SB Nation

Claire McNear | July 22, 2015

Last Race in Sonoma

Twilight for “Top the Cops”

The lasers are already fixed on the side of Madison’s car.

She revs her engine, sending plumes of white smoke swirling around her tires. A couple dozen faces look up at her from behind a row of overturned tires. You see this?

To Madison’s left, Deputy John Littrell of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department raises his eyebrows at Madison from inside his Crown Victoria.

But Madison is staring ahead at a quarter-mile of straight, smooth asphalt. She’s got one foot on the gas and the other on her brake, her engine whining as she runs through her worries this evening: her tune-up earlier this week, how the wind keeps dropping off suddenly and wilting the flag she’s been watching in her mirror.

Before the light even turns green, she floors it.

There’s a half-beat as the BMW takes in Madison’s command, and then all at once she flies forward. Deputy Littrell tears after her and goes Code 3: lights flashing and siren wailing. Full pursuit. On the radio, she can hear them saying her name: Madison Nirenstein, Redwood High School, 2004 BMW 330Ci. Her engine does the work for her now, the automatic transmission shifting through the gears. She steals a look at the speedometer: 50, 60, 70, 80 miles per hour now and climbing fast, blue lights glinting on her dash.

Don’t push too much, she thinks. Keep an eye on the Crown Vic. Hold the wheel steady. Stay ahead. Don’t get caught. Top the cop.

On Wednesday nights from April to August, any teenager with a high school ID, a driver’s license, and 15 bucks for registration can come to Sonoma Raceway for a chance to race a uniformed police officer in a squad car down the quarter-mile strip.

Between races, the officers wander amongst them, offering tips on safe driving, warning of the dangers of alcohol, and — especially — just talking cars.

Madison shoots past the finish line just ahead of Deputy Littrell. The announcer calls it out:

Madison Nirenstein, winner!

My first day at the track, I pull into a line of cars at the gate: spectators signing in as drivers hand over a list of next of kin and waive away their right to sue should a tire blow out, or the transmission fry, or the wheels not quite catch and the wall come suddenly looming. I catch the occupants of the car in line next to me looking at my rental — a 2014 Corolla; white, safe, totally adequate — and feel suddenly unprepared. It’s a warm day; everyone’s windows are down, engines groaning and tires screeching from somewhere beyond the gate. Their car is full in the way that only a car of very young people can be: somehow more elbows, more half-full Gatorade bottles, more skinned knees and dibs for the next song than one sedan could possibly hold.

“You gonna drift that thing?” one boy calls. Five expectant faces. The oldest looks barely old enough to drive.

Can you drift a Corolla? I wonder. A moot question, maybe: I, certainly, cannot drift a Corolla. (I will learn soon that yes, you can drift a Corolla: the Corolla AE86, in fact, is a mainstay of the drift circuit, something I am confident Budget neither advertises nor condones.)

I mutter something about being there to watch. Heads cock and I think I hear snickering. I try to slide further into my sensible Corolla seat. Can they see through my sunglasses? Do I have more sunglasses I can put on?

“Nah, she’s gonna drag!” They cheer and drive off. I follow, slowly, sensibly.

Sonoma is a strange place for a racetrack. The Raceway sits at the gateway to California’s Wine Country in what’s called the Carneros region, a fertile pocket at the base of Napa Valley where cool bay winds sweep through vineyards scattered along the golden hills. It’s the nexus of some of the wealthiest counties in the country — Sonoma, Napa, Marin — and straddles the first real road in California’s history: the Camino Real, built by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s.

A few miles up the road from the drag strip’s starting line, you can get a glass of one of the finest pinot noirs in North America. On race days, tourists from San Francisco bobble out of Town Cars and crinkle their noses on tasting room verandas: What’s that sound?

The track, a 2.52-mile road course wrapped around a quarter-mile drag strip that can pack in 100,000 fans on its busiest days, opened in 1968 and for many years was known as Sears Point for the spit of land it lies on. It’s one of only a handful of NASCAR tracks west of the Mississippi, hosting the Sprint Cup Series every summer on two miles of looping asphalt that played host to Dale Earnhardt’s lone road-course victory in 1995. The rest of the year, the track offers just about everything you can do with a motor and a road: Motocross, Indycar, and National Hot Rod Association events, among others.

For 21 years, Kevin McKinnie has shepherded teenagers and police officers to Sonoma Raceway to race one another down the drag strip. He spent the better part of 30 years as a patrol officer with the nearby Santa Rosa Police Department. One day, he tagged along with a friend to the track and noticed a pack of high school kids waiting for their turn to race.

“And I thought, ‘Wow, what’s a better way to get with these kids and drop that negativity that they have towards law enforcement?’” says McKinnie. “Because the only time that they really meet a policeman is when the red light’s in the mirror. So I thought ‘Man, wouldn’t this be something if we could bring police cars over here and drag race against them?’”

He convinced his department and got the raceway to sign on. They called it Top the Cops.

‘Man, wouldn’t this be something if we could bring police cars over here and drag race against them?’

Since 1994, hundreds of Bay Area teenagers have raced cops down the quarter-mile. Four or five of them have gone on to jobs in law enforcement. From the very start, the plaudits have been universal: a great program; a chance for kids to learn and have fun and for cops to out themselves as something less than bogeymen.

But in recent years, attendance has declined. With the roars and occasional metallic thumps of the racetrack’s other driving attraction, the Sonoma Drift, hammering along in the distance, one can’t help but sense that something has changed.

In 1973, a young filmmaker by the name of George Lucas released his second feature-length production, American Graffiti. It was set in Modesto, California, 1962, but filmed largely in Marin County, with much of the action taking place along a thinly disguised Fourth Street in San Rafael, just 15 miles south of Sonoma Raceway.

American Graffiti follows a group of friends on one long, final night as they celebrate the end of high school and contemplate their futures. It offers a very particular image of America: of suburbia, of the early 1960s, of what it once meant to be a teenager. It’s a world where high school kids had little to do but cruise down Main — or Fourth — Street in their cars, and where cops had little to do but bust them for it (or at least try to). There are a few real crimes in American Graffiti: theft, trespassing, myriad traffic offenses. At one point, a man sprints out of the local liquor store with the shopkeeper in hot pursuit amidst a blaze of gunfire. But the only times the cops appear are to hound the teens rumbling along in their muscle cars. When real crimes do occur, no one even bothers to call the authorities: they’re too busy staring down the kids on the strip.

American Graffiti was meant as a love letter to things past, but in Marin County, it still rang true. After its release, its visions of purring Thunderbirds and Impalas inspired such a craze among local teens emulating the movie that San Rafael had to put up a sign forbidding U-turns at one end of Fourth Street to stop kids from cruising their cars up and down all day long.

At Top the Cops, the organizers seem intent on preserving something of that culture: the kids, the cars, the friendly, if a little bit stern, cops. But it seems that all these things have changed.

Are these the last days of Top the Cops?

The teens line up in the pit. They’re juniors and seniors, mostly, at high schools around the Bay Area, wealthy enclaves like Pacifica, Calistoga, Orinda, and Mill Valley.

Next to them, the cops form a line: a Crown Vic, a few Tauruses. There’s one of those new Interceptors they’ve been rolling out, 288 horsepower, zero to 60 in as little as 5 seconds, capable of scorching through the quarter-mile in under 15 seconds if they’re willing to push it. The officers get out and mill about; the kids prop their hoods open, shooting squirrelly looks at each other’s engines, the bolts on a silver Mustang’s V8 glittering in the late afternoon sun.

Officer Robert Marin, Fairfield PD, holds court with a trio of kids. Marin is a big guy, buoyantly cheerful with a tidy mustache. “Did you know,” he asks, “that when a car hits a pedestrian, they go flying out of their shoes? Your knees bend and you slip right out of your boots.”

“So if you see a pair of shoes on the ground,” says Marin, maybe a little too enthusiastically, “you know that’s right where a person got hit.”

Zac Machek, a senior at Northgate High School, has heard this one before. “Everything inside you is going the same speed as your car,” he says.

“That’s right!” agrees Marin, merrily.

There are two big events at Sonoma Raceway on Wednesday nights during the warmer months of the year: the drag and the drift. Drifting, which the track touts as “SIDEWAYS CARS. SCREECHING TIRES. MAD SKILLS,” is the more recent innovation of the two. It involves the deliberate loss of rear wheel control, enabling drivers with the right combination of speed, accuracy, fearlessness, and disdain for the longevity of their tires, paint jobs, and mortal souls to send their cars skidding sideways at high speeds, perpendicular to their tires, two or more cars traveling the same course at the same time, not racing, but earning style points. It has only recently gained credibility in American motorsport circles; Sonoma added it to the Wednesday lineup just five years ago.

The Sonoma Drift makes its home on the west side of the grounds in a parking lot that’s enclosed with concrete barriers for the occasion, a jubilant crowd pressed shoulder to shoulder and leaning against a second fence a buffer zone beyond. On a recent afternoon, one car smacked into another and knocked half its rear bumper off. The driver waggled his finger at the offending party and zoomed off, dragging the bumper like matrimonial tin cans behind him. Another car’s tire exploded suddenly and the crowd whooped. Cars screeched in crazed circles around one another: shooting sideways around cones, through cones, bass thrumming, coming within inches of the concrete barricades, within centimeters of one another, maybe tapping each other ever so lightly, as lightly as 2,400 flying pounds of metal can, flags and pole-mounted GoPros and whole aerated mounds of tires stretching out behind them. It’s mayhem.

The Wednesday Night Drag program takes place on 1,320 feet of smooth asphalt to the east, below the main grandstand, which on these nights is empty. Most weeks, as many as 200 drivers turn up in 200 gleaming cars, and they race 400 or 600 or 800 times till they’ve shaken themselves into hierarchies of velocity and control. The few spectators — mostly friends of those behind the wheel and erstwhile drivers who will lapse morosely into long descriptions of what exactly has kept their car in the shop this week with little provocation — hang around the starting line in twos and threes, arms crossed. The drivers start to arrive in the middle of the afternoon, lining up according to racing class: motorcycles and hot rods towed in on trailers on one side, street-legal sports cars in the middle, and, at the very far end of the pit, a couple lines of high school kids flanked on one side by black and white patrol cars.

In many of the towns in the North Bay, it often seems like it’s still 1962, and that cops don’t have a whole lot more to do than break up parties and bust kids for missing curfew. In Marin County, when a particularly effective and correspondingly loathed officer retired a few years ago, he appeared in the local paper proudly leering over a water cooler jug — one of three, he boasted — filled with cigarette lighters he had confiscated from teenagers over the years. When I was in high school, he terrorized my classmates with his enthusiastic — and, we thought, preposterously unfair — enforcement of the rule of law, nabbing kids for drinking at school dances and hiding out near our school’s unsubtly designated pot hangout. He did not give second chances.

“I have kids come back all the time and thank me for arresting them,” he said on his retirement. “It’s just very gratifying.”

I asked a friend recently if he could remember what that officer’s nickname was. “Officer Asshat?” he asked.

Forty miles away, 10th grader Christian Fick is staring at the clock. He’s waiting for the bell when it rings in seventh period and he hurries to his car, a Subaru WRX, cherry red. He drops his sister, a freshman, off at home and grabs a couple friends, whoever doesn’t have too much homework, and they climb into the backseat and slide over his racing helmet. You only need to wear a helmet if you break 14 seconds on the quarter-mile. It’s a stretch for the WRX, but he’s done it before.

They stop for gas, Christian keeping his finger on the handle and watching the numbers scroll by. He only wants a third of a tank, just enough to get him to the racetrack and then launch him through a half-dozen blistering passes down the quarter-mile. Every extra ounce could cost him a millisecond.

Christian works at a pizza place — nothing fancy, but not Round Table, either, and it pays him enough to cover gas and, occasionally, new parts. He used to work as a detailer at a shop in Emeryville: washing, waxing, interior, engine clean. He did it all, saving up till he could afford a third of the WRX. His parents helped with the rest.

He’s trophied twice this season, winning a mounted gold-plated Pontiac GTO that he keeps on a shelf next to five trophies from when he used to do tae kwon do. During his last run against a cop, Christian stopped to take a selfie at the starting line: a uniformed deputy offering up a peace sign from his Sonoma County Sheriff SUV in the background, Christian beaming from inside his Subaru.

Christian didn’t tell his parents when he started racing. They found out later, once he’d won a couple times. Now, they’re tacitly okay with it — his dad even came down once and raced his own car, an old British MG that was the first car Christian ever really loved.

In 2015, there are still a lot of good reasons to top the cops. They are that Dylan’s buddy got busted at the second light on Lucas Valley Road last month, going so fast they impounded his car. That the cops made a surprise visit to Winter Formal and wouldn’t let Wyatt in because he’d been drinking, so the whole senior class award show he was supposed to lead had to be rescheduled and everybody just went home. That when Nick got busted for a DUI, they wouldn’t stop to let him pee, so he pissed himself right there in the patrol car’s backseat and had to sit in his own mess all night long in jail. That Colin was released with a cordial farewell and no charges after a night in San Francisco’s lockup, to show him what happens to kids who talk back.

They are that Marin County picked up a pair of Humvees and a cache of assault rifles courtesy of the Department of Defense and that Napa police acquired a $733,000 mine-resistant vehicle, just in case. They are that taxpayers want to pay for body cameras, that we even know what body cameras are. They are that it’s not a given anymore that every member of law enforcement is Officer Friendly; that he’ll remember to reach for his Taser instead of his gun. They are Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and that 15-year-old girl in the pink and yellow bikini who was taken down at a pool party.

As you walk around Sonoma Raceway’s racing pit, older drivers admiring one another’s gear and getting ready to launch, there’s a chorus of sighs as they look over the idling Crown Vics: Wish they’d had that when I was growing up. A round of nods. Got my fair share of tickets back then, they agree. Every time a kid pulls up to the starting line next to a cop: Get ‘em.

Officer Marin of the Fairfield Police grew up racing, but he never got the chance to face off against a cop. If he had — oh, boy. “That would have been the best thing since Swiss cheese,” he says.

The track offers advantages to the open road, he says. It’s clear, safe. “There’s no cats,” he adds.

In Fairfield, Marin rides a motorcycle on the traffic beat. At the racetrack, he drives the traffic division’s Crown Vic, “DUI Enforcement Unit” painted in looping script along its sides. They know him out here: “They see us and they go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the DUI car, so that’s Officer Marin,’” he says.

I ask Marin what he thinks the motivation is for the teens. “I think the biggest draw is they get to race a police officer. And if they win, they get the bragging rights: ‘I whooped him!’” he says.

Ask the kids and, well — it’s good to race out here and avoid the tickets. It’s fun, too. But for Top the Cops’ teens, there’s often little more reason than that the cops are in the other lane.

“As many times as I can get down to the track, I’d like to,” says Jake Mercieca, a senior at Sonoma Valley High. As to whether there’s an extra thrill to beating a cop, he shrugs. They’re pretty good, he says, and their cars are faster than some of the restored Chevys he’s been bringing out to race. But he’s here more for the competition, the same as any other car out there: “When you’re in a competitive sport, it’s fun to try and beat them.”

After the cops finish their heats against the kids, they sometimes loop back for a victory lap or a congratulatory handshake. Mostly, they just roll off the track and head back toward the freeway. The kids linger to race one another head on — no cops here, now — and elect a high school winner for the night. “Now the fun begins,” someone says as the last squad car patiently blinks its turn signal and turns off the track one evening.

Christian concedes that lately, police officers maybe haven’t gotten the best press. “It’s showing that the police have a cool side to them,” he says of Top the Cops. “It shows that there are a lot of cool cops out there also.”

A crowd has gathered at the spectator barrier to watch as Jake takes his fourth victory over the cops this season, this one over Novato PD’s Amy Yardley. Jake’s been coming to the track as long as he can remember; his cousin PJ used to race NASCAR and his grandpa and uncle were car buffs long before he was born. This season, Jake’s undefeated against the cops, and on this day wins with a stripped-down ‘82 Camaro that he pulled out of a field two years ago. The transmission’s gauges are gone so he takes the Camaro through the gears manually, feeling his way through the shifts by sound.

As the lights in Jake’s lane flash to show his victory, Yardley’s siren howling into the distance, an older man rocks back on his heels. He raced the cops when he was younger, he says. They lost.

“Here?” I ask.

He smiles, baring a dozen crooked orange teeth. “On the freeway road.”

The crowd watching Jake is small: just a few dozen people, many of them friends or relatives. Between passes, teenage spectators cluster around their friends’ cars, heads down so as not to make eye contact with any unnecessary adults, till someone procures a can of dip and disburses careful pinches. The racers and spectators are overwhelmingly white, and many of those leaning most eagerly toward the starting line look to be in their 50s and 60s and in little need of outreach.

McKinnie started Top the Cops in part to reduce illegal street racing. Give the kids a safe place to do it and the chance to stick it to a cop, the thinking goes, and they won’t seek it out in the streets.

Top the Cops is also an opportunity to generate some good PR with the teens and with the community at large, McKinnie explains: show them they’re human, that they’re not just trying to get them in trouble, and let the other, older drivers see them making nice with the youngsters. “We’re trying to make this a positive thing, and it’s worked that way,” he says. “When we first started, we had to go over and recruit the kids. Now they come on their own.”

Before each race, the kids are given Top the Cops T-shirts — courtesy of the racetrack — while McKinnie rushes around with a camera, taking pictures of the teens and the officers they’re about to race. One reaches into his breast pocket for a business card and instead pulls out a collectible law enforcement trading card that shows him standing in front of his patrol car, beaming.

In recent years, Top the Cops’ attendance has tapered off. There’s always been some turnover: kids graduate and leave the program; younger students get their licenses and start turning up.

But this time it feels different.

Some of the law enforcement agencies have withdrawn their school resource officers from local high schools in the wake of budget cuts, losing in the process what had been for many departments their main point of contact with driving-age teenagers.

One recent Wednesday afternoon, only two teens turned up at the Drag. Adults were recruited to race against the remaining officers so they could still compete. Officer Dario Giomi of the Petaluma Police Department ended up losing to a man with a full gray beard. As he waited behind a 1970 Chevy pickup for his turn to race, Giomi held up his commemorative photo of the two of them shaking hands: Giomi baby-faced beneath the silver-pointed badge on his baseball cap; his competitor heavily tattooed and twice his age. This one might not go up in the break room.

“Three years ago, we didn’t have enough cops,” Yardley says. “And now, every week’s different — but you know, three years ago, we never had enough cops. There would be two to five of us out here and there would be seven to 10 high schoolers.”

Sometimes, the cops are scarcer still. At another recent Drag, just one officer showed up, losing a single pass to Jake and then leaving. It’s understandable. The officers volunteer to come to the track and for many, like Giomi, it comes on what would otherwise be a day off.

And it might be that street racing as a teenage pursuit has subsided somewhat, giving way to other forms of car exhibitionism. “Now it’s kind of gone to that sideshow thing,” says McKinnie. In recent years, loosely organized — and usually illegal — meets have popped up across the East Bay, most notably in Oakland. Drivers race, do donuts, bounce in place on elaborate hydraulic systems. They drift.

“But those aren’t high school kids doing it in the East Bay,” says McKinnie. “Those are older adults in their 20s and 30s doing that. But the actual drag racing — I don’t think you see that too much anymore.”

Still, as long as there are teens and as long as there are open roads, there will be races. And as long as there are races, there will be tragedies. The first week of June, 60 miles north of Sonoma, two other teenagers, 16 and 17 years old in a 1998 Volkswagen Bug and a 2008 BMW 535i, were driving — fast — across a bridge while a 16-year-old girl named Angelica Contreras and some friends watched from the side.

In the days after the accident, the details trickled out. A race. An embankment. A loss of control. A collision.

They didn’t find Angelica’s body until the next morning.

On screen, drag racing means speed. It’s Danny Zuko and Leo Balmudo racing for pink slips in the dry culvert of the Los Angeles River, Natalie Wood flagging James Dean forward for a game of cliffside chicken. It’s Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, and associates casually putting $1 million on a Rio de Janeiro quarter-mile in boosted police cars. Drag races mean pedals to the floor, custom levers that trigger superchargers or, depending on villainy, shoot oil or drop a cache of nails. It’s cutting in front of the other guy and speed at any cost.

Nitrous oxide, meet bracket racing.

At Sonoma Raceway, as at most amateur drag strips, drivers compete in a format called bracket racing. It favors not the fastest driver but the most precise, testing a driver’s ability to do two things: perfectly replicate a previous quarter-mile time and react as quickly as possible to the green light at the starting line. Cars are staggered based on their predicted times: if both of them ran perfectly, they’d reach the finish line at the same time.

Speed is a tool, not a goal, they say. In the second round of one of the adult classes one Wednesday, a ‘92 Honda Accord that looked, and seemingly behaved, pretty much like a ‘92 Honda Accord rolled up to the starting line next to a 1951 Ford Coupe, a rumbling scarlet beauty. The Accord dialed in with a 17.71-second estimated time — glacial by drag standards — and was most of the way down the track before the Coupe even got its green light. The Coupe roared, hitting 140 mph in its pursuit of the Honda. The Accord topped out at 77 mph, and, having almost exactly replicated its dial-in time, won.

Back in the pit, the cops line up to race.

When it comes to racing, the officers are, at least in theory, at a serious disadvantage. Their patrol cars rely on automatic transmissions, letting the cars shift themselves, and they cruise along on low-traction radial tires.

Officer Dario Giomi is driving a Charger that’s already 1-0 for the day, having carried through a short vehicle pursuit earlier in the afternoon. The Charger bears little resemblance to what you’d find at a dealership. Like other squad cars, it has additions specific to the department, few of which are well suited to racing: a heavy cage in the back; special alternators, brakes, and electronics to fuel the lights; extra batteries; a heavy-duty cooling system; an altered suspension.

But there are some benefits to squad cars. Cops can use their radar, for one, to get a more accurate reading of their acceleration than a speedometer provides. Racing slicks are preferable to road tires, but they’re expensive — beyond a policeman’s budget. So Kevin McKinnie, back when he was still in the force and racing on Wednesdays, explained the nature of the Top the Cops program to a local shop and ended up getting a pair for free. He’d get to the track early and head over to the shop, taking off his gun belt and jacking his patrol car up to swap the tires out. Give the boys in blue a fighting chance.

And for all their vehicles’ disadvantages, the officers have dominated the 2015 season. Only Jake Mercieca has been able to beat them reliably.

Yet McKinnie worries a little about the future of Top the Cops.

In the 21 years it’s been running — including the 11 since he retired — he can’t remember ever missing a Top the Cops event. This year, he even delayed a knee replacement so it wouldn’t interfere with the season.

If all goes well, he’ll go right into surgery as soon as the season wraps up and the kids go back to school. He needs to be back on his feet by November so he can take care of his other project, Vets in ‘Vettes.

For years, McKinnie has worked with a local Corvette club to escort veterans through the Petaluma Veteran’s Day Parade. He started with World War II vets, but their numbers have grown scarce of late, so they’ve started to welcome in folks from Korea. Vets in ‘Vettes treats them to breakfast, sends them out to a photoshoot, and then loads them into a fleet of waiting Corvettes for the parade. The last few years, McKinnie’s gotten the Sonoma County Calendar Girls to dress up in World War II costumes — Red Cross, Rosie the Riveter, you name it — and ride in or march alongside the cars as they roll through town.

So he really needs that knee.

He’s not too worried about the kids: these things go in cycles. He glances over at a group of officers and teens and frowns: one of the officers has DUI goggles in his car, he says. You put them on and the world goes woozy; you see how unnavigable it all becomes.

“He should have those out now, actually,” McKinnie says, frowning.

Some old guy — some old guy — is bothering Madison. This is what they do. Give her tips. Say they’ll go easy on her. Like they don’t know that two-thirds of the way through the racing season, she leads the high school group with almost double the points of her closest competitor, Jake Mercieca.

Most nights this year, Madison has been the only girl racing in the high school class.

Often, the guys make the mistake of underestimating her. Not the guys she knows — they know better — but drivers who are new to the track. You know: random people. Old guys.

“It’ll be kind of small comments, but you’re like, huh. That’s interesting,” Madison says. “Like ‘Oh, let’s give the girl the bye run,’” — a solo pass, and effectively a skip past an elimination round — “and I’m like, ‘Nah, I don’t need the bye run, thank you.’”

“You can give it to him,” she says, gesturing around her. The deputy she’s set to race is talking to another officer a few feet away, but he takes no notice of this.

On the last weekend in July, the National Hot Rod Association comes to Sonoma and puts on a massive three-day event. Top the Cops comes in as a kind of halftime show, a dozen teens racing a dozen officers in front of 50,000 spectators. The cops are enthusiastically booed. The officers get it, they say: they’d be doing the same if they were out there.

Madison won’t make it, though. She’s good behind the wheel, but better in a saddle: she’ll compete instead at the world championships for horseback riding.

In America, car culture is changing. For decades, muscle cars have steadily lost ground to lighter, cheaper sports cars made overseas.

They’re infinitely more complicated beasts, and when something goes wrong, their teenage drivers are more likely to send them to the shop than to attempt to ferret out the problem themselves.

Drifting joined the Wednesday Night Drag program at Sonoma five years ago. “I think that’s got a lot more attention now than Top the Cops does,” says Officer Amy Yardley. “We did toy with the idea of, would they let us take a drift car out there? But it’s too dangerous. It would destroy the car.”

“It’s too bad,” she says, looking in the direction of the drifters’ screeching tires and cheering fans, “because that’s kind of the crowd. That used to be this crowd.”

Over at the drift, cars are spinning around turns, smoke filling the air. The crowd is noticeably younger and more diverse than its drag racing counterpart, and several times the size. Few faces look older than 25 and resemble, as far as jeering and probable Valhalla enthusiasm go, one of the less-regimented of the Mad Max gangs. There is the sense that the general approach to traffic tickets here is to crumple them on the ground.

In drifting, there are goals, if not quite rules. Points are awarded for proximity to other cars, to walls, to cones. In pairs, the rear car tries to stay as close as possible to the lead car, which does whatever it can to get away. Like a bullfighter, the greatest competitor gets the nearest to destruction and shows the least fear. If there are judges, though, they are nowhere to be seen.

In a recent interview, the manager of Sonoma Raceway’s drifting program told the San Francisco Chronicle, “A lot of motor sports are pretty cut and dry. To spectators they’re very boring.” It’s hard not to think of the drift’s sister event. Topping the cops just isn’t as exciting as it used to be.

Matt Aton is there with a friend, Kyle Dimick, leaning on the fence and watching a pair of Nissan 240SXes squeal by. Matt used to race his Mustang 5.0 in the Top the Cops program when he was in high school, and when I tell him I’m there to write about it, he’s alarmed: “Are they closing it?” he asks.

At his feet is a tiny bulldog puppy, all wags and kisses and the subject of, by my estimate, at least a dozen Instagram posts in as many minutes. “She’s fresh out!” Kyle exclaims, gripping the leash of a full-grown bulldog panting happily in a spiked collar, the dog’s chest so huge that its legs jut out at odd angles. He’s the pup’s grandfather, they say; their friend Ron is a breeder. Matt’s right leg ends in a silver prosthetic and as another string of cars barrels by, he has to shuffle around the puppy to watch the action. A driver slams into a wall and there’s a collective sigh: Aw, man. “Vallejo,” reads a tattoo on Matt’s arm.

He appreciates what Top the Cops does, and repeats the spiel as if from memory: “It’s good to keep the young kids on the track instead of on the street doing something illegal,” he says.

His Mustang is gone these days. He doesn’t race at all anymore, and today he’s not interested in watching the cops or any of the other drag races. He can see how kids might be more interested in the drift.

American Graffiti opens with the town’s undefeated drag racer, Paul Le Mat’s John Milner, lamenting the shrinking of the downtown strip.

“Ah, you know, I remember about five years ago, take you a couple hours and a tank full of gas just to make one circuit,” he says. “It was really something.”

Yet the characters spend the whole of the film on or around the strip, an entire universe contained in cruises and drag races and cherry Cokes at Mel’s Drive-In. The viewer is left to think: maybe John was wrong.

But as the credits roll, Lucas rips the illusion away. John and Toad soon meet their ends, we learn, in a drunk driving accident and Vietnam, while Ron Howard’s Steve, who decided not to go to college at the end of the movie, meets a fate even worse: he’s an insurance agent in Modesto. Only our protagonist, Richard Dreyfuss’s Curt Henderson, made off all right, as a writer in Canada. As it turns out, the strip was shrinking after all, even if Lucas let the boys spend a night pretending it was not.

There is no doubt that everyone at the Wednesday Night Drag is absolutely earnest: They want the very best for these kids, and for their relationships with law enforcement. But it’s not 1962 anymore. It’s not even 2014.

“You just can’t stay 17 forever,” Steve tells Curt.

The vineyards and sheep pastures of Sonoma can feel like the furthest place on Earth from Ferguson and Cleveland, or from any of the very many places where cops can do bad things and where bad things can happen to kids. And yet: even here at the Raceway, even with the commemorative T-shirts and the beer goggles, the selfies and the trading cards and the admonitions to stay safe, there is the sense that something has changed. It’s driving away fast, leaving everything behind, and it’s never, ever coming back.

About the Author

I make a mean poptart.