On May 27, Eric Johnson got his driver's license. Waiting for him in the driveway when he got home was a gift that any 16-year-old would dream of: a shiny black 2003 Mazda Protege that became his "baby," his brother, Craig, said.

Eric Johnson was behind the wheel of his dream car Thursday evening when it crashed into a tree beside a winding two-lane road in Vienna. A friend in the passenger seat was taken to a hospital and remained in serious condition yesterday. Police said Johnson appeared to be speeding with another driver when his Mazda left the road.

The other driver, Christopher L. Simms, 19, of Vienna, was charged with reckless driving and released yesterday on $7,500 bond.

Word of Johnson's death spread quickly among his friends. A gregarious junior at James Madison High School in Vienna, he remained close to many of his former classmates at Joyce Kilmer Middle School, though they attended different high schools. They went to his house yesterday in somber groups to visit with his family and remember him.

"He was so stubborn, but he could also be the sweetest guy you ever met," said Shannon Wert, 16, a junior at George C. Marshall High School. When they learned of Johnson's death, "we just thought it was a joke or something."

Melanie Hardcastle, 16, also a Marshall junior, said the news was "so unexpected. You hear about things like this, but you don't think it'll ever happen around here" -- even though she and other friends of Johnson's knew how much he liked the thrill of driving fast.

"We would just say: 'Come on, Eric. Chill out,' " she said.

Craig Johnson said his brother scraped together his pay from the Westwood Country Club pro shop and spent it on his car. "He's a good kid. He loves to have fun," said Johnson, 19. "Every day he was out having a blast."

Their mother, Janet Celly, said the same. "He wanted to satisfy everyone. He didn't want to disappoint anyone," she said. "He always wanted to help the disadvantaged. I think that's because he wanted to be liked."

Her son was a supporter of organ donation, Celly said, adding that she hopes to make a tissue donation.

Police did not release the name of Johnson's passenger, but his friends and family identified him as Chuck Ayler, 16, who had moved to the area recently from Detroit and attends Madison. Celly said Ayler and her son became close.

"He saw someone new, and he had befriended him," Celly said. "They bonded immediately."

A Fairfax County police spokesman said yesterday that investigators were still trying to piece together what happened in the moments before the crash. Officers were continuing to examine the car and search for witnesses.

Sgt. Richard Perez said investigators believe Johnson met up with Simms at a McDonald's on Chain Bridge Road shortly before the crash. The teenagers, in separate cars, ended up heading west on Vale Road near Vienna. Johnson was in the lead and Simms, driving a 1988 Chevrolet Camaro, was behind the Mazda.

Perez said that both drivers were speeding on the two-lane road. About 5:25 p.m., Johnson's car crossed the double yellow line as he tried to pass another westbound car. He lost control of the car, which swerved off the road and struck a tree, police said.

At the base of the tree, friends left notes, bouquets wrapped in crinkly plastic wrap and a Madison High football jersey. Tire marks were still visible in the wet soil of the road's shoulder.

Johnson's family did not blame Simms. Celly called the crash a tragedy and an accident.

"It's a mistake of youth," she said. "They feel they are invincible."

Staff writer Maria Glod contributed to this report.

Eric Johnson "was so stubborn, but he could also be the sweetest guy you ever met," says a friend.Notes, flower bouquets and other mementos are placed at the base of the tree near Vienna where Johnson died. His passenger was seriously injured.