Police ‘street’ race civilians in Beat the Heat event

It’s all the adrenaline of a street race with none of the expensive legal or medical bills that usually follow. Speeders and spectators gathered at Miami’s Countyline Dragway on Saturday to celebrate the one-year anniversary of a program that allows civilians and police officers to rev their engines on the dragstrip instead of the streets.

Beat the Heat” is an organization that encourages police to teach kids about the dangers of street racing. But these police don’t just give lectures – they teach by example. Officers at Beat the Heat register participants to race against them — the “heat” — at the track. The winners get an “I Beat the Heat!” t-shirt and bragging rights; losers get to say they tried to outrun a cop without getting arrested.

South Florida’s chapter of Beat the Heat was represented by the police of Medley, a town next to Miami Springs in Miami-Dade County. Mayor Ramon Rodriguez, who attended to support the officers, said illegal street racing is a serious problem in South Florida. “Especially along Okeechobee Road and the Palmetto [Expressway], there are a lot of deaths,” he said.

University of Miami junior Nadine Sebai said in a phone interview that she has had several close calls with eager street racers.

“You can just randomly be driving and people will try to get you to race them,” Sebai explained, adding that the amount of propositions depends on the kind of car you drive.

Officer Jose Ayala said he has been trying to find a solution to street racing concerns such as Sebai’s since Beat the Heat held its first race last September.

“I’d say there’s been a pretty dramatic reduction in crash-related accidents and just tickets in general for street racing. Those cliques are getting smaller by the day,” Ayala said.

Every precaution is taken at the monthly Beat the Heat events to ensure the drivers’ safety. The track is separated from the spectator areas by fences on both sides and there are always ambulances standing by.

Still, the temptation to street race can be strong, especially in teenagers and young adults. Florida International University student Alex Gordon attended the event to watch his friends compete, but said they haven’t stopped racing illegally.

“It takes an hour and a half from registration to get to go once in your car, I mean, who wants to wait an hour and a half when on the street you can race in five, 20 seconds?” Gordon said.

Beat the Heat organizers said that they are aware of the lure of illegal racing. “The reality is that the kids are going to do it anyways, but if we can offer them this place where they can come and do it in a safe environment, I think it’s a lot better for all of us – the police and the kids,” said Griselia Digiacomo, the vice mayor of Medley.

Though every officer that races a civilian is an active member of the force, they do not get paid overtime for volunteering and often take vacation days to be able to participate. The modified cars they drive are also supported by donated money. The Fords and Chevys are gutted to make the cars faster and are given a “cop car” makeover complete with decals and flashing lights.

Though Beat the Heat celebrated its one-year anniversary in Miami, it’s been a national nonprofit program since 1992. Advertising and word of mouth has turned this grassroots effort into a real draw, attracting families and hardcore racers alike. The event included live music, food and a rock climbing wall for the kids.

Spectators watched adrenaline-filled matches between police and civilians. The irony is not lost on racer Joe Williams, who won against Officer Norma Jean Martinez in a tight race. “It’s a pretty unbelievable feeling,” he said. “What’s worse though, is at the end of the race she puts her lights on behind you so that’s a little nerve wracking.”