It’s a familiar summertime sound in the West Midway area of St. Paul: the high-pitched whine of highly tuned car engines bouncing off the concrete industrial streets and echoing for a mile in every direction. It comes from the endemic problem of illegal street racing—groups of mostly young men hitting high speeds on St. Paul streets.
The issue is particularly challenging for law enforcement because of the mobile nature of the street rods, but police have made strides at fighting street racing along the St. Paul border, according to Sgt. Christopher Byrne of the St. Paul Police Department’s traffic enforcement division.
Many people probably know about street racing from the popular “Fast and Furious” film series, which glorifies underground street-racing circuits in places like California and Japan. The typical car is a small coupe, usually customized with spoilers, air dams, turbochargers, slick tires or any number of beneath-the-hood modifications to increase torque and horsepower. Late at night, often using social media to organize, groups of racers gather on marginal, straight roads to hit triple-digit speeds and race each other. And sometimes the results can be deadly.
“We care about the issue for two reasons,” St. Paul City Council president Russ Stark said. “First, it’s a quality-of-life issue. People are disturbed by noise. And second, there’s the safety issue. Someone was killed at University and Vandalia some years back by someone speeding through the intersection.”
For police, clamping down on street racing is a challenge. Often it turns into what Stark calls “a cat-and-mouse game” between the racers and the police, with the police forced to catch the racers “in the act.” The racing often slips between the cracks, ending up on Hwy. 280 or industrial back streets at odd hours of the night when officers have better things to do.
And as neighbors in St. Anthony Park well know, the area around University Avenue and Hwy. 280 is a racing hot spot.
“In the great scheme of things it’s nothing new in St. Paul,” Stark said. “Some of it got moved with the Green Line construction. A lot of folks that would hang out along University Avenue got displaced, and some of that racing has stayed there in the industrial area in the Midway. [And so] we’ve been working with the police department to do some extra enforcement.”
Over the last few years, police have seen reduced activity thanks to new prevention efforts and inter-agency coordination. St. Paul has been working with other agencies like the Minnesota State Patrol and suburban departments to concentrate on hot spots: Hwy. 280 and portions of 35-E and I-94. One key is to work together to pinpoint exactly where street racing is most likely to occur.
“We are taking a more deterrent roll in that we are closing off certain parking lots, posting officers at certain locations and watering down streets they race on,” Byrne said. “Officers assigned to the detail, and there are more of them now, have zero tolerance on both moving and equipment violations.”
Beyond enforcement, the real secret to fighting street racing is deterrence and prevention. St. Paul police have set up stings and spray water on certain roads that are attractive to racers. (The water makes it more difficult for tires to grip the surface of the street, thus making street racing much less appealing.)
Progress against the races is slow, but Byrne said they are seeing change. “We have cut back on the number of details; we are just not seeing the numbers of cars we have in the past,” Byrne said.
Progress in one part of the city can mean racing is diverted to other neighborhoods, as it’s pushed from hot spot to hot spot. But for now, the street-racing problem has been reduced in St. Anthony Park, Hwy. 280 and the West Midway, Byrne said, and for neighbors of the old concrete potential drag strips, that’s good news.