MEDLEY, Fla., June 28, 2009 -- It's one part tires, one part testosterone. When it comes to drag racing, the smokier, the faster, the better.
Many of the guys gathered in Medley, Fla., located outside Miami, used to race on the streets -- illegally -- sometimes with the police in hot pursuit. A program run under the supervision of law enforcement called Beat the Heat has changed all that.
After nine street racing deaths and arrests night after night, special laws were passed to push illegal racers off the road. Now, drag racing is allowed at designated gatherings where it's perfectly legal. The police are even part of the game by actually racing the public in their own souped-up, stripped-down police cars. When the light turns green, competitors slam the pedal to the metal and see if they can outrace the cops over a one-eighth of a mile course.
Medley police department's Jose Ayala, who races the police cars, says, "The objective would be to get the people out here so they can interact with me and I can say, 'Look, I'm a police officer, and if you do it illegally, I will write you a ticket, but if you do it legally we can be friends. We'll race, and we'll have fun.'"
For competitors like 19-year-old Robert Figuereuo, illegal racing meant tickets and license suspensions. The thrill of speeding draws him to the sport.
"I've gone 140 [mph] on the turnpike. You'd be amazed what these little imports can do," he said of racing his Honda Civic.
'It's Not Us vs.Them'
Illegal street racing was a problem long before the first of the "Fast and the Furious" films was released in 2001. The popular movies, some of which were shot on location in Florida, helped glamorize a dangerous and deadly subculture. Nearly 1,000 deaths from street racing were reported nationwide in the six years following the release of the original "Fast and the Furious" movie.
There are more than 800 Beat the Heat races in about 30 states each year. The Miami program is so successful that local police have disbanded an anti-street racing task force.
"It's not strictly, 'You break the law, we give you a ticket or we arrest you.' It's not us vs. them. We have to get out of that mentality and do what we can to change things," Ayala says.
And here, if you beat the heat, you get a T-shirt and not a speeding ticket.