The Main Drag

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Colón still has run-ins with the police. But instead of felony arrests, the cops have nailed him for speeding. Fourteen times in the past six years, twice for drag racing. A major citation could mean suspension of his driving privileges. Faced with such a threat, most people would slow down. Colón keeps adding parts. The Integra's modifications include a larger exhaust, a high-capacity ignition system, and a nitrous-oxide assembly. Cost: $5000. The car's best time on the quarter-mile track: 13.9 seconds. He claims to have reached 160 mph on Alligator Alley in the Everglades.

Remaining on Colón's wish list are high-performance cams, pistons, and a supercharger. "I'd rather spend two or three grand on something that can go vroooooom!" says Colón as he simulates stomping on a gas pedal.

Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Ernesto Duarte recalls a 1997 event that showed police how brazen the racers could be. Late one night a group of young men gathered at a quiet spot on Krome Avenue between Tamiami Trail and Kendall Drive. They blocked traffic on the dark road while two competitors prepared their cars. Attendants directed traffic to nearby roads. But the race didn't come off as planned. One of the commuters delayed by the meet was an off-duty Miami-Dade police officer riding his motorcycle home after work. A helmet and jacket hid the cop's identity. He didn't take the detour; he called for backup. A slew of citations was issued.

Over the years police have been stunned by the sophisticated techniques employed by some racing groups, Duarte relates. Scouts with cell phones sometimes alert racers of approaching patrol cars. Race locations have been moved at the last second to throw officers off track. Code words keep outsiders in the dark. "It's definitely a culture. It is passed on from generation to generation," Duarte says.

Fatal accidents usually lead police to crack down. Late one Sunday night in October 1993, two spectators, Juan Pineiro, a 24-year-old from Hollywood, and 21-year-old Paul Cheeks of Miramar, were killed when a car swerved off the road during an illegal meet on County Line Road near NW 37th Avenue. Five others were sent to the hospital.

Perhaps the most publicized speeding incident in Miami-Dade history occurred just two months later, on December 30, when fifteen-year-old Francisco Del Rey, Jr., raced his Corvette on South Dixie Highway near Coconut Grove. A tiny Chevrolet Chevette crossed his path at SW Seventeenth Avenue and was sliced in two; all three passengers died. Police estimated the teenager was traveling more than 100 mph. Later an investigation revealed Del Rey used a fake birth certificate to obtain a driver's license.

Police in Miami-Dade County wrote 784 tickets for illegal racing that year, according to the clerk of the courts' office. They cited drivers under Florida statute 316.191, which bars drag racing on public roads. The penalty is a $78 fine and three points on a driver's record. (A violator who earns twelve points can lose his license.) Spectators can also be slapped with a $42 penalty.

In the next few years, enforcement apparently lagged. In 1994, 694 tickets were issued. The number dipped to 616 in 1995.

The citations climbed again in 1996 to 960 and peaked in 1997, the year the off-duty highway-patrol officer ran into the drag race on Krome Avenue. Soon after the incident, the Florida Highway Patrol and Miami-Dade Police created a squad to stop the competitions. Undercover agents infiltrated the clubs and gathered intelligence. When they learned about meets, they informed the task force. The county issued 963 tickets in 1997, the highest number since 1980. "It was a challenge for us to put a stop to the drag racing," Duarte says.

About six months after the special squad was formed, authorities deemed it a success and disbanded it. The police believe their strategy worked. The number of arrests dropped to 415 in 1998 and had reached 384 through September 1999. "We haven't had a high number of complaints," says Duarte. "Either they moved or stopped." Duarte credits the special squad with making other police departments aware of drag racing. "The law enforcement community has kept itself abreast of the problem," the lieutenant remarks.

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Jose Luis Jiménez