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Late-night speed offers thrills, danger

ACCOKEEK — ACCOKEEK -- They come to the street races for the thrill, to win money on bets, to prove something.

But yesterday, racing fans, along with residents, mourners and curious onlookers, came to a flat stretch of highway here for a very different reason: to leave flowers, to pick up car pieces, to grieve and to ask if something could have been done to stop a drag race that killed eight people early Saturday morning.

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Some wondered aloud whether the tragic accident will bring an end to the chronic, dangerous scene or if the races will just crop up in a new location.

"This is a tragedy I thought I'd never see in a race. Not like this," said Richard Savoy Jr., 63, of La Plata, who drove by with his wife to pay his respects.

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Savoy watched street races in the same place along Indian Head Highway 20 years ago. He doesn't go to illegal races anymore, in part because he finds them too dangerous, with so many more cars on the road. But he knows all too well that the risk seems to slide away during the excitement of a race. Even now, he said, he doesn't think fear will deter people.

"There will be a lull," said Savoy, a heavy equipment operator who owns an '88 Mustang that his son races at a motocross park. "But I give them a month. Then they're going to be back out here."

Police released the names yesterday of six of the people who died after a Ford Crown Victoria, which apparently was not part of the race, plowed into a crowd that had stepped into a cloud of smoke on the road after two cars took off about 3 a.m. The victims were identified as Mark Courtney, 33, of Leonardtown; Blaine Briscoe, 49, of La Plata; William Gaines, 61, of Nanjemoy; Ervin Gardner, 39, of Oxon Hill; Daryl Wills, 38, of Clinton; and Maycol Lopez, 20, of Gaithersburg.

Seven people were injured in the crash, according to Prince George's County police, including the driver of the Crown Victoria and a front-seat passenger, who both suffered minor injuries.

Of the pedestrians, three suffered nonlife-threatening injuries, and two others suffered serious injuries, including Craig Simms, 37, of Nanjemoy, who was in serious condition yesterday, police said.

Though one onlooker said the crowd size was at least 150 - parking lots on both sides of the highway were full, he said - no one has identified the racecar drivers. Police said they were still looking for them.

Sheila Howard was among the steady stream of people who drove to the crash site yesterday, where grass next to the highway was strewn with bottles, small car pieces and flowers. Spray-painted signs indicated where a shoe, some dentures, a hat and other detritus had been. A volunteer paramedic with the Bryans Road Volunteer Fire Department, Howard had returned to pick up salvageable items left by the emergency team such as unopened syringes and neck braces.

She recounted that she had been sitting in the back of her ambulance at the Shell station on Indian Head Highway when a driver pulled up and told a crew member, Sue Perry, that a pedestrian had been hit by a car.

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Perry put the gas pump down, got into the ambulance and drove two or three miles down the road, crossing from Charles County into Prince George's, Howard said.

There, Howard, 30, said they found mangled bodies - feet, skull fragments and unidentifiable parts- and immediately began assessing the victims. At the grim scene, she went from body to body, tying colored ribbons around victims' wrists: red for critical, yellow for immediate, green for not critical and then a black-and-white ribbon for the dead.

Howard knew the crash site well. She had been there before, not as a paramedic, but as a spectator. A former member of the crash rescue team at the Maryland International Speedway, Howard developed an interest in drag racing in her late teens.

She said this quarter-mile stretch of Indian Head Highway is one of the most common sites for illegal races in the area. The other is on Route 224 in Nanjemoy, she said.

Howard said she no longer attends races, but she knows the tricks of the trade.

"They carry police scanners," she said. "That's what we did, too. We heard when the cops were coming, and you just split." Racers park their trucks and trailers on a side road at the end of the course so they can "load up and go" and not be seen.

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The heavy smoke isn't caused by normal tires grinding against bare pavement, Howard said. Rather, prior to a race, drivers or crew members apply water to the rear tires and then "burn out" - pressing down the brakes and gas at the same time - to warm them up and give them a better grip.

As the soft and smooth racing tires, called slicks, spin in place, a thick cloud of smoke plumes up behind them, which can hang in the air for nearly two minutes, Howard said.

Tony Armstrong, 38, who grew up with crash victim Daryl Wills, stopped by the site with flowers. He doesn't go to street races anymore, he said - the hours are too crazy and he has to get up for work. But he used to get calls about races and head out in the middle of the night to socialize, to watch and maybe place bets. He's seen wagers get as high as $5,000, he said, and cars outfitted with roll cages as if they were headed for the racetrack. The drivers wear helmets and sometimes fire-retardant suits and often work on their cars for years, dropping piles of money in to make them lighter and faster.

"It's like if you love cars and love drag races - it's the rush of hearing cars and seeing cars racing side by side," he said.

That's what it was like for Wills, his cousin David Hawkins said. He always loved racing, loved cars; from the time he was young, he had little electric race cars and model cars and as an adult he owned a '68 Camaro and '68 Firebird, which he sometimes raced at legal tracks. "Cars were getting too fast for the street," Hawkins said.

Caniesha Johnson, 17, drove to Accokeek with other families to see where her brother, Gregory Johnson Jr., who remains in the hospital, was injured. She saw a picture of his boots sitting on the side of the road in the newspaper yesterday morning.

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"Somebody needs to stop this. They really do need to stop this," said Johnson, of Charles County. "This spot is known for this. ... Everybody knew it. Everybody."

One local activist said the county police department needs more officers so they can patrol more. Stan Fetter, president of the Indian Head Highway Area Action Council, a coalition of civic groups along the highway corridor, said many traffic safety enforcement issues - including aggressive driving during the day - deserve more attention in rural areas. "We get ignored because we're out in the weeds," he said.

Lon Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic said the best way to combat drag racing is to have police survey areas where it's common and then ask for the public's help in reporting it. "This is the very-worst-case scenario - spectators standing out in the middle of a major road. You know, I don't understand why anyone would think that's OK," Anderson said.

Mike Tompkins, 65, who owns a machine shop in Accokeek where he builds motors, knew six of the men who died. He doesn't condone street racing and suggested that the best way to get race cars off the streets is to build more tracks.

His friend Lonnie Foote agreed.

"I wish guys would get it through their heads" and race their cars legally, said Foote, 45, of Brandywine, a mechanic and track racer. "An incident like this gives the profession a black eye. When something like this happens, it makes us look like a bunch of nuts."

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rona.marech@baltsun.com

melissa.harris@baltsun.com


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