tampabay.com

Police target road racing

Top prizes in Saturday night's illegal races included a trip to jail and steep fines.

By MICHAEL A. MOHAMMED
Published May 22, 2007


TAMPA - The night drew close to 1,000 people. They gathered festively along the Courtney Campbell Parkway late Saturday, oblivious to undercover officers videotaping in their midst.

Two by two on the public highway, cars and motorcycles screeched to a start, as road-racing drivers dared illegal speeds, police say.

Then, about 1 a.m. Sunday, two dozen police officers appeared, and eight people went to jail.

Tampa police Sgt. Rick Ubinas said the arrests were in response to the growing Saturday night crowds on the Courtney Campbell and to the April 25 deaths of Lucy Thibodeaux, 16, and Robert Lee Kolp, 20, after Kolp's motorcycle hit Thibodeaux on the causeway.

For the early Sunday arrests, police shut off an access road along the parkway, ensnaring about 500 cars and motorcycles while undercover officers picked suspects out of the crowd.

Seven vehicles were impounded, Ubinas said.

Clendon Jordan, 21, said a friend had raced in Jordan's 1997 Volkswagen Golf GTI. Police arrested Jordan when they found him inspecting the smoking engine.

Jordan had to pay $800 bail and police impounded his car for 10 days. If he wants it back, he'll have to pay a towing fee of about $125 and a storage fee of at least $200.

If convicted of street racing, a first-degree misdemeanor, he could be fined $500 to $1,000 and face a one-year suspension of his license.

Jordan said he had no idea Florida law punishes first-time racing offenders so harshly, that a hefty ticket would have been enough.

Officers handed out fliers to spectators at the Saturday night races, listing the charges and sentences racers risk.

"I'm going to stop racing," Jordan said, but he won't stop attending the gatherings.

"It's still in my blood."

Popularity exploding

Ubinas said Tampa's street-racing scene has existed as long as he has been a police officer, but movies like 2001's The Fast and the Furious boosted its popularity.

In a news conference Monday, he showed reporters a printout from the Web site www.tamparacing.com, on which enthusiasts discussed the Sunday morning arrests.

"Street racing in Tampa is very organized," he said. "These kids chatter on the site all day long.

"We're in tune with that, and we want the kids to know."

Most of the comments posted to the site after the crackdown seemed to support the police, which surprised Ubinas.

The site gets about 2,500 visits a day from nearly 41,000 registered members, said Billy Hamblin, 27, a site administrator.

"We definitely don't condone street racing," he said. "If someone tries to set up a time and place, we squash it."

Instead, Hamblin echoed Ubinas in his support of racing on private tracks. Every three months or so, site organizers plan an event at the Bradenton Motorsports Park drag strip.

Spots for racers at the quarterly events tend to sell out within a few days, Hamblin said.

"We're up to 140 racers and close to 400 or 500" spectators, he said.

'Had it coming'

Jason Gross, 22, has taken his 1998 Mitsubishi Eclipse to the Saturday night gatherings since January, parking by the boat ramp across from the racing.

"It's a great place to hang out on a cool breezy evening and be with friends," he said. "I love cars and I love to be around cars."

But he doesn't race there.

"The people like me are the ones that have not gotten a ticket, because we don't do anything deserving of a ticket," he said.

He said he saw bikers pop high-speed wheelies with their girlfriends sitting in back, people spinning doughnuts.

"The people that got arrested kind of had it coming."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at mmohammed@sptimes.com or 813 226-3404.