- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

For the uninitiated, such as me, I recently learned that “ET” isn’t just some extraterrestrial being but also stands for “elapsed time,” the estimated number of seconds it takes a car to travel between the start and finish lines in a drag race.

The most impressive of “gear heads” race cars with an ET rating that can cover a quarter-mile track in just 4.5 seconds. Safely.

“Drag racing is what goes on here,” said Royce Miller, president of the Maryland International Raceway in Budds Creek. “While [illegal street racing] is a tragedy and still goes on, people have to come to the race track to see the vast, vast majority doing [drag racing] right.”

So, the 53-year-old Mr. Miller — who has raced cars since the early 1970s and has owned the track for 19 years — set out to explain a critical difference. Drag racing is what “gear heads and motor enthusiasts” do in a safe legal way, as opposed to those who race illegally on public streets as part of a clandestine culture that indirectly claimed the lives of eight onlookers in Accokeek on Feb. 16.

As Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson and a lineup of Maryland law-enforcement officers announced a crackdown on street racing yesterday, Mr. Miller was busy preparing his Southern Maryland raceway for opening day of the 2008 season this Saturday.

Appearing to waste no time with useless task-force studies surrounding the Accokeek accident, Mr. Johnson ordered an increase in patrols coordinated by state, county and municipal officers; installation of an undisclosed number of cameras along 11 major highways, including Indian Head Highway (Route 210), which will be monitored 24 hours a day; and deployment of surveillance helicopters.

As Mr. Johnson said, street racing is a regional problem, so area lawmakers should enact stricter penalties, including imposing higher fines, impounding cars, revoking licenses and even jailing offenders. Policy wonks should also devise strategies to thwart unlicensed drivers.

Still, Prince George’s Chief of Police Melvin C. High offered the best idea, with which Mr. Miller likely agrees. “The 100 percent solution is for racers and spectators to take their races to a legal venue,” Chief High said during the press conference shown live on NewsChannel 8.

No one has been charged in the Feb. 16 fatal accident. Police said Darren Bullock, 20, of Waldorf, Md., was driving on a suspended license when his car plowed into a crowd of about 200 people who had stepped into the middle of Indian Head Highway to watch a street race at about 3 a.m.

Since the accident, Mr. Miller has been asked what more track owners can do to inform illegal racers about legal venues.

“People in the street know about the track programs because they’ve been here … but I guess the lure [for street racing] is the illegal portion,” he said.

Mr. Miller, who noted that half of the Accokeek accident victims were on his track’s mailing list, contends that for every person who participates in street races, there are 99 persons of all ages “who are out here having fun and doing it right in a safe environment.”

During Saturday’s annual awards banquet for the Maryland International Raceway, however, Mr. Miller said participants bemoaned the bad name and how street racing is eroding the legitimacy of the legal drag-racing sport.

“Most of the people here asked, ‘Do you believe those guys are still doing this?’ ” Mr. Miller said.

In addition to his race track, Mr. Miller said there are nine tracks in Maryland and Virginia that are within a 2½ hour drive and five race tracks within 90 minutes of the scene of the Accokeek fatality. The legal tracks do not operate between November and March because in cold weather “it is not safe to race,” Mr. Miller said.

However, in season, a driver can go fast and furious during the “Midnight Madness, Street Car Series” on Friday nights or on occasional Sunday afternoons for as little as 20 bucks. Spectators pay $10. For $30, his track opens to street cars and race cars all day to “test and tune,” with the opportunity to challenge “friend or foe.” There also is a menu of family friendly specialty events on www.mirdrag.com.

After the cars undergo a safety check, Mr. Miller said, drivers are required to strap on a seat belt or put on a helmet if their ET is faster than 14 seconds. Lower ETs require additional safety measures.

Yet Mr. Miller is concerned that despite the Accokeek accident, “there will still be an element that will risk all for 10 seconds of glory and there is nothing that is going to stop them.” Too bad.

“The tracks are there and law enforcement is doing what they can do,” Mr. Miller continued. “But there has to be a culture where there is positive peer pressure…and masses of your own community that says … like with drugs and drinking, ‘This is stupid.’ I don’t know what else you can do.”

Me either, especially now that I know about a whole new definition for “ET.”

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