Andrea Mitchen knew there would be noise when she moved into her Shepherd Forest home in March of last year. The concrete wall separating her backyard from the Loop 610 access road made that clear.
But she did not expect to hear the revving of engines and roar of exhaust pipes – the sounds of auto racing – on a near nightly basis. The first time Mitchen heard it, while in her backyard on a Sunday, the motorcycles zipping by were so loud that her 8-year-old daughter got scared and wanted to go inside.
“Once it starts happening, I get really frustrated. Last night I couldn’t sleep because I was so frustrated,” Mitchen said on a Friday in late April. “I’m worried it’s going to wake up my daughter.”
Mitchen as well as brothers Aaron and Tony Acevedo, who live in a Shepherd Forest home at the corner of the North Loop frontage road and Attridge Road, said especially loud engine sounds are commonplace in their neighborhood. They said the noises are most prevalent late at night and can crop up on any day of the week, although they tend to be more frequent on weekends.
Kenneth Campbell with the Houston Police Department and Sean Teare with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, who both specialize in traffic crimes, said the Shepherd Forest residents likely have been witness to Houston’s underground street racing scene. Both said the city has long been a hotbed for such activity, and they described the North Loop between I-45 and U.S. 290 as a hot spot because it’s a straight stretch of freeway with entry and exit points that make it easy to evade law enforcement.
Mitchen said she also wonders whether the frontage road on the north side of the freeway, where there are no lights and few intersections between North Shepherd Drive and Ella Boulevard, is a popular place to race.
“We know that there are locations in Harris County and Houston that street racers go to, and 610 is one of them,” said Teare, who oversees the Vehicular Crimes Division for the DA’s Office. “It’s a bunch of lanes. It’s wide open.”
Trying to catch up
While acknowledging that street racing is a difficult problem to combat – Mitchen said she heard racing sounds nearly every night for more than a year – Teare and Campbell said they’ve been working together for the last few years in an attempt to curb the issue. Teare said they’ve been targeting groups that organize street races as well as street “takeovers,” in which multiple drivers block a roadway or intersection to do donuts or other car stunts that are filmed and shared on social media, by following online leads and employing undercover officers.
Campbell, who leads HPD’s Traffic Enforcement Division, said the effort led to more than 100 arrests between August of last year and January of this year. Teare said they recently arrested six people who were identified as ring leaders of street takeovers, and they’re seizing offenders’ vehicles and charging them with felonies such as engaging in organized criminal activity, deadly conduct and reckless driving.
Among the prominent Houston-area groups that engage in street takeovers, Teare said, are SAR Nation and Private Kings.
“It’s definitely a social media-fueled frenzy for people to get the utmost cool video and edit it with the right sound and have people follow them and give them likes,” Campbell said.
While there is some overlap between those who engage in street takeovers and street racing, Campbell said, they tend to be different groups. And he said the people who race are generally more discreet, which makes them and their activities harder to pinpoint.
Teare said Houston Underground Races is one of the city’s most prominent organized racing groups. But the person who responded to a message sent to the organization’s Facebook page denied that it participates in street racing, saying Houston Underground Races only organizes “park & chill events.”
“There’s a very strict and disciplined car racing culture out there,” Campbell said. “They don’t want the popularity and insta-fame. They’re out there to prove who’s faster. They don’t want to draw attention to themselves.”
Teare said car and motorcycle races can be “one-off” events or part of larger, organized activities in which spotters are utilized to gauge and influence traffic. A group of cars might line up side by side to slow the traffic behind them and create space ahead, for example, and the racing cars can attain speeds up to about 130 miles per hour.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said vehicles can be considered deadly weapons, and racers convicted of using them as such must serve at least half of their prison sentences before they are eligible for parole.
“Street racing is dangerous and can be deadly, not just for the drivers and their passengers but also for police and innocent bystanders,” she said.
Mitchen said the fact street racing is both dangerous and illegal bothers her more than the noise it creates. And despite the efforts of Campbell and Teare, she said she was consistently bothered for more than a year.
She said she called HPD’s non-emergency number or submitted online alert slips a total of at least 10 times since moving into Shepherd Forest, but none of that seemed to have any effect. Mitchen said she didn’t start seeing a change until she reached out to the office of Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, which put her in touch with HPD’s North Division patrol.
Shortly after making direct calls to the North Division on consecutive nights last week, she said the racing sounds subsided. Mitchen said she did not hear any of those loud noises last weekend.
Mangum Manor resident Jessi Heiner, who said she took interest in the issue after hearing complaints from Shepherd Forest residents and also because she lost a family member in an automobile accident, has had the ear of HPD as well. She said she emailed Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who put her in touch with Campbell to discuss the problem and how it’s being addressed.
“Somebody has done something that has made some sort of impact,” Mitchen said. “I hope it’s sustained. I‘m so happy that people are actually talking about it. It appears that people have an interest in getting something done.”
Campbell said combatting street racing in Houston, and specifically along the North Loop, will be an ongoing challenge. He also said racing activity figures to increase when bars and nightclubs, which have been closed for two months amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, start to reopen.
But Campbell, who grew up in Oak Forest, also said he remains committed to meeting that challenge. He said he stations officers along the North Loop on at least a weekly basis and has utilized overtime units to patrol the area.
“The Traffic Enforcement Division has had a very regular presence out on the North Loop,” he said. “I’m very familiar with the area. … I take it very seriously to try to rectify those issues that are going on out there.”