Each year, illegal street racing leads to deaths and injuries across Los Angeles, but there is a growing effort by police officers, local politicians and former racers to keep the deadly pastime off the city’s streets.
During the day, LAPD officer Frank Bancalari looks for cars that have been tricked out to make them better for racing.
"I found numerous modifications under the hood," he said after taking a look at one car.
At night, more than a dozen LAPD officers in an specialized unit roll out, part of a new task force patrolling the San Fernando Valley for fast and loud cars, aiming to disrupt and stop illegal street racing.
"Very loud exhaust that we heard from about a block away," Officer Willie Durr said attracted LAPD to two cars during a recent stop.
Both of the cars had modified exhausts and engines.
In video shot by police, two cars were clocked going around 85 miles per hour in traffic on a surface street, part of the reason the unit is working to toughen restrictions and laws against illicit street races.
A deadly accident in Chatsworth claimed two lives in February, and three men have been charged in connection with the deaths.
"When I saw that, it just flashed back to when I had two personal friends killed. It’s the same thing it’s happening all over again," said Sonny Watanasirisuk, a reformed street racer.
Watanasirisuk knows the danger first hand.
"I kept saying to myself, it wasn’t going to happen to me. It wasn’t going to happen to me. But then it happened," he said.
In 2007, Watanasirisuk went over a cliff in his red Miata.
"I flew off a cliff, fell 40 feet in an open top car with no roll bar," he said. "There’s so many things that could’ve went wrong. I should have died that day."
He said the crash turned his life around, but his love for racing has not gone away. He now races with a group called K.R.O.P.S. — Keep Racing Off Public Streets. The group draws the racing to tracks, where Watanasirisuk has even won national trophies.
He and other drivers now chase each other instead of being chased by the cops. Jerel Natividad started the group after watching a friend wipe out during a street race.
"The whole car was totaled, oil was everywhere," he said. "As he is crawling out of the car he’s bleeding all over his head."
The group is growing. More people are traveling to places like Apex Racing Center in Perris, but a big problem is that there are not enough places like this to race.
"We are really are looking to partner with the private sector to come up with a location that makes sense," said LA City Councilman Mitchell Englander, whose district covers much of the northern San Fernando Valley, where street racing continues to be a big problem. "It just doesn’t belong on the streets in the city of Los Angeles."
Natividad pointed out that there can be several advantages to racing on a track over the thrill of an illicit street race.
"It’s actually a lot cheaper to come out here than to lose your license, lose your car, and all the court fees," he said.
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