By Kyle Teal
On a hot Friday night in Homestead, the shrill squeal of rubber sounds as tires spin against cement. A V-10 engine rumbles, sputters, and pops. The starter throws down her hands and the driver nearly gives himself whiplash as his blue Dodge Viper jets down a one-eighth mile track, leaving his competitor’s Pontiac G8 in a trail of dust.
Women and men, ranging in age from young students to middle-aged doctors, satisfy their need for speed. Meanwhile, a Florida Highway Patrol Lieutenant watches it all contently.
That’s because the horsepower-crazed action unfolds within the perfectly legal confines of the Homestead-Miami Speedway. The event, called Test and Tune, held its first series of races on June 26, in an effort to attract enthusiasts to the track and keep illegal racers off the streets.
“This is the first time we’ve done this,” says Jay Rand, spokesman for the speedway. “It’s all about getting these folks off the Turnpike and I-95.”
Speedway President Curtis Gray says the races will continue each Friday with some new features. “We’re going to keep building the event,” he said. “I think we’re going to add a car show element to it, and more for people to do, like a drive-in movie.”
At its debut, 155 cars roared down the track. Among them were old pickup trucks, a Corvette that was the pace car in the 1998 Indianapolis 500 and a hot rod from the 1930s. Of all the vehicles revving their engines, the most common that night was the Ford Mustang. “You throw a quarter in the air and it’s going to land on one,” says Alex Gonzalez, 18, a student at Miami-Dade College.
Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue was on hand for the event; the speedway markets the track as a safe place to compete. Jason Riobe, 26, races his 1995 Honda Integra GSR. He says he’s been arrested for street racing in the past, and doesn’t want to compete now unless it’s in a legitimate setting. “It’s better than doing it on the street,” he says. “I have two children at home. It’s not worth it.”
The initiative also has the support of local and state law enforcement.
“I can’t say [illegal street racing] will ever stop,” said Thomas Surman, traffic homicide officer for the Homestead Police Department. “But if this saves one person’s life, it’s definitely worth it.”
Surman says his friends who enjoy drag racing had to travel to Palm Beach International Raceway to race their vehicles on its one-fourth mile strip. Now, they won’t have to make such a trip.
Homestead police successfully prevent illegal street racers in the city through efforts like sting operations, Surman says, but just outside the city limits it’s a different story. The Saturday morning after the grand opening, a car crash on Krome Avenue about eight miles from the speedway claimed the lives of Luis Lira, 22, and Ernesto Hernandez, 52. They were found dead inside a white 1994 Volkswagon Jetta after it rammed into the back of a tow truck. Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Pat Santangelo says a witness claims to have seen the Jetta racing another car prior to the crash.
According to Gray, the two men did not compete in Friday’s races. “We wished they would have come,” he said. “You would hope that with the alternative offered they would take advantage”. Gray says the idea is to help the thrill-seekers “get it out of their system” in a secure setting.
In the garage area, most drivers coordinate who they want to race on the track. Engine hoods are up as the drivers swap out tires, tune up, and compare cars. Before starting, racers usually spin their tires – or burnout – to warm up them up and gain traction, which covers the cars in clouds of burning rubber. When finished, they steer right back in line for another showdown.
Fan of drag racing and State Rep. Julio Robaina of Miami was catching the action at the event’s opening, “I wanted to see what’s in stock and what people have done to their cars,” he said.
Kendall resident Sylvia Garcia nervously watched from the bleachers as her son, Michael Garcia, sped down the track. “If he races, I have to be there. But I feel like throwing up and crying while I watch him,” she says. “I haven’t stopped sweating.”
IF YOU GO:
The races start at 6 p.m. and end at midnight. Participants must be 18 or older, use street tires only, present a valid driver’s license and registration, and pay $20 to compete. Spectators pay $10 for entry. Admission is $ 5 for children under 12 years old. Guests are welcome to bring their own drinks (drivers, however, must be sober).
Homestead-Miami Speedway, 1 Speedway Blvd., Homestead; 305-230-5000
Photo: Kyle Teal