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How Dallas’ Car Culture Copes With a Pandemic

Exotic cars drive by the home of a sick child before dropping off presents in a parade organized on the ParkUpFront app.
Exotic cars drive by the home of a sick child before dropping off presents in a parade organized on the ParkUpFront app.
ParkUpFront Director of Media Chase Felke
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On any given weekend during nice weather, car enthusiasts gather throughout the Dallas area. Shows of all kinds from lifted trucks to old-school lowriders happen in parking lots while amateur and professional racing take to the numerous tracks nearby.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, has shut down events, increased charity drives for sick children and contributed to a rise in illegal street racing.

The first shelter-in-place recommendation came just as car season would normally have been winding up, and numerous races and car shows were canceled or postponed. And as much as the internet may support the hobby, in-person events and friendships form the fabric of the culture.

Added safety and smaller gatherings have allowed some of the region’s car events to soldier on, but increasing case counts of COVID-19 threaten what little remains of the season and possibly the 2021 season.

One area that was especially hard hit was racing. Everything from NASCAR races at the Texas Motor Speedway that can draw over 150,000 people to smaller-scale amateur events were pushed back or canceled.

Among the postponed events this year were numerous races organized by the Texas Region Sports Car Club of America. The local branch of the organization dedicated to amateur racing canceled everything from track races to smaller-scale autocross events and car control clinics.

“Folks were disappointed, but most of them understood,” said the group’s regional executive, Matt Lucas, who explained that many friendships revolve around these events. “There’s friendships that form, where you see people at these events and that might be the only time you see them.”

At the very beginning, no one knew how things were going to play out, he said. While some early events were able to take place in February and March, most of the races had to be postponed until new safety protocols could be figured out as the state began to open back up after Gov. Greg Abbott’s shelter-in-place order.

The organization has since resumed events with a slew of COVID-19 precautions, including social distancing at normally very social events where it is not uncommon for strangers to go for rides in other racer’s cars to learn how to improve their driving. Even with the restrictions in place, people were excited to be back racing, Lucas said.

“The first event we had, people were ecstatic to be out of the house,” he said. “They were just glad we were able to figure out a way to put it on.”

But other car-centered events have carried on throughout COVID-19.

According to ParkUpFront co-founder and co-CEO Stephen Levin, car shows and club get-togethers continued through the summer, if at a smaller scale than normal.

ParkUpFront is a social media app that got its start in Dallas and is designed to make car shows easier to organize and attend. It has seen large growth in the last eight months, Levin said. Previously disconnected groups become more unified as people look for an outlet during a time when so much has been shut down. While the virus has affected the way the events take place, with masks, distancing or even not getting out of their cars, the car shows have continued.

Participants at a Texas Region Sports Car Club of America autocross event gather around during a drivers meeting. Social distancing protocols require the drivers to spread out across the parking lot where the event is held.EXPAND
Participants at a Texas Region Sports Car Club of America autocross event gather around during a drivers meeting. Social distancing protocols require the drivers to spread out across the parking lot where the event is held.
Matt Lucas

"People are still itching to get out. This is giving them an excuse and a way to get out of the house, get some fresh air and see their friends but do it by staying in their cars,” Levin said. “It’s a really neat tool to give people some sanity during a crazy time.”

Among the different kinds of activities that have risen in popularity are charity drives. With the pause that has taken place on Make a Wish Foundation fulfillments because of the virus, numerous sick children have not been able to have their wishes met. Levin, who sits on the local board for the North Texas branch of the organization, was able to help organize a parade of exotic cars for two sick children while they waited for their wish to be filled.

“The families went outside, and we had the lead car with a bunch of sirens and about 50 exotic cars went by their house and everybody brought presents. It was really, really special,” he said.

Seasonal food and gift drives also are happening. “We are trying to give back and do good,” he said.

But there has been a downside to that itch to get out and do something: illegal street racing and stunting.

According to a street racing enforcement report prepared for the council by Dallas’ police department, there have been 8,441 racing and speeding calls made so far in 2020, compared with 4,867 calls in 2019. There were also 1,196 arrests, 659 vehicles being towed and 612 spectator citations.

Dallas responded to these increases with a street racing spectator ordinance passed in May that allows police to fine spectators and confiscate nuisance vehicles. This push came in response to the deadliness of street racing.

In April, a young man was killed when he was thrown from the bed of a truck.

“This reckless act, that some call a sport, continues to impact the residents of our city,” said Sgt. Christopher Barzyk of the DPD Speed Racing Task Force in a video the department released in May about street racing following the April death.

That type of behavior is not accepted at car shows, which will be shut down if racing or stunting takes place, Levin said. Some shows even hire police officers to deter such behavior and arrest speeders.

Some argue that giving people access to organized race events where they can safely compete could cut down on street racing. But the legal outlets for car culture are under continued pressure from the pandemic. With numbers increasing in Dallas County to new peaks there is a huge question mark over the rest of this year’s and next year’s car seasons.

Lucas and the local SCCA are trying to fit as much into the end of the year as possible, with a careful eye on the virus levels, tackling a logjam that was created by a slew of postponed events.

“Anything that got canceled got pushed back into the second half of the year,” said Lucas. “Now it’s all stacked on top of each other.”

Meanwhile, Levin is working to restart larger, signature car shows for ParkUpFront that had been put on hold. But even with safety measures, these are touch-and-go.

“We are just playing it by ear like everybody else,” said Levin.

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