A flock of young people in souped-up cars turned a 13-mile stretch of Interstate 485 in northeast Charlotte into a drag strip Saturday, racing at up to triple-digit speeds before police could stop them.
When they did, the group scattered. Two abandoned their cars and escaped on foot. The others sped away in their cars. The group had 20 to 40 drivers, and one reached an estimated speed of 140 mph while fleeing, said Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Detective Louis Rango. During the races, drivers topped out in excess of 100 mph, Rango said. No one was hurt.
Police arrested four drivers and seized six cars, all modified and lowered Honda Civics. Investigators are trying to figure out how the group got together and how long – and where – they've been racing.
“We'd been chasing them for a couple of weeks,” Rango said Saturday. “Last night, more or less, all heck broke loose.”
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Arrested and charged with assorted misdemeanor and traffic offenses – including speeding, reckless driving and participating in a speed competition – were:
Rudy Argueta, 21, of Charlotte.
Alexi Bautista, 20, of Charlotte.
Gabriel Cisneros, 17, of Charlotte.
Tyler Kale, 19, of Dallas.
Argueta and Cisneros were in custody at the Mecklenburg County jail. Bautista and Kale were released on bond Saturday. Kale was the only one arrested who owned his car. Cisneros' father, Ramon, told the Observer he didn't know anything about the racing, and declined further comment.
Rango said he expects a judge to issue warrants early this week for the two who ran away. He said he's trying to determine who everyone else is. He had no suspect descriptions.
The group met Friday night at a parking deck on the UNC Charlotte campus, Rango said. None of the four who were arrested is a UNCC student, he said.
A group called UNCC Horsepower Addicts meets at the deck on Friday evenings, police say, but members of the club say they do not meet at this time of year -- nor do they meet on the deck.
In an e-mail received Monday by The Observer, officers of the UNCC Horsepower Addicts said they had absolutely no connection with the drag racing activities on I-485.
"We want to be clear that the meets which were held in the Union deck were not hosted by UNCC HPA (Horsepower Addicts), nor any of the paid members of the UNCC HPA from the 2007-08 year," officers said in a news release.
"Those arrested were also not associated with the club. Our meets officially ended the last full week of school and do not begin until September," the release added.
A member of the club, Jorden Hartford, told The Observer that "this legitimate club at UNCC has a zero tolerance policy for illegal street racing and other illegal activities."
From the parking deck, the group caravaned to the Interstate 85-I-485 interchange near University City and began driving south on I-485 around midnight, Rango said. They had a system: With traffic fairly light, they formed columns in all southbound lanes and drove between 5 and 20 mph to hold up traffic behind them.
Then two cars at the front of the columns raced ahead. Rango said he watched them as long as he could but couldn't tell where the designated stopping point was. The first two cars, once done, would pull to the side and let the next two cars go.
When the caravan reached the Fairview Road exit, 13 miles south of I-85, it turned around and did the same thing northbound back toward I-85. Police moved in at various points along the highway as the group moved north.
The group held more than a dozen races before police and N.C. Highway Patrol troopers moved in, Rango said. Whenever they encountered traffic ahead of them, members of the group pulled over. Behind them, “at times, (traffic) would get heavy, because they were blocking everybody off.”
The group caused no wrecks and didn't even appear to cause any near-wrecks. It's unclear whether the drivers practiced the column maneuver or where they got it from, Rango said.
Observer staff writer Steve Lyttle contributed.