FREMONT -- On a chilly night last week, dozens of car aficionados lingered around their parked, souped-up vehicles at Pacific Commons shopping center, talking shop with each other and even a few passing police officers.
The quiet gathering was a stark contrast to the chaos last month, when an unruly crowd of 1,000 people, and bursts of racing vehicles and screeching spinouts on rain-soaked streets marred the informal car meet. It turned into a sideshow, a dangerous display of car power and driver bravado amid crowds and on neighborhood streets that has led to deaths and injuries around the Bay Area.
In has been quiet since then because one outbreak was enough to mobilize a determined response. First, officers showed up in force at the shopping center where the enthusiasts often meet Friday nights, said Geneva Bosques, a Fremont police spokeswoman. On Jan. 3, the first Friday of the new year, police parked their 40-foot-long mobile command vehicle near the car meet, and officers from Fremont and Newark police, as well as the Southern Alameda County Major Crimes Task Force patrolled the lot.
Officers chatted with car buffs while handing out fliers warning they could be arrested, fined and imprisoned up to three months if convicted of even watching a street race, let alone participating in one. Even worse, street-racing vehicles would be impounded for 30 days at the owner's expense.
"We're really focused on making driving the streets of Fremont safe," Bosques said. "Us being visibly out there, it does send a message, and complaints have been reduced."
The car enthusiasts themselves also have helped, police said. Canibeat, a national group of vehicle buffs, often organizes the car Fremont meets, usually without any problems, Bosques said.
"I'm sure they feel they're getting a bad rap from this," she said.
The group usually parks their cars in the lot between In-N-Out Burger and Costco. But Canibeat followers, such as Fremont teen Zachary Spriggs, say the group is taking a break because of the crowd's misbehavior that tainted the Dec. 9 meet held for Paul Walker, the late "Fast & Furious" action movie star who died Nov. 30 in a fiery car crash.
"Canibeat is separate from all of that," said Spriggs, a senior at Washington High. "We like to just meet, show off our cars and talk. It's all respectful -- no fights. It's a friendly gathering."
Police say they also want to clamp down on street racing next to Fremont businesses near the Milpitas border, several miles south of Pacific Commons. It's a regional problem, police say, noting that similar incidents were reported last year in Union City, Hayward and Milpitas.
Street racing may have been the cause of a fatal crash early Friday in Oakland. A 17-year-old Santa Clara girl died and another girl was badly injured when their car crashed into a pole near Maritime and Seventh streets at the Port of Oakland -- an area favored by street racers. Police said speed was a factor in the fatal crash, and they are investigating whether the girls were street racing.
That kind of tragedy is what Fremont authorities say they're trying to avoid.
"They look for industrial areas where there's not a lot of people around," Bosques said. "Reckless driving -- that's the activity we're most concerned about, and we're saying we're not going to tolerate it."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.