Drivers across Cincinnati are being asked to remain vigilant as a rash of tire thefts continues to sweep the city. While the crime spree has been a boon for local Cincinnati tire shops, the epidemic is wearing thin with motorists who are waking to find their vehicles stripped of all four tires and rims. Meanwhile, authorities investigating the thefts have seized on a number of telling clues and narrowed down their list of suspects to an unlikely crime syndicate: out-of-work pit crews.
“The first hint that this was the work of professionals was the pure speed with which these crimes were committed,” says Sgt. Steve McDorr of the Cincinnati PD. “Drivers report going into a store to pay for gas, or even using a parking meter, only to turn around and find their tires gone.”
Victims report eerily similar details: a blur of bright red jumpsuits, the whirring of pneumatic wrenches, and the sight of four men rolling tires off over the horizon while the faint sound of headset static hangs in the air. While there isn’t yet much concrete evidence tying underemployed pit crews to the crimes, detectives say they all have the hallmarks of a professional job.
“A number of these vehicles have been found stripped of their tires, but they’re also left with a full tank of gas and damaged body parts mysteriously replaced. We even found a Pennzoil sticker affixed to the rear quarter panel in one case,” says McDorr. While this unprecedented string of thefts has many area drivers worried, McDorr says not everyone is at risk. “Citizens don’t need to panic. As long as your tires have adequate tread, they’ll most likely escape the attention of this marauding band of racing professionals.”
Investigators suspect high unemployment in the auto racing industry as a major factor driving the spree. The Covid-19 pandemic saw a number of raceways across the country cut back or shutter their operations last season, leaving not only race car drivers but also their highly-trained pit crews to stand in the bread line.
In addition to causing a 300 percent reduction in area onion ring consumption, the pared-back schedule of nearby Kentucky Raceway in Sparta, Kentucky, has likely contributed to the rise in tire thefts. The crime benefits struggling pit crews two-fold: first, they can resell purloined tires on the black market to pay bills, and second, they get all the practice they need to stay sharp once race tracks open back up.
While the employment prospects for furloughed mechanics are a little scant at the moment, many drivers found gainful employment in the burgeoning takeout/grocery/people delivery industries. By working with outfits like Uber and GrubHub, they’ve been able to leverage their need for speed into some record-setting fulfillment times.
“It’s been a change of pace for sure. It took me a couple of weeks –– and a couple of passengers complaining about whiplash –– to learn how to ease out of race mode. I’ve also had to be more mindful about really letting ‘er rip on the straightaways because pizza toppings aren’t made to withstand the g-forces I’m used to pulling,” says Earl “Lightning” Robuck, who now goes by “Greasy Lightning.”
Authorities recommend motorists invest in wheel nut locks, which will slow, if not prevent, future tire thefts, giving drivers a fighting chance of catching the fiends in the act. In the meantime, McDorr suggests donating to a local food bank, hiring an out-of-work mechanic to perform basic chores around your house, or leaving gummed-up carburetors strewn around to keep them busy.
“You’ve never seen a lawn mowed as fast as a veteran NASCAR pit crew can mow, though sometimes lawn furniture, plants, or less obvious pets might get swept up in the excitement,” he warns.