Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rev your engine and floor it! Take it up to 100 mph if you can. Not only will the cops not arrest you, they'll probably be there cheering you on. They may even race with you.
Atlanta, Las Vegas, Muncie (Ind.) and Noble (Okla.) are the latest cities to copy a program called Race Legal, which began in San Diego in 1998. That's when founder Stephen Bender, an epidemiologist, proposed that sanctioned drag races in a controlled environment-- rather than unauthorized contests in the streets--might protect drag racers and their spectators, as well as innocent bystanders. In San Diego, racers bring their cars to Qualcomm Stadium, where the Padres normally play baseball, and race against each other on a 1/8- mile drag strip. Racers pay $20 for the night and are required to wear a safety helmet.
When the program started, funded by a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety, racers weren't enthusiastic about paying to race when they could use city streets for free. But San Diego provided an incentive by cracking down on street racing, jailing drivers, impounding cars and ticketing vehicles for smog violations if they had been altered for racing. Spectators at the races also were prosecuted.
The racing community seems to have gotten the message. Prosecutions of street racers in San Diego dropped from 290 in 2001 to 60 two years later. Teenage deaths related to racing also have plummeted, from 16 in 2002 to four in 2003.
The races have grown from a traffic-safety innovation to a major recreational event in the areas where they are held. Events at various speedways around the country include races to "beat the heat" (head- to-head competition with police officers), match imported against domestic cars, and pit motorcycles against one another.
Governments are building the future. See it now.