Florida Sen. Jason Pizzo said he remembers the look on the faces of the transportation committee members when he showed them a gruesome video of a decapitated woman’s head lying on the sidewalk.
The video posted to Instagram showed dead bodies — including the headless woman — lying on the ground in Miami Gardens after a “street takeover” — blocking and occupying intersections or parking lots to perform doughnuts and other car tricks — that had gone wrong.
“The video resembles the chaos more likely found after a bombing in a war zone,” Pizzo, a Democrat representing parts of Miami-Dade County, said.
He said showing the video was his way to illustrate how street races and takeovers can turn deadly in Florida.
Street racing and takeovers have been a part of Tampa Bay’s nightlife culture for “years and years,” according to Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a spokesperson for the Florida Highway Patrol.
But now, the internet and social media allow street racers to instantly show off their speed to large audiences. In addition, organizers often use social media to spread the word about meetups — typically at gas stations or parking lots. In many cases, dozens of people in souped-up rides show up, videos on Instagram and YouTube show.
Pizzo introduced a bill earlier this year that was co-sponsored by former Sen. Ray Rodrigues, a Republican who did not seek reelection this fall. The bill passed unanimously in both chambers and was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year. It went into effect on Oct. 1.
Part of the new law adds street racing and street shows to a list of exceptions for misdemeanors where the police don’t have to physically see the incident take place. That means just seeing a video showing one of those incidents allows law enforcement officers to track down those involved based on the vehicles, license plates or people filmed, Pizzo said.
Violators can be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor and face a possible fine between $500 and $1,000, according to the law’s text. The violator’s driver’s license also could be revoked for up to one year.
“People have public profiles that are showing racing and doughnuts and tear-outs and terrorizing a neighborhood,” Pizzo said. “It’s something people can do because there were no police officers there.”
Sometimes, Pizzo said, organizers and spectators will use their vehicles to block off intersections while a driver performs doughnuts. If someone gets hurt, there is no way for them to get out, or for an ambulance to get in, he said. That’s why the new law also targets these types of takeovers.
Based on arrest reports, the Gandy Bridge is one of the most common locations for races in the Tampa Bay area. Sometimes the races are planned, and other times they are random.
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According to the reports, they often start out the same: Two or more vehicles slow down to pull even with each other before the sound of shifting gears and engines purring as they take off down the highway.
Some videos on Instagram show cars purportedly zooming down the road at around 130 mph. One video on YouTube shows a driver claiming to hit 208 mph on the Gandy Bridge.
Dashcam footage from the Florida Highway Patrol provided to the Tampa Bay Times shows police cruisers weaving around traffic and driving at high speeds as they try to catch up to the drivers operating their own vehicles at what the troopers describe as “unsafe speeds.”
Gaskins said troopers have operations from “time to time” targeting racing. They’ll pick spots to wait along the Gandy Bridge, anticipating a race. Other times, troopers happen across races while driving around.
Lili Trujillo founded Street Racing Kills — a national outreach and education organization that provides traffic safety courses and reckless driving prevention presentations — after her 16-year-old daughter was killed as a passenger in a California street race. She said the kind of speeds that drivers engage in while racing and doing stunts on public streets is deadly.
“It’s the adrenaline, it’s the immaturity, it’s the no fear of dying because they’re young, it’s the way of thinking that it’s not going to happen to me,” Trujillo said. “It’s fun to them.”
Trujillo said Florida is a hot spot nationally for street racing and street takeover events, and there have been an increasing number of these incidents since the COVID-19 pandemic began. She said some people put stimulus checks received during the pandemic toward souping up their cars. She also said the streets were more open during the pandemic as people stayed home. And that meant more opportunities for street events.
Florida isn’t the only state with a law like this, Trujillo said. She said there is hesitation in some states because police believe street racers will use other means to share footage that are more difficult to track.
But people will still share their videos anyway, Trujillo said, because it’s a chance to get attention.
“I think social media has been a very big part of it,” Trujillo said. “If you think about the spectators that can watch them — they can put it on social media and get all these likes.”
Drivers want their cars to look good for the camera, too, Trujillo said. That means loud engines, flashy wheels and eye-catching wraps. There are dozens of custom car shops around the Tampa Bay area. Some of them specialize in speed and power and want to build cars for racing, but they say they distance themselves from those racing illegally.
Bob Brooks of Vortex Motorsports says he can tell when a customer is looking to race on the street. The business often works with Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McLarens. Those cars, he said, are meant for racing safely on a track with helmets and instruction. Vortex customizes cars to increase horsepower and, in turn, speed. Brooks said he builds cars meant for proper racing.
So when he sees someone come to him with a Subaru or a Nissan intending to race them, he said he can often tell they’re not the customers he wants.
“If someone tells me they’re street racing, I don’t want anything to do with them,” Brooks said.
“If you do something and you go out and get killed,” Brooks said he tells his potential customers in jest, “I lose a repeat customer.”