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They have sped recklessly down highways, turned city streets into drag strips and taken over private parking lots to squeal tires and perform burnouts, all with spectators standing mere feet away as cars spin wildly in circles.

As in communities across the country, street racing has been a big problem this summer in the north metro city of Blaine — and the illegal activity has been compound by violence that included a shooting at an assembly near the Northtown Mall.

Now, the city is striking back. The City Council this month passed an ordinance — the first of its kind in Minnesota — that makes it a crime for two or more vehicles to engage in street racing and allows police to cite spectators who show up to watch. The policy went into effect Sept. 19.

"We have not had a good tool to manage it," Police Chief Brian Podany said. "This gives us a tool to do that."

Street racing gained traction in the Twin Cities and across the country with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, fueled by empty roads that resulted from stay-at-home orders, authorities said.

The secret and highly mobile events, known as "meetups," are often arranged on social media and have attracted as many as 400 vehicles at a time, according to law enforcement. Under the cover of darkness, drivers take over intersections and empty parking lots and spin around in circles at high speeds. Stunts that have included vehicle occupants hanging out car windows and shooting guns and fireworks have been captured on video and have gone viral online, adding to the allure.

The events have been annoying and unnerving for business owners along 84th Lane in Blaine, a hot spot in the city. Several contacted by the Star Tribune confirmed the problem but declined to comment for fear of reprisal.

Last spring Blaine police, with help from other agencies, busted up a gathering of hundreds of vehicles at Metro Transit's 95th Avenue Park and Ride, a popular meeting spot where skid marks now scar the pavement.

"We appreciate Blaine's interest in discouraging exhibition driving and street racing, and will continue to support their efforts by monitoring and responding to calls for service at this location," said Metro Transit spokesperson Drew Kerr.

Police have had little leverage. At best, they've been able to break up the large gatherings — only to have them pop up in another location. Podany said Blaine police have issued citations when possible.

State-level efforts to crack down on street racing have so far been unsuccessful. An attempt to strengthen Minnesota's reckless driving law and make it a misdemeanor to participate in a street race, squeal tires or obstruct traffic while performing burnouts in intersections failed to pass the state Senate last session.

With few laws specifically addressing the behavior, cities like Blaine have been left to craft local street racing ordinances and enact other strategies. In some cities, that has included putting down speed bumps, closing roads and even putting out decoy police cars to dissuade racers from taking over streets and intersections.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 19 signed legislation prohibiting street racing, street takeovers and sideshows in parking lots across the Golden State, and allowing courts to suspend the driver's licenses of those caught street racing. Earlier this year, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill allowing cameras in New York City to operate 24/7 to help police catch street racers.

When crafting its ordinance, Blaine looked to Fort Worth, Texas — one of the few places in the country where such an ordinance was already in place, Podany said.

Under Blaine's new law, drivers can be cited for "turning, accelerating, decelerating or otherwise operating a motor vehicle in a manner that causes unnecessary engine noise," the ordinance states. Drivers can also be cited for "squealing tires, skidding, sliding, throwing of sand, gravel, dirt or other material," or driving "in a manner simulating a race," it says.

Drivers who engage in street racing can face misdemeanor charges, as can spectators at unlicensed events.

Brian Weierke, police chief in nearby Fridley, said law enforcement across the metro has taken an aggressive stance to crack down on street racing and is starting to see progress. Fridley is part of a task force that includes the State Patrol, which this summer launched an all-out campaign to tamp down on street racing.

Part of the overarching goal is to prevent tragedies like one last year, in which a 19-year-old woman died after being struck by gunfire while watching a street racing event in northeast Minneapolis.

On its first blitz on a July weekend, state troopers on the ground stopped more than 500 drivers for traffic infractions and issued more than 100 citations to motorists who did not hold a valid driver's license. Troopers also made 37 arrests, including 22 drivers who were impaired.

With 20 additional troopers stationed in Minneapolis and its aviation unit watching from the sky, troopers cited a group of motorcyclists racing on a freeway and four other motorists racing on Hennepin Avenue. They also tagged multiple drivers who had illegal fireworks and arrested several who attempted to flee law enforcement. In one case, troopers in a helicopter saw a driver throw a firearm while trying to run from police on foot.

"We have put a considerable amount of resources to combat this problem," said Col. Matt Langer. "It is intentional, destructible action and very dangerous, and nobody is a fan of it. We are working hard to make it stop."

Law enforcement identified many of the offenders this summer as juveniles. Several were cited with damage to property, trespassing, fleeing police and weapons violations. In some cases, vehicles were forfeited, Weierke said.

In June, a 24-year-old Minneapolis man considered a major organizer of the gatherings was charged with felony riot. Three others also were charged.

In recent weeks, cases have dropped off and meetups have dwindled to 20 to 30 cars, Weierke said. The main group responsible for the initial wave of street racing events is no longer hosting them, he said.

Though local efforts have so far made progress, Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said he would like to see the state Legislature take up the issue again during the 2023 session.

"This is an issue you have to pay attention to," he said. "The minute you turn your head, it can come back."