"We just want to watch," I told the Hang Gang members.
But here’s the thing about watching: It looks like fun. And who doesn’t want to have fun?
On Beach Street, Tay, a rider from North Philly, took me on a walk halfway down the quarter-mile straightaway to check out the goings-on.
"This is like ‘The Fast and the Furious’ down here. Everything’s illegal here," he said, a bit gleefully.
Dirt-bikers raced and wheelied behind the warehouses between Schirra Drive and Cumberland Street. Small, dusty cars got lost in clouds of smoke as they gunned their engines and spun their tires, bursting out of the haze to race at death-defying speeds mere feet from the hundreds of people who crowded on either side to watch them. Teens on bicycles pedaled by, popping wheelies and sometimes slaloming nonchalantly between oncoming racers. Everyone made it all look so easy.
"You gonna ride, right?" one dirt-biker asked me.
"You’re out here with the professionals, so you’re good," another assured me.
I also am a somewhat paranoid and careful person. After years of chronicling crime and breaking news, I know how quickly and unexpectedly tragedy can strike. One slipped wheel or missed stunt could create carnage from one graffitied side of Beach Street to the other.
So I don’t know why I found myself climbing onto the back of a white ATV and wrapping my arms around a stranger named Pooch.
"No wheelies," I told Pooch. I begged him to go 10 mph.
He obeyed — at first. But then he took off, going so fast that if I were a cartoon, my face would have flapped in the wind. Within seconds, we got to the end of the straightaway and we slowed to turn around. It was over faster than a ride on a Six Flags roller-coaster.
When I got off the ATV, my hands were shaking and I was sweating.
Exhilarating? Yes. Terrifying? Absolutely. I have no future as a stunt-rider.
A colleague cynically told me, months ago, that most dirt-bikers and four-wheelers are drug-runners or lookouts for dealers. That might be true for some, but the riders I saw were out there to see and be seen, to thrill themselves and others with stunts and speed. For them, riding is just fun. And plenty of people have fun in ways that could end in bloodshed. Some bungee-jump off bridges. Lugers fly as fast as highway traffic with nothing but a sled beneath them.
The problem is the location.
From Hunting Park to Beach Street to the Belmont Plateau, the riders performed all sorts of skilled stunts just feet from pedestrians, motorists and passers-by. They drove on sidewalks and blasted through red lights. I was in the back of a car driven by a Philly Hang Gang member who was trying to keep up with his friends on quads and bikes. At times, he drove into the shoulder, the median and even the opposite lanes of traffic. When we blew through a red light where a police cruiser was just starting to roll, he navigated through residential streets so fast to hide that I wondered if he was a wanted man, because who would drive that dangerously just to dodge a traffic ticket?
With so many diehard ATV and dirt-bike enthusiasts, the time is long overdue for the city to create a place for them to legally ride. Make them sign liability waivers and put the spectators far enough away to ensure their safety. Ask the Bridgeport Speedway or Atco or any of the race places in the Poconos about the how-tos. This could be an answer to the city’s financial problems — charge $10 per rider and $5 per spectator. Get Kawasaki to sponsor. Sell food and T-shirts!
I’ll be among the first to come out. And thanks for the ride, Pooch, but my butt will be firmly planted in the bleachers.
Contact Dana DiFilippo at firstname.lastname@example.org or (215) 854-5934. Read her blog at phillyconfidential.com.