By his own admission, 16-year-old Jason Fox of Petaluma likes “going fast.”
The young driver is the perfect audience for the Top the Cops program at Sonoma Raceway, which kicked off its summer run last week as part of the popular Wednesday Night Drags event at the track near Sonoma.
In the 22nd season of the program, Fox raced his mom’s Dodge Durango against Petaluma police officer Nick Raccanello’s department-issued Dodge Charger.
Fox, whose father and grandfather both drag raced as teenagers, was a little nervous before his first official race.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, organizers say.
They want young drivers to respect the two-ton deadly weapons they’re driving on the streets, with their lives, their passengers and other drivers’ safety hanging in the balance.
They don’t want another deadly illegal street race like the one that killed bystander Angelica Contreras, 16, in Cloverdale last year. Two of her friends, drivers Mark Mora, 17, and Cole Stroh, 17, were sentenced last month to the equivalent of probation and electronic monitoring on vehicular manslaughter charges.
“The message is this,” Kevin McKinnie, a retired Santa Rosa cop who organizes the event, told the young men. “We don’t want you racing on the street. It’s unsafe and out of control. If you want to go fast, come here.”
If that wasn’t enough temptation, McKinnie added: “It’s the only place in the world you can race against a stock police car.”
“Without getting a ticket,” Corte Madera teen Kevin Gao added.
Gao, 16, a Redwood High School student, wanted to push his mother’s Mercedes GL 550 SUV to the limit.
He acknowledged he has a “speed craving.”
“My mom said she’d take away my license if I got a speeding ticket,” he said.
About a half-dozen teenage boys turned out for the first of the summer-long weekly drag race. They each did a couple of warm-up runs to test their speed and reaction times.
Then they went head-to-head against the cops — who compete in full uniform in their official vehicles, sometimes with lights and sirens blaring.
In between runs, the police cars and teens’ vehicles are lined up next to each other, away from the 150 or so other amateur drag racers who compete in the Wednesday Night Drags on the newly repaved drag strip.
That gives them an opportunity to interact in a more relaxed atmosphere, to maybe break down some barriers between youths and police.
“I raced out here when I was a kid,” said Raccanello, the Petaluma officer. “This gets us in touch with the community. You realize you share the same hobbies.”
Raccanello raced a Chevrolet Camaro SS in his youth. This week, it was his Charger, which reached a top speed of 97 mph in a 14.36 quarter-mile.
Gao had loftier goals in his 4.8-liter V8, twin turbocharged SUV: “I want to hit 130. I think this car can handle it.”
Gao’s late grandfather was a deputy police chief in San Francisco. Fox’s father is a current San Francisco officer, and his grandfather is retired SFPD.
“He’s such a good driver,” said Christine Gao, Kevin’s mom, who was nonetheless a little anxious before her son took to the drag strip. “But he’s so responsible, so I’m OK with it.”
She wasn’t so sure about the 130 mph goal, though. But it all worked out. Gao topped out at 101.
Several boy and girl scouts also participated, who came with troop leader Rick Marshall, an automotive technology professor at Solano Community College.
In addition to Petaluma, officers from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol, Novato and Fairfield police raced. The CHP raced their training Charger, which is equipped with an interior safety cage.
Boy Scout Owen Moore, 17, of Fairfield ran his 1994 Camaro Z28 against a police Ford Explorer. He said he might come back this summer.
“It’s affordable and safe,” Marshall said. “You could come out and race all summer for less than the cost of one speeding ticket.”
By Lori A. Carter, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.
(c)2016 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)
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