​Street Racing in the Dark Heart of Texas
Asa Merritt
Sports

​Street Racing in the Dark Heart of Texas

In West Texas, the Fast and Furious universe of hotrods and miniskirts is alive and well, albeit with more dust and less money.
August 3, 2016, 1:25pm

In the desert plains outside Odessa, Texas, bobbing oil derricks stretch for miles, extracting the black gold economists call West Texas crude. Pumped from deep below the cacti and brush covered ground, the oil goes to nearby refineries, where it is compressed into gasoline. A shipping company then picks up the gas and distributes it to gas stations in Odessa proper, the blue-collar community of 100,000 people where 23-year-old Edmy Sotelo lives. Sotelo drives a 2015 black Dodge Charger RT. It has a cold-air intake system, a straight exhaust pipe and an eight-speed transmission. It's a reliable car that gets him to work. It also hits 100 miles an hour in 11 seconds.

"Here in Odessa all the kids, man, everybody, knows about cars" said Sotelo. "It's crazy how many cars are cruising. That's what everybody does here."

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Sotelo's cousin Alex introduced him to street racing. "I was always scared and tell him not to race," said Sotelo. "Then one day he said, 'Dude, put on your seatbelt, or just hang on, because we're doing this.' I was about 16, 15. He put down his foot and we hit like 120 on his truck racing down a back road, and I was like, 'Oh wow, it's scary but it feels good.'" One night, Alex finally let Sotelo race his truck. He was hooked. "I started hanging out with my buddies who were mechanics, and they would show me a lot about cars and how you can make it go faster just by doing a couple of things to your car," he said. "And man, it just consumes you. It's like a lifestyle, you get drawn into it, and do that instead of other things."

Sotelo's 19-year-old brother brother Eddie also was a racer. Last year Sotelo, who works at a Nissan dealership, hooked up Eddie with a deal on a bright orange Nissan 350ZX, one of the Japanese brand's flagship sport models. Eddie turned heads with the car, racing out on long straight roads outside of city limits with monikers like 9-mile, County Line and Mexico. Then one night in December, he decided to take things into town.

"It was at the corner of University and Grandview, where the Hooters is at," Sotelo said. A white Dodge Charger pulled up next to Eddie at a stoplight and the two raced. Eddie hit a dip in the road, lost control, and drove into a house. Less than 20 seconds passed between the moment Eddie stomped on the gas pedal and the moment life left him. Police said he probably hit 130 miles per hour.

Photo by Asa Merritt

In Odessa, similar 2 AM races are common. Racers—often young men between 15 and 20 years old—cruise popular corners and streets in everything from re-built Mustangs to GMC pick-ups loaded with nitrous. Some races start at red lights, some start when the cars are already rolling. In 2015, the Odessa Police Department made 115 arrests for reckless driving and racing; in the first six months of 2016, they already have made 71. In West Texas, the Fast and Furious universe of hotrods and miniskirts is alive and well, albeit with more dust and less money.

Recent headlines from other metropolitan areas suggest a national street racing explosion. The LAPD ensnared more than 250 cars in a bust this spring. I called the FBI to see if they could quantify the phenomenon, but since the bureau only encounters racing while pursuing narcotics or gang activity, it couldn't provide hard numbers. Comb the internet for street racing, and you mostly find short dispatches from local news networks about races that got out of hand and left one driver or more dead. Racing is happening everywhere, but no one knows what to do about it.

Sotelo stopped illegally racing a few years ago when he got married. Now that Eddie has died behind the wheel, he doubts he'll ever pick it up again. "I felt like everything was moving fast—I was making good money cause I had been working in the oil fields," Sotelo said. "I was taking care of my family. Then when Eddie passed away it was like everything slowed down.

"My mom and my dad they're just, they lost all—I don't want to say they lost all hope. They didn't lose all hope but they kind of like settled. That's it. 'We just wanna enjoy life. We don't want to do anything anymore.' I don't blame them. They lost their son."

Still, his instinct for speed remains. "Sometimes I feel myself revving a car and there's a car next to me, but then my wife slaps me on the back of the head," Sotelo said. "It's a hard habit to break. You definitely have to get it out of your system."

Tailgaters at Penwell Knights Raceway. Photo by Asa Merritt

One racer who hasn't gotten it out of system and likely never will is 42-year-old Gary Gardenhire. Gardenhire was born and raised in Odessa. As a kid, he built a '67 Chevelle from the ground up and first raced it when he was 14—against his brother. His parents raced. Even his grandparents. "There's no way anybody will ever stop street racing," Gardenhire said. "It's just part of our spirit growin' up. It don't matter if it's tricycles or bicycles or go-karts or motorcycles, cars, big trucks—everybody has done a race somehow. It's just a better rush at 130, 140, 150 miles per hour."

Gardenhire's days cruising with his brother are long past, though. Now when he races he does it at Penwell Knights Raceway—the legal track where he serves as general manager. Located in the ghost town of Penwell, 15 miles southwest of Odessa, the raceway has been a home for fast cars since the 1960s. Back in the day, famous Texas drag racers broke records there. Today, Penwell still hosts drag races, but on some weekend nights also opens up the track to street racers. Anyone with a car or a motorcycle can pay $30 to roar down the quarter-mile runway of asphalt. Competitors approach the white start line next to each other and first do a burnout—drivers gun their vehicle in a stationary position to encase the tires in "pimp juice," an adhesive that warms the tires and helps keep cars from careening off the track. Then, an official standing 20 feet in front of them points a flashlight in the air. When the light comes on, they go.

Besides bleachers for spectators and a concession stand, what distinguishes Penwell from underground racing venues is a commitment to safety. All drivers wear seat belts and a helmet; strict sobriety is enforced; and, if shit hits the fan, paramedics are on site. "My dad always said, "If you're not wreckin', you're not racin', son,'" Gardenhire said. "So I push it. I push everything, give it everything its got and sometimes stuff happens." Because of the safety measures, when cars flip at Penwell, the drivers crawl out from the smoke alive.

"Sanctioned tracks are the type of places people need to be going," said Corporal Steve LeSueur of the Odessa Police Department. "There's a place and time to race. It's not in the city limits. We respond to way too many racing accidents. Just one is too many."

Sanctioned tracks are few and far between. From Penwell, the nearest track is in Abilene, almost 200 miles away. Racers in other cities like Houston have tried to organize controlled races, but more often than not police departments are spread too thin to provide the necessary manpower to oversee the events.

Edmy Sotelo. Photo by Asa Merritt

Edmy recounted his brother's death and its aftermath on a recent Friday night at Penwell. A day after what would have been Eddie's 20th birthday, the track hosted a memorial race to raise awareness about illegal street racing. When Eddie's family approached Gardenhire about putting on the event, the track was temporarily closed due to a fire. "The Sotelo family asked if we could put something together, and I said, 'Give us some time to get the place cleaned up, and we'll make it happen,'" Gardenhire said. "I wasn't gonna turn him down. If it wasn't ready, we were going to make it ready."

On the night of the event, close to a hundred racing cars and trucks rolled into Penwell. Some were driven in. Others came on trailers. Over a makeshift PA system, hits from Rage Against the Machine and Nirvana warmed up the crowd. In the parking lot, proud owners tuned and tested their rides, and veterans explained the anatomy of fast cars. I learned that every accessory that increases the acceleration and speed of a vehicle boils down to oxygen and fire and fuel—maximize these elements and get closer to James Dean. One driver who didn't want to be identified told me that to make his car go faster he does "everything and anything. I'd paint a bird on there if that would make it fly."

"I came to this event kind of skeptical to be honest," Sotelo said. "But when I got here, I saw everybody smiling, all his friends, all my family. Especially his friends because they knew that side of Eddie that I didn't know. I see that smile on their face." The event was a success for Gardenhire, too. "If losing Eddie's life brought awareness to kids comin' out here racin', there's no tellin' how many lives he might have saved, and he's still savin'," he said.

Part of Penwell's safety protocol is a no passengers rule. They made an exception for me, and I got to race one run with Sotelo. As we lined up in his Charger against a Ford F250, I asked Sotelo what Eddie would be doing if he were here. "Eddie would have taken my car," Sotelo said. "He'd be driving it himself."

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