As I stood on the Capital Raceway track recently, the rumble of young drag racers whizzing by was so loud that it felt as if a million hammers were banging inside my eardrums.
But to the cluster of men standing there in red, yellow and black-and-white checked Quartermasters shirts, the sound was sweet harmony.
"This is not loud," insisted Ronald Waters, the 43-year-old District Heights man who is president of the Quartermasters Drag Racing Team, a predominantly black amateur racing club based in Forestville.
Waters said the junior dragster cars they were helping out that day sounded tame compared with, say, the noise when his '73 Dodge zooms at 132 mph.
"We just know to expect the loudness, and we like it," he said. "It's music to us."
Most of the group's 24 members have been liking that music for decades. Many grew up near racetracks in Southern Maryland and Prince George's County and took up the hobby as teenagers.
About 10 years ago, they formed the Quartermasters to race and to perform community service projects. They travel throughout the Washington area, giving racing demonstrations and warning children about the perils of drugs, collecting food and clothing for the needy and collaborating with area schools to mentor children.
The members share a passion for drag racing, a sport in which, traditionally, few minorities have participated.
At a July news conference in Washington hosted by the Rainbow/PUSH coalition, the Quartermasters joined dozens of similar clubs across the country for the first time to encourage the motor sports industry to provide more opportunities for minorities.
Leonard W. Miller, co-owner of the black-owned Miller Racing Group based in Virginia and North Carolina, said groups such as the Quartermasters provide the best possible introduction to motor sports.
"The importance of the Quartermasters is to educate the community, promote drag racing to young kids as an alternative to drugs," said Miller, who himself retired from professional racing 30 years ago.
The exhilaration of racing eclipses any fleeting feeling that young people can get from chemical substances, says Quartermaster Stan Proctor, a 56-year-old retired D.C. firefighter from Clinton.
"I have no understanding of why anyone would want to do drugs," Proctor said. "There can be no feeling that drugs can give you" that equals racing competitions. "There is no comparison."
The 9- to 15-year-old racers streaking down the one-eighth mile course at Capital Raceway recently did seem to be floating a bit. Dressed in little helmets and racing suits, they buzzed around in their "junior dragster" cars and lined up to the starting point.
Once the "Christmas tree"--the stalk of light bulbs at the starting line--is illuminated, they're off. Within a few seconds, the race is over.
"The most exciting feeling is when you first get in the car and you don't know what to expect," beams Rinaldo Davis, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Silver Spring. Davis has been racing for two years and competes in 10 to 15 tournaments each year in Maryland and throughout the Midwest. Last year, he won the junior division of the Black Sunday competition in St. Louis.
Davis's father, Ron, also a Quartermaster, says racing can be quite costly. Parents have to shell out at least $2,500 for junior dragsters, the smaller cars that the young racers ride.
Adults, on the other hand, can race any type of car they want. They work on the cars bit by bit to enable the engine to withstand racing speeds. James Robinson, 52, a forklift mechanic from the District, won a slew of amateur races across the country in a souped-up Chevy Nova station wagon.
Other Quartermasters, such as 57-year-old Al Reid, of Temple Hills, have long stopped racing. Reid stopped driving his '67 Camaro more than 20 years ago because he wanted to spend more time with his family. He still participates in Quartermaster activities because he loves being out on the track.
Waters insists there's nothing like getting behind the wheel. He says he finds a sense of peace out there when his foot presses down on the gas pedal.
"Once the car launches, everything is still," he says. "Everything else around you, all the problems, all the cares are gone. It's just you and your car."
For more information or to get the Quartermasters schedule of upcoming public events, call 301-336-2720.
CAPTION: Quartermaster Stan Proctor, of Clinton, announces racers at Capital Raceway.
CAPTION: Rinaldo Davis, 15, prepares to hit the raceway. Davis is a member of Quartermasters, a predominantly black amateur racing club based in Forestville.
CAPTION: Quartermasters members Paul Christian, left, of Capitol Heights, Al Reid, of Temple Hills, and James Robinson, of Northeast Washington, check out a race car.