The Main Drag

Page 4 of 5

Racers suspect the latest drag racing fatality in Hollywood on August 7, 1999, spurred a new crackdown. (Duarte denies any special effort.) Around 11:00 p.m. David Scozzafava pitted his 1995 black Chevrolet Impala SS against a 1997 Ford Mustang driven by Glenn Blackledge. The young men sped down Sheridan Street at speeds exceeding 80 mph. Scozzafava, a twenty-year-old Broward Community College student, lost control and wrapped the Impala around a tree. He died instantly. Three passengers, ages eighteen to twenty, were also killed. Blackledge, age twenty-one, was not seriously injured. He was, however, charged with four counts of unlawful blood alcohol/manslaughter, four counts of driving under the influence/manslaughter, and four counts of vehicular homicide.

Duarte admits that police tend to scrutinize racers more closely following such accidents. "The media reports help raise awareness," he explains. "Teens can be scared into not doing it."

Cars sporting shiny paint jobs, glossy tires, and darkly tinted windows abound in the parking lot of Rey's Pizza at West Twelfth Avenue and 68th Street in Hialeah. Outside the restaurant young men, some with girlfriends glued to their sides, munch on pepperoni slices, sip on cola, and gossip about racing.

"Pepe got a new Mustang," one says.

"Carlos crashed his Camaro while driving to work," another adds.

"Have you heard about the new red Corvette? It's faster than anyone's," offers a third.

About twenty Firebirds, Mustangs, and Camaros fill the cramped parking lot, converting it into a car show. Once every five minutes a sports car cruises through, and its driver revs the engine to show off his macho wheels. A recent-model Mustang pulls out of the lot, heads south on Twelfth Avenue, then the driver floors it. A thick plume of gray smoke rises into the air and the rear tires spin, leaving behind a 40-foot skid mark as the car bullets down the four-lane highway.

Inside Rey's a pie maker tosses dough into the air. A young woman behind the counter takes orders.

American Graffiti? No. It's Thursday night at Rey's.

Besides gossiping, drivers plan their next meet. Challenges are thrown down, prizes determined, and suitable locations selected. "There is a rush being out on the street. You are doing something wrong and [the cops] know it," says a racer who wants to remain anonymous. He is leaning on a white Ford Probe. "It's all about a macho thing. I wanna be faster than him, so I gotta go out and do it."

But Hialeah police are out in force this evening. While one officer talks to racers in the Rey's lot, several patrol cars circle the adjacent Chevron gas station and strip mall. They order some drivers to leave. Failure to follow authorities' commands can lead to arrest. In the past, police have even taken drivers into custody to prevent a race. The officers also watch the three other shopping centers that surround the intersection.

Cliff Bane, owner of Diamond Package Store and Bar, which is in the shopping center, first called police to complain about the racers more than a year ago. There were sometimes as many as 100 cars filling the lot and preventing customers from parking, he says. The cops brought some relief. Then Bane hired an off-duty officer. These days most of the racers have gone elsewhere. But the results have not been 100 percent positive, Bane comments. Many bar customers have cut their consumption to two drinks for fear of being arrested when they leave. "With the cops here, it hurts me," the bar owner says in a thick Southern drawl. "Without the cops, it hurts me."

Jose Colón arrives at Rey's around 10:00 p.m. He is a passenger in his friend and colleague Angel Buendia's four-door Nissan Sentra. Two other Firm members follow Buendia. Mike Hernandez is piloting his Mitsubishi Galant and Danny Fernandez drives a canary-yellow Honda Civic CRX. Buendia drops Colón at Rey's Pizza, then the three cars attempt to park near Bane's store. The off-duty officer orders them to depart.

The trio understands the cop to say they can park at the Jumbo Supermarket, just across West Twelfth Avenue. But when they pull into the deserted lot, two Hialeah police officers confront them. Another pair of cops appears minutes later. They demand drivers' licenses, insurance cards, and vehicle registrations. The club members comply while explaining how they ended up there. "The officer across the street told us we can park over here," Hernandez tells an officer whose badge reads "Nguyen." The cop doesn't buy the excuse, and returns to his cruiser with the paperwork.

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Jose Luis Jiménez