ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Illegal street racing is a problem almost everyone notices, and it apparently got worse during the pandemic. So, what’s the long-term solution?

KRQE News 13 obtained behind-the-scenes footage of a massive illegal street racing operation in Albuquerque. It’s something police say the public should expect more often. Around 1 a.m. in March, New Mexico State Police captured a birds-eye view of one of Albuquerque’s biggest problems. “I think it’s gotten worse for some reason during the pandemic,” said Isaac Benton, City Councilor for District 2 in Albuquerque.

“It’s huge, and every year it seems to be increasing in size,” explained Lt. Nick Wheeler, with the Albuquerque Police Department‘s metro traffic division. He said so far this year, there have been 26 fatal crashes in Albuquerque, most of them related to speeding.

“A lot of these areas that they’re racing are dark, they’re not well-lit at all,” said Lt. Wheeler.

Police dash cameras, lapel video, and video from ABLE 7, the New Mexico State Police helicopter, captured cars racing on northeast Albuquerque streets. Some cars were hitting speeds over 100 mph during the joint operation with APD and state police. “I mean, there’s not gonna be anything left if they crash,” said Lt. Wheeler. “There’s a very small likelihood of them surviving, or whoever they hit surviving.”

No one was hurt this time. According to police, more than 100 vehicles were gathered for the illegal street race, and 150 citations were issued. “I’m not out here causing trouble, I just came to see the races,” one person told an officer at the scene. Most people cited at the illegal street race were under the age of 25.

Albuquerque’s city ordinance allows spectators to be cited. However, that’s not the case in other cities.

Lately, police are working more joint operations like this, ticketing both the illegal street racers and those who go to watch. “You know, it’s an illegal activity, so the idea of making it illegal for spectators as well as for the immediate participants seems to make sense to me,” said Benton. “And we have discussed, you know, strengthening the laws at the state level.”

Dash camera view of officers moving in on illegal street racers

Councilor Benton said street racing is one of the top complaints he hears about from constituents. He said it’s increased during the COVID-19 pandemic when fewer cars were on the road and more people were out of work. “I think there’s an increased use of social media to organize these events,” said Benton. “We’re just having to be a lot more proactive.”

“We were having dinner, and we saw a bunch of cars and came over here,” one young man told an officer on scene. “Bad timing.”

The traffic citations come with a court date and possible fine. Beyond the city limits, there’s not much police can do about street racing, unless someone’s caught in the act. And too often, it’s too late. “It’s very frustrating and it’s sad,” said Lt. Wheeler. “Especially when we deal with some of the same individuals that we’ve dealt with in the past.”

Police say their focus, for now, is on education, letting young drivers know there’s a place they can race safely. Officers are encouraging people to take their vehicles to the local drag strip. “Not in the side streets of Albuquerque, not on the interstate in Albuquerque, not next to somebody’s house,” said Sgt. Steven Carroll, with New Mexico State Police. “Go to these drag strips and drag race over there.”

On the weekends, you might find Tiffani Rubi racing at the local drag strip. She’s a regular at the Albuquerque Dragway. “The adrenaline, it’s really fun going down the track, like a release of stress,” Rubi explained. “It’s a real cool environment. My grandma comes to watch too,” she added.

The Albuquerque Dragway was closed for more than a year during the pandemic, and only recently reopened. “Unfortunately, we were kinda grouped in with the major sporting events like the Isotopes,” said Robert Costa, owner of the Albuquerque Dragway.

“There’s a lot of open space here, and you know, a lot of people can come out here very safely,” Costa explained. He said they’re currently working on a program with APD and offering one-time free passes to the drag strip for drivers who APD finds racing on the streets.

He said he bought the place 25 years ago, drawn to drag racing through his family’s shared interest. He also wanted to give locals a safer place than the streets to race.

From the street to the strip

It’s no secret people who love souping up their cars enjoy pushing them to the limit. Regulars at the Dragway like Rubi, prefer racing in a controlled environment, where EMS crews are on-hand. However, she does have friends who street race.

“They’re always trying to get us to go out there, but I mean none of my family races on the street,” said Rubi. “We all bring it here, and everybody knows that. Everybody calls us the ‘track people.’ We’re always out here,” she laughed.

Tiffani Rubi with her Camaro at the Albuquerque Dragway

Workers at the Dragway said they know there’s some crossover; people who race at the drag strip and on the streets. Is more education the answer? Should drivers face stricter penalties? The answer depends on who you ask.

Benton said city councilors are involved in an educational campaign to curb street racing, and under the right circumstances, he’d support stricter penalties. “It’s akin to DWI in that it’s such an enhanced possibility of injury and death to others,” said Benton.

Lt. Wheeler believes young drivers would benefit by hearing from crash victim families. He said the courts should consider requiring attendance to a panel discussion.

“When you get a DWI and you’re convicted, you have to go to a panel, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving panel and hear stories from people that are impacted by drunk drivers,” Lt. Wheeler explained.

“Some of these families that have been impacted by street racing or speed in general,” Lt. Wheeler added, “I’m more than positive that a lot of them would come out and want to talk to these people that are involved in the racing community.”

Photos: Cars racing at the drag strip

New Mexico State Police Sgt. Carroll is the one who came up with the idea for the large joint operation. “I would love to see this state statute for racing on a highway pretty much mimic the city ordinance in terms of what the definitions of racing is, spectating, and all that,” Sgt. Carroll explained.

He said he understands the social aspect of street racing and hopes these operations will make drivers think twice about racing on the streets. “This is one in the top five, even the top two citizen complaints in the city of Albuquerque in terms of of issues,” said Sgt. Carroll. “And this includes everything from homicides to robberies. We do take notice of that. And we’re trying to help with that issue.”

After citing a group of teenagers during the street racing operation, one officer told the crowd, “Hopefully we don’t see you guys again.”

In Albuquerque, both spectators and illegal street racers face the same penalties. The petty misdemeanor carries a maximum $500 fine and potential jail time of no more than 90 days, but a lot of it is up to a judge’s discretion.

Lt. Wheeler said APD area commands are offering officers overtime to work more racing operations. “Not until I was older, did I realize the consequences it could have,” he said.