Cindy Kenney is spending her 16th birthday at a drag strip.

About 4 p.m. at Capitol Raceway in Crofton, Md., a milky sky threatens rain and the close summer air smells of rubber, gas and beer. Cindy's boyfriend, Duane Eyring, is getting set to race and the atmosphere is as romantic to her as a country cottage in October or a candlelit dinner for two.

Duane is a big guy, 250 pounds. He graduated from Glen Burnie Sr. High School this year and Cindy, who lives 1 1/2 blocks away, has two more years to go. "We don't have any permanant plans or anything yet, but we like each other a lot," Cindy says.

Duane is in line, scheduled to race in about 10 minutes. He is staring straight ahead. Someone has broken a rear axle and Duane twitches his wispy blond mustache in annoyance.

"It's getting hot under this jacket," he says.

Cindy leans into the car and taps Duane on the helmet.

"How 'bout a kiss?" she asks.

"Yeah," he says and kisses her.

Cindy is still leaning in and a silver necklace pops out of her T-shirt. The chain holds two charms; one is the initials of the National Hot Rod Association, and the other is a car, a racer with an air scoop on the hood. It looks like Duane's car, the "Flashback," a 650-horsepower Camaro.

The decals on the car describe its anatomy--Holley Carbs, Holley Manifolds, STP, Zoctite Permatex, Hooker Headers--and pay homage to supporters--"Thanks to Billi Auto Parts, Coleman Bros., House of Balance" and "Special Thanks to Mom & Dad." "Mom used to race this car before I turned 16," Duane says. "Her best time was a 10:49."

Duane's mother, Karen, comes by to talk before the run. "I met my husband Bill when he had a filling station," she says, leaning on the Flashback's red hood. "I took my sister's car there in 1960. Me and Bill went together for just a couple of weeks and got married. We'd never seen each other before."

She explains the family's preference for stock models rather than the rail-like, one-seat racers. "Those dragsters, those are all man-made cars," she says. "This here's a 'door-slammer,' a full-body car. Most of your bleacher people prefer the door-slammers."

After a long delay, it's time to race, time to test car and reflexes against the "Christmas tree," a vertical sequence of starting lights, and the strip itself, a flat-out quarter-mile of asphalt.

Duane slowly rolls the Flashback across a patch of water and then does a series of four "burnouts," quick back-and-forth accelerations that heat up the tires for better traction.

The top light on the "Christmas tree" flashes. Duane inches up to the starting line. He keeps one foot on the brake. With the other foot, he brings the "Flashback" up to 3,000 rpm. The car's body lifts slightly from the frame, tensing with potential fury like a beast catching sight of prey.

"Get set," says Duane to the reporter next to him. An ambulance is parked not 50 feet away.

The lights start ticking off . . .

Yellow . . . Yellow . . . Yellow . . . Yellow . . . Yellow . . . Yellow . . .

Green.

Capitol Raceway is really not much more than a strip of asphalt, a snack bar, a parking lot, some bleachers and a "control" house. Spectators pay $10 and can watch race after race from early afternoon until midnight.

On some Saturdays, novelty acts such as T.V. Tommy Ivo's four-engined "Rolling Stone Bank" or Bob Motz's jet-powered Kenworth truck cab bring in thousands of spectators, but this is a more ordinary day at Capitol and only a few hundred spectators are here. They make a day of it--a bucket of home-fried chicken, a cooler of Bud, maybe a radio for the dull spots.

All the racers need is a $7 entry fee and a means of transportation. Of the 300 cars that show up on a typical Saturday, you can see everything from a slightly souped-up Dodge Special station wagon that could be clocked with a sundial to a Dodge Charger, with $30,000 worth of modifications, that covers the strip in 10 seconds or less.

In the parking lot behind the bleachers, owner Jim Cunningham shuttles back and forth between the Eyrings and the Joneses, two Glen Burnie families that make their living in the auto business and race at Capitol whenever possible. The families compete but are the closest of friends. "I'll tell you what kind of guy Bob Eyring is," Milt Jones says. "If he came over here right now and asked for my engine, I'd give it to him. No questions." When winter comes, both families pack off in their trailers to strips in Tampa and Miami.

"I think every second house you go to in Glen Burnie has a race car," Milt says as he readies his '67 Camaro, "The Hole Shot," for time trials. The blood-red car is gleaming and sleek, lightened by almost 1,000 pounds for racing.

In a quarter-mile race, a car like Milt's will burn half the gas in its four-gallon tank. The 109 octane Cam II gas is as purple as grape Kool-Aid and Milt pours it in the tank as gingerly as a sommelier. "I wouldn't want to have to drive to town and back," he says. "I'd have to borrow money from Jimmy here."

Milt's wife Sharon steps out of their Winnebago, offering chicken to everyone in sight. She points out a 58-stitch scar on Milt's scalp, the legacy of a recent accident.

"I always worry when he's racing," she says.

Milt starts laughing out of control. "Man, when I was in the ambulance, Sharon was in there and she was holding my ankles, holdin' 'em so tight the pain was worse in my ankles than in my head."

Although golfers might object, Cunningham calls drag racing "the safest sport in the world."

"We've only had two people killed out here in all these years," he says. "Besides, I figure we keep a lot of kids from dragging in the streets."

Someone points to another mark on Milt, a tattoo on his wrist that reads "Louise."

"That's his first wife," says Sharon.

"I think she's gonna cut my wrist off one of these days," Milt says.

Green.

Duane Eyring floors it.

The key to a successful run is "cutting the light," crossing the starting line an instant after the light turns green. Cross too soon and you are disqualified, "red-lighted." Duane's father has cut the light at one one-thousandth of a second. Duane is still young. His best cut is two one-thousandths.

Although Duane is racing against the clock and not against the dragster in the other lane, he beats what is easily a faster car out of the start.

The force of acceleration is enough to snap the head back and bring on a wave of nausea, but Duane is used to it. For someone who only a year ago qualified for a driver's license, his concentration is remarkable. Fight manager Angelo Dundee used to say that one of Muhammad Ali's gifts was his ability to go a whole round without blinking. His eyes literally bulged with concentration for 3 long minutes. If only for a fraction of that time, Duane is no less intense.

Once the car peaks, reaching nearly 150 mph, the roar of the engine becomes a sharp whine, a sound that drills against the eardrums.

The dead-ahead shape of drag racing makes the around-and-around contour of stock-car racing seem serpentine by comparison. This is a quick trip to nowhere special. Straight is the strip and speed is the thrill.

The scoreboard shows results instantly. Duane crosses the finish line at 10.03 seconds, averaging 135.99 mph. His eyes relax and he breaks into a little smile. On the return ramp, he starts figuring out how much the extra 175 pounds of the reporter in the car slowed him down.

"Some people like horse racing. Some people like boxing. Me, I like to go fast," says Milt Jones. And he is true to his word. Milt's afternoon time-trial is just under 150 mph. Above his rear bumper he has painted the words: "Adios Mother."

"I've won a ton of times here," Milt says. "I've won more times than I've got fingers and toes." All the cars here, "Raceholic," "Real Kill," "Dial-in for Dollars," "Ratquick," promise abandon but no one is going to beat Milt's Hole Shot tonight.

"I feel I can take it anytime I go out," he says.

After time trials, eliminations begin.

In the second round, Bill Eyring runs an 8:72 but is "red-lighted."

Duane Eyring loses with a 9:88 in the third round.

In the final, Milt blows off Terry Sinke's black Fiat with a 9:13. Top prize is $350 and Milt says he's going to buy a new pair of racing tires, "slicks" with the money.

Duane wanted a victory for Cindy Kenney's birthday, but age won the race today.

Milt Jones turned 44.