KENT, Wash. - On a typical weekend night in the industrial north end of Kent, fast, furious and sometimes fatally dangerous high-speed competition can fill streets with hundreds of cars, and as many spectators shooting video from the curbs.
Drivers bring cars -- many modified with high-performance engines -- from as far as B.C. and Oregon. Dozens of drivers line up, and with a starter’s wave, tires spin, engines roar and the race is on. Cars scream down streets, sometimes taking every lane and often reaching speeds beyond 120 mph.
Kent has been the epicenter of Western Washington street-race culture for decades, because if its flat straightaway streets and industrial parking lots, lined with endless loading docks. Kent police have tried different strategies to keep racers out. Local ordinances forbid even watching a street race in Kent. But Kent Police Officer Randy Brennan says his department is chasing a moving and quickly growing target.
“The problem you face here is there's only a limited number of us, and a massive amount of racers,” he said.
Brennan says as the weather warms, it's only a matter of time before people are killed in a street race, whether it happens behind the wheel, or to someone watching cars scream past only a few feet away.
These guys are blowing red lights, they're blowing stop signs, they're driving on oncoming lanes of travel at high rates of speed," Brennan said. "You could have a car coming straight at you at 90 miles to 100 mph with nowhere to go. The only option is a head-on collision,” he said.
Kent police invited a KIRO 7 photographer to ride with officer Brennan while he patrolled Kent’s streets, specifically searching for street racers. At midnight, the parking lots of fast food restaurants become packed with dozens of cars, waiting for word where the next race will be held.
“These people will fill every square inch of these parking lots,” Brennan said. “This is pretty much what we do all night long is we chase them around and around and around."
According to King County and State Patrol statistics, eight people have been killed in street races in South King County over a five-year-span. In the same period, more than 800 died in street racing crashes nationwide.
In 2008, Kent police invited KIRO 7 along as they went undercover posing as racers, launching the biggest street racing sting in state history. A State Patrol plane tracked racers from the air. Police on the ground sealed off every escape route during a race, and they arrested 120 people for everything from trespassing, to reckless driving, to DUI.
The massive show of force was supposed to send an unforgettable message. At the same time, the city laid hundreds of speed bumps over miles of lanes, to keep racers out. But semi drivers complained about the bumps to city leaders. They said the bumps jostled their loads. So the city stripped-out the bumps and the area became one giant drag-strip, again.
Recently, Kent police received a grant from an insurance company to conduct emphasis patrols, like the one officer Brennan was on while KIRO 7 rode along.
“This has been a real hot spot right here," said Brennan, pulling into an industrial parking lot used by hundreds of semis hauling trailers to loading docks.
When officer Brennan moves in, one car is in a tail spin. He quickly moved in and convinced the driver to own up to the skid marks.
“Kind of got caught in the act didn't you?” “Yeah,” replied the driver, who was promptly arrested for reckless driving. “So we're going to tow your car, OK? And you're going down to the City of Kent Jail,"said Brennan.
Officer Brennan admits there are so many illegal racers, they can't arrest their way out of this dangerous problem. He's hoping courts force the people he arrests to see the faces of drivers killed while racing and hear from heartbroken people they left behind.
But on this night, he'll try to reach one single driver with a trip to jail, in hopes the message goes viral.
“Even if we can get just one of these guys off the street, that's a win in my book,” he said.