A recent high-speed accident on the Fairfax County Parkway, deemed a racing situation by police, was another tragic incident in the file of 2nd Lt. Shawn Bennett of the Fairfax County Police motor squad. For the past 18 months, Bennett has been keeping up on the latest trends and habits of the illegal racing culture, spreading the word and making arrests.
"It's absolutely more than people think," Bennett said of the racing scene.
In the early morning hours on Dec. 30, John Ryneska Jr., 20, of Gainesville, Fla., was traveling northbound on the Fairfax County Parkway in a 2000 Honda Civic at a high rate of speed, according to police. Due to his speed, Ryneska was unable to stop for the red light at Lee Chapel Road and hit a 1987 Oldsmobile Delta 88. Several people were taken to the hospital with life-threatening and non-life-threatening injuries. Ryneska was charged with racing on a highway as was the driver of the other car, Alexander Castillo Batres, 21, of Lomond Drive in Manassas, police sources said.
An exploratory police unit started investigating the street racing phenomena in 2002 and discovered out more than they hoped for. The races weren't just a couple of teen-agers on a desolate road on Saturday night.
"We were just blown away. We're talking about pre-planned, organized races. We've got them on videotape. They video themselves," Bennett said.
In one video, shot from a police helicopter, racers were on Cinder Bed Road in Newington. Infrared images showed two small cars, going side by side, with a cloud coming out of the exhaust. The infrared camera zeros in on the heat. Arrests were made in this case. The next video showed two racers pulled up next to each other at a stoplight. They took off when the light turned red, forcing the other cars to the shoulder.
"Cars have been forced off the road," Bennett said.
Locations he is zeroing in on include Route 28, the Fairfax County Parkway, Industrial Road and George Washington Road in Springfield and in front of the NAC building by Dulles Airport. The center lane, designed for turning vehicles, is the "suicide lane," in the racing world, and this is used frequently for impromptu races.
The cars are outfitted with tachometers, nitrous oxide dispensers, oxygen meters, five-point racing harnesses and shifter lights. Some of these cars are driven by minors or college students but are registered in the parents’ names, which presents a problem when the police try to confiscate the cars.
"The parents are oblivious. They perceive what's being done to the car is for show, like what they did as a teen-ager," Bennett said.
"We're going into the schools," he added, taking away parking passes as a penalty.
School spokesperson Paul Regnier has not heard of that happening in area schools thus far.
"We would want to cooperate with police," Regnier said.
The enhancements to these cars are not cheap either. In some cases, the equipment has been financed by illegal activity, according to Bennett.
"Kids are putting thousands of dollars into these cars," Bennett said, with references to crime and drug dealing tied to it.
"Whole engines are being stolen out of cars," he said.
"JOE" OF SPRINGFIELD is part of the fast car scene in the area. The man, who asked not to be identified, insists that he's in it just for the hobby. He drives a 1966 Ford Mustang that was his father's first car back in the day, which is considered a "muscle" car instead of an import. Friends of his are into street racing, but the only racing he does is at MRI, a racetrack in Maryland. There he gets to race against others and gets timed, but the organizers make sure the racers wear helmets.
"It's just a safe place where you can race your car. I love it, it's definitely a hobby for me," he said.
Joe's car has been passed down, and since he's had it, he's put $7,000 into restoring it. He plans on handing it down when he has a family. Joe has been challenged at traffic lights, though.
"I was at a light one time. A 16-year-old kid in a BMW came up, revved his motor, trying to race," he said.
"It's almost like a sport. You put a lot of time and work into your car, your friend puts work into his car, you test it," he said.
ALTHOUGH STREET RACING has been around for years, the movie "The Fast and the Furious" seemed to spark a rebirth in the trend.
"That movie re-engaged street racing," Bennett said.
Joe's seen the movie as well.
"That was a really good movie. People blame the media. I think that's a cop-out. Something bad happens, they blame it on a movie or video game," he said.
In the street-racing world, drivers rove the streets looking for other cars to race. Racers gather at certain locations and loosely organize the events. Bennett mentioned the Chantilly Expo parking lot as a known gathering place, as well as a nearby Taco Bell. Most of the races are just showing off the work they've done on their cars, according to Bennett.
"We have no problem with that. There's a core group of those kids interested in racing,"
Legal matters involved with racing are serious, though, and a first conviction for racing can bring a penalty with the license suspended for two years. Even the one who drops the rag, which is the "go" signal sometimes, or holds the wagers, is committing an offense, Bennett said.
"Aiding and abetting a race is a serious charge," Bennett said. "We have a 100-percent conviction rate, when they [judges] see the videotape."
There have been other meetings as well, outside the police department, according to Steve Edwards, transportation expert at Supervisor Elaine McConnell's (R-Springfield) office. Edwards attended a meeting with some of the other supervisors addressing the issue.
"We're losing too many people, especially kids, in accidents," Edwards said.
Chief of Staff Norm Byers is also on top of the situation.
"That's not just a Springfield problem, that's a 7100 [Fairfax County Parkway] problem," he said.