Chatfield High student urges students to race on track, not streets

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By AJ Vicens

Megan Rhodes, a sophomore at Chatfield High, has teamed with the Colorado State Patrol to urge her classmates to race cars on a track rather than the street.

Her words carry weight, because Rhodes is a straight-A student — and because, for fun, she races dragsters at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison. Her everyday car is a 2007 Roush Ford Mustang.

Rhodes spoke April 21 at a news conference with Colorado State Patrol troopers and metro area police officers to promote the Take It To The Track program, which lets licensed drivers race at Bandimere Speedway.

"It gives kids the opportunity to race safe,” Rhodes said. “There's really no reason they should put themselves or others in harm's way racing on the street."

After the news conference, Col. Jim Wolfinbarger, chief of the State Patrol, thanked Rhodes and her family for speaking with him.

"The truth is that they're not going to listen to me," Wolfinbarger told the Rhodes family, referring to the fact that teens are more likely to pay attention to one of their own.

"It's a natural process," he said later. "Kids will listen to authority figures out of respect, but nobody speaks with a louder voice than a peer."

Students at schools across the state take notice when someone their age tells them about the dangers of street racing, Wolfinbarger said.

Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for Coloradans ages 16 to 24. The State Patrol recorded 126 fatalities in 2008 for drivers in that age group, and wrote 139 tickets for charges associated with street racing. Not all of those deaths were attributable to street racing, of course, but just one is too many, Wolfinbarger said.

"It's so senseless," said the 14-year State Patrol veteran, who's responded to dozens of accidents involving teens and excessive speed. "It goes from fun to a horrible tragedy in a heartbeat, literally, and you can have life-changing events."

In February 2004, Wolfinbarger responded to a South Jeffco crash that killed three Chatfield High students. Chatfield student Mallory Leake was driving 75 mph with seven other students in the car. Leake failed to negotiate a turn, crossed into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with a minivan on Ken Caryl Avenue near Continental Divide Road. Three of her passengers — Michael Heykoop, 15, Caitlyn Craig, 15, and Brian Ellsworth, 14 — were killed. Nine other people were injured, including two people in the minivan.

Leake pleaded guilty to reckless driving and vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years of highly supervised probation.

There's a financial hazard to street racing as well, according to Carole Walker of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

"Since street racing is illegal and deliberate, a resulting crash may likely not be covered by insurance, and that means medical, car repair and legal bills would be paid out of pocket by the driver, easily adding up to huge costs for teens and their parents," Walker said.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.