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-  Boy racers / The Sunday Telegraph / October 2014  -

When Fast and Furious star Paul Walker died in a crash, fans were shocked. But that isn’t stopping them emulating the films’ reckless driving on the streets of Britain

On a warm summer’s evening in 2011, 13-year-old Amy Hofmeister went out for a bike ride. Setting off with her friend Lucy, the pair pedalled along their usual route around Blackbrook Pavilion, in Taunton, Somerset, where Amy’s mother Jane was working on reception, sticking to the cycle path adjacent to the 30mph road as they went.

Little did the young cyclists know, but farther back on Blackbrook Way two cars were locked in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse, barrelling towards them at a frightening pace. Sat behind the wheel of aVauxhall Vectra, 41-year-old Leonard Jones was pursuing his girlfriend Leanne Burnell, 20, in a Ford Focus, at an average speed of 65mph – more than twice the limit. Both drivers were under the influence of alcohol, and a jury would later hear that Jones bragged, “I’ll catch her, I’ll catch her” to his passenger, while Burnell egged him on from her vehicle.

After chasing Burnell for 4.6 miles, Jones attempted to overtake his partner. But, at 81mph, he was travelling too fast. He lost control, mounted the kerb and flipped the car on to its roof, ploughing directly into young Amy. She died instantly – an innocent victim of an illegal street race.

“They couldn’t pull her back,” remembers Jane, of the paramedics’ hour-long fight to revive her daughter. “When they got to her [just after 7.30pm] they said she didn’t have a heartbeat, and they worked on her until almost half past eight. She was brain-dead, had a head injury, a broken back, fractured leg, multiple trauma to her chest. It was an unsurvivable hit. At 80 miles an hour, nobody can withstand that sort of impact.”

Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. In recent years, Britain’s highways and byways have been transformed into race tracks. Whether instigated via social media, car clubs or simply a guttural rev of the engine at a traffic light, drag races and stunt contests take place on a nightly basis in the UK, as speed-hungry drivers push their high-powered vehicles to the very edge of their engineering capabilities.

Most commonly known as boy racers or cruisers, this underground subculture has operated for decades, especially in seaside towns such as Southend, in Essex, and Morecambe, in Lancashire, or industrial cities like Sheffield and Newcastle. But the scene has expanded exponentially due to the global success of The Fast and the Furious. An orgy of testosterone, gleaming supercars and impossibly daring driving, the film franchise, which began in 2001, has spanned six sequels, several video games and countless imitators, not just in Hollywood, but on the motorways and industrial estates of the UK.

“Hollywood does not present the challenges of driving in a realistic manner,” Julian Chan, an American entertainment lawyer, commented recently. “It often shows people easily getting out of crashes and rarely shows bystanders being injured.” This, he said, “encourages people to emulate such behaviour off the set.”

And it is not just bystanders who have been killed by the craze.The most high-profile victim is one of the stars of the franchise itself, Paul Walker, who died last November in the passenger seat of a Porsche Carrera which was travelling at 90mph in a 45 limit zone in Valencia, California.

Walker was a known petrol head, off screen as well as on, and had a collection of around 30 cars. Fans were left stunned by his death. Under a cold, clear sky eight days after the crash, hundreds of cruisers took part in a memorial procession through the industrial park where the accident had happened. “This is a reality check to everyone here,” one driver told a newspaper. “My mom told me every day since I was a kid: ‘What you’re building is a weapon.'”

At two o’clock on a Sunday morning I watch as a throng of souped-up convertibles and freshly-waxed hatchbacks descend on a link road just off the A126, in Thurrock, Essex. To the sound of screeching wheels and popping exhausts, cars tear down the tarmac, two by two, at speeds close to 100mph. Others are parked aimlessly across a roundabout.

An orgy of testosterone, The Fast and the Furious has spanned six sequels, video games and countless imitators, not just in Hollywood, but on the motorways and industrial estates of the UK

Half-an-hour ago there were only 30 cars here. Now there are more than 100 – an invitation obviously having gone out into the online ether. A dense, smoky fog hangs in the air and a strong stench of burning rubber and motor oil seeps into the unmarked Ford Focus I am sharing with Sgt Simon Willsher, an officer with Essex Police. It is a scene you’d more commonly expect to find at Silverstone.

Alarmingly, there are also scores of spectators, some of whom look no older than 13 or 14, standing in the road, perilously close to the action. “Someone’s gonna get killed here,” says Willsher and rapidly starts to coordinate an operation to box in the vehicles.

With help from other units, the plan is to inspect each vehicle, every modification and all necessary documents, to send a clear message to racers that such illicit activity will not be tolerated. It doesn’t go to plan; moments before the sting is launched, a local beat officer happens upon the scene, detaining just one vehicle while the rest scatter – free to race another day.

Thanks to its preponderance of young, brash men and its easy access to motorways, Essex is a particular hot spot for illegal racing. A day seldom goes by without a meet somewhere in Southend, Canvey Island, Thurrock or Basildon, with cruisers parking up at night in disused car parks, industrial estates and, most often, near 24-hour fast-food restaurants, such as McDonald’s.

So many complaints have been made to police about deafening exhausts, blaring stereos and dangerous street racing, that the Essex force has, since 2011, run a dedicated task force, code-named Operation Wagtail, which is charged with policing the boy racer scene.

The scene takes in an assortment of motorists, from newly qualified teens with freshly laminated licences and a devil-may-care attitude, to hobbyists who customise or “pimp” their cars with lowered suspension, exhaust “flame thrower” kits and tinted windows. A few years ago, races would be organised among small groups of friends, but today, thanks to social media sites racers are able to organise far larger “meets”, often at very short notice.

There are also codes, well-known among racers, that alert a fellow driver to another driver’s willingness to race, such as a flash of lights or a rev of the engine. More recently, racers have taken to hanging a tag, such as a small stuffed toy, on the back of their car, which identifies the driver as a racer. Something called “McDonald’s races” have become particularly popular.

“Basically they’ll pick two McDonalds’ – it could be in the same town or the same county – buy something, get a timed receipt and hot foot it to the next one, racing each other,” says Willsher. “At Lakeside [shopping centre, Thurrock] we have real problems. There’s lots of short stretches of dual carriageway which are only a 40 limit, but have a lot of pedestrian crossings. At night, one of them will get out and press the button at a crossing. It’ll go red, amber, green and that’s the starter grid for a race.

“There was even a map that circulated on social media called the Lakeside GP, where someone had designed and marked out a Grand Prix race down the A13 and M25. They’d be literally racing each other down it, both ways.”

The officers of Operation Wagtail know the most popular hang-outs, says Willsher, but they often track down meets via CCTV or tip-offs from the public. Sometimes, they simply spot fresh tyre marks. If racers are caught driving dangerously, they are arrested. Otherwise, cars are inspected for illegal modifications, issued with penalties and dispersed. Essex has also built speed bumps and erected CCTV cameras in problem areas.

In London, Boris Johnson has vowed to install average-speed cameras on roads like the A10 in Enfield, which is often used as a drag strip on weekends. Such tactics have enjoyed some success and a number of racers have had their driving licences revoked. But wily cruisers are always devising new ways to pull off a race. The most recent tactic, says Willsher, is to manufacture their own traffic jam.

“They took a lane each,” he says, recalling one particular incident. “Slowed right down on the A13 to about 35mph, so all the traffic was gathering up behind them and they had a nice, clear road in front. And, sure enough, whoosh – they had an empty road for a drag race.” Suffice to say, the drivers in question were promptly arrested and eventually banned from driving.

“People see a modified car and they think you’re a yobbo … But our cars are our pride and joy. All we want to do is show them off to people.”

But, while the majority of racers drive souped-up cars, not all souped-up cars are driven by racers.

“People see a modified car and they think you’re a yobbo,” explains Daniel Flitcroft, 24, founder of car group South Evolution, leaning on his pride-and-joy outside Cobham motorway services, in Surrey. Here alongside 100 or so other members for their bi-weekly “coffee meet”, Flitcroft and his fleet of car fanatics are something of a counterpoint to the clichéd view of boy racers.

“They assume we’re the ones out at one in the morning driving past their house at full throttle, waking up their children, and that we go around handbrake turning, drifting [deliberately sliding your car around a tight corner], and tearing around everywhere. But our cars are our pride and joy. All we want to do is show them off to people.”

Many of the cars here do sport the same customisations favoured by the lawbreaking yobbo Flitcroft mentions – his own luminous yellow Mazda MX-5 in particular standing out – yet he holds his own public liability insurance, in case anything unexpectedly goes wrong and ensures the group’s speed habit is catered for at specially-organised track days. He also has a healthy relationship with the police.

“They sort of police themselves,” says PC Tom Richardson of Surrey Police. “They liaise with us and tell us when they’re meeting, so we can see what’s going on.”

Many car clubs also raise money for charity. At a retail park just outside Newcastle, Summer Madness – trumpeted as the North East’s biggest car meet – is a serious event.

With up to 3,000 attendees, it boasts ice cream and burger vans, a stage formed by two flatbed trucks and even a customised tank which is blaring music. Attracting boy racers and enthusiasts from across the length and breadth of the country, the location is announced just 30 minutes before it opens, to limit the possibility of the police shutting it down.

Presided over by Jamie Garside, 37, a fibre optics engineer who claims to have owned 300 cars in the past 20 years, the event was established in 2006 in honour of 19-year-old Karl Blackett, who died while a passenger in a modified car. Garside admits to once being a street racer himself, and in his own words “owned the title for Newcastle”, competing for £500 a time. He says he decided to retire after “losing too many friends”. Yet, in spite of this, the father-of-four enthuses about the power of cars to bring people together.

“I come from very little,” says Garside. “My mum wanted nothing to do with us and my dad died when I was 11. I’ve got my own family now, but Summer Madness is the North East’s biggest family, and you’ll find a lot of people here are like myself, where they don’t have much family themselves but have been accepted into ours.”

Such warm sentiments about the inclusive atmosphere of the car scene cut no ice, of course, with those who have had their own families torn apart by these high-powered machines.

Gill McGrath, whose daughter Eleanor was killed in 2009, two weeks before her 15th birthday, by a newly qualified driver who careered into a group of 20 children, has dedicated her life to educating young people about the dangers of racing. A video, Driving with Grace (Eleanor’s middle name), has been screened at more than 5,000 secondary schools to promote road safety, while McGrath herself has lobbied Parliament for new laws for young drivers – such as obligatory P-plates for new drivers, a scheme that is enforced in Australia.

“We don’t want to penalise or punish drivers, we just want to protect them,” says McGrath. “Nowadays youngsters have been brought up in cotton wool, they can’t play conkers, can’t climb trees. But when they’re 17 we put them in these cars, and as soon as they pass their test then off they go.

“If you’re putting a P-plate on, then it takes away the bragging rights. Actually, you’ve only just passed your test, so you’re not Lewis Hamilton. It is the equivalent of having your mum sat in the front seat with you, so you’re much more protected and controlled.”

As for Jane Hofmeister, while Leonard Jones is now behind prison bars, serving an 11-year sentence for killing her daughter, she says she has struggled to find peace. Jones, who mouthed “Sorry” to her from the dock, is due for early release in June of next year, whereas Leanne Burnell, the woman who started the race that led to Amy’s death, is now a free woman, after being released early from a three-and-a-half-year sentence (increased from 18 months on appeal). She now also has a daughter of her own.

“Three and a half years on, the pain is exactly the same,” Hofmeister says sadly. “I can assure you, and anybody out there who’s lost a child, this isn’t something that you get over, it’s just something that you have to accept has happened. It’s a life sentence. And, for me, there is no parole.”








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