Illicit Circuit Regularly Eludes Police

Eight people are dead and at least five injured after a car hits a group of people watching an illegal race in Prince George's County.
Accident site
By Jenna Johnson and Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 17, 2008

There's no regular schedule for the street races. But whenever a driver calls one, news spreads quickly through the tightknit racing community, centered in Charles and southern Prince George's counties.

On an isolated highway on the chosen night, fans gather, sometimes hundreds of them. The two drivers exchange "smack talk" and decide what defines a win, said a source who works with many participants but doesn't want his name connected to the illegal pastime.

The street races provide a thrill, bragging rights, and occasionally the chance to win thousands of dollars, according to those familiar with the pastime. They also frighten neighbors -- but police say they find it difficult to stamp out competitions with shifting locations known only to a secretive group of people.

After the deaths of eight people during a race yesterday morning on Indian Head Highway in Prince George's County, residents of the area said they have complained repeatedly to police about the threat to safety.

"This is one of the biggest pastimes out here -- race cars," said Donnell Myers, 57, who lives in a ranch house near the highway and occasionally watches the races. "What happened last night is what everyone was afraid could happen, but at a much larger scale."

The Indian Head Highway Area Action Council recently discussed reckless driving on Indian Head Highway, also known as Route 210, with Prince George's Police Chief Melvin High, member Stanley Fetter said. Several Accokeek residents say they are regularly woken by revving engines and racing cars, but by the time police can respond to complaints, the races are over and the crowds have dispersed.

"The police will come by on occasion on a nice day, but it just doesn't stick," Fetter said. "We need a far more intensive presence than we're ever going to see with the ways things have been going on."

The Indian Head Highway racing strip is popular because it is flat and lacks traffic lights, said John Filer, emergency medical services chief in Charles County. The four-lane highway is divided by a grassy median and lined with trees and telephone poles.

"This is a frequent occurrence," Filer said. "It's known for being a drag-racing spot. It's so straight and high, and you can really get going for a while."

Frank Dunn, the owner of Country Carpet just off Indian Head Highway by the crash site, said that in the past week to 10 days, he has been hearing reports from customers that his store's parking lot was filling with cars in the middle of the night. One customer told him it was being used for cars to be unloaded from trailers in preparation for races.

A Prince George's law enforcement source, who asked not to be named because the investigation is ongoing, said police are aware of a circuit of street racing aficionados. But he said stopping the races is not simple because the races move around, and those involved keep the information within a tight circle.

"It's a continual cat-and-mouse game," the source said. "It takes a lot of additional resources to go after them."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company