Hooked on Speed

Driven by ego and anger, kids are turning some city neighborhoods into racetracks -- with deadly results

The fog climbed over the hills of South San Francisco as Scot Jenerik piloted his Chevy van south on Highway 101 on a chilly June night near midnight. He exited the freeway and headed toward 3Com Park to deliver his four passengers to a friend's art studio in the Bayview District. Jenerik made a left at Ingalls Street, then braked at the stop sign at Ingalls and Hollister streets. The art studio was 100 feet away. Jenerik entered the intersection.

Meanwhile, a silver Dodge Intrepid carrying two 20-year-old men sped down Hollister Street -- a residential road -- at more than 60 mph. The car barreled toward the intersection at Ingalls Street just as the van was passing through; the driver tried to slam on the brakes, but it was too late.

In the middle of the intersection, Jenerik saw the silver car flying toward them. "Oh, shit," he said, the only warning to his passengers. A split second later, the silver car slammed into the rear side of Jenerik's van in an explosion of metal and glass, sending the van spinning across the road and into a stop sign.

Helen Hestenes, age 41, was riding in the back of Jenerik's van. The force of the collision threw her out of the van and into the side of a building. Her broken body landed, crumpled, between a wall and a Cadillac parked halfway on the sidewalk. The owners of the Cadillac heard screaming and came out to move the car, explaining that it was parked on the sidewalk because speeding drivers constantly raced down the street. As neighbors converged on the horrific scene, the two men in the silver car pulled themselves from the wreckage. They stopped to help move the Cadillac trapping Hestenes, then calmly sauntered away.

Hestenes was taken to San Francisco General Hospital, where the doctors diagnosed her with severe trauma to the head, neck, and spinal cord. When she left the hospital a week later, doctors said it was a miracle she survived.

Hestenes and her friends may have been victims of chance that night, but the collision was no freak accident. Gory car crashes and slain pedestrians are the consequences of a thrill-seeking game for many young men in the Bayview and elsewhere, who have taken to speeding through their neighborhoods for the sheer sport of it.

Teens have been drag racing and joy riding for generations, of course, but residents and police say the modern brand of reckless driving is something different: more aggressive and extreme, rooted in anger and disenfranchisement rather than simple thrill-seeking.

Unlike the kids who took their hot rods to abandoned strips of roadway, groups of young men -- and even a few women -- now zoom through residential neighborhoods in San Francisco at over 60 mph, purposely ignoring stop signs, or spin "doughnuts" in the middle of busy intersections. Sometimes, the boys speeding down the street are too young to even have a driver's license. They race cars they've stolen, or junk cars bought from the city's weekly auction of towed cars. In the June Bayview incident, the two 20-year-old men were driving a rental car leased to one of their mothers.

For a small subculture of urban young people, driving dangerously is, as several young men from Potrero Hill explain, a hobby.

"This [type of driving] is angry, not joyful," says Jack Jacqua of the Omega Boys Club, which works with troubled young men. "It's anger on the accelerator, it's "I don't care' behind the wheel. It used to be "Look at me, because I have a car.' Now it's not only "Look at me,' it's "Look, I don't care.'"

"This is an issue in the Bayview, in the Fillmore, Sunnydale, Ocean View, and Ingleside," says Byron Beasly, who works with the city's Health Environment Assessment Program. "There's the age group of men who have nothing to do, so they're in the streets and causing chaos."

Police officers in the Bayview say they get calls about reckless driving nightly. "In my 23 years in the Police Department, I have never seen, on such a regular basis, people drive so terribly," says Capt. Ron Roth, formerly of the Bayview Station. "I'm not talking the neighborhood as a whole, but these individuals that drive these stolen cars with suspended licenses, or no licenses, and who have reckless disregard for authority. The ones doing doughnuts, racing up and down the streets, and basically using the streets as their playground for hot-rodding."

A stocky man in his early 20s emerges from the Potrero Hill housing projects and walks toward a red Thunderbird. The blue hood doesn't match the rest of the car, and unlike the red rear bumper, the front bumper is made of black plastic. The car was cobbled back together after a crash in which the driver had been going too fast, a friend explains.

Wearing baggy pants and a wool ski cap, the driver nonchalantly gets in, ready to put on a little demonstration. He drives away over the hill, past the projects, then returns, rolls smoothly into the nearby intersection, and stops.

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