To some observers the off-beat looking go-carts racing, sputtering or being pushed across the dusty parking lot behind Crossland Senior High School in Prince George's County this week might have appeared to be nothing more than a mechanic's nightmare.

But to ninth grader Gary Suarez, of Frederick Sasscer Junior High School in Upper Mariboro, who pointed to sleek red electric-powered racer - "It's the best thing ridin' on four wheels."

About two hundred students and teachers boasted about the features of these cars as if they were warming up for the Indianapolis 500. In fact they were participating in the county school system's experimental safety vehicle competition.

The students from the county's high schools and junior highs used motorcycle parts, old car batteries, shock absorbers, water pump engines and even pieces of an ironing board - anything that would put them "effiniently" in front of their opponent.

Some of the cars were electric, some where gas-powered, and one was even people-powered because the engine failed to operate.

Some looked like modified versions of the lunar landing module, while others looked like motor-powered matchboxes. But all of them blended the interests of many students who might not have been interested in school at all.

It was this strange love affair with the motor driven car that kept students tinkering for hours on end with these strange-looking vehicles.

Excited students and teachers huddled over roaring engines as they anxiously awaited their turn in time trials, acceleration and braking tests and bumper impact competition.

It was the acceleration test that brought the greatest disappointment for students who worked on Surrattsville Junior High School's car number 16. Their converted golf cart - ironically painted lemon yellow - did not work.

Undaunted, the "Surrattsville five" steered and pushed their safety vehicle around the course and entered it in the bumper collision test.

"Its probably the safest vehicle on the road," said Ken H. Diggs, chief of the office of vehicle structures for the Department of Transportation.

Diggs, who later awarded trophies for the winners of the competition, said: "I feel a lot of smpathy for those students. We often do the same sort of testing - and spend a lot of money doing it - and sometimes our cars don't work."

But most cars worked at this competition and some performed amazingly well, according to teachers and students who spent months designing them.

"We used a 'Die Hard' (battery) in this one and it is the best," said one of four student mechanics who working furiously on one of two Frederick Sasscer Junior High School entries in the competition.

The student-mechanic said: "We built this one specially for Ed." He told a reporter that Ed Milliken was their 4-foot-9-inch driver.

Another student, Paul Flanagan, who graduates from Largo Senior High, this year said his school - which took the greatest number of awards in te competition - this year entered an electric car that was powered by gas in last year's competition.

"We spent all year converting it," Flanagan said.

His teacher, Howard G. Brown, said: "We wanted the most efficient car. We had to get back to the fundamentals of a simple switching system."

The complexities of building each of these translated into one simple fact for Ken Gimbert, a parent whose son attends Dwight D. Eisenhower Junior High School in Laurel: "I let my son take my Olds apart and I wouldn't have dreamed of letting him do it before."