Photos: Kevin McKinnie & Sonoma Raceway
You rev the engine, bearing down into the seat, ready to spring off the starting line and scream down the quarter mile. You look over, and there’s a cop in full uniform, squad car humming at the ready. You tense. However, instead of the universal finger twirl of doom telling you to pull over and prep for a ticket, he gives you a thumbs-up. You both look forward. The Christmas tree lights, and you peel out. You’re racing to Top the Cops, a showdown in its 20th year at the Sonoma Raceway that brings together cops and high school kids to race, to win, and ultimately to teach.
Kevin McKinnie had always loved to race, and that need for speed translated pretty well into his career as a Santa Rosa police officer. He’d ride the streets as a motorcycle cop for work, and go to the races as a driver or spectator for play. One night, he was out at the track with a buddy when he noticed a group of high school-aged kids lined up to drag race. The image stuck with him. He’d been a kid who liked to go fast, and he knew the thrills and the dangers of street racing. These kids at the track were an anomaly; illegal street racing with its inherent risks and dangers was big in the area with local kids. But seeing the students here at the track spurred something in McKinnie. They were here, right? Surely there was a way to get more kids off the street scene and into the drag strip where the dangers were mitigated with rules and safety precautions. But how? The answer came to him in a flash – raise the stakes, give them a chance race cops, and crow about a win. If they won.
The idea was solid, but still took some administrative wrangling. Sonoma Raceway President Steve Page was happy to host the pilot program, but McKinnie also had to convince his superiors on the force. The Chief of Police liked it, but was also clear – McKinnie had to organize it and sell it to the rest of his superiors. They had two questions: How many accidents had there been at the track in that class and how far away was the track? Satisfied with the answers (the proposal was for the slowest class of drag racing and there hadn’t been any accidents), McKinnie was given the go ahead to recruit cops to race in their fully loaded cruisers, and high school students to test their skills on the quarter-mile. Turned out finding the cops was the easy part.
The kids were tougher, reluctant to participate after a few sessions, they found that the officers were there for a good reason and trust grew. “We used to go introduce ourselves to the kinds in the beginning,” McKinnie said, “To show them that we were on the level, that we were there to race. Finally they believed us and it was on.” Bonds between the officers and the students developed as they squared off on the track, and what started out as a nebulous idea of a single race fan cop has blossomed into a 20 year program.
Top the Cops runs almost every Wednesday night from April- September and involves different law enforcement agencies from all around the Bay Area. All of the officers are volunteers. The weekly races generate a great deal of excitement, but it’s the July event that really gets the crowd shrieking. In July, the NHRA brings its race to the Sonoma Raceway for the Sonoma Nationals. As part of the event, students get to race against the police in front of the 50,000 NHRA fans there to see the race as the NHRA cars prep between sessions.
“The crowd goes absolutely nuts when the kids and the cops get on the track,” says McKinnie, “Even John Force doesn’t get that kind of reaction. And if the kids win? It’s crazy.”
Everyone who participates gets a t-shirt, a hat and a photo with the cop they raced, which includes prime bragging rights if your car beats the squad vehicle. It’s something the students treasure, and the experience has turned out to be something very special for both sides with long lasting side effects. Five former students who competed in the early years are now law enforcement agency officers themselves and they come back on Wednesday nights, occasionally racing the next generation of students.
Kevin McKinnie couldn’t be more proud. For more information, go HERE: racesonoma.com/youcanrace