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Still Racing

Hartford street racers were shut down on Wawarme Avenue, so they've taken their show to another road

Daniel D'Ambrosio

April 21, 2009

Street racing is a major problem in Hartford. The police chief is concerned about it, and so is the state legislature, which is considering a bill to beef up penalties. But it's perhaps area business people like Michele Girard who are most fed up.

Girard is the general manager of Classic Restaurant Supply on Murphy Road. The business is in an area that has become increasingly popular with the racers as police have cracked down on other prime racing streets like Wawarme Avenue, which runs alongside Colt Park in the South End.

"They come all the time," said Girard. "They won't stop and there's nothing we can do to stop it."

Classic Restaurant owns a large building, occupying one end and renting the remainder out to other businesses. Girard said her back parking lot is preferred by the motorcycle racers, who leave black donuts where they spin circles with their back tires. One afternoon about 4:30 p.m. she said she interrupted a racer who was setting up a ramp.

"I asked him what he thought he was doing and he said 'We're going to be racing,'" remembered Girard. "I said, 'Get the hell out of here; you cannot be on my property. I'll call the police right now.' He was so furious. Tenants told me they came back later that night and raced anyway."

You don't have to look far to find examples of reckless rubber-burning racing. A YouTube search for "street racing, Hartford" brings up a nice selection of poorly shot video. One, a Beavis and Butthead-esque adventure, features two teenaged guys on bicycles who begin their odyssey at a McDonald's in New Britain, announcing they're going to ride to Hartford "to go to the races." They end up on what looks like Wawarme Avenue, focusing just in time for a couple of Hondas to scream past.

All of the videos are similar. Crowds of spectators milling about in animated conversation. Honking horns and someone trying to direct traffic. The racers, typically in Honda Civics or Ford Mustangs, winding up their engines and burning rubber to heat up their tires, blue smoke billowing into the night air, illuminated by headlights flashing in every direction. Then, backing up, lining up, and roaring off at the signal, flying into the night down the avenue before brake lights flash bright red.

It's not the kind of scene you'd want to stumble into in your car, as it appeared some folks were doing in the videos. The races typically begin around 11 p.m. and last well into the early morning hours, according to Hector Robles, a Hartford police officer and state legislator who introduced the bill this year that would allow police to impound street racers' cars for 30 days and make them pay the cost of impoundment. That could easily be $3,000.

Robles, who is the community service officer in South Meadows, said his bill made it out of the Judiciary Committee and will go to the floor for a vote, probably by mid-May. If anything, he expects the bill to be enacted into an even tougher law than he proposed, allowing for a 10-day impoundment, followed by forfeiture. You'll lose your car.

"California even crushes cars now if you're found guilty," said Robles. "They make you watch and they won't let you take anything. Your stereo, your rims, everything gets crushed."

Legislators from other Connecticut cities, including New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury, are on board with the bill.

"They've seen [street racing] as well," said Robles. "Last summer a spectator on Whalley Avenue in New Haven was killed."

Hartford Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts recalled a street racing fatality here.

"One guy got beheaded on Ledyard Street," said Roberts. "They left him on the street. He was trying to do a wheelie and lost control. Most of his head came off."

At the end of one of the YouTube videos, there was the following message: "And right when I turned off the camera a car going to [sic] fast to stop in time drove into a bunch of people...

"But nobody was seriously injured only some bruises."

The installation of speed tables on Wawarme Avenue has ruined it for street racers, much to their chagrin, according to Alta Lash, executive director of United Connecticut Action for Neighborhoods.

"Wawarme was huge because it was perfect, come on," said Lash.

UCAN works with the South Meadows Marketplace Alliance to try to improve conditions for doing business in the area.

With Wawarme shut down, the main action has moved to nearby Murphy Road. Speed tables are not an option on Murphy, which carries a tremendous amount of commercial truck traffic. Lash said that on a race night, the Mercury gas station on Brainard Road is so jammed that no one can get near the gas pumps.

"It's pretty big," said Lash. "It's an Internet-organized activity, so it draws from a very large area. These aren't just Hartford kids."

Robles confirms that Hartford races bring in spectators from other towns in Connecticut Stafford Springs, Old Lyme, East Lyme as well as Long Island and cities in Massachusetts including Springfield and Chicopee. Last summer in North Meadows police arrested more than 100 people, including spectators, in one of the biggest street-racing busts in recent memory. But thanks to technology it remains difficult to catch street racers in the act.

"They have Bearcat 3000 [police scanners] that pick up our frequency and radio," said Robles. "In the past scanners would just give you a two-second clip. Now you get the whole conversation."

Add to that the fact that races often happen at the same time the bars are emptying out downtown on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and things are getting rowdy.

"It all comes down to manpower," said Robles. "When we have crimes against other people downtown we really can't respond to those issues where people are racing. It's tough with limited resources."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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