Police raids aimed at illegal street racing in St. Petersburg — and those watching the races

ST. PETERSBURG

First came the wheelies.

Two motorcycles sped back and forth along Fourth Street N as Saturday turned into Sunday. The riders leaned back on their back wheels, showing off as hundreds watched along the road.

Then two Honda Civics spun their tires in the northbound lanes. It was the night's first race.

A beat-up coupe in primer gray flew down the road after them. The tires smoked and screeched as the driver executed a high-speed skid, spinning 180 degrees through a U-turn. Drifting was popular with the night's crowd.

But then Fourth Street N has always been a place to see and be seen. Of course, no one is allowed to race, or pop a wheelie, or park on the side of the road until the sun comes up. They do it anyway.

The crowd cheered as the gray coupe whipped by again, the rear end missing them by mere feet.

Then they were all running for their cars.

Police cruisers raced down the interstate ramp, lights flashing, to block the roadway. Suddenly Fourth Street N was like a mall parking lot on Christmas Eve.

Officers blocked the north end and any hopes of escape onto I-275. But as the drivers turned to flee south to Gandy Boulevard, it dawned on them that it's a trap.

More red and blue lights flashed in the distance.

Busted.

• • •

As the Courtney Campbell Parkway is to Clearwater, so too is Fourth Street N to St. Petersburg: a haven for two- and four-wheeled recklessness.

The stretch of Fourth from I-275 to the Inlet Bay at Gateway apartment complex is flat and straight, four lanes surrounded by nothing but grass and water.

It's a popular fishing spot, but better known as a hangout, especially for the car culture crowd.

But the complaints have been piling up again. The roadway is a public nuisance and a disaster waiting to happen, said St. Petersburg police Sgt. Karl Lounge.

"There's a complete disregard for safety," he said. "You've got vehicles completely sliding out of control. A motorcycle popping a wheelie at 80, 90 mph has no control. And the entire street is lined up with pedestrians standing up in the roadway."

Earlier in the month, officers had swooped in and arrested four people on misdemeanor racing charges. Hundreds of spectators tried to scurry away. But it was too late.

Undercover officers had already videotaped their license plates. Days later, 130 drivers got $30 parking tickets in the mail. The signs there warn that it's illegal to park along Fourth Street N from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

But police changed tactics on Saturday and Sunday — and targets. This time they aimed for the spectators. Street racing is a crime, but watching one also carries its own penalty.

Being a spectator to street racing is a civil infraction, a $151 ticket and three points placed against a driver's license.

• • •

The crowd swelled by the minute as midnight approached. They were mostly young, some middle-aged. There even was a 12-year-old kid with his dad.

The air was hot and humid, and thick with paranoia. Everyone was still spooked from the last raid. Many believed a Times reporter and photographer were actually cops.

They covered their license plate tags with towels and bits of cardboard. It seemed to be the only lesson gleaned from getting those tickets in the mail.

The trap was sprung at 1:20 a.m. Sunday. Soon thick lines of small imports and pickup trucks stretched at least a mile.

Angel Rosa, 18, just graduated from Freedom High School in Tampa. He voiced a common excuse: He was just passing by.

Rosa said he was on his way to Derby Lane and wasn't there for the races. He and his friends leaned against his gold 1991 Toyota Corolla, stuck in the middle of the line.

"It's hot, we're getting bit up," he said, "and I'm getting a fine for nothing."

Dozens of people declined to speak with a Times reporter on the record, but their complaints fell along several lines:

Many denied they were watching any racing. Many complained that the police and the state statute were heavy-handed. Some denied the scene was at all dangerous.

Everyone seemed to have this in common, though: No one knew they could be cited just for watching a street race.

And no one had a good excuse.

"Just passing by" was the most common excuse. Some said they didn't know there was street racing going on there.

Some gave up on the line and parked along the trees to hide. But the cops found their vehicles.

Some left their vehicles behind and walked to a 7-Eleven to wait the cops out. But the cops waited.

• • •

The last ticket was written at 4:40 a.m. In 31/2 hours, 221 citations were issued, and one arrest was made for DUI.

Sgt. Terri Hubble's 24 tickets left her massaging her aching fingers. It was the most she had written in one shift in her 20 years on the force.

"My hands will never be the same," she said.

But few went to St. Petersburg residents. Most of the tickets went to cars from Cape Coral, Dade City, Fort Lauderdale, Lutz, Plant City, Tampa and Valrico.

Police know it's a temporary solution. The racers will just move on to the causeway, or either end of the Gandy Bridge, or that spot along 28th Street N the motorcycle crowd favors.

But as the sun rose Sunday, Fourth Street N was finally clear.

"The ultimate goal is to make that stretch of roadway safer," Lounge said. "If the racers choose to go somewhere else, we'll deal with that then."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

To see a photo gallery of the bust Saturday night and Sunday morning, go to links.tampabay.com

Police raids aimed at illegal street racing in St. Petersburg — and those watching the races 06/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 12:17pm]

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