A look at the past and present of illegal and disruptive car stunts called ‘sideshows’
The Sacramento region has seen an uptick in sideshows in recent years, with one California Highway Patrol spokesman saying the illegal driving demonstrations hit the streets in north Sacramento County nearly every weekend.
But sideshows as large as the one that reportedly started this past weekend on Watt Avenue are rarer. They’re the most visually remarkable - and the most dangerous, authorities say.
As Saturday’s sideshow split off from North Highlands to at least two other spots, the crowd of participants swelled from about 100 to 200 or more, leading every available unit of CHP’s North Sacramento office to respond to the demonstration, Officer Mike Zerfas said Monday.
That stretched CHP’s resources thin on a Saturday night, forcing the North Sacramento office to call in backup from South Sacramento, according to Zerfas.
What are sideshows, exactly? They’re illegal gatherings in which groups of drivers take over intersections, city streets, stretches of busy freeways and/or parking lots to do tricks with their cars, including burnouts and donuts. Spectators take to lanes of traffic to watch.
Sideshows were apparently popularized in Oakland in the 1980s or ‘90s, but have crept eastward into other Northern California cities since then, including Sacramento and Stockton.
Zerfas said Monday that CHP has a zero-tolerance policy on sideshows, which usually take place Saturday nights. Officers remain on high alert during those times at common locations, which include the Promenade marketplace in Natomas.
“It’s incredibly dangerous activity to be involved in,” Zerfas said. “They’re putting themselves at risk, other people, passengers, spectators.”
Here are several notable instances in the past 2 1/2 years.
• A June 2017 sideshow involving more than 100 vehicles started in Carmichael and moved to a parking lot on Folsom Boulevard. More than 20 Sacramento police officers and CHP units were involved in pursuing suspects. Officers trapped the vehicles in the Folsom Boulevard parking lot and issued 90 citations for reckless driving, which carry maximum fines of $500. One person was arrested.
• Video of a November 2017 sideshow on Highway 50 shows about 500 vehicles and 1,000 people participating and blocking all eastbound lanes near Stockton Boulevard for about 15 minutes. Available CHP officers were dealing with a pedestrian collision at an offramp about 2 miles away, and could not immediately respond. One participant was arrested after fleeing to West Sacramento, but no citations were made. The show lasted about four hours.
• Last July, hundreds of drivers were trapped as yet another 100-plus-driver sideshow shut down six lanes of traffic on Interstate 5 near the Pocket - one of three shows that night. CHP and Sacramento police impounded 10 vehicles, and a few citations were issued, including one to a driver who fled the scene at 100 mph.
• A November 2018 sideshow split into at least two parts of Sacramento, as upwards of 100 cars gathered. Sacramento police chased vehicles out of a meet-up near the Fry’s Electronics store on Northgate Boulevard, and the sideshow relocated to the parking lot of a Nugget Market on Florin Road near Interstate 5, Sacramento Police Department spokesman Marcus Basquez said. A call to dispatch obtained via Broadcastify.com said the group was believed to be “prepping for a freeway takeover,” and notified California Highway Patrol. Basquez said a handful of citations were issued.
• Stockton police arrested 22 people and impounded at least 13 vehicles in connection with a March 2018 event known as the “Donut King” sideshow. Authorities in May said they were searching for two possible organizers of the sideshow on felony conspiracy charges: Walter Carrillo, of Sacramento, and Brian Odom, of San Leandro. Carrillo was identified as a possible judge of the sideshow.
San Joaquin County Superior Court records show Carrillo and Odom were co-defendants in the case, which was resolved earlier this month after both served 60 days in jail. Carrillo was fined $245, court records show.
Following last summer’s I-5 sideshow, CHP Valley Air Division Flight Officer Jared Boothe told The Bee that the Sacramento area had observed a “very notable increase in size and frequency” of the events, and Zerfas on Monday agreed they are becoming more prominent, but neither speculated as to why.
At the time, Boothe said sideshows were most common during the summer, and they were often organized by groups that call themselves car clubs.
It was not immediately known how the recent Sacramento sideshows were organized or who planned them. Police officials in Oakland, where sideshows originated, have reported for years that modern sideshow events are commonly set up privately on social media.
The difficulty in busting sideshows is their sheer magnitude. Boothe explained that officers have to forgo many arrests to pursue more dangerous offenders - they simply can’t go after everybody.
This was exemplified Saturday, when just two of the roughly 200 participants were arrested, Zerfas said. While dozens of cars spun out elsewhere, a helicopter and multiple CHP patrol cars pursued a trio of motorcycles that were speeding down the wrong way of Interstate 80 near Arena Boulevard. One of the three was tracked to a residence where the rider was arrested.
Zerfas said it’s “very common” for drivers to relocate to a new location after law enforcement arrives.
Boothe recommended anyone caught up in a sideshow lock their doors and call 911.
History of sideshows
A 2009 column in the Berkeley Daily Planet said sideshows started in East Oakland “sometime in the late 1990s as informal, auto-based late-night social gatherings of African-American youth.” Sideshows were a place for frustrated, escape-seeking young men to socialize, primarily by showing off their “pimped-out” rides, the Daily Planet wrote.
Many of the original Oakland sideshows were centered in the parking lot at Eastmont Mall, off 73rd and Bancroft avenues, according to columnist J. Douglas Allen-Taylor. At their beginning, sideshows were “not a neighborhood nuisance,” Allen-Taylor wrote. Police did not typically intervene until the events started to grow in size, becoming more of a disturbance.
As they grew, the Eastmont sideshows were eventually shut down by police. Sideshows migrated from mall parking lots to increasingly unsafe venues — many of them on the busy roadway of Bancroft Avenue, which stretches from East Oakland to San Leandro.
From a pop cultural standpoint, sideshows received more exposure and spotlight as they were featured in the Bay Area hip-hop scene. Oakland-based rappers in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s began to rap about them.
A track titled simply “Side Show” was included on the 1990 album 41Fivin by Oakland hip hop group 415. The lyrics essentially describe a typical sideshow: “Peace, playboy, I’m on my way to the side show / Down Bancroft, to the light / Let me warm it up, I hit a donut tight / There’s a Chevy on my side, windows straight tinted / I think he got hype when he saw me spin it / I’m up outta there, sideways to the next light.”
E-40 released a track titled “Bring Back the Sideshow” in 2016. With another straightforward premise, as the track’s title suggests, E-40 lays down a verse advocating the return of the sideshow: “All gas no brakes / Burnin’ rubber in your face,” he begins.
Modern Oakland sideshows
Sideshows remain bigger and more prominent in Oakland, where they originated, and efforts by law enforcement and local government to curb them continue.
With video circulating last week appearing to show Oakland police officers driving toward a crowd of participants near International Boulevard and 42nd Street, Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo called the illegal shows “insanity,” as reported by KRON4.
Early last year, CHP arrested a man who shined a laser at a helicopter crew during a 200-car sideshow. A police officer suffered multiple broken bones at the same exhibition after being hit by a car in Richmond.
Boothe said some sideshow incidents, both in Sacramento and Oakland, include gunfire or fireworks.
In the Bay Area, some have suggested that a solution for Oakland is to designate venues for legal sideshow-type exhibitions.
Almost a decade ago, Oakland’s then-Mayor Ron Dellums and then-Police Chief Anthony Batts explored the idea of developing safe and legal alternatives, but nothing materialized.
Community activist Ken Houston told CBS San Francisco last January: “It’s a form of talent. They are saying: ‘Look at me! Here I am! See me! I exist!’ We need to give them a venue.”