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AUTO RACING PACKAGE: Speed’s the ticket cops use in outreach program

July 9, 1997

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) _ With the lights of his patrol car flashing, Officer Kevin McKinnie guns his engine in pursuit of yet another teen-age driver, reaching speeds upward of 80 mph.

Only this chase doesn’t result in a ticket: It finishes at the end of the dragstrip at Sears Point Raceway. And McKinnie comes up short.

``You had me, you had me,″ he tells 19-year-old Tamika Shelly, whose shy smile turns to a wide grin at his words.

Shelly tested her racing skills against McKinnie in the new Beat the Heat program at Sears Point, which seeks to get would-be street racers and risk-takers off the roads and onto the race track.

According to the National Hot Rod Association, more than 70 law enforcement agencies across the United States and Canada sponsor race-a-cop programs.

Don Robertson, a former sergeant with the Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff’s Department and current general manager at Gainesville Raceway, is considered the originator of the Beat the Heat concept.

With a tricked-out 1979 Chevrolet Malibu, Robertson and fellow officers staged their first races at Jax Raceway in Jacksonville in the early 1980s. They also brought the car around to local high schools to teach safe driving skills to teen-agers.

``The whole idea of it was _ here we were police officers, we were not .going to be able to go in there and talk to the hard-core street racers about driving safety,″ he said. ``But we could come in there with the car and talk to them about it, and then subtly slip in our message about safety skills.″

The program is so popular today that Beat the Heat is its own non-profit organization, Robertson said. The first ``Beat the Heat World Finals,″ involving agencies nationwide, will be held this November during the fifth annual Turkey Trot Junior Dragster Championship at Gainseville.

NHRA founder Wally Parks said organized drag racing was created with the notion of getting racers off the streets in the early 1950s. Police departments and other law enforcement agencies were instrumental in launching the sport, he said.

``In the early days, it was important that we maintained the cooperation and understanding of law enforcement,″ he said.

Sears Point’s Beat the Heat program is unique because uniformed officers race in patrol cars, lights flashing. And they only take on teen-agers.

``In Santa Rosa we have a cruise problem, so some kids only see us when we’re writing them a ticket,″ said Sgt. Brad Marsh of the Santa Rosa Police Department. ``This way, we get to interact with them. This gives us a chance to talk with them one-on-one.″

On a recent Wednesday evening, Marsh worked the crowd as he waited his turn. The racing was handicapped, giving the officers a fair chance of beating their youthful opponents.

``The officers would really like to win, but these kids are really good,″ he laughed.

As the sun was setting over the hills of Northern California’s Wine Country, teen-agers milled around their cars on the race track’s infield, chatting with friends. The girls stood in small groups, stealing shy glances at the boys.

Jason Kindt, 16, wore a camouflage patterned cap and drove a substantial blue GMC pickup. He started drag racing last season.

``My dad was into it so I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,″ He said. ``My dad used to race a lot. Then I came out and tried it with him and it kinda stuck.″

Jason, Shelly and two other teens finished on top of the high school division the week before, winning the chance to race an officer.

McKinnie proposed the Beat the Heat program after seeing how popular Sears Point’s ``Wednesday Night Drags″ was among teen-agers.

``I just thought it would be a good thing for the kids _ to build the rapport. I asked around and said, `Hey, would you like to race against a police officer driving a squad car?′ ″ he said. ``Everybody I talked to said they thought it would be fun.″

Ten law-enforcement agencies participate in the weekly program, including several area police departments, the California Highway Patrol and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department.

Randy Krider, 18, pitted his 1978 El Camino against an officer and won easily.

``It was a little bizarre,″ he laughed. ``It was different.″

Jim Krider, Randy’s father and a racing enthusiast himself, said he wished there had been a similar program when he was a teen-ager.

``I think it’s a fantastic thing. Every kid is afraid of cops in some way: They pull up behind you with lights flashing and your hands get sweaty and you get nervous,″ he said. ``But here, you can get to know the officers. They are just like regular guys you can race against. They are people you can look up to and respect.″

End Adv for Thursday July 10