A Dallas police helicopter captures a 'burnout' event in progress (via YouTube)

Local News

The Challenge and Culture of Dallas Street Racing and Sliding

They are not the same. The drivers, the cops, and the city are at an impasse. They all want to understand each other. So let's hear from a few drivers.

IHATEHUNCHO and his friend NSG BILLZ say they are “swingers,” not street racers. To them, this is an important distinction. When they meet in a parking lot or take over an intersection and throw their cars in a circle or watch others do the same, this is a “slideshow.” What they do is “sliding.” It’s a social thing started years ago in parks and parking lots all over southern Dallas, until a targeted Dallas police enforcement effort pushed them north.

(Billz and Huncho, as they’ll be referred to for the rest of the story, asked that their real names not be used. They both live in the Dallas area.)

“We’d go chill at a park, like Rochester Park, that’s been going on for years and years,” Billz says, referencing what is now William Blair Jr. Park, in the Bonton neighborhood. “When I got my first car at 18, I used to go up there and just go chill, and everybody had their cars sitting on 30s out there. Then someone would do a burnout.”

They view what they do as more controlled than the street racers speeding down Forest like it’s the Tollway. This grew from car culture, using their vehicles as a way to get together on a Sunday. But they admit that these slideshows come with an assumed amount of danger. All it takes is one mistake for a car to go careening into spectators, which is what happened in July in Detroit that triggered the launch of a task force to stop the behavior.

“What we’re doing is dangerous to some extent but you have control over it, you have control over how dangerous it is,” Billz says, noting that the spectators are there and trust the people they’re watching.

The police, the City Council, and city staff all believe that none of this is the least bit safe, not for the drivers, not for the consenting onlookers, and certainly not for the residents who have nothing to do with it in the first place. And the police don’t see any difference in takeovers—where drivers block intersections to do their donuts and burnouts—and street racing. When a resident calls 911 about unsafe driving, cops respond. Police say on many weekends this behavior attracts up to 2,000 people, a number that Billz disputes.

But nevertheless, the pandemic has people bored, and they’re turning to the street. And now dozens of others like Billz and Huncho point their cars toward the city to watch or engage. These drivers are no longer just in Oak Cliff and South Dallas; they’re in the parking lot of J.L. Long Middle School in East Dallas, the nonsensical three-way intersection of Skillman and Live Oak in Lakewood, the empty space of Nowitzki Way and Houston Street in Victory Park, and all over downtown. Council members who never had to deal with this are now getting calls, just like 911 is. Just like with so many other issues in this city, the north finally pays attention when the south comes to them.

“Once it started hitting the streets, they started filming it and blasting that stuff on social media platforms. Then the nuisance, quality of life issues started to grow more and more,” says Deputy Chief Thomas Castro with the Dallas Police Department. “Up until recently, it was a behavior you saw more in the southern sectors.”

Billz says the swingers operate independently of the street racers. The racers see exactly what teenagers in the ’60s did: big, open roads that beg drivers to push the pedal down. Take Midway Road and Forest Lane in North Dallas; look to Hampton Road, Westmoreland Road, and Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff. It’s all a text or an Instagram DM away, and they almost always have a head start on the police. The cops are handicapped; department policy precludes them from chasing.

The swingers, meanwhile, say they’d rather do this on private property. They don’t enjoy running from police, Billz says. He says the freeway takeovers that Dallas saw earlier this year are mostly organized by out-of-towners looking to show out in a new city. But the cops have forced the locals out of their old spots, so the intersections are all the swingers have left. It is not fun for nearby homeowners.

“I don’t believe we can just arrest our way out of this problem,” says Councilman David Blewett, who represents downtown, Uptown, and East Dallas. “If there was a silver bullet, some idea that somebody has that would allow us to mitigate or minimize this threat on our streets, I’m open.”

The numbers prove his concern. Incidents of street racing, takeovers, and generally unsafe driving this year have about doubled, according to calls for service. In 2019, 911 was called 4,867 times to report dangerous driving. In 2020, we’ve already reached 8,441 calls.

In May, City Council approved an ordinance that allowed police to ticket spectators. They’ve already issued 612, as well as 3,888 citations for various safety violations and 10,121 for more administrative problems, like expired registrations. There have been 1,196 arrests, 48 seized guns, 72 incidents of seized narcotics, and 659 towed vehicles.

Despite these efforts, it appears the cold has had more of an effect on attendance than enforcement. “They can catch a spectator, but you’re not going to catch a swinger nine times out of 10,” Billz says. “The only way you catch a swinger is if there’s only 20 people out, and that’s on a slow day. The only reason it died down is it’s getting cold outside.”

Billz drives a Dodge Charger. Huncho has a Chrysler 300. In a video on his Instagram, Huncho, sitting under blinking lights attached to the vehicle’s interior roof, swings the car again and again as spectators stand just out of reach with smiles on their faces and phones in their hands.

Billz says they’d prefer to do this in a controlled spot away from public right of way. They had a parking lot outside a warehouse in the Cedars, off Lamar, just down the street from Dallas police headquarters, but police found it and now that’s off limits. They’ve run into this a lot. In 2019, Deputy Police Chief Albert Martinez, the commander of the Southwest Division, formed a task force to crack down on speeding and unsafe driving. Castro says the division “had a lot of speeding in general; there were a lot of fatalities.”

The cops shut down meeting points, worked with businesses to block access to parking lots, and worked Instagram and social media to gain intelligence to beat the drivers to their spots.

“I think his group wrote more citations than the traffic unit,” Castro says.

So the drivers went north. They’ll find an intersection or an open parking lot and do it there. The cops show up and they splinter off, shooting down side streets. Rinse, repeat.

“I used to go to a warehouse no one would be at, but it got so large—I could show you a video with 3,000 people out there over the whole night,” Billz says. “I can show you some where it’s only 10 people out there. But at the end of the day, everybody wants to have fun so they’re gonna keep doing it.”

“I don’t believe we can just arrest our way out of this problem.”

Councilman David Blewett

Meanwhile, the racers never stopped, using those same six-lane roads to compete. As the Morning News notes, racing has killed people. An 8-year-old passenger died after racers on the six-lane Lake June Road in Pleasant Grove crashed into the car she was in. An off-duty officer died last Christmas Eve when he lost control of his car while racing off duty on the six-lane Mockingbird Road near White Rock Lake. (I could find no evidence of a death related to takeovers, but police say they’ve been targeted with bottles, grazed by vehicles speeding away from the scene, and had fireworks shot at them. It is unclear whether these are related to takeovers or street racing, as the department doesn’t separate the two.)

Meanwhile, City Council was told Wednesday at a briefing that enforcement efforts aren’t working. Craig Wheeler and Anga Sanders, both Oak Cliff residents who live near Kiest Park, told of racers speeding down Hampton and Westmoreland. Sanders told a story from a few years back, when a couple of cars and a UHaul box truck ended up in her backyard, “less than 2 feet from my bedroom wall.” “Westmoreland is a very busy street,” she said. “It is the same street as Mockingbird Lane.”

She means that it is six lanes; the design makes the speed limit more of a suggestion than anything. Chad West, the councilman in North Oak Cliff, pounced.

“We have an opportunity right now to really be radical, in a sense, in putting in traffic calming measures,” he said during this week’s City Council briefing. “This is our time to recapture our urban core, to slow traffic down and modernize our suburban-style roads to bring them back to what they were, and to really prioritize everything, not just cars—pedestrian safety, people with strollers, people on bikes.”

West worked with Blewett and Robert Perez, the city’s director of public works, to take in lanes at a handful of locations. In October, Grand Avenue had a lane removed from St. Mary to Tenison Memorial in East Dallas. In November, St. Paul was closed from Bryan to Elm streets downtown. On the weekends, Hampton Road has a lane blocked off from Fort Worth Avenue to Davis Street and from Jefferson Boulevard to Wright Street farther south in Oak Cliff. Other ongoing weekend closures include Elm Street downtown at Cesar Chavez, Commerce at Cesar Chavez, and Houston Street in Victory Park.

Dallas police didn’t immediately have a comparison of 911 calls before and after the road diets. But West says it seems like it has been a success.

“I’m sort of rough-balling it here, but the calls I’m getting are about 75 percent positive. They’re glad to have it even though they’re inconvenienced,” West says. “About 25 percent don’t like it and just say, Hey, we need more police. But as you saw, that isn’t working.”

So although design is a preventive element, it isn’t a panacea, Blewett says. The city of Dallas is 383 square miles. There will always be another place to go.

The swingers and their spectators splinter when they see a cop. Blewett says he saw a video of them doing donuts around a fire truck at the Live Oak and Skillman intersection recently. When a cop showed up, they fled. Neighborhoods are rightly concerned about what happens if an ambulance needs to get through when a takeover is happening. There are reports of gunshots and fireworks being set off. People are smoking marijuana. Billz and Huncho say much of the trouble comes from the spectators.

“Someone might be out there smoking marijuana; you can’t control what everybody does,” Billz says. “Police have to clear the scene, and that’s when all the danger starts. Everybody runs.”

Slideshows at Skillman and Live Oak, in April of 2020.
YouTube

Billz says running from the police isn’t fun for them. But he also knows the takeovers aren’t going away. The spectators who follow the swingers on Instagram seem to trust that they’re not going to get hit. That’s the importance of control, Billz says.

But now cops are paying close attention to everything they do. He says police followed some drivers to a secluded area on private property near Highway 67 and Red Bird Lane, where Memphis rapper Young Dolph and Dallas’ Trapboy Freddy were filming a video for their single “Gary Payton.” The video is all slideshows, spinning cars and motorcycles and 4-wheelers. He says the cops ticketed spectators. (Deputy Chief Castro didn’t confirm the specifics of the incident but said police have broken up similar gatherings and issued citations.)

“They’re money hungry,” Billz says. “They’re looking at us like we’re criminals.”

Billz and Huncho want somewhere to go that’s free of police intervention. During Wednesday’s City Council briefing, City Attorney Chris Caso said it would be difficult if not impossible for the city to sanction any of this. “We wouldn’t have governmental immunity if someone was hurt,” he said.

Many find it hard to understand the appeal of what Billz and others are doing. Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn, who represents Far North Dallas, asked the police department during the briefing, “Why is this fun?” She was told that they do it for social media attention, but the reality is this goes back generations and extends beyond cultures. Think of American Graffiti. Hell, think of Grease. Think of Forest Lane from the 1960s through the 90s, when teenagers used the street as their own personal drag strip. This is history repeating itself, but with different technology and a denser, arguably more dangerous setting. The new challenge is that it’s happening all over the city and the cops aren’t quick enough or resourced enough to get ahead of it every time.

Others, like Assistant Chief Lonzo Anderson, are looking for creative solutions. Anderson said he’d been in contact with the Texas Motorplex racetrack in Ennis, which has “extended an invitation to these groups if they want to visit their site and participate with their facilities in regard to fellowshipping and speeding.”

“That’s a 45-minute drive from where I stay,” Huncho says. The drivers “would rather go down the street.”

So we are at an impasse. In the meantime, street racing calls have been elevated from priority four to priority two, which have a goal of a response time within 12 minutes. Blewett says police aren’t getting there for half an hour sometimes, giving the swingers plenty of time to do their thing and move on. He’d like to see the calls elevated to priority one, which is usually reserved for major accidents, murders, and shootings. He said the inherent danger in the behavior coupled with the narcotics and guns seizures warrant the elevation. If the police can get to the scene faster, they’ll disrupt the action and break it up before spectators have the time to arrive. He doesn’t believe that parking a police car in an intersection does much good, a suggestion that Councilman Omar Narvaez raised. The drivers just go elsewhere.

The department said it would discuss elevating the calls, but that’s a complicated proposition, Castro says. “When we’re looking at prioritizing these 911 calls, you take the totality of the information we have. It may be two cars trying to outpace each other with loud mufflers. I don’t think that’s a priority one response.”

It’s also tough to seize a car. Look below at the prerequisites to do so:

The City Council is planning to lobby the Legislature to pass more laws that would give police further enforcement power, including lowering the bar at which the department can seize a vehicle. The Dallas Police Department is in contact with other cities that are seeing increases in this behavior; all of them sound dumbfounded about how to control it. Relative to the activities of the drivers, this is glacial movement.

Where does all this leave us? The city is behind, almost like it’s playing a different game than the drivers it seeks to stop. But all parties say they want to talk about solutions. Huncho actually emailed Blewett asking for a meeting, and the councilman spoke with him and Billz on Thursday. Castro says he’d love to sit down with them, even though a city-sanctioned event area seems to be a long shot. Perez, with public works, says the department is planning to unveil a plan for more traffic calming next week. In the meantime, residents have to hope for more cold weather. This is a way of life for many in Dallas.

“It’s like, we want to play football, but you’re not going to give us a stadium,” Billz says. “So we’re gonna play in the street.”

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