Hot rods' hot spot
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
It's late on a muggy Saturday night. Danny Isabelle pulls his 1980 Trans Am out of a mass of cars parked at the west end of the Gandy Bridge. The 468-cubic-inch engine rumbles as the car eases onto the bridge and stops next to a black mark.
This is not some state highway stripe; it's a quarter-mile marker, spray-painted by street racers.
When the bridge clears, Isabelle punches the accelerator. The Trans Am roars to life, the rear of the car fishtailing. It rockets across the skinny bridge, bringing a surge of pressure to the chest, like a giant hand pressing down.
Isabelle eases off the accelerator. Normal breathing returns.
"Puts you in your seat, doesn't it?" he says.
This is Saturday night on Gandy. It's been this way since Isabelle, 37, was in high school, and long before that.
One night a week, a stretch of sand and gravel and blacktop at the bridge's west end hosts hundreds of cars and people. Serious gearheads tinkering with engines. Motorcyclists with a flair for the daring. High school kids flirting with one another.
Like a timeless scene from American Graffiti, Grease or Happy Days, they mill around in the dark, blaring car stereos, talking trash, drinking soda.
"This is basically a poor man's car show," said Tampa mechanic Jimmy McBratney, 27, who has been bringing cars out here since junior high school. "Most of us work all week long. We come out here on Saturday night to show off our hot rods. They won't let us hang out anywhere else."
Tonight's opening act is a motorcyclist speeding back and forth before the crowd.
First, he pops a wheelie. On his next pass, he stands on the seat. For his finale, he holds his body in a rigid position beside the speeding bike, his hands gripping the handlebars, his feet scraping on the pavement.
Saturday night on Gandy Beach has been like this so long that you can find kids out here whose parents did the same thing.
Now that the weather is warm, as many as 500 people will show up on Saturday night. Most are in their teens and 20s. Most work on other people's vehicles for a living. They buy their own cars cheap and fix them up.
"Bumper to bumper, rubber to roof, one paycheck at a time," said Jeremy Hyer, 17, who drove 45 minutes from Zephyrhills to get here.
The gearheads speak their own language of manifolds, smog pumps and ram air intakes. They endlessly debate the merits of American cars versus imports.
"That's not a car; it's a kitchen. It's a noise can," a man in a Ford cap heckled as a souped-up Honda peeled out.
Men outnumber women three-to-one. And people who are part of this scene are quick to defend it.
"There's no drinking or drugs, no fights," said Tom Dougherty, 37, a St. Petersburg engineer. "Where else will you see so many young people and no problems?"
The law agrees, to an extent.
"This isn't the hard-drinking, drug-taking crowd. We find some alcohol and drugs, but very rarely," said Deputy Jim Bordner of the Pinellas sheriff's traffic enforcement squad.
"With this group, speed is the drug."
The need for speed
Deputies patrol the Pinellas side of the bridge, with Tampa police at the other end. Most weekends, the deputies seem to ignore the crowd on the side of the road.
But they're watching. Sometimes they'll send a "scout" -- an undercover officer -- to walk around and get a feel for what's going on. If they see racing, they take action.
All of a sudden, lots of police cars will appear. Deputies wade into the crowd and hand out $26 tickets for being a spectator at an illegal street race.
Part of their strategy is to take away the audience for racing. But deputies are reluctant to do this often on Gandy Beach because it breeds chaos when hundreds of people get in their cars and scatter.
Damien Barnhart, a St. Petersburg 22-year-old whose parents used to bring him here, leaned against his Porsche 944 and offered his take on the law.
"They drive by and make sure nobody's doing anything stupid. If you come out here and act like a fool, they're going to treat you like one."
Nearby, a line of slick-looking cars pulled out and crossed the bridge toward Tampa, headed off to race.
People rarely race on the bridge anymore. Too much traffic. Too many police.
In St. Petersburg, they race at night on long stretches of Fourth Street N and 16th Street N, just north of Gandy Boulevard. In Tampa, they've been known to race on Meridian Street among the warehouses of the Channelside district.
Street racing has a long and occasionally tragic history in the Tampa Bay area.
The Florida Legislature passed a bill this year that would make street racing a crime instead of a traffic offense. It would be punishable by fines up to $500, 60 days in jail and a one-year license suspension. Gov. Jeb Bush has not received the bill, and it is unclear whether he will sign it into law.
Most of the local racers are kids, and their cars often have hidden surprises.
"About half of us have nitrous out here," said Jacob Jones, 17, a regular Gandy Beach visitor. A nitrous oxide fuel injector boosts horsepower.
Other racers are diehards who have been making the trip out here for decades.
Collin Stone, 40, of Palm Harbor parked his vintage Porsche 914 on the sand and offered some perspective on racing.
"This car looks faster than it really is," he said. "The secret of street racing is being faster than you look. It's the art of deception. You can have a $30,000 race car that looks like it's worth 50 bucks."
Stone's friend Danny Isabelle, 37, still drives his original car from high school, a heavily modified Trans Am with a roll bar, safety harnesses and no hood. A hood wouldn't fit over the huge engine.
"My street racing days are pretty much over," said Isabelle, who comes to Gandy Beach to see what others are doing to their cars. "I used to have these light plastic bucket seats, but my back was killing me. I traded a little weight for some comfort."
One night a week, hundreds converge on this spot in the middle of Tampa Bay. The young car crowd isn't welcome elsewhere.
"We've kicked them off the beaches. A lot of it's their own fault," said Sgt. Greg Tita, longtime spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. "The loud boom from their stereos keeps people awake."
No question, the police make the Gandy crowd a little skittish.
On a recent weekend, as a reporter jotted down the makes and models of a few cars, a rumor spread like lightning: Someone was writing down tag numbers.
People jumped in their cars and left -- a dozen of them, then another dozen. Then a hundred.
The party was over.
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