It's 1 a.m. and the Briargate Shell station is shilling unleaded only. None of the station's dozen post-adolescent congregants knows whom, but "someone" played ring-and-run with the emergency fuel shut-off button.
Sgt. Catherine Buckley of the Colorado Springs Police Department's Falcon Division has seen this game before. She describes it as a retaliatory thumb in the face at police encroachment.
When the button was pushed, Buckley was on the side of the Shell lot quizzing Antoine Wallace, a 17-year-old Palmer High student, about his Mustang. Despite treads that look like a pair of '86 Air Jordans, Wallace denies he's been street racing -- not tonight, not ever. He tells Buckley he hates racing; that he's just trying to keep his nose clean.
"I come out here to have a good time, see what you have under your car, what's under the hood of that car, whatever," he says. "Kill time."
There are 10 Shell stations in Colorado Springs, but to anyone remotely familiar with local car culture, there's just one "Shell." Lit up like a ballpark on the southeast corner of North Academy and Briargate Boulevard, the station is an unlikely ground zero for an auto sport youth culture that police, business owners and residents deride as a murder scene in the making.
For their part, Shell regulars like Wallace see it as a place to kick it with their friends, show off their cars and maybe even buy gas. But later in the night, when traffic dies down and they see that red Acura, or the newbie who says his Eclipse does an 11-second quarter-mile, but has no time slip to back it up, well, maybe they'll head on east up Highway 83, do a quick check for oncoming traffic and ...
Different names, same game
The faces change, but the game stays the same: It's called street racing and it's as new to Colorado Springs as a Conway's Red Top cheeseburger. In the '60s and '70s, a generation now filling out AARP applications cruised Nevada in Fords, Mustangs and Corvettes. Palmer High was their base with races taking place on marked-off quarter-miles in unincorporated eastern parts of the city: Marksheffel, Judge Orr and Peaceful Valley roads, to name just a few. But as the city's population shifted northeast the strip of destiny became Academy, with what's now called "the lap" extending 10 miles from the Briargate Shell to Team Honda at Fountain.
They're known as euro racers or import fans, wanna-be gangstas mocked as "icy hot stuntaz" in reference to a satirical Web site. Mostly male and between 17 and 25, they repudiate labels, preferring to say they're just into cars -- fast cars -- ones that do a quarter-mile in 13 seconds or less.
Most prefer imports: Acuras, Hondas, Mitsubishis, Subarus or the occasional domestic like a Ford Focus. For both speed and fashion, they're modified or "modded" with a host of sartorial tweaks. From a street racer's perspective a straight-from-the-factory car is a blank canvas and the challenge lies in making it both faster and unique.
Typical mods include turbochargers, intakes to bring oxygen into the tank and exhausts to suck it out, and crack a loud roar. Inside the dash, extra gauges monitor fuel pressure, rpm, and air-fuel ratio.
But flashy windshield lights and aluminum wing spoilers, a fire extinguisher visible through the rear window, these are marks of a "ricer," the subculture's supreme dig at car owners whose decoration is not backed up with acceleration. While the term originally referred to a Japanese import, over the years it has been extended to include a cross section of auto poseurs.
As Adam, a 22-year-old who works in computer tech support explains, "If you see it for sale at Pep Boys, AutoZone, Best Buy or Circuit City it's rice; if it says Fast and Furious on it, it's rice."
Rice or no rice, summer means comfortable night weather, kids out of school, and car shows busting out in parking lots all along Academy. Not just at Shell, but Albertaco's, Wendy's and Best Buy -- kids hang out until they're ushered along to the next spot.
"The problem isn't kids hanging out in parking lots, but the lawless behavior that it leads to," says Sgt. Buckley. A nine-year veteran of the CSPD, Buckley heads Operation Dragnet (CSPD's street racing task force), which has over a dozen officers. Some volunteer for weekend overtime; others simply work the detail, writing warrants for common violations like illegal engine exhausts and suspension -- not to mention a host of speeding and traffic violations.
As a gaggle of racing bikes flanked by shiny import cars cruise north on Academy, Buckley rolls her eyes, "There ya' go ..." she says, the impossibility of playing cat to every Honda-driving mouse visible all over her face.
While the wide, busy lanes of Academy boast a heavy police presence, what transpires within Shell's parking lot is a different story. Last month the station was home to a stabbing and a shooting, both of which proved non-fatal. According to Sgt. Buckley, the station logged 85 calls for service last year.
Ben Harms delivers milk for Royal Crest Dairy and is a five-night-a-week regular at Shell. Of last month's shooting, the 18 year-old recalls the gunman firing off rounds while his friend shouted from the driver's seat:
"Hear dat bang? Ya hear dat bang? Dat shit is westside. Ya hear dat bang, it's westside."
CSPD arrested the gunman minutes later on Vickers and Academy. Harms describes it as "just drama."
COSR and company
If Shell is a meeting point for strangers situated at "the lap's" natural turnaround, then Grocery Warehouse -- or GW as it's known -- on Powers and Constitution is a destination in its own right. While it seems to be just another well-lit parking lot hosting another informal car show, socially it's a different scene. After a Saturday evening of frenetic summer storms, the 20 or so young men and women assembled there aren't interested in racing on damp streets. Rather, their "meet" seems more like a tailgate party sans the beer and barbecue.
Most of the assembled know each other through the Web site www.COSR.com (Colorado Street Racing) and throughout the night they identify themselves by Web handles like Road Dog, Hybrid and Cobra.
While women were once assigned to play Daisy Duke to racing men, the GW crowd includes young women with more than a working knowledge of cars. Nadine is 26 and is known by the handle Vicious Kitty. Her COSR.com post concludes with her signature boasting: "I may be a bitch, but I'm the pick of the litter."
Nadine came into the car world through her dad, with whom she restored a '56 Dodge Coronet, and later drag-raced with her then-boyfriend at Denver's Bandimere Speedway. By day, she works tech support at Hewlett Packard. When she's not trying to put new lowering springs on her car, she's one of a handful of administrators on COSR.com who make sure the Web posters stay on point and don't engage in excessive shit-talking.
"A pain in the ass," is how she describes being one of a handful of racing women. "For about the first year I got nonstop private messages, guys asking me my age and if I was single," she said. "I'm like, uhh, that's not why I'm here."
Nadine describes COSR.com as a community where the women who know cars are quickly distinguishable from what she refers to as "the car hos" who milk the scene for male attention.
COSR boasts 5,000 members, hosts a plethora of discussion forums and has a handful of paying advertisers. It's an online community of gossip, vituperative bickering and technical queries. It includes discussion boards for various makes of cars and both street racing and its more respectable equivalent, track drag racing; rally; and autocross.
The Web site was the brainchild of Mike Munson, better known by his handle Casper. Though he's sold his racing car to devote his time to his girlfriend and burgeoning Web design business, the 26-year-old Fountain resident never thought his experiment would have a life of its own.
"I started it because I was here, I like cars, and I wanted to meet people who were interested in the things I'm interested in," Munson says. "Since I'm a geek at heart, my way of finding people is through computers.
"I can't believe it's gotten as big as it's gotten. It just blows my mind every day."
COSR also includes forums where members can pose queries to local law enforcement. State Trooper Mark Butaud has been fielding questions on COSR for the last two years known under the handle "Smokey." The Texas-born trooper felt the need to clear up some of the flagrant misconceptions about driving laws he encountered from young drivers. "It's more of a helpful thing than to tell them "you're bad, you're wrong," Butaud says.
The crew at GW speaks in a rhetoric fused with the kind of sectarian rancor found within the swells of misunderstood subcultures. While they're happy to correct misconceptions about their hobby of choice, they're none too keen on providing last names, giving fodder to law enforcement.
Street racing, they claim, has been maligned by the likes of The Fast and the Furious films and the accompanying media frenzy. The image of young kids speeding through traffic and the glorification of badass adolescent invulnerability has renewed an interest in the sport from the wrong people -- those, they claim, who can regularly be found at Shell.
"When you talk about the guys hanging out at Shell you're talking about little wanna-be gangsters that are bringing out guns that aren't about cars -- they're just about showing off," said Dan, a 25-year call response specialist at Hewlett Packard.
His housemate Eric offers another distinction. "We do things to our cars that we do to our cars. Not that we saw in a movie, not that Import Tuner magazine taught us, not that some guy told us, we actually work on our own cars."
By way of example, Dan hails his housemate Mike who built the fuel rods for his Porsche.
For his part, Mike hangs at GW for social reasons, to see friends and talk shop. After four years in the Marines, civilian life wasn't quenching his adrenaline thirst so he took to cars. Strangely enough, he hates street racing.
"I hate quarter-mile racing; I cannot stand it. It takes no talent. I'd rather be on a road course for a good half an hour, get a good half-hour rush, then have a 15- or 14- or 13- or, if you're cool, 11-second run."
Though he's been at it five years, Mike says his autocross racing skills are pretty weak, despite occasionally darting to Phoenix for professional instruction. When asked how he funds his habit, he responds with a smug smile, "I'm in real estate."
Though none of the COSR crew are interested in offering up their racing locations to a reporter, they're quick to note that they take precautions: They never race in traffic; they use walkie-talkies and Nextel pagers to maintain constant communication; and they post lookouts at either end of the road to avert potential accidents.
As Greg, aka Road Dog, says, "It's about doing something stupid as smart as possible."
When apprised of their crowd's safety measures, Sgt. Buckley is not impressed. "They might not think they're endangering anyone, but my concern is 'what happens when someone comes in from a side street?' You can't control a hundred percent of it."
In the pawnshop, cheap hotel, and auto body no man's land that is East Platte Avenue between Union and Chelton, there's no shortage of old-timers who'll tell you that street racing is nothing new. Many of yesteryear's racers have found their way as independent businessmen. Darrell Roberts of Body Shop Supplies, Gary Pace at American Speed Center and Mike Kelly of Kelly Optical are but a few of the latter-day road warriors who fondly recall the velocity of their youth.
Dave Pareso and his son Scott run Joule, an import tuning shop that peddles a host of auto accessories. Dave couldn't care less about 13-second Civics and war stories about North Academy.
"These kids didn't make this up," he says baffled at the thought. "Street racing has been around forever." Silver haired and portly, Pareso is sure to mention that, for all its high-fangled gadgetry, his son's generation is none the quicker. "Back then we had 11-second cars, today they're driving 14- or 15- second cars," he says incredulously.
Daryll Tennant remembers when races on Garden of the Gods Road drew 300 cars, when the cat-and-mouse game with the sheriff seemed little more than innocent fun.
"I never grew out of it," Tennant says, noting with a chuckle, "It's awfully hard to get on your kid's ass for doing something you used to do."
Downtown, in a forgotten corner across Nevada Avenue from the Pioneers Museum, Lanier Henry sits behind the counter of his speed shop, flanked by auto innards and memories.
Racing since his soapbox derby days in the late '50s, Henry's street racing past is not something he's proud of. But like the crew at Grocery Warehouse, he also insists he never did it in traffic.
Henry remembers weekends in the early '70s when he could net between $300 and $700 racing his "little brown 55 Chevy," which he recalls with a reverence normally reserved for a dead parent.
Unlike the kids at GW, Henry raced only for money and, he claims, never courted competition, which often came in the form of Fort Carson GIs itching to show up the locals.
"If they didn't want to bet money, you'd tell them to 'take mommy's car home.' That always stirred it up really good," he says with a smirk.
Henry preferred to race legally on a track, at PMI in Pueblo, Bandimere in Denver, and the gone-but-not-forgotten Colorado Springs International Speedway. "It's like a drug, when I hit 180 ... I'm giggling."
Like many of the older racers, Henry expresses a palpable contempt for the breed of drivers found on North Academy who he sees as byproducts of Hollywood mythmaking and a lack of legal auto-sport alternatives.
On this point, every faction of the city's disperate car culture is united: Colorado Springs needs a racetrack. Currently, Pueblo's PMI offers a monthly night catering to import cars, while Denver's Bandimere Speedway offers a Wednesday night open session. Local street racers complain that Pueblo is poorly maintained and privileges muscle cars, that Denver is a long drive and that an entry ticket of $35 might yield only a few runs, buffered by hour-long wait times.
Why jump through all the costly hurdles when with a little stealth, you can get your speed fix for free?
Six years ago, the city of San Diego found 16 reasons. In 1997, any given Friday night found 3,500 racing throughout the city, resulting in 16 street racing-related deaths. At the time, statistics showed that for every 1,000 racers, 53 would be killed or seriously injured.
In 1998, a community organization called RaceLegal ran its first race at Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers. With two parallel eighth-mile tracks, their near-weekly races find 300 participants every Friday night. Racers must wear helmets, pass tech inspection, and pay $15. For this, they can race up to 20 times a night.
Funded by California's Office of Traffic Safety, RaceLegal claims to have reduced street racing by 89 percent.
"We changed the paradigm," says Dr. Steven Bender, RaceLegal's principal investigator. "It's wonderful to offer an alternative for kids; you weren't going to do it without closing the loop and that involves law enforcement at the top -- that's your hammer."
In addition to hosting races, San Diego imposes hefty fines, a six-month driver's license suspension and 100 hours of community service on those convicted of street racing. Those sentenced have the option of doing their time with RaceLegal. Bender refers to these volunteers, who are converted to legal drag racing after their stint is through, as the "come to Jesus" crowd.
Part of Bender's approach involved hiring a press clipping service to catalog the number of deaths related to illegal racing. Getting the numbers on injuries and fatalities, Bender claims, is difficult but essential in gaining the institutional support from local and state government.
"It may sound morbid but you have to capitalize on tragedy," Bender says.
The CSPD's street racing task force is working on a database to track racing-related warrants, violations and accidents. Currently there are no existing statistics on the number of Springs-based street racers or street-racing accidents.
Wake up call
On June 8th, the Springs racing community received a near-fatal wake-up call when 20-year-old Jake Holmes wrapped his brand-new Mitsubishi Evolution 8 around a tree on North Briargate Boulevard. According to the police report, the car left skid marks of nearly 500 feet and was traveling at an estimated speed of 115-130 miles per hour. His friends say that Holmes wasn't "racing" per say, but breaking in his new ride. Earlier that night, he was seen at Shell.
Holmes spent over two comatose weeks in Penrose Hospital, where he suffered two heart attacks. Recently featured in the Gazette, Holmes was characterized as repentant, saying he would race again legally on a track. However, under the handle "Raverthug" on CSOR.com, Holmes's online remarks were anything but contrite. Displeased about the online bulletin board's discussion of his wreck, he posted the following:
"Only punks and bitches talk shit behind a computer screen so if your [sic] one of these punk bitches that really has something to say, come to the Shell Station at Briargate and Academy every night around midnight and say what you got to say there and guaranteed you'll be leaving with a mud hole stomped in your ass."
Kay don't play
For a station that's mostly out of gas, Shell, after midnight, is thriving: racing bikes, or "crotch rockets," hang in the corner by the air pumps, while a steady stream of cars crowd the pumps and the parking lot. Despite their speedy aesthetics, none seem to be in much of a hurry and the "No Loitering" placards are given about as much respect as an FBI videotape warning.
Shell's manager Kay Conales tells Sgt. Buckley that a regime change is underway. Although tonight is her first night, Conales has managed other stations. The staff of the last three years, Conales claimed, was culpable in the transformation from a gas station into an automotive high school hallway.
"I don't play. You will find that out," Conales tells Buckley. "The kids are out having fun, they're coming in and buying sodas and waters, that boosts my sales, that's great. But they're not going to cause havoc for me. I'm pretty loud and boisterous and get what I want. And I bitch until I do."
Buckley says she's happy to see the station under new management but she concedes that Academy Boulevard does not want for empty parking lots. "We find that when we kick them out of one place, they just go to another lot."
Even if a racetrack is built, popular opinion on COSR is that even though it will thin out the traffic on Academy, street racing will endure.
As COSR member "Rice boy" explains: "It's been around since the wheel was invented and it will always be here. If you get two people on the street that think their cars are fast you're going to get some kind of competition. Most people outgrow it and take the racing to the track or stop altogether but there's nothing anyone can do to stop street racing -- period."
Note: COSR.com is currently up for sale. Its owner and administrator Mike Munson, aka Casper, told the Independent that he is moving to Virginia with his girlfriend and is no longer racing. Meanwhile, some former COSR members are turning to sites like http://highaltitudeimports.com and www.importracer.net. According to a former COSR.com administrator, a new incarnation of COSR is already in the works and will be up shortly. The domain name has yet to de announced.
Colorado Springs Police Department estimates that between 200 and 500 cars participate in illegal street racing and/or aggressive driving on Friday and Saturday nights.
During the opening weekend of 2 Fast 2 Furious, the CSPD issued more than 120 street racing-related tickets.
In 2002 CSPD issued 300 street racing-related tickets.
Street racing-related driving penalties
Street racing: 12 points
Spectating (at a street race): 12 points
Eluding police: 12 points
Running a red light: 4 points
Failure to signal a turn: 2 points
Reckless driving: 8 points
Careless driving: 4 points
Speeding 10 mph over the posted limit: 4 points
Speeding 40 mph over the posted limit: 12 points
violations: $45 fine
violations: $45 fine
Illegal suspension (less than 12 inches from license plate to the ground)
Lights any color other than white or amber
Green lights anywhere on vehicle
More than 4 inches of tint on the top of windshield
Exhaust system altered to be louder than factory standard
Tires extending more than four inches from wheel rim
Lights on car hood
Tires not running on weight of the vehicle
License plate illuminated with neon lights
Stereo system audible from a distance of 100 feet or more