Hogan's son was seen racing

Witnesses say there was a cat-and-mouse game with another car before he crashed.

By TAMARA EL-KHOURY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 29, 2007

CLEARWATER -- Nick Bollea, son of wrestler Hulk Hogan, was racing against a Dodge Viper moments before a high-speed crash that left his passenger in critical condition, witnesses say.

Frances Vitalis, a Plant City registered nurse, was riding home from Clearwater Beach on a motorcycle with a friend Sunday when she saw Bollea's yellow Toyota Supra and the silver Viper speeding between traffic lights.

"We knew something was going to happen," Vitalis said Tuesday. "You know that this is a bad situation and these guys are hotdogging."

The roads were slick from scattered summer showers. One car would speed away, then the next would catch up, she said.

The cat-and-mouse game ended when the Supra fish-tailed and crashed into a palm tree, Vitalis said. She ran to the car and tried to open the driver's door and then the passenger's door. The car was so mangled they wouldn't open, she said.

A 2006 silver Dodge Viper coupe, a distinctive and uncommon vehicle, is registered to Terry Bollea, Nick Bollea's father, who is also known as Hulk Hogan. It's unclear whether it's the same Dodge Viper spotted by witnesses, who also could not tell who was driving the car.

On Tuesday, passenger John J. Graziano, 22, remained in critical condition at Bayfront Medical Center. Nick Bollea, 17, who is also known as Nick Hogan, was treated for minor injuries and discharged Monday.

Clearwater police did not release any new information Tuesday about the investigation into the accident at 1290 Court St. No charges have been filed. Police spokesman Wayne Shelor said there was no obvious evidence Bollea was racing.

But witnesses say otherwise.

Rabih Cheaib, 20, of Dunedin said he was in a car with three other friends at Rita's Italian Ice on Court Street when he also saw the yellow Toyota and the silver Dodge Viper speed by.

Cheaib, who builds race cars for fun, estimated the cars were traveling faster than 60 mph in the 40 mph zone. As a former street racer, he wasn't shocked by the speed.

"It's nothing new to me, so I didn't think, 'Oh, those crazy kids,'" Cheaib said. "I thought it was pretty sweet."

As Cheaib and his friends left Rita's, they noticed Court Street was blocked. They walked to the crash site, where Cheaib learned the passenger was Graziano, the brother of his best friend, Mike Graziano.

Cheaib said John Graziano attended local Toyota Supra meets and videotaped auto races. He described Graziano as quiet but outgoing and into skydiving, jet skiing, surfing and "anything that gives an adrenaline rush."

He said Graziano has two brothers and a sister and had been friends with Bollea for several years.

Graziano, a 2003 graduate of Dunedin High School, is a Marine and served two tours of duty in Iraq. He returned home in October.

Sgt. Maj. Edgardo Guzman served with Graziano in Fallujah and Ramadi. He said the young Dunedin man had a good attitude and got along well with others.

When they first met, Graziano was serving as a truck driver, transporting Marines and equipment. Guzman said Graziano then joined a Tampa reserve unit.

"He could have just went home and got a civilian job and went to college," Guzman said. "He decided to join the local reserve unit and continue to be a Marine and serve his country."

A prayer vigil will be held for Graziano today at 7 p.m. at 1345 Court St. Cards or care packages can be sent to Bayfront Medical Center in Graziano's name.

Bay News 9 and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Tamara El-Khoury can be reached at tel-khoury@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4181.