Saturday, September 12, 2015

No More Racing in the Street

Roadside memorials are everywhere - tearful reminders of automobile accidents, usually, which resulted in unfortunate, untimely deaths. I happened upon one last week that surprised me. It was on a stretch of lonely road behind the Philadelphia International Airport. That's my blue Saab parked near it in the photo above.

Roadside Memorial
There is an access road, paved, that winds around the north side of the airport, called Fort Mifflin Road (you can reach it by following Enterprise Avenue once you exit Interstate 95). Back in 2007, I accidentally discovered that an S-shaped quarter mile of this road was used for street racing. Cars, quads, and motorcycles would congregate here with watchers around each bend to signal if the odd vehicle or police cruiser was heading toward the racing strip. Spectators would line the small grass-covered hill on the airport side of the road and watch the fun.

Racing cyclists on Fort Mifflin Road

If you continue down Fort Mifflin Road from where it intersects with Enterprise Avenue, you end up at Fort Mifflin Historic Park. The Fort, a National Historic Site on the Delaware River, helped America win the Revolutionary War by keeping a British armada from attacking Philadelphia in 1777. (An amazing story, if you’d like to read it at this link.)

If you ever attended one of these (illegal) street racing events, you remember the noise and dust. Back in 2007, during my initial visit, I made this photo (above) of a rider falling off his quad as he reared it up into a wheelie position! (By the way, this is what the dirt track side of the road looked like back then, with I95 in the background.) I remember that day quite vividly. As the rider fell off, the quad continued on down the road, falling back on all four wheels, and … continued down the road headed straight for my car (which was parked on the side of the road)! As I started running toward my car, the rider got up and ran after his quad (which was maybe going about ten mph). He passed me and jumped up onto the moving vehicle, dropped into the driver’s seat, and retook control. I was shocked. Talk about goon riders. These guys were in it for the show, pulling all kinds of tricks for the crowd. 

And there was quite a crowd that day, maybe a hundred people and about thirty cars pulled up on the grass alongside the road. I’d gone back to this racing area every couple years to photograph the mayhem and every Saturday in the summer there were dozens of bikers tearing up the dirt track and racing in the street.

Crowd gathered to race and observe in 2011

“When the strip shuts down we run 'em in the street

From the fire roads to the interstate

Some guys they just give up living

And start dying little by little, piece by piece,

Some guys come home from work and wash up,

And go racin' in the street.”
– "Racing In The Street,” Bruce Springsteen

In addition to the paved road racing, the Motocross, quad, and dirt bike crowd had their own trails, jumps, and gullies to tear up. In the photo below, you can see the bare dirt behind the cars – this was the riding area. Now, in 2015, that area is overgrown with weeds and separated from the paved road by a steel guardrail. Near one of the bends in the road is a sign post decorated as a memorial, a symbol of urban mourning. 

His name was Ron, from what I could make out from the heartfelt goodbyes spray-painted on the guardrail. He was a cyclist who died at this point on the road, possibly while he was racing.

"For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels,
Rumbling through this promised land …

 – "Racing In The Street," Bruce Springsteen

There is a color photograph, among other things, attached to the memorial pole. Stuffed animals, a broken guitar, and beer bottles are heaped at it's base in the weeds; a small guitar amplifier is attached to the top of the pole. He must have been a musician as well as a daredevil cyclist. The photo shows a young man on his motorcycle, with dates written below the image. The casual onlooker might simply assume that someone died in an automobile accident here.

"I want to blow 'em all out of their seats
Calling out around the world, we're going racin' in the street.”
    – "Racing In The Street," Bruce Springsteen

The date on the photo indicates that Tom (no last name written) was born in 1989 and died in 2013, at 23 years of age. The last time I had witnessed the street racing here was in 2011. In the four years since I’d been here, a few things have changed. Tom died, and maybe as a result of that, the authorities decided to put an end to the fun. Concrete road barriers were placed alongside the airport side of the roadway to keep cars from parking there, and spectators from climbing the hill. The guardrail was installed to barricade the dirt trail area on the opposite side of the road. In the photo below, you can see the overgrown area that was the dirt track. The signs beyond the road racing stretch of Fort Mifflin Road indicate that the land on the dirt track side of the road is owned by the Philadelphia Water Department. This area is home to their "water pollution control plant," a waste treatment facility - an area totally uninhabitable because of the smell.

Truly, "Darkness on the Edge of Town"

The road and trail racers have probably found new locations for their wild rides. I’ve stumbled upon them in the past and will likely stumble upon them in the future. One thing is certain, however - Tom, R.I.P., will not be one of the participants. 

In his dirge-like 1978 song, "Racing in the Street," Bruce Springsteen sings:

"Tonight, tonight the highway's bright
Out of our way, mister, you best keep
'Cause summer's here and the time is right
For racin' in the street."


(Click here to listen to this song from the album "Darkness on the Edge of Town" by Bruce Springsteen )