SUN CITY CENTER — It was a year and a half ago when the driver of what resembled a red 1950s Ford pickup truck first got the attention of Deputy Rob Thornton.
Positioned along Del Webb Boulevard with his radar gun in hand, Thornton checked for drivers who dared go faster than 30 miles per hour. His radar gun flashed 28, but there wasn't a vehicle on the road. The old Ford look-alike, driven by Richard Mooney, was actually a souped-up golf cart.
In Sun City Center, golf carts can travel surface roads as long as drivers don't go faster than 19 miles per hour. Going faster is not only illegal, but could result in serious injury if the driver gets into an accident.
"The brakes on these things were designed to be used on a grass golf course," Thornton said.
As the community resource deputy, it's Thornton's job to patrol the roads. In Sun City Center, that means keeping an eye on the thousands of golf carts that mingle with traffic.
Thornton treats golf cart drivers the same as other motorists. He frequently pulls them over for running stop signs and has even arrested two people in six years for driving under the influence.
Many of Thornton's most elusive traffic offenders, though, are those breaking the speed limit in their golf carts. The day he clocked Mooney speeding, Thornton gave chase. But before the deputy could catch him, the 72-year-old turned onto a golf course and was out of sight.
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Between 4,000 and 6,000 Sun City Center area residents, about 25 percent of the population, own golf carts, said Thornton, who assisted with the community's annual voluntary golf cart inspections this week.
Most of the golf carts aren't powerful enough to break the speed limit, but some owners have had their motors swapped out for something faster.
Frances Lex has lived in New York City and Oklahoma City. But she said neither had traffic as dangerous as speeding golf cart drivers create in Sun City Center. "I guess they have a heavy foot, but they scare me sometimes," said Lex, 69, who uses her golf cart for shopping and trips to the pool.
Snow bird Pradeep Nijhawan uses his $8,000 four-seater golf cart to run errands. He travels around 15 miles per hour, and if he needs to go faster he takes his car. "I've seen some guys who have these souped-up carts and they'll just pull right into the left lane and go zooming by," said Nijhawan, 61. "They should be aware of the law."
Thornton gets calls every week from residents about speeding golf carts. Most complaints come from other golf cart drivers.
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Alexis Anderson, who owns West Coast Golf Cars in Sun City Center with her husband, said after-market accessories like fancy tires, shiny rims and brush guards are popular among her customers. She also gets a lot of requests for souped-up motors. But she refuses to sell a golf cart that goes faster than 20 miles per hour. It's not worth the liability, she said, in an area that sees one or two golf cart crashes a year.
"We've had people turn these things over when they're turning a corner because they're going too fast," Anderson said.
But when the Andersons say no, all customers have to do is drive down the road to another shop. At Sun City Golf & Cars, customers can have a powerful motor installed, but first they have to sign a waiver saying they won't use the golf cart on public roads. "You have to take their word for it," store owner Barry Klawans said.
Ray's Golf Carts (formerly called Rudy's Golf Carts) will also install faster motors, but with the understanding that the customer will obtain a license plate, which is required for golf carts that go faster than 20 miles per hour.
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About six months after Richard Mooney hopped on the golf course, escaping Thornton, the deputy finally caught him. He was speeding again.
Thornton gave Mooney a ticket for fleeing the first time and a citation for driving without a tag. A month ago, Thornton caught Mooney speeding in his golf cart yet again. He now faces a criminal violation of driving an unregistered vehicle, Thornton said.
Mooney, who didn't return the Times' phone calls for comment, seems to be as fed up with the speeding issue as Thornton is.
"He cussed me out like a sailor," the deputy said.
Kevin Smetana can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2439.