Complaints about snarling engines, blaring mufflers and screeching tires have started again among the people who live near the Route 7 connector in Norwalk.
It means the street racers are back.
The noise is a nighttime nuisance, but the illegal road racing is downright dangerous, and has Connecticut State Police and the Norwalk Police Department working together to stop it.
It’s not easy. Many of the drivers belong to car clubs that organize events, set meeting places – and establish strategies for blocking traffic to create racing space on highways – using their phones.
They appear and disappear quickly, and can easily evade police.
“They communicate via text or other means and set up the races in various locations,” Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said. “The difficulty is that the vehicles flee when they see police and we cannot pursue them.”
The state recently enacted a policy that allows police to pursue only those suspected of more serious crimes.
Route 7 racing dates back at least a decade, according to news reports. State troopers and Norwalk officers also worked together last year to stop competitions among souped-up street cars.
Racers “had been on Route 7 in the past but after police were up there, they moved out of Norwalk,” Kulhawik said. “They recently returned.”
When police confront the problem in Norwalk, the street racers move to a slice of highway in Danbury or New Haven, state police Lt. Kevin Manzolillo said.
“We are doing preventive patrols. We are trying to be everywhere they want to be,” Manzolillo said. “The goal is to saturate the areas where they meet.”
Meeting places are random. It may be a Wendy’s or a McDonald’s, perhaps the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts.
The drivers make a plan – some race while others clear the highway.
“They have ‘blocker cars’ that stop traffic to make way for a race,” Manzolillo said. “They put out two cars that go slow, side by side, one in each lane, while up ahead, the others are racing.”
It used to happen mostly on weekends, Manzolillo said. Now Thursdays and Fridays seem to be the preferred nights, he said.
Kulhawik said a Norwalk resident told the department that, lately, the Route 7 racers appear between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
It’s all very elusive.
“The second they see us, they disperse,” Manzolillo said. “With social media, it’s easy for them to regroup somewhere else.”
State police do not specifically track street-racing arrests, so it is difficult to tabulate them, Trooper First Class Pedro Muniz said.
“We give the drivers citations for racing, but we don’t have a category for street racing, so the extent of it statewide is hard to quantify,” Muniz said.
Street racers aren’t showing up in the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Highway Operations Center, which watches traffic cameras around the state, said Josh Morgan, the agency’s communications manager.
“They have no reports of drag racing,” Morgan said. “That is not to say drag racing isn’t happening … it may be happening on roadways without camera coverage.”
Maybe organizers take that into account when they plan races.
One thing must be clear, Morgan said.
“Drag racing is an incredibly dangerous behavior that puts all roadway users at risk,” he said.
Despite the danger, street racing in the United States surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, when roads were clear because people were working, and staying, at home.
In a report from last year, NBC News recounted incidents from multiple states:
- In Jackson, Miss., drivers blocked traffic on an interstate highway for an hour to do spin-outs and other stunts.
- In Atlanta, Ga., a 52-year-old mother of two was killed when a man racing a Dodge Challenger muscle car hit her head-on.
- In Phoenix, Ariz., officials now impound cars involved in street racing for 30 days.
- In Colorado, state police began using helicopters to spot street racers after hundreds of them clogged a highway in Aurora. Police have started a program, Take It to the Track, at a speedway near Denver to allow drivers to race safely.
Racers have killed themselves, fellow drivers, innocent motorists passing by, pedestrians and onlookers.
Some cities have beefed up the penalties for drag racing. Others want to make it illegal to attend a drag race.
Municipal officials report that street racing crowds leave behind alcohol containers, spray-painted start and finish lines, and pavement damaged by spinning tires.
Police in New Haven cracked down two summers ago, when they made multiple arrests of people – many of them residents of other areas – who were drag racing and obstructing streets near Foxon Boulevard, Ella Grasso Boulevard and Long Wharf Drive.
Kulhawik said Route 7 racers also come from all over, driving “modified, basically street-legal, vehicles.”
Racers, for example, may replace an original engine with one that has more horsepower, remove a passenger seat to shed weight, modify air-intake and exhaust equipment, or make other changes to boost speed.
“We are trying to deter them by being visible,” Manzolillo said. “Unfortunately, they see us and go somewhere else.”