Twenty-six late-model racing cars line up on the quarter-mile dirt track. Ten yellow lights strung across the track are blinking. Engines turn. There's a whir of noise and exhaust.

The ground at the Dorsey Speedway starts to shake, and the dust rises. Twenty laps to go.

After one turn, the race slows after two cars collide and are towed from the track. Two minutes later, a third car spins out and is pulled off.

"Open it up, open it up!" shout the spectators seated behind a high chain-link fence, many of them in the same seats they've occupied on such evenings for years.

It's 9 p.m. on a cool, overcast Saturday night at the speedway, where loud jets landing at nearby Baltimore-Washington International Airport are barely heard above the din of unmuffled racing stock car engines.

They've been racing here since 1950, and it's to be the last season at this site: Owner Don Meyer, whose father bought the place in 1957, is selling out to developers who intend to build an office park. But Meyer plans to reopen next year on nearby property he also owns.

Seating 3,000, it is one of three racecar tracks in Maryland. Another is in St. Mary's County and the third, which holds 5,000 fans and is the largest, is in Hagerstown.

The spectators and participants start lining up at Dorsey at 3 p.m., a full two hours before the gates open. There is not a foreign car in the parking lot, which is filled by 6 p.m., when the "street stocks" and classier cars rumble onto the track for warm-ups, the speedway equivalent of baseball batting practice.

Cautiously, the drivers test the traction on the oval course, which water trucks have dampened, to keep the dust down. Four tow trucks and one ambulance occupy the middle.

"It's real slick out here tonight," observed Mike Griley, 25, a tow-truck driver. "Even the tow truck was skidding."

It's all in fun. But it is also war.

The road warriors who come here through the season are mostly regulars. Many are second-generation drivers, who toddled in the pits when their fathers competed for adulation from the thousands of fans who have filled the bleacher seats here weekly for 35 years.

"If you stereotype the people, there's not much else that would interest them as far as entertainment," said Stan Dillon, the track spokesman. "These aren't the type of people who go to a symphony or opera. They're the kind of people who go to the upper deck of Memorial Stadium to watch an Orioles game.

"This is totally American. This is your real apple-pie group. Most of 'em barely finished high school, but they really know a lot about cars."

There is at Dorsey Speedway what Walt Cullum, 38, calls "the law of the benches." Week after week, the families fill the same seats.

"This is where we usually throw our blanket," said Cullum, an auto mechanic from Catonsville, Md., whose chosen seats are "right in front of the X," where the cars cross during the dare-devil figure-eight races, the night's finale.

Don Hall, 42, of Annapolis, says he has been coming here since 1964, sitting in "basically the same spot," seven rows up at the pit end of the oval, where the cars enter the track and where they come out of their turns.

They have their favorites, and the fan clubs cheer them through the night. Elsie Bryant of Laurel was rooting for George Kopchak, her brother and driver of late-model car number 42 in the night's featured race. She sat in front of a loudspeaker so, she said, "I can hear everything," and had hardly missed a night in seven or eight years, except "when we blew an engine."

Some fans even wear T-shirts immortalizing their heroes, racers such as Ronnie McBee, whose father Reuben raced here in the 1950s. The younger McBee has won $8,000 this year at Dorsey, which is just a mile from his home in Harmons, Md.

The McBee-mobile is $25,000 worth of engine and chassis, car number "1MD." Like all the cars here, it's "sponsored" by someone else with the wherewithal to invest in a money machine. The drivers are car jockeys; the cars are steeds.

In the pits, vendors sell springs, shocks, tires and engine oil from the back of their trucks.

"This trailer's been here about as long as this track," said Kemp Selph, 23, manning the Jay-Dee Supply Co. truck.

Behind the grandstands is a midway where are sold french fries, pizza, chili dogs, soft drinks, beer and souvenirs. The latter include caps, shirts and sweatshirts ("Dorsey Speedway . . . The Tradition Continues . . . 1985"), bumper stickers, flags, model cars, photographs of cars and $25 videotapes of the preceding weekend's action.

Tonight, the "Area Auto Racing News," published in Trenton, N.J., is a sellout, all 100 copies gone by 7:30 p.m. "I could've sold 150 more if I had 'em," says vendor Jim Heaphy, 71.

The reason is obvious: The color cover features the "Dorsey Dolls," attractive young women who promote the track for the fun of it. Between races, they also present the winners with trophies. Dressed in scanty bathing suits, they wave their way around the track in the back of a pickup truck.

Stock car racing, its boosters say, keeps teen-agers out of the malls and in the garages. Creed Calton Jr., 15, is a Dorsey Speedway success story in this regard. By his and his father's account, he was flunking out of school until he promised to fly right in return for a car to fix and race.

"I passed this year and all, due to the car," said Junior, who said his academic goal, despite a recent flurry of As and Bs, is to "just get through, graduate, then drive a wrecker" for his father, who owns a towing service.

Jack Barrass, 37, is one of the older drivers around. He and his father, who raced here before him, own a garage in nearby Jessup.

"When you take the curve fast, it feels great, I'd guess you'd say," the son said. "The first lap usually scares me. There are so many cars bunched up. You don't know if another car is going to cross in front of you."

This is Barrass' first night back in action after a July 3 crash at the Lincoln Speedway in Hanover, Pa.

"Welcome back to Jack Barrass," the "Barrass Bunch" writes in the Dorsey Digest, current edition. "The arm looks good to us. Keep it up."

At 10 p.m., the main race is just beginning. It will go 50 laps, and already, the red clay dust fills the air as high as the overhead lights that illuminate the track. Ronnie McBee leads the pack of 22 cars, which soon dwindles to 15.

McBee stands to win $2,000, and finishes first. But no, another driver lodges a protest: McBee's "1MD" has no reverse, a violation of the regulations for the race. McBee's out, disqualified.

George Kopchak, the Dorsey Digest's featured driver of the week, runs what Stan Dillon calls "probably his best race of the year," in third place with five laps to go. Then his engine blows in a cloud of smoke and a pool of oil.

But Kopchak could console himself with this bit of "Fan Fare" that appears in the Dorsey Digest opposite the story about him and his late-model car, number 42:

"LM 42 George Kopchak, no matter how many engines you blow, no matter how many races you don't win, you will always be Number 1 with me. Love, Sylvia."