing since 1999.

"I would never participate in a spontaneous race because to me that's dumb," Wong says. "It's just a macho thing. I've seen a lot of stories on the news where people die from that, and the racers never knew each other.

"I would bet money that half the street racing statistics come from stupid kids street racing to see who can push the pedal harder," he says.

Wong says he organizes so-called controlled races, choosing remote locations with few cars -- or law enforcement.

"The reason I get respect in the community is because ... I try to ... keep things as safe as possible," Wong says.

High-stakes gamble

Safe or not, Wong says he knows the races are still illegal. Like Simcoe, he's addicted to the rush.

"It's like going to Vegas, putting a $1,000 down on roulette and sky-diving all at once," he says. "It's about getting there as fast as possible, just knowing at any point you could get arrested, there's a lot of money on the line, your life is on the line."

Simcoe tells other high schoolers about his accident, but he has doubts it's working.

"My friend that was racing me said there's no way he's ever gonna do that again," Simcoe says. But he still hears others who talk about driving more than 100 mph, in challenges or just to get to work.

It's a fever thing

Simcoe says nothing short of a million police officers can stop street racing. Everyone knows that won't happen.

Orange County, Florida, sheriff's deputy Mark Davis says on an average Saturday night his department gets 25 to 50 calls reporting street racing -- mostly for roving parties called "La Fiebre," Spanish for the fever. Video Watch racers compete in Florida police video »

They attract everyone from hard-core racers competing for money to families with children.

"We caught one kid who was racing and his aunt was out there with him watching the races," Davis says. "I have had minivans out there with children in car seats in the back at one in the morning in an industrial park watching these races."

Davis says when police show up,"it's like kicking a beehive. ... It's just complete mayhem," racers and spectators speed away, closing down intersections, blocking off businesses as they move to the next spot, causing accidents along the way.

At the new secret site, "La Fiebre" participants dispense their own justice, he says. Fights and weapons are common. Davis says Florida law prevents police pursuits in these cases, making the job of law enforcement more difficult.

Law, schmaw

Florida is one of the few places with laws targeting street racing, but conviction is difficult because prosecutors must prove there was competition, says Miller, the Florida trooper.

Many cases are prosecuted under reckless driving or speeding statutes, experts say, and that makes tracking illegal street racing difficult.

It also makes finding appropriate deterrents difficult.

Kenneth Peak, a University of Nevada professor who co-authored a Department of Justice report on street racing, says laws targeting those who watch street racing have had some success, with some spectators facing fines of several hundred dollars.

Authorities in Ontario, California, last year tried crushing cars confiscated from illegal street racers. Video Watch as windows pop, metal bends in car crusher »

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In Pasadena, Wong says crushing cars scares racers enough to have some effect, but there's no solution.

"Making all these laws -- to me it's pointless," Wong says, "because the more boundaries you put up, the more people want to race. The people who are driven by it -- it's a bigger rush knowing the risks." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Rachel Barth contributed to this report

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