CHP's speedy Camaro racing into retirement

By STEVE MOORE - The Press-Enterprise

INDIO - The stealthy white Camaro with its low, flat light bar and CHP markings on the doors sneaks up on many speeders zipping through the Coachella Valley.

Motorists hitting 95 to 100 mph often pull up alongside the specially marked patrol car.

They usually own up quickly after Officer Chad Thomas lights them up and flips out his ticket book.

But with nearly 100,000 miles on the odometer, the 2002 Camaro's tour of duty in the Coachella Valley is running out. The CHP routinely retires its patrol vehicles at that mileage.

"It's served us well," said Sgt. Brian Green.

Truckers call the low-slung, hot Camaro "Polar Bear," quickly putting out its location over the CB radio.

A new "black and white" patrol car will replace the Camaro, which now has about 91,000 miles.

But lead-footed drivers shouldn't start kicking it up on Interstate 10 and other roadways patrolled by the Indio CHP.

Plenty of "black and whites" will still be out patrolling. And the station is awaiting a specially marked patrol car that will replace an older white Crown Victoria. The Ford cruiser has also hit CHP's mileage limit.

For now, the CHP isn't testing any new "exotic" patrol cars in Sacramento, said spokesman Tom Marshall. But the agency will have specially marked white Crown Victorias out on patrol.

Over the decades, the CHP has patrolled the state highways and freeways from behind the wheel of many types of vehicles.

The first CHP officers drove 1929 Hudson coupes. In the late 1960s, they used Dodge Polaras powered by Magnum 440-cubic-inch engines. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, some troopers wheeled around in hot "muscle cars," such as Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros.

For a long time, speeders looked instinctively for the CHP's trademark beefy "black and white" Ford Crown Victorias with their looming light bars and sturdy push bumpers.

In 1999, the CHP even tested that symbol of yuppies, the Volvo.

By 2002, the agency had bought 73 new Camaros, aiming at slowing down trucks. They're capable of 160 mph in pursuit situations and, with their suspension, corner flat through twisty curves.

Big-rig drivers quickly invented nicknames for new hard-to-spot vehicles.

White Lightning. Ghost Rider. Speed Racer. Lone Ranger. Even "Polarmaro."

Before starting a shift on Interstate 10 and Highway 62, Thomas gave his cruiser a quick once over. He checked the oil and tire pressure before pulling out of the Indio station. The officer had a '68 Camaro in high school.

"These cars are definitely an asset," he said above the whine of his Doppler radar unit. "They blend in and let people know we're serious about getting them to slow down."

Alfredo Baz, 54, of Los Angeles, quickly found that out after being pulled over for doing 89 mph along eastbound I-10 near an exit for Desert Hot Springs. He waited with the window rolled down as the officer filled out his ticket.

Baz said he spotted the CHP Camaro, insisting that his new Toyota Scion was doing only about 75 mph.

He didn't mind the "stealth" factor that goes with the CHP driving a white "muscle" car.

"It's for our safety," he said. "It's OK."

Thomas got the same reaction after issuing tickets to drivers who had been whipping along in a Mercedes and a GMC sport utility vehicle from Nevada.

"For the most part, it's, 'Wow, that's a neat car. You got me,' " he said.

The officer writes 150 to 200 tickets a month -- sometimes more.

On a recent Sunday shift, Thomas issued 17 tickets to drivers for doing 87 to 100 mph.

With the Polar Bear nearing retirement, Thomas said, "I'm going to miss it. I just love driving it.

"It's the best patrol car I've ever driven."

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