By 11:40 p.m., the parking lot at Montrose Crossing shopping center on Rockville Pike filled with the sounds of thumping music, roaring engines and screeching tires.
A crowd of "tuners" -- young drivers who spend thousands of dollars turning their everyday Hondas, Toyotas and Acuras into decked-out speed machines -- had gathered on a recent Saturday night.
The Montrose Crossing shopping center parking lot in Rockville is a magnet for drivers of souped-up vehicles, street racers and appreciative spectators.
(Photos Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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"Is anybody racing?" Matt, a 21-year-old college student from Silver Spring, said into his cell phone. "Okay. If you hear about anything, call me back."
Like other street racers and spectators, Matt spoke on condition that his last name not be used. It wasn't the police he worried about as much as the insurance companies, he said. His car insurance was canceled after he got too many speeding tickets, he said, and he's trying to find affordable insurance as a "high-risk" driver.
Over the next three hours, Matt and two friends joined up with 30 other cars, driving between Montgomery and Prince George's counties in search of a race. These contests, which differ from drag racing, a sanctioned and regulated sport, can reach speeds of more than 120 mph.
Equipped with a police scanner, the racers could learn when officers were on the way, spread the word via cell phone and then scramble to another racing spot.
The night followed a script of young people driving fast for sport in a cat-and-mouse game played with police since cars first rolled off Henry Ford's assembly line. It also was the kind of night that makes police and parents cringe, especially after seven area crashes in the past three weeks left 14 young people, including a 3-year-old girl, dead.
Police said they believe at least two of those collisions in Montgomery County, resulting in four deaths, were related to racing. Speed was a factor in others as well.
Police in the Washington region blame the problem on a subculture of speeding. Street racing has surged in the area in the past three years, police said, particularly with the popularity of the 2001 racing movie "The Fast and the Furious."
Also catching teenagers' attention, police said, are racing video games in which drivers crash and keep going, with no one getting hurt or killed.
Meanwhile, police said, street races have become more deadly because of an increasingly dangerous mix: The cars of choice have gotten smaller -- compacts have largely replaced the muscle cars of the 1960s -- while the roads on which they're speeding have become more crowded and dangerous.
And organized racers have become harder to catch, with spectators monitoring police radios and spotters posted down the road watching for patrol cars.
"The crowd is gone before we even get near it," said Cpl. Gary Lewis, who's helping lead Montgomery's crackdown on speeding.
As the phenomenon grows, Montgomery officers have looked to their counterparts in Fairfax and Prince George's counties, who have been combating late night racing for years with undercover officers, videotaped races and constant patrols of the spots where racers gather.