The Need for Speed 

County Puts Brakes on Drag Racing

It was raining on the night of Friday, January 18. On the far reaches of NE Glisan, two cars were side-by-side, nearly doubling the 40-mph speed limit. Pulling ahead of a purple Honda, the other racer slid across four lanes of traffic and jumped the curb. Sparks flew and the car skidded, coming to an immediate stop after slamming into a metal light post; the 19-year-old girlfriend of the driver was killed instantly.

With five deaths attributed to drag racing on streets around the Portland-area in the last six weeks, the Multnomah County commissioners sat down last Thursday to consider ways to put the brakes on the illicit sport. Even though drag racing is most popular in the summer months and in discrete but designated areas, a rash of accidents in the public streets has brought the informal sport to the forefront of local politicians' agendas.

Currently, racing is punishable by a $295 traffic ticket. (The drivers in the accident along Glisan on January 18 have been charged with manslaughter.) Seeking a way to clamp down on street racing, Multnomah County Sheriff Sgt. David Rader drafted and proposed a new county ordinance: Tow and impound the cars of spectators.

The idea behind the ordinance is that by eliminating fans and glory, racers will lose their incentive. Sgt. Rader's anti-drag racing sentiment found a ready audience with the county commissioners. Chairwoman Diane Linn compared fans at a drag race to spectators witnessing and cheering on a rape. "They're every bit a part," she said at Thursday's hearing.

The stepfather of the 19-year-old girl killed in mid-January also testified at Thursday's meeting. With such sanguine testimony, even the most level-headed county commissioners were unwilling to oppose the far-sweeping ordinance. A week earlier Commissioner Lonnie Roberts had expressed unease with the ordinance and requested that the vote be delayed. But by last Thursday's vote, he was unwilling to forcibly speak out against the plan to tow alleged spectators' cars. "I'm not about to vote against getting tough on street racers," said Roberts.

But Roberts added he is looking for alternative outlets for teen racers' machismo. Currently, Gresham police offer an open challenge to racers during the summertime. Using some of the souped-up cars from drug busts, the cops race against challengers at the Portland International Raceway.

"My answer is, let's work with [the racers] to give them an alternative," explained Roberts.

But with those races limited to summer months, the urge to race is left unsatisfied during the winter. Roberts has been meeting with hot rod organizations and race track officials to figure out whether the track could be opened year-round for drag racing.

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