In the fast and fa­tal clutch of street rac­ing

The Guardian - - WORLD - An­drew Gum­bel

It was just an­other sum­mer Fri­day night in Cal­i­for­nia’s “In­land Em­pire”, the dusty sub­urbs sprawl­ing east of Los An­ge­les where scores of mainly young men get their kicks from stag­ing street races on lonely stretches of road.

Some­times, these il­le­gal car races are semi-or­gan­ised events, with heavy bet­ting and dozens of ex­tra ve­hi­cles de­ployed to block off the des­ig­nated route and form an earlyalert sys­tem if the cops show up.

This time, though, it was to all ap­pear­ances a spur-of-the-mo­ment race – a dare be­tween two ve­hi­cles speed­ing into the set­ting sun along a stretch of the 60 free­way. One car, ac­cord­ing to po­lice, was a late-model Honda Civic. The other was a white BMW with five pas­sen­gers, in­clud­ing a woman who was seven months preg­nant and her fi­ance.

All of them were 21 or younger. All had driven out from San Bernardino, a strug­gling, heav­ily Latino city 20 miles to the north.

A cou­ple of miles out­side Moreno Val­ley, just short of a Wal­mart and the first lines of uni­form homes typ­i­cal of the area, the BMW hit the free­way’s cen­tral bar­rier and flipped over. The two young men in the front flew out of the car, po­lice said, and landed in the cen­tral reser­va­tion, where of­fi­cers found their bod­ies.

The young cou­ple, 20-year-old Airyana Luna and 21-year-old Valentino Ramos, died trapped in the back seats. The fifth pas­sen­ger, a 19-year-old woman, some­how es­caped with just mi­nor cuts.

Two weeks on, in­ves­ti­ga­tors are still piec­ing to­gether ex­actly what hap­pened – and are look­ing ur­gently

for the oc­cu­pants of the Civic. Po­lice are also in­ter­view­ing what­ever wit­nesses they can find and scour­ing so­cial me­dia, where street rac­ing of­ten takes on a sec­ond life.

“We just hope some­one will come for­ward and tell us what hap­pened,” said Sgt David Robles of the Cal­i­for­nia high­way pa­trol.

It is a de­press­ingly fa­mil­iar la­ment from law en­force­ment work­ing in a part of Cal­i­for­nia where street rac­ing – in­spired by The Fast and the Fu­ri­ous films, and by a dearth of op­por­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple – has be­come ex­tremely pop­u­lar. Po­lice say they get calls about street races ev­ery day. Some­times they stum­ble upon them and break them up. Some­times, the street rac­ers block their path un­til the rac­ing ve­hi­cles have made their get­away. And, some­times, peo­ple die. In May, a Honda Ac­cord rac­ing in the wrong lane of a two-lane coun­try road south of Moreno Val­ley hit an on­com­ing ve­hi­cle on a hill, killing two boys aged six and eight.

In 2016, a street-rac­ing car struck a UPS de­liv­ery lorry on a free­way six miles south-east of down­town Los An­ge­les, caus­ing the lorry to fly into the air and then ex­plode as it col­lided with two other ve­hi­cles. Three peo­ple died, and four oth­ers were in­jured.

Some­times, the dan­ger is from cars per­form­ing dan­ger­ous tricks. In late 2015, more than 100 peo­ple con­gre­gated in the same in­dus­trial area where the UPS lorry ex­ploded to watch driv­ers per­form­ing dough­nuts. One of the ve­hi­cles hit an­other car and killed three peo­ple, in­clud­ing a 15-year-old.

Some vic­tims’ rel­a­tives have set up pres­sure groups to stop teenagers join­ing street races – and to lobby law en­force­ment to stop them. “No par­ent should ever have to feel the hor­ri­ble pain and empti­ness of bury­ing their child,” one such group, Street Rac­ing Kills, says.

Hun­dreds of peo­ple are be­lieved to have died in street races in the Los An­ge­les area since 2000, but be­cause no spe­cific records were kept no­body knows for sure.

The Cal­i­for­nia high­way pa­trol be­gan track­ing street rac­ing only in 2016. Since then it has recorded about 700 races a year in Los An­ge­les county alone. (Moreno Val­ley is in neigh­bour­ing River­side county.) Races known as “takeovers” – when ve­hi­cles block pub­lic streets – can in­volve 40 ve­hi­cles.

Robles said that the River­side of­fice of the high­way pa­trol had set up a task­force that reg­u­larly pa­trolled known rac­ing sites, in ad­di­tion to responding to calls.

“Rac­ing hap­pens through­out the county,” he said. “Some of the favourite spots are in­ter­sec­tions in re­mote ar­eas – places with no law en­force­ment,” he said.

When the rac­ers stay close to the big towns, po­lice stand a chance to catch them. Ear­lier this month, au­thor­i­ties in River­side staged a crack­down, im­pound­ing eight ve­hi­cles and ar­rest­ing eight peo­ple.

River­side county, how­ever, is vast, and stretches more than 150 miles across the Colorado desert to Ari­zona. “It’s too big,” Robles said. “We don’t have the man­power to keep our eyes out ev­ery­where.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: LAWRENCE K HO/GETTY IM­AGES

Crowds and cars gather for a street race in Los An­ge­les, where po­lice have record 700 races a year since 2016

Valentino Ramos and his girl­friend Airyana Luna died while street rac­ing

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