Hoping to avoid a tragedy such as a hot rod plowing into a group of spectators, McMinnville Police Chief Bryan Denton says this year’s Back to the Strip event is going to have a much greater police presence.
Back to the Strip 2015 is scheduled for Saturday, May 2. Participants are encouraged to have fun, but within legal limits as law enforcement will be increased.
“Our theme is going to be if it’s illegal on Friday night, it is still illegal on Saturday night,” said Denton. “I’m really disappointed we are having to take this action. I have seen it pushing the edge a little bit more each year. Last year we did have a couple of fairly serious accidents. A couple people did get hurt. From things I saw there as a participant, it disturbed me.”
The annual event has progressively increased in size and some individuals are suspending the rules of the road and creating safety issues. Denton says most concerning is motorists performing burnouts with spectators lining the street just a few feet away -- a recipe for disaster.
“This year with the burnouts, even as little as barking your tires, we won’t tolerate it. We really need to get a grip on that,” he said.
Denton pointed to an incident in Selmer, Tenn., in 2007 when a professional drag racer, Troy Critchley, lost control of his car during a burnout, left the roadway and smashed into spectators lining the street. The event, a charity fundraiser, ended with six dead and 22 people injured. Critchley pled guilty to 28 misdemeanor charges of reckless assault.
Other illegal activities will also not be tolerated.
“Riding on portions of vehicles not intended for passengers, we just can’t do that,” said Denton. “Blocking an intersection. We really need to get a grip on that. Open alcohol was a real problem last year. We will be watching for that.”
When the event was offered for the first time in 2012, police had hoped people would enjoy the nostalgia and not create a problem that would require the department to step in with a heavy police presence. Denton says that is the case with the majority of people but not everyone.
“We still want people to have a good time. We wholeheartedly support this event. About 95 percent of the folks who participate are there for the right reasons. They are there for the nostalgia and they are there to support the cause. There is about 5 percent that we have most of the problems with. It’s gotten to the point where we just have to step in.”
Pigeon Forge offers a Cruising the Parkway Strip annually in April. The event attracts thousands of people from the region. Pigeon Forge Chief of Police Jack Baldwin also took a wait-and-see ap-proach in hopes he wouldn’t have to step in, but he eventually had to, says Denton.
“They have a similar event on a larger scale in Pigeon Forge. I had a couple talks with Jack Baldwin, who is a friend of mine, and he said they experienced the same thing we are here,” said Den-ton. “He gradually saw it pushing the edge more. They really had to up their enforcement there. He said, during their event last year, the department had to issue 1,200 citations and arrest 300 people.”
Denton added that officers will have discretion on whether to issue warnings or citations, but citations will be more likely than not since the department is issuing a warning now and the activities being discouraged could result in serious bodily injury or death.
“This year, you will see an increased presence with the police,” said Denton. “You are going to see lights out there. We are going to have the Highway Patrol motorcycle squad there. They work the Pigeon Forge event. They are going to assist us this year. We are going to have our bicycle patrol from our department there. Every officer has the discretion on whether to give a warning or write a citation. However, this is a warning and we hope everyone heeds it. If they do not, I won’t feel bad about issuing citations.”
Back to the Strip is a fundraiser for Meals on Wheels.