For generations, illicit drag racing has been an open secret at what’s now Chicago’s 297-acre wetland Big Marsh Park. Politicians have decried it, residents have complained about it and cops have gone to war with it. 

But these days, the city has a new weapon in its arsenal: $150 tickets for drag racers and spectators for parking in the bike lane.

A Better Government Association analysis discovered more than 520 of the tickets — carrying about $78,000 in fines — were written since the beginning of 2020 along this isolated stretch of Stony Island Avenue at Big Marsh. That’s nearly six times the number of bike lane infractions Chicago police have issued in that time along all of Milwaukee Avenue, one of Chicago’s busiest cycling thoroughfares.

In interviews with the BGA, racers said police show up in their squad cars to disperse the crowds, record their license plate numbers and send them tickets in the mail. The more cunning drivers dodge the tickets by racing without plates or by using illegal remote-control hideaway license plate covers — easily available on Amazon for as little as $50 — when they see squad cars roll up.

Despite the city’s attempt at enforcement, and a larger citywide crackdown, the Big Marsh racing has continued unabated, posing a danger for park goers and for the bicyclists who are brave enough to cruise down the painted bike lanes. In recent years, the park’s main road that’s most associated with drag racing has been the scene of dozens of car crashes.

“There’s nothing that would suggest there’s any enforcement,” said Paul Fitzgerald, Friends of Big Marsh executive director. “You can reliably feel like nobody gives a damn if you race a car there.”

From industrial backwater to outdoor oasis

Big Marsh, a reclaimed industrial site east of the Bishop Ford expressway, opened to the public six years ago. A privately-owned backwater of landfills and the steel industry for the better part of the last century, the wetland has since become a southeast side oasis for bicycling, bird-watching and trail-hiking.

When the land was closed to the public, the empty half-mile stretch of Stony Island Avenue made for an ideal drag racing spot — no through-traffic, no driveways, no cross streets, no mom-and-pop businesses or humans getting in the way.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, whose 10th ward encompasses the park, said that her 84-year-old grandmother remembers people racing at the site.

“When we were cleaning up Big Marsh, you should have seen how many cars we pulled out of there,” she said. “Just this summer, there were three cars pulled out because they drove into the water.”

A police diagram of a man crashing his car into the marsh while doing donuts in March 2021. (Chicago police records)

In March 2021, a 30-year-old Chicago man was ticketed after reversing his 2016 Dodge Challenger into the marsh while doing donuts, police records show. When police arrived, the car was “partially submerged” and he was “attempting to drive out of the water.”

This local tradition has proven very dangerous. According to city crash data, there have been at least 30 crashes with four “incapacitating injuries” on that stretch of Stony Island since the park opened in November 2016. None of the crashes involved cyclists.

Bike Lane Tickets and Car Crashes at Big Marsh Park

Chicago police have issued more than 520 bike lane violations to vehicles on the stretch of Stony Island avenue leading to Big Marsh Park since the ticketing practice began in December 2019. There have also been 30 crashes along the road going back to November 2016, when the park opened.

Sources: City of Chicago Finance Department, City of Chicago crash data. Map by Casey Toner.

Chicago police said they continue to “adjust resources on a regular basis to address problems like drag racing and other illegal activities.”

According to data analyzed by the BGA, Chicago police have issued three speeding tickets on the road leading to Big Marsh Park beginning in 2020, when the deluge of bike lane tickets began. They have not impounded any cars, issued drag racing tickets or made drag racing arrests on that road since.

Jason Henricy, 42, said that when he raced there in the early 2000s, police would position themselves at the south end of Stony Island, get a train conductor to park a train on the tracks on the north end of Stony Island and then write tickets to the racers stuck in between.

“There have been nights where they literally have given hundreds of tickets,” he said.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in August, a handful of racers gathered at the site and waited for challengers. The scene showcased the casual comfort of the Big Marsh racing scene.

 A circled red X marks the spot where the flagger stands. (Casey Toner/BGA)

Marking the track, a circled red X was sprayed on the asphalt along with the word “FLAGGER” to show where the flagger should stand, about ten feet away from a stretch of asphalt smeared with tire tracks and burned rubber — the apparent starting line.

One of the racers, a 21-year-old car salesman from Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood, drove a yellow 2014 Chevy Camaro with black racing stripes — the “Bumblebee” car from the “Transformers” film. In the last year alone, Chicago police issued him three $150 tickets for parking in the Big Marsh bike lane.

“Some of them are cool, and they’ll come through and will be like ‘leave’,” he said. “Some of them will come and get the plate and that’s it.”

Speed cameras at Big Marsh?

City officials and park advocates say that speed bumps or cameras are needed to put the brakes on racing, and they may soon be coming.

Fitzgerald, Friends of Big Marsh executive director, said that infrastructure changes are necessary because racing happens to a “cartoonish degree” at Big Marsh.

Spectators parked in the bike lane watch while a car does a burnout on the road leading to Big Marsh Park. (Midwest Mafia channel on YouTube.com)

“There’s a lack of interest in really engineering these streets to be safe for the community,” he said. “I think people worry it’s a political liability to decrease somebody’s ability to speed. Drag racing is part of that.”

Ald. Garza said she is pushing to install speed bumps down Stony Island or score the pavement. But she drew the line at speed cameras, which she opposes, claiming that the racers would quickly destroy them with bats.

According to city records, 157 speed cameras citywide have issued 11.3 million tickets to drivers  in the past eight years. Posted near parks and schools, the speed cameras are designed to improve pedestrian safety by ticketing cars that go as fast as six miles per hour over the speed limit. At Big Marsh, racers can exceed 100 miles per hour.

Garza said that Chicago police are “stretched to the limit” responding to violent crime, curbing their ability to stop the racing. Even then, she said that a midnight police officer frequently disperses racing crowds at the marsh.

“The fourth district does what they can but it’s never ending,” she said. “They are there every week. Sometimes three times a week.”

The drag racing has stopped some from using the park as intended. Allison Beaulieu-Cholke, said she will take her children and dogs to the park in the daytime, but never in the early evening, due to the drag racers.

“The thing that terrifies me is anytime there’s that kind of behavior and alcohol mixed together,” she said. “And everyone is always drinking.”

The politics of drag racing

It is unclear why city officials have chosen tickets that amount to a wrist slap when harsher penalties are available.

Under political pressure stemming from high-profile drag races and car stunts that have taken place on Lower Wacker Drive and elsewhere in the city, the City Council approved an ordinance earlier this summer that empowers police to impound cars involved in illegal drag racing even if the driver is not there when the car is identified. 

Drag racing penalties carry fines up to $10,000 in addition to a $500 towing fee and a new $2,000 impoundment fee attached to the ordinance.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose district includes downtown and is a longtime critic of the drivers, said prior to the vote that the motor vehicle shenanigans “skyrocketed during the pandemic.”

In late August, a 41-year-old pedestrian died after being hit by a man racing a Corvette near Midway Airport as several “street takeovers” brought stunts, such as drifting and donuts, and racing throughout neighborhoods in Chicago.

Neither the Chicago Park District nor the Chicago Police Department would detail their strategy into reducing drag racing at Big Marsh.

In a statement, the Chicago Park District said that it “is aware of the drag racing activity that takes place off park property outside of Big Marsh Park” and reports these incidents to the Chicago Police Department.

The City of Chicago, after receiving numerous inquiries from a BGA reporter, increased their surveillance at the marsh.

They wheeled out a temporary security camera and parked it in the bike lane.

The temporary camera the City of Chicago parked in the bike lane after calls from a BGA reporter. (Supplied photo)

Casey Toner

Casey Toner, a Chicago native, has been an Illinois Answers reporter since 2016, taking the lead on numerous projects about criminal justice and politics. His series on police shootings in suburban Cook...