‘A bad name’: Houston car enthusiasts look to distance cruises, meets from ‘takeovers’

NAVASOTA — The deep growl of a car engine startled a herd of grazing cows along FM3090.

Grant Petty clutched the shifter on his convertible Fiat 124 Spider — a compact, low-set European sports car — and prepared for a sharp left turn on the winding country road. A gust howled against the windshield. He slowed from 90 mph to 40 mph, fighting momentum as he pivoted the machine like a remote-controlled replica.

He adjusted gears — cachunk — and primed for another hard turn.

“This is the way I normally drive during cruises,” Petty said. “I’m not pushing it to the limits.”

Petty was among about a dozen other Houston-area drivers who on a recent Saturday morning participated in a 70-mile cruise from northwest Houston to Anderson, near College Station. Taking mostly back roads, the drivers tested their cars’ performance around sharp curves and straightaways. The hum of Mitsubishi Lancers, Ford Mustangs, candy-colored BMWs and other souped-up autos drowned the quiet countryside.

Organized cruises are routine in a car-centric metro such as Houston. Different clubs host at least 35 events each week, either to “park and chill” to show off their rides or traverse sparsely populated routes.

Auto enthusiasts such as Petty take solace in meeting like-minded people, and the long drives offer a reprieve from daily stressors.

“Every day, when I clock out at 3 o’ clock, I go for a 1-hour drive outside my house, all by myself, no stops no interactions, just so I can escape,” said Petty, who is at risk of contracting COVID-19 because of a recent liver transplant. “So on the weekends, it’s nice to be surrounded by people who are into the car culture — who are into modifying their cars for performance or aesthetics — and being part of that group.”

Lately, however, those groups have been trying to better distinguish their events from car “takeovers,” a trend in which drivers block high-traffic intersections to perform stunts. Considered highly dangerous and illegal, takeovers have grown in popularity and are now under the microscope of local law enforcement. More cautious groups want to avoid a stigma.

“About a year ago, we started seeing takeovers and things that brought a bad name to Houston in regards to the car scene,” said Joseph Pledger, a car enthusiast who promotes and tracks dozens of meets and cruises each week through his Facebook page. “I evaluated what my page can do to help. So I don’t share any takeovers, any illegal meets. Everything from takeovers to (racing), I don’t promote it.”


Pledger’s Facebook page, Houston Car Meets and Cruises, serves as a curated guide for area drivers looking for those events. He has about 5,800 members, all vetted to ensure they aren’t from outside Houston or affiliated with takeover groups. He promoted more than 5,300 cruises and meets last year alone, he said.

To him, car culture is more laid-back and philanthropic than what the public sees at takeovers, which have been making headlines in major U.S. cities, including Houston and Los Angeles, since 2018. Houston police in March said they had arrested 71 people and seized more than a dozen cars in connection with takeovers in the first three months of 2020. Police Chief Art Acevedo said the drivers arrested were between 16 and 24 years old, and some were using their parents cars.

One of Houston’s most notable takeovers happened in August 2019, when a large crowd of drivers shut down the intersection at Westheimer and Sage, outside the Galleria, to perform burnouts and doughnuts while popping fireworks at night.

"Spooky" waits for his driver Grant Petty as drivers gather for a car meet in a parking lot along Northwest Freeway Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Houston.

The group behind that event identified themselves in a VICE News documentary earlier this year as the Private Kings Car Club, which did not respond to messages from the Chronicle. In the video, group members talked about their rationale in hosting the events.

“This is really just for the love of it,” said one club member only identified as “Guap” in the video. “This isn’t to capitalize off anything. This is really just for fun. We have an addiction to adrenaline, and we have to get it out somehow.”

The documentary includes shots of people hanging on car roofs as the vehicles drift within a few feet of spectators. Law enforcement say it’s only a matter of time before someone gets hit and killed during a Houston takeover.

“At any given time, they could gain traction and shoot off into a crowd,” said Houston Police Commander Donna Crawford of the department’s Traffic Enforcement Division. “There have been people killed across the nation. It’s very, very dangerous. And when they do it in the parking lots, it causes any amount of damage to those properties… we absolutely shut it down whenever we can.”

Crawford added that HPD is forming a task force for more long-term investigations into takeovers.

Meets and cruises

Drivers like Petty and Pledger say they take steps to avoid that chaos. Pledger last year cleared his page of about 800 members that he found were following takeover groups. He made the page private and became more cautious about over-promotion. Also, cruise and meet organizers grew stricter about burnouts to avoid angry property owners.

Still, the public can’t always tell the difference between a car takeover and a meet or cruise, Pledger said.

“People see groups of cars, and they see what’s in the news, and they assume it’s negative,” he said. “When it isn’t.”

Skid marks crisscrossed the parking lot of the northwest Houston Whataburger where Petty met with other drivers for their Saturday morning cruise. Gabriel Gallardo huddled with friends from his club for Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions, a Japanese sports sedan that he fell in love with in 2008.

He said he showed up for the 8 a.m. event for the comradery and thrill of the drive — not to race or show his burnout skills.

Brian Ellithorp talks about his 2019 Lamborghini Aventadore-SVJ as they gathered for a car meet in a parking lot along Northwest Freeway Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Houston.

“Personally, I don’t like it,” he said of burnouts. “I’m risking my car getting hit, or something else happening.”

There’s still a dangerous element to cruises, if drivers push past the speed limit, said HPD Commander Crawford. Drivers at the recent cruise sped around a few slower trucks, and into the opposing lane, to keep moving.

The organizers encouraged them to travel cautiously and at a comfortable pace. Once the road cleared, drivers hit the gas, kicking up gravel that bounced near Petty’s windshield.

Petty ended up behind a slow-moving pickup while the line of cars disappeared. The pickup turned into a driveway, and Petty used the Fiat’s agile handling to catch up to the group. He said he drove by feel, not the speedometer.

When describing the car community, Pledger points to car parades for kids and meets that serve as fundraisers for nonprofits and small businesses. As the vice president of the board for a homeless outreach nonprofit — Hope for Houston — Pledger has hosted meets to collect clothing donations.

“It’s all about being with people, getting to know people and influencing the next generation,” Pledger said. “I’m hoping what I do will influence decades younger than me, influence the kids that go to these car meets. You don’t have to be a car person to appreciate a nice car — a (Lamborghini) or something you may pass by at a car show — you’re still drawn to it.”

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