TAMPA — State authorities built steel gates at Ben T. Davis Beach last April and lock them at night in hopes of cutting down on racing along the adjacent Courtney Campbell Causeway.
Whether the move has done any good remains a subject of debate between authorities and car enthusiasts. There was only one arrest for street racing there in all of 2015 and 2016.
One thing is for sure, though: The restrictions dispersed gatherings of car enthusiasts — don't call them street racers, they say — who once relied on the park as a place to show off their rides three nights a week in a place relatively convenient to people from St. Petersburg to Orlando.
This loose-knit community with its 75 to 200 cars has turned instead to a shifting series of places with big parking lots, like a Walmart, said Jonathan Valencia, 31, who attends many of the gatherings.
Valencia, the self-proclaimed Empanada King, follows the group, selling his wares from a car until he can open the food truck he dreams of.
"It's not all crazy stuff and not everyone who goes out there races," Valencia said. "It's a wonderful community. There's a lot of love and respect."
Besides, the gates installed by the Florida Department of Transportation — and a sign reading, "Lot closed and locked at 9:00 PM" — haven't stopped the racing, he said.
"Just because they blocked the parking doesn't mean they can't drive on it and still race," Valencia said. "People park on the side of the road and race with cars on the road. It was more organized when the gates were open."
The state installed the gates last April at the request of Hills-borough County, the city of Tampa and the Tampa Police Department.
"The purpose of the gate installation is to help eliminate late night congregations and racing along the roadway, which is a continuing safety concern for Tampa's citizens and visitors," a news release at the time said.
Groups would gather at night in the parking area at Ben T. Davis Beach anticipating a race along the causeway, Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty said.
Not all gatherings ended in a race, Hegarty said, but racing was and is an issue along the causeway. When a race ended, the crowds would disperse.
"People race on the bridges. That's a fact," Hegarty said. "If they were to speed down Hillsborough, they're more likely to get caught."
To catch someone on the causeway, Tampa police have to work with Clearwater police operating on the western side of the strip.
"It's a long straightaway and more difficult to identify someone and catch them," Hegarty said.
In 2015 and 2016, when only one arrest was made on the causeway, 15 arrests were made for racing elsewhere in Tampa, Hegarty said — most likely spontaneous competitions erupting in secluded neighborhoods and spotted by officers in unmarked cars.
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Cody Blackburn, 25, belongs to a car club he doesn't want to name and insists the car meetings are just a gathering of friends — not street racers.
"Apparently we're a nuisance to society because we have modified exhausts and our cars are low and people get mad at us," Blackburn said. "We just want a place where we can all hang out and show off what we invested in."
They're even more mindful of safety now with a collision in October that claimed the lives of five people, including car enthusiast Pablo Cortes III and two children, 9 and 10. Authorities did not say Cortes was racing at the time but a video posted just before showed him doing 115 mph.
The crash was a "huge eye opener" to the car community, Blackburn said.
"We don't condone street racing," Blackburn said. "Sometimes we play our music a little louder than we should, but all we want to do is have a place to hang out."
Robert Yoho, 55, is in the racing business at his Showtime Speedway in Pinellas Park and supports the installation of the gates at Ben T. Davis Beach.
Yoho said many car enthusiasts gets a bad rap because of a few who create problems. He made a video encouraging drivers to "keep drag racing off the streets and take it to the strip."
His quarter-mile, figure-8 speedway and dragstrip caters to professional drivers. But one Saturday a month, he hosts Street Warz where street cars are free to drag-race in a controlled environment with paramedics on site. The cost is $10 per entry.
Said Yoho, "They just don't need to be racing on the streets."
Contact Hannah Farrow at email@example.com