In the fast and fatal clutch of street racing
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.”
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