- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008

Police yesterday said they had not received any complaints about street racing on a section of Indian Head Highway where eight persons were killed while watching an illegal race.

But local residents say it’s common knowledge that racers from around the region descend on the isolated suburban road in the early-morning hours to test their cars and compete.

Charles Jackson, 35, who lives nearby, said racing along Indian Head Highway is a regular event.

“It’s a sport — a hobby,” he said. “But people don’t realize how furious it is.”

Mr. Jackson was among those present early yesterday, when a car plowed into a crowd that had gathered in Accokeek to watch an illegal street race.

He said news of the races spreads by word of mouth. Spectators assemble with little advanced notice. Some watch, some drink and some gamble on the outcomes. He said winning racers can collect $5,000 a night.

John Courtney said his brother, Mark, 33, of St. Mary’s County, was among those killed yesterday.

“He liked going to the racetrack, watching races,” Mr. Courtney said.

Marion Neal, fearing her 42-year-old brother also was among the dead, was awaiting images yesterday from the police.

“It’s a tragedy,” she said. “I don’t like racing, but that was his hobby.”

“It’s a problem,” said Denee Hines, whose mother owns a hair salon only a few hundred feet from the site of the accident. “Everyone knows about it, but I’ve never heard of it getting this bad.”

Steve Swann, who was among the spectators, said the cars routinely gather for races between midnight and 2 a.m. on weekends.

“It’s pitch dark here,” he said. “You don’t see anything.”

They race Mustangs, Camaros — “old muscle cars,” he said.

One witness said the accident was the worst he had seen “since V Street,” referring to a time when cars would race along an infamous quarter-mile stretch of Northeast D.C. between Bladensburg Road and South Dakota Avenue.

Andre, who wore a black New York Yankees cap and appeared to be in his middle 30s but did not want to disclose his last name, said he used to race, but it became too dangerous and insurance became too expensive.

He said many of the people who attend races like the one early yesterday watched the races on V Street and later in New Carrollton until law enforcement and development pushed them farther out to more isolated suburban roadways.

“It’s probably not going to stop altogether,” he said.

All the witnesses said it’s routine for races to be conducted without headlights to avoid detection by police.

Mark Hill, 25, who lives nearby, said driving without headlights is a common practice in the area, as speeding drivers attempt to evade police.

“I’m not used to having to do 25 over [the speed limit] just to not get run over,” he said, adding that he was involved in an accident about a year ago and thinks the man who broadsided him as he was crossing the four-lane divided highway didn’t have his lights on.

“I was amazed because I didn’t even see anything,” Mr. Hill said.

The street-racing culture also made headlines in December 2004 just a few miles south.

Members of the “Unseen Cavaliers” — a street-racing club in Charles County, Md. — ignited the state’s largest residential arson case at an upscale development in Indian Head in an effort to become “bigger and more famous,” according to federal court documents.

The fire at an upscale housing development caused $10 million in damage and cast a spotlight on the racing club, whose members gathered to race along Indian Head Highway, usually on Wednesday nights.

The club, whose members referred to themselves as “the Family,” often gathered for informal meetings in the parking lots of the strip shopping plazas that dot the divided highway.

Members of “the Family” who were convicted in the arson case were white. Most of the people at the scene of yesterday’s accident in Accokeek were black.

A 2004 report issued by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Community Policing said the 2001 film “The Fast and the Furious” was responsible for re-energizing the street-racing phenomenon.

“Today in the United States, the racing tradition replays itself during every weekend in thousands of communities in the nation,” the report said.

“The primary difference today is that street races are extraordinarily brazen and elaborately orchestrated functions involving flaggers; timekeepers; lookouts equipped with computers mounted in their cars, cell phones, police scanners, two-way radios, and walkie-talkies; and Web sites that announce race locations and even calculate the odds of getting caught by the police.”

Michael Farr contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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