A beat-up white sedan with a dark junkyard hood and fenders cruises by slowly. Its occupants pretend to be leaving, but I suspect they're checking me out.
Sure enough, they hang a U-turn and pull up alongside the open window of my out-of-place SUV. I swallow hard and tuck my camera out of sight. Two young guys in their early twenties stare at me. Then the passenger asks a question.
Briefly, I imagine my wife's rollover-prone Chevy Blazer drag-racing their sporty import, which probably contains more nonstandard parts than just its mismatched hood and fenders.
"No, thanks," I say. "I'm only here to watch."
But it isn't clear whether spectators are welcome, which is why I parked way back here in the first place. "You should be parked up there with the rest of us," the passenger complains. "You're creepin' us out back here."
"Up there" is about one hundred yards ahead, where fifteen or twenty cars are parked in a row along the side of Middle Harbor Road. Roughly twice that many people stand in front of the vehicles watching the proceedings. It's Sunday, July 31, 2005 at 1:15 a.m., and I came to the Port of Oakland looking for a sideshow. I found a drag race instead.
The competitors, almost all imports, pair up across from the spectators before speeding down a road so wide it could have been designed with racing in mind. In the past ten minutes, from the safety of my car, I've witnessed four races, and watched at least one car spin doughnuts. Now I'm being commanded to join the boisterous crowd.
As I approach the others, I notice that all the cars are backed in. Because we all risk fines or even vehicle confiscation just for being here, everyone is prepared to flee suddenly. I pull in next to an import sedan. Then I get out, walk up to two teenagers, and mumble something nonthreatening about just being there to check it out.
Right then, a dark-colored sedan comes speeding back from the last race. It's doing about 75 and is getting uncomfortably close to the spectators. I take a few steps backward.
Suddenly, there's a thud. Before I know what's happening, a body is airborne. It hurtles toward me and lands on the pavement ten yards from my feet.
While the local media has obsessed over the stunt-driving displays known as sideshows, it has tended to overlook street racing, which is both more widespread and altogether deadlier. Sideshows afflict East Oakland and are primarily a black phenomenon. Street races afflict the entire state and tend to attract everyone else.
Although street racing has been around for decades, its contemporary rise coincided with the June 2001 release of The Fast and the Furious. In spite of its largely unknown cast and improbable Hollywood plot, the movie spawned a popular film franchise and a nationwide drag-racing boom. Racing-related deaths surged, and Bay Area police soon grappled with a slick new outbreak of a familiar old problem. But officials thought they had it in check by 2003, and fatal racing accidents were on the decline until last year.
That's when eleven people died in high-speed horseplay on the streets of the Bay Area, not including two San Leandro brothers shot to death during a race at the port. The true toll was almost certainly higher, but then no agency tracks racing-related accidents or deaths, which are notoriously hard to identify. "How many of those calls that we get of high-speed aggressive drivers going down a freeway are actually two-way speed contests?" asked Sergeant Wayne Ziese of the California Highway Patrol. "It probably goes on every day. ... It goes on every hour of every day."
The busiest and deadliest season is summer, when the roads are dry, the nights are warm, and students are out of school or just back on campus. Three UC Berkeley grad students Giulia Adesso, Benjamin Boussert, and Jason Choy died last July after hitting a truck that jackknifed while trying to avoid some apparent freeway racers. Three teenage students from Fremont and Union City Amanjot Thiara, Vibha Sharma, and Saprina Sidhu were killed September 20 when their Camry collided with a tree while following friends at more than 80 miles per hour in a rain-slicked 35 mph zone.
Three other young adults died in separate racing accidents on one busy weekend in August. Tranquinillo Lopez of San Jose was thrown from his car and struck by a passing vehicle. Juan Pablo Moya of San Jose was hit by an off-duty sheriff's deputy right after serving as a race flagman. And Annisha Reddy died shortly after her fiancé wrecked his Maxima in a Union City speed contest with an apparent stranger. Reddy was eight months pregnant.
Although racing is a crime, sometimes intertwined with the separate crime of auto theft, racers tend to view their behavior as not truly criminal even though its illegality is glamorized in movies, videogames, and online message boards. "We get the same arguments about street racing we get about sideshows," said Captain David A. Kozicki of the Oakland police. "You know, 'These are people just having fun; they're not hurting anybody; they just want to show off their car.' And yet people end up dead."
Blood is slowly pooling beneath the head of the young man crumpled on the pavement.
"Fuck! He's dead," someone blurts, possibly the driver of the sedan that just hit him. "Let's get out of here."
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