DETROIT – Cracking down on drag racing and drifting is about more than arrests and impounding vehicles. Technology is playing a larger role, and meaningful change starts with drivers.
“Now that I’m older, I can’t believe I used to do those kinds of things,” Bobby Flowers said. “You know, I see them drifting, shutting down the freeways. I can’t believe that.”
When he was a teen growing up in Detroit, Flowers loved drag racing on city streets.
“It’s a rush, you know, that’s all I can really say is the rush and even if you’re not racing is watching, they’re doing it,” Flowers said. “That’s what brings down the spectators, it’s still a rush to see smoke in here, the tires burning and things like that.”
Those spectators are now growing exponentially on social media.
“This just came up in one of these investigations,” said Detroit police Cmdr. Eric Decker, of the Organized Crime Unit, investigating drag racing and drifting. “This guy had his own website on his car. Took off from officers one weekend, stopped because at that time, wasn’t doing anything wrong, to be able to identify him and then look at his car. He had his own social media site and then to go back to it and see that at that time and day, he’s talking about running from the police.”
“The mentality in social media is totally different,” Flowers said. “Before we didn’t have a cellphone to call and say, ‘Meet me here in two seconds,’ on a phone. There’s 100 people there within 10 minutes.”
WATCH “SOLUTIONARIES: SAFER STREETS”
As technology becomes more powerful and the attention that goes with it more addictive, Decker said their focus is increasingly on social media.
“I have some of the smartest people that work for me. Whether they’re sworn officers or intel people, they’re watching you. And if you want to put it out there, thank you, because we’re gonna come and visit you.” Decker said.
Choosing not to record yourself engaged in illegal activity, let alone posting it, sounds like common sense. But professor of psychology Virgil Ziegler Hill said it’s not that simple.
“Cognitive psychologists sometimes describe this as, it’s almost, like, you have someone starting an engine in a car without a skilled driver behind the wheel, because especially young people, they have all of these desires to kind of gain status, to get new experiences, to gain prestige in their environment,” Ziegler Hill said. “At the same time, they don’t have the sort of cognitive control structures in place to stop them from doing really stupid things.”
Decker said attracting more followers and shoring up likes and shares has led to more dramatic risks on the streets.
“I think social media completely fuels drag racing. You go out there. Maybe you spin your car around a couple times, but if nobody’s looking, I just don’t see the thrill of it.” He says investigators are actively monitoring accounts. “That’s where we’re focusing. We’re not going to be shy about it. If that’s what you want to do, is put up on your social media site, you can bet Detroit police are monitoring your social media site. If you’re one of those main influencers and part of this crazy drifting community to get more people out there, we’re coming after you, and we’ve done it very well. We’ve executed search warrants, we’ve taken doors off the hinges, we’ve taken cars.”
Experts say holding tech companies accountable and forcing these platforms to remove dangerous videos has not yet gained traction.
“I think it’ll take pressure from police chiefs, from politicians, from the community to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ and put that back to the social media sites for them to go, ‘OK, you’re right,’ and remove that,” Decker said.
“I think tech companies most certainly have a role as well,” Ziegler Hill said. “I completely agree with the idea that there just isn’t the sort of a sustained political will and financing that would be required to deal with these situations more quickly.”
“They’re advocating an illegal activity,” Decker said. “I think they are definitely culpable for this, and I’d like to see more pressure put on them. It’s an illegal activity and people are dying.”
Parents and guardians also play an important role: Being engaged with their child’s use of social media and having honest conversations about the risks involved.
“Is there an easy message that parents can send to their kids that would help kids mature more rapidly? I don’t think so,” Ziegler Hill said. “That’s why I think parents monitoring their children, being more involved and aware of what they’re posting, how they’re posting and consequences of those sorts of things, would probably be the most important thing. Kids are still going through these maturational processes.”
On the streets the strategy is evolving. Detroit police are focused less on arrests and impounding vehicles, and more on catching the influencers and heavy hitters.
“So last year, we had a lot more officers out there, and they’re a lot more traffic-focused. Just any stop they can make,” Decker said.
Here’s a look at the stats in Detroit. Last year, in 2021, police conducted more than 2,500 traffic stops, impounded 258 vehicles and made 140 felony arrests. So far this year, police have conducted 263 traffic stops, impounded 72 vehicles and made 24 felony arrests.
“Probably at the end of the year, we’re not going to have, might be half of the numbers as far as how many tickets we wrote, how many cars we impounded, maybe even arrest. Again, it’s lower manpower, but it’s a lot more laser-focused. So that’s why the numbers are different,” Decker said.
Getting drivers off city streets and onto racetracks could be one of the best bets to curb illegal activity. After a two-year hiatus, the Milan Dragway reopened, one of only a few of its kind in southeast Michigan.
Harold Bullock and Perry Merlo are the new co-owners of the Milan Dragway.
“We love drag racing, and this is the this was the last place in Detroit that was left to do it,” Merlo said. “So we didn’t want that to go by the wayside, for sure.”
“There’s something for everyone here. You can you can bring your mom’s minivan or you can bring your top fuel dragster,” Bullock said. “This is the location for it.”
Both say this racetrack has everything adrenaline junkies are looking for.
“We do we do a lot of no prep racing, which is what those guys like. That means we don’t put any traction compound or rubber on the track, and this is an actual street field,” Merlo said.
“When these cars go down this track, not only do you hear it, you feel it when they go through -- it vibrates your whole body when they go through,” Bullock said.
“We carry fuel, we carry nitrous oxide, we carry CO2, anything a street racer would need, you can come here and do it in a confined area, and not have to worry about getting in trouble,” Merlo said.
Bullock points out, “It’s affordable to come here, especially compared to street racing where you might lose your life or the best case scenario lose your car, even if you do crash here, the odds are very good that you will get out, walk away from your car.”
Decker said places like the Milan Dragway are essential.
“I’d much rather see them go someplace where it’s safe, you sign a waiver when you walk in, they’re going, ‘Hey, this is really dangerous activity and I may be hurt, but I’m not holding somebody else accountable.’ And like I talked about that innocent victim that’s just driving down the road, this is happening on public highways,” Decker said.
Police said speed bumps have helped reduce drag racing significantly, but drifting is taking over intersections across the city. Videos of drifting are proving popular on social media, so the Milan Dragway is in the process of converting a parking lot into a drift pad, so drivers can record themselves drifting safely and post it online for others to see.
“You come here, you know you’re not going to run into anybody, go as fast as you want and you’re with like-minded people,” Bullock said.
“A lot of those people that are street racing out there are young game and have a track to go to,” Flowers says. “Now we had this to come here and to see if you’d like it, might like it better than the streets. It’s definitely different now. A few years when we didn’t have a tracking facility, they can come and experience it.”
Flowers is now a regular at the Milan Dragway: “I’m here 80 hours a week. I love it.”
Flowers has found a new way to pursue his passion for speed. But says it’s challenging to tackle the culture of drag racing and drifting when part of the thrill is breaking the law. He was once zipping through the Motor City at break-neck speeds, but a horrific crash changed his course.
“What stopped me was an accident,” Flowers said. “A lady was killed. I totally walked away from it then. But that’s happening now, and they’re still not stopping these kids.
“What impact did that have on you?” asked Priya Mann.
“It pretty much halted my whole street racing and, you know, I didn’t want to see that or participate in it,” Flowers said. “I felt bad for the families, people went to jail for the accident. I just wish kids could see that and not let that happen to them.”
Whether it’s having a safe space to race, cracking down on social media companies or talking to your kids about the risks and consequences, there’s solutions out there, but it’s clear it will take a community buy in.