What’s being done to curb illegal street racing? KSAT Explains

Social media often fuels the drive to do something dangerous. But too often, it turns deadly.

SAN ANTONIO – A car was driving over a hill as two other vehicles were racing side by side, one of them going in the opposite direction of traffic. The vehicle not involved in that race was hit head-on, and the driver was killed in fall 2021 in the 8000 block of Prue Road.

Larry Wilson, a retired DPS trooper, lived near the crash site.

“It can be easily one of us, you know, coming home from work or a store and just coming up the hill,” said Wilson. “It’s not a video game. There’s no reset, and ‘Oops! Don’t bring someone back.’”

Wilson dealt with racing firsthand during his years in law enforcement. He said it would often be spontaneous -- one driving, revving an engine, the other following suit, and then the race is on.

“These events are extremely dangerous,” said William McManus, chief of the San Antonio Police Department. “They’re dangerous to the motoring public, dangerous to people who may be in the parking lot where they’re gathering and doing their donuts and burnouts and all that.”

Those kinds of events -- parking lot or intersection takeovers by drivers -- often spread on social media.

They get a fast following and draw huge crowds, fueling the potential for people to get hurt.

“Street racing has been around since cars have been around.”

Levi Lewis, president and founder of Alamo City LX Modern MOPAR, said street racing is nothing new. It’s been around as long as cars have, he argued.

Alamo City LX Modern MOPAR is an auto enthusiast group Lewis founded in 2007. He doesn’t call it a car club.

“It’s guilt by association,” said Lewis. “When a lot of people hear ‘car club,’ they get a negative connotation immediately. ‘Oh, you’re the guys who are doing that stupid stuff.’”

Alamo City Modern MOPAR hosts car shows, organizes charity events, and promotes safe driving.

That mission has become more challenging lately, Lewis said. He thinks a combination of factors is driving illegal racing.

For one, faster cars have become more affordable.

“You can get into one of the lower-end Chargers for $29,000 -- if that. And on the used market, you can even look at it cheaper,” said Lewis. “So you’re seeing more and more younger people getting a hold of them and then going out and acting young.”

Then, you add in social media and the ability of one post to be seen by thousands.

“I kind of equate that back to the ‘I want to be Insta famous’ that drives the street takeovers in the parking lot burn out,” Lewis said. “So you see every video that’s ever been put out there, and the crowds all got their phones out, and they’re videoing it.”

On the radar of state and local leaders

State and local leaders are noticing the racing problem as well.

New Texas laws passed in 2021 shift illegal street racing from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor.

Law enforcement is also allowed to impound the cars involved.

“We’ve made some significant arrests, and we’ve impounded a number of vehicles,” McManus said. “And I think the folks who were involved in this -- and I think they were repeat offenders -- I think that they got the message.”

Some racing calls SAPD responded to involved offenders from outside San Antonio who travel to the city intending to break the law.

According to SAPD, from September 2020 to October 2021:

  • 213 documented reports of illegal street racing
  • 276 citation related to racing
  • 116 arrests

Racing in SA seemed to rev up in the fall of 2021. SAPD stepped up enforcement as a result.

The agency reports that from October 2021 to April 1, 2022:

  • 27 documented reports of street racing
  • 30 arrests related to street racing
  • 27 cars impounded

San Antonio police say racing seems to come in waves, and they anticipate an increase in incidents over the summer when school is not in session.

(KSAT Explains Street Racing Graphic) (Copyright 2022 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

What about those not racing but promoting it?

San Antonio may have its answer to cracking down on those who promote illegal street racing and often get the word out via social media.

“This ordinance is addressing the type of street racing where large groups of people gather to watch the street racing,” said Melissa Cabello-Havrda, who represents District 6 on the San Antonio City Council.

Cabello-Havrda is the chair of the city’s Public Safety Committee, which passed the proposed ordinance onto the full city council for review and possible approval.

“We’re seeing kind of a newer phenomenon of people promoting these activities on social media and saying, ‘Hey, there’s going to be a race here. Come watch.’ And it’s getting more popularity, which in turn is going to increase the amount of street racing, even though that’s already illegal,” said the councilwoman. “So now it’s going to be unlawful to, well -- if it passes it with the full council, it will be unlawful to promote that behavior by attending.”

Attending could get you a citation.

The idea of penalizing spectators has been met with pushback by those questioning how law enforcement can distinguish people who are promoting or intentionally watching something illegal versus those who are not.

Penalizing spectators was included in legislation proposed at the state level but ultimately removed.

Cabello-Havrda shares the concern.

“I have walked out of Target, walking back to my car with my bags, and seen some of this happen. So what prevents me from getting in trouble?” she asked. “But the chief assures me that there’s a clear distinction about people that are showing up with ice chests. I mean, you know, kind of there to have a party in a way, right? And people who are walking out with their bags and their children.”

Cabello-Havrda said she still has questions about making that distinction and expects the issue to be discussed when the full city council considers the ordinance this summer.

Key solution missing in SA area

(Image for KSAT Explains of vehicle at Alamo City Motorplex.) (Copyright 2022 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Despite law enforcement crackdowns, promotion of safe driving by community groups, and stiffer penalties for those involved in illegal street racing, there’s still something missing -- a safe place to race without breaking the law.

In fall 2021, SAPD teamed up with Alamo City Motorplex in Marion to encourage racing on a track in a safer, controlled environment.

But that idea came to a screeching halt when the track shut down at the end of the year.

“We need something in the seventh-largest city in America to have a safe place for our youth to go -- and not so youth,” said Lewis.

Cabello-Havrda believes it’s worth having a conversation about whether taxpayer dollars could be used to help get a track up and running.

“If we can make it a little bit easier for them to offer this service and, you know, it could be a business,” said Cabello-Havrda. “They can make money. They can sell concessions. I can’t imagine that they’d have trouble getting people to come and participate in our city.”

But a solution like that takes time and often red tape.

What can be done now to curb illegal racing and potentially save lives?

“That is the question that would make both of us millionaires,” Lewis said. “I say education, the embrace and communication from the positive part of the car community and helping educate the youth by showing them what can be done in a safe environment and what you don’t have to do to prove your value or your worth. I think it is a portion of the solution.”

Wilson, who has witnessed the impacts of street racing as a deputy and a trooper, agrees that education and awareness are critical.

“If someone eggs you on to try to get you to race, hey, know your worth and just let them move on about their business, and you go the other way,” he said. “All these roads are unforgivable. It’s not for racing. It’s not.”


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About the Authors:

Myra Arthur is passionate about San Antonio and sharing its stories. She graduated high school in the Alamo City and always wanted to anchor and report in her hometown. Myra anchors KSAT News at 6:00 p.m. and hosts and reports for the streaming show, KSAT Explains. She joined KSAT in 2012 after anchoring and reporting in Waco and Corpus Christi.

Valerie Gomez is lead video editor and graphic artist for KSAT Explains. She began her career in 2014 and has been with KSAT since 2017. She helped create KSAT’s first digital-only newscast in 2018, and her work on KSAT Explains and various specials have earned her a Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media and multiple Emmy nominations.