In pop culture, drag racing had given us idiotically romantic images like James Dean in his Porsche 356 Speedster bolting down an empty California Highway. And also cheeseball ones: think John Travolta driving his Greased Lightnin'.
The reality is more grubby and sometimes decidedly unfunny. In my hometown in the Hudson Valley, one racer bought and customized his Honda Civic with the wages he scooped up at a Carvel ice cream shop. Another outfitted his Audi with the loudest speakers in Putnam County.
On Saturday nights they would get together with dozens of others, listen to police scanners, and race near a dairy in Danbury, Connecticut. It was loud, dangerous, vulgar, and exciting as hell.
The chaos and clamor hid something dangerous early last Saturday morning -- a quiet Ford Crown Victoria. On a stretch of highway 210 in Accokeek Maryland, southeast of Washington D.C., eight drag-racing spectators were killed as they stepped onto the highway following a race.
The Crown Vic emerged from the smoke that the racers had kicked up and plowed into the crowd, killing seven almost instantly and severely injuring half a dozen others.
The victims would not be cast in any modern Hollywood drag-film. Only one, Maycol Lopez would fit the amateur's profile of a street-racing fan, being just 20 years old. The others were middle-aged men, from ages 35 to 61. The crowd even included families.
Crystal Gaines was lucky to pull her daughter out of the road before the accident occurred, only to see her father be pulled under the speeding sedan. "I hollered, 'Daddy, Daddy!"' Gaines recounted to reporters.
THE ACCOUNTS OF the 3 a.m. street race are confusing and macabre. Reports put the number of spectators everywhere from 15 to 200. The Crown Vic landed in an embankment, with one of its victims lodged inside. The 50-foot stretch of Indian Head highway was covered in skid marks, sneakers, and bodies until morning. The skid marks remain; residents have now placed flowers where the debris once lay.
Street racing is a misdemeanor in Maryland, and typically carries a $290 fine and up to five points on a driver's license. Other participants -- organizers, timekeepers, etc -- are subject to the same penalties.
With penalties so light, and so rarely enforced street racing has remained popular in the area. Stan Fetter, president of the Indian Head Highway Area Council, told reporters that it had been common in Accokeek for at least 20 years.
Typically legislators and lawyers overreacted. Asked whether manslaughter charges could be leveled against the street racers, Robert Bonsib, a lawyer who previously served both a Prince George's County and federal prosecutor, pushed the envelope even further. He said that most of the spectators "were there to encourage and participate in drag racing. Where criminal liability might go is a valid question."
Legislators now tell reporters they will consider making Maryland's laws more explicit on the responsibility of street-racers for all crimes and accidents that occur around their races.
But neither increased penalties nor the recent bloodbath is likely to stop drag racing. Local Richard Savoy Jr. was visiting the scene of the accident when he told the Baltimore Sun, "This is a tragedy I thought I'd never see in a race. Not like this."
He watched the races 20 years, and expects others will be watching them again: "There will be a lull, but I give them a month. Then they're going to be back out here."
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