Donald Thompson sat in his electric blue, chrome encrusted '68 Camaro listening to Willie Nelson on his tape deck and growling his engine at the herd of Volkswagens and other gritless compacts surrounding him on the high school parking lot.

"I guess there aren't but 10 really serious cars left here," said the 17-year-old Thompson, the concerned king of a dwindling hot rod contingent at George Marshall High School in Fairfax County. "Things just aren't like they used to be."

For Thompson and other suburban high school students who refuse to surrender the pursuit of power and speed for the sake of fuel economy times are tough. The rocketing gasoline prices that have pinched everyone else threaten to suffocate their subculture. The way things are going, they fear, theirs could be the last generation of low riders.

"There are so many guys chickening out and putting six-cylinder engines in their cars," said Drew Stewart, a senior at Marshall who owns a ghost grey, 1969 Cutlass and considers anything less than full-bore not worth the ride. "I think it stinks."

But if gasoline prices have curbed some of the avant-garde, high school principals throughout the Washington area report that the rank and file of student drivers have not slowed down a bit.

"The automobile and the teen-ager are wedded and it's going to take a lot to get them out of their cars," said Robert Hanley, principal at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria where hundreds of students last fall picketed for more parking spaces.

"I haven't seen any falling off in the number of kids who drive cars," agreed James Lally, principal at Crossland Senior High School in Prince George's County where roughly 150 of the 1,900 students drive to school each day.

Principals generally are not pleased by their students' determination to keep gassed up and going. Except in the District, which has no parking space for student drivers, school administrators complain that the automobile is a perpetual headache.

"I wish they would be banned," said Nick Nawrotzky, assistant principal at Marshall, which sits beside four fast lanes of Leesburg Pike just inside the Capital Beltway. "We have problems with vandalism. . . , drop-in visitors and illegal parking."

There have been some attempts to reduce student driving in the metropolitan area as a response to the gasoline crisis. In Prince George's County, school board member Norman Saunders suggested two weeks ago that the board study a plan to charge students daily parking fees. A spokesman for Montgomery County schools said the administration there has discussed a general student parking ban, but dismissed it as "unworkable."

A similar ban was introduced in the Virginia legislature by State Del. C. Jefferson Starford (R.-Giles). He wanted to prohibit Virginia students from parking on school property if they live within 2 1/2 miles of school or have access to public transportation. The only exceptions would be for students who need a car before or after school to go to work.

"What I'd like to do is just pass a bill and say they couldn't drive to school," said Stafford. "But I think we'd have some constitutional problems with that." Some legislators had problems with the proposal and last week a committee called for more studey of the idea.

While most area principals sigh at the fantasy of empty parking lots, many said this week they would oppose such a law because it would push student cars into residential neighborhoods surrounding schools and worsen already strained relationships.

Suburban students complain that school and Metro bus service is either too slow or not available to deliver them to after-school jobs or get them home after extracurricular activities In Fairfax County, for instance, the school system provides late bus service only three days a week.

"I don't particularly like to drive," said Louis Grand, a senior at Langley High School in McLean who works 30 hours a week at McDonald's. "I use a car to get from point A to point B . . . and I keep my eye on that gas needle."

Robert Russell, the principal at Robinson High School in Fairfax, empathizes with his students, some of whom live as far as 12 miles from school. e

"Students today are working more; then, there are extracurricular activities. They have lives like we do, that are very complex. Either you gear your life around to taking them places or you get a car for them to do it themselves."

Russell does not suggest that teenager-joy-riding is a thing of the past. He adknowledges that students at Robinson, like almost every other high school in Fairfax, leave school grounds during lunch period in violation of county regulations.

"That rule is kind of unenforced," said a senior at W.T. Woodson High School in Fiarfax, eating lunch this week at a McDonald's off Fairfax Circle. With him were students from Oakton and Fairfax high schools.

Concessions have been made, say students, to the increased cost of driving Instead of hitting McDonald's every day, students limit their lunch trips to two or three times a week. And the all-American weekend tradition of "cruising" with a few six-packs of beer has surrered its own decline.

"Now instead of dropping in on four different parties, you just pick out one and stay there," said ywayne Colvin, a sophomore at Oakton.

But while the gasoline crunch has caused some inconvenience to student drivers in general, it has been devastating to dedicated car jockeys and their juiced, souped and jacked-up life styles.

"I remember when I was a freshman, there were a lot of hot cars around here," said Drew Stewart while fellow students in an auto repair program bowed beneath the hood of his cutlass trying to identify an errant ping.

There are still arenas, legal and illegal, for drivers who want to test the limits of internal combustion. During the spring and summer, drag races are held every Friday night at a track in Manassas. An low riders regularly meet in the parking lot of a Vienna shopping center, then race in the evenings through concrete canyons between office buildings along West Park Drive.

But as the cost of gasoline goes up, the number of die-hards able to feed cars that can't pass a gasoline station without being filled, decreases. At stake, claim high performance devotees, is an American tradition of more than a quarter century.

"The cost is hurting everybody," said Donald Thompson as the 365 horses under the hood of his Camaro gobble up pennies worth of gas per second. Thompson works as a janitor and an electrician's helper after school and weekends to feed his automotive habit, but even two jobs, he said, aren't enough.

A few days each week, admitted Thompson with obvious embarrassment, the King of the Hot Rodders is humbled into driving his mother's Volkswagen Rabbit to school.

"I sometimes think if only I was born 10 years earlier, things would be a lot easier."