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Hang On

So I’m westbound on Pico at this red light somewhere past Robertson, and this dude in a vast new chromey SUV trundlebug pulls up. He blips his 300-hp engine, the street ahead is clear as far as I can see, and in an instant, nearly 40 years shred off my middle-aged frame: for the first time since Eisenhower, someone wants to drag me. And he actually thinks his obese, shiny, fashion statement of a Detroit road megalith can haul my 20-year-old import gas guzzler. Show him. Standing on the brake, I rev past 6 grand, then I pop it: We‘re both gone in a quick fog of tire smoke. My hindquarters sink back into the seat. Glatt kosher pizzerias fly by in a blur, and I’m keeping a wheel well ahead of this posturer all the way. Then I glance at my speedometer and it hits me: What the hell am I doing anyway, driving 75 mph past the Museum of Tolerance on a sunny afternoon? I brake, slow; the SUV roars on past me, headed toward Rancho Park and 90 mph plus.

What happened? Simply, a personal manifestation of the last century‘s own addition to the list of mortal temptations: that of speed.

I told this story to a similarly aged friend in law enforcement. Instead of promising to nail me the next time, he made his own confession. The day before, he’d caught himself -- if that is the term -- wringing out his rebuilt Porsche through the same mountain stretch he‘d once pa-trolled for speeders. Abashed to admit it, we’d both been seduced by the thrill of ripping through the boundaries of automotive propriety and driving fast enough to raise adrenaline hackles on the backs of our flabby necks.

Other people‘s car stories are like other people’s dreams; never as interesting to the told as to the teller. But in this city which virtually invented the concept of cars as fun, the ultimate car fun still means driving fast. We middle-agers may do so rarely (or not): We are not typical.

And going fast keeps getting easier. Just read Consumer Reports‘ car annual to find out by how much this year’s four-door Pontiac can beat out the last generation‘s megabucks Ferrari. More than a quarter-century after the great gas shortage of 1973 and 30 years after the first federal emissions-control laws, there are more fast cars out there than ever before: imports, domestic, whatever. And there are more people out there driving them. Unsurprisingly, some are driving them as fast as they can.

The only problem is there are far fewer places to drive that way, safely. Not to say, discreetly. On April 29, for instance, the LAPD conducted a mass bust of mostly young male street racers on Glenoaks Boulevard in Sun Valley. Which brings us to the point: Earlier this month, the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion demanding perhaps the most onerous ordinance against street racing you are likely to find anyplace in the world.

The proposed ordinance is an attempt to head off serious racing accidents within the city. Informal car jousts are regularly held in some San Fernando Valley streets. And late last month, two died in a drag race in Arcadia. “How long until an innocent bystander is killed, or a child?” someone asked the council. Actually, others testified, most of the illegal races are held after midnight (which is why many of the citations given are for curfew violations), when children or bystanding pedestrians are likely to be quite scarce.

But ever since some pre--World War I teenager first milled down the head of his Model-T Ford, there’s been a natural antipathy between the young hot rodder and the homeowner. The harsh condemnation of street dragging by Granada Hills burgers only showed the tradition lives. Councilman Hal Bernson‘s motion responded to this enmity: It asks for the impounding of cars caught racing.

And, in what some lawyers might conceivably see as an overreaching measure, it seeks “citations for those involved as spectators” of such races. We’ll get back to that one in a moment.

Yet in requesting this measure, the police are, quite understandably, worried about a major accident, even in the sparsely peopled corners of the Valley where such races currently take place. (The streets around the Hansen Dam are favorites.) Just imagine a weary midnight-shift worker backing his van out of his drive into the path of a sizzling young Acura driver trying to broil the standing quarter-mile in under 15 seconds. You get the idea.

Seventh District Councilman Alex Padilla supported the motion. But he asked that some official effort also be made to supply adventuresome car buffs -- particularly those with the hot new “showroom stock” cars that do most of the street racing -- with a place to drag safely, under supervision.

There hasn‘t been such a locale within L.A. city limits since the mid-’70s at least, and the strips are getting hard to find even in areas hours out of town. Fabled Brotherhood Raceway in San Pedro closed down five years ago; San Fernando and Irwindale raceways have been gone far longer. I‘m told there’s a speedway operation off in Littlerock, a desert community 60 miles north of the city. Pomona Fairgrounds still times stock drag racing, but it has curtailed its showroom stock events, according to Brian Stickel, Pacific Division director of the 49-year-old National Hot Rod Association, thereby turning away hundreds of weekly applicants for their “timing trials.” Stickel says car buffs interested in showing each other what their iron can do now have to go as far as Bakersfield.

Like so many amenities we long took for granted in this vast western land, the drag strip has become a victim of sprawl and skyrocketing land values. Stickel and representatives of NASCAR, the professional stock-car racing association, have met with Padilla to discuss plans to develop a local strip. So far, no luck; the now-closed Lopez Canyon landfill has been rejected (for drainage reasons) as has the Hansen Dam area itself (out of environmental considerations). Stickel said that it would probably cost $200,000 to set up a new drag strip anyplace in the greater Los Angeles area. Adding, “And that‘s optimistic.”

Even LAPD Officer Ron Walker, one of the force’s more visible community-policing senior lead officers, has been trying to help find young hotshoes a place to race safely. According to the Daily News, Walker, a car buff himself, keeps trying to find that perfect strip. Noise objections seem a key factor in keeping racing out of residential areas, though.

But Stickel noted that noise is overrated as a problem with the hot cars from showrooms. “At Pomona, these cars all run with normal mufflers. The top sound limit at these stock events is 90 decibels,” roughly, a moderately loud backyard party.

Meanwhile, that spectator-arrest provision in Bernson‘s motion could run into trouble as to its constitutionality. USC constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky points out, “It’s really a question of whether there is intent.” And the motion doesn‘t deal with this problem; as written, it would appear to subject anyone who happened to be in the vicinity and looking toward the race to citation.

De facto outlawry is a lowly fate indeed for what was, for half a century (like surfing), the summer activity indelibly associated with California youth. Isn’t it time, perhaps, for some of those irate North Valley homeowners to recall that many of them were out in the same streets 30 or 40 years ago, in their old A-Bones and Lead Sleds, trying for that elusive 15-second quarter-mile to impress their friends and steadies? Kids like that are still out there. On your own streets.

Have a Heart

Just about the fittest, most health-conscious guys you can see around City Hall are the city firefighters who, I‘ve heard, have been ordered to maintain not just the reality but the appearance of fighting trim. So I was a little surprised recently by the widely posted invitation for the department’s American Heart Association benefit lunch -- consisting of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and tamales. Did the AHA provide the menu?

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