"There ain't nothin' here tonight said Richard King, 19, regarding with a sneer the snarling, smoke-belching hot rods packed into a MacDonald's parking lot on Rte 450 east of the Beltway.

Every few minutes came the roar of an engine, the scream of tires, a pall of hot rubbery smoke in the night. A hundred hot-rodders parked and watched eating their burgers, or circled the lot meanacingly, bristling with challenge.

It was a recent Saturday night in Prince George's County, but it could have been a Saturday night in almost any American city in the years following World War II.

Much has changed in those years, but not the youthful hot rod culture with its excitement, passion and danger. "Kids have nothing else to do," said one youth. "Cars are the common thing between 'em.

The story of Richard King and his companaiona is a chapter from the book of classic American. Perhaps it tells us as much about what has remained constant as it does about what has changed.

King sat on the hood of his red Dart Sport 360 drinking from a can of beer, one arm around his girl, his buddies nearby in various slouches and stances.

He wore a white T-shirt, black corduory trousers and black boots. He had wavy brown hair. "I hit the end of the quarter mile in about 13.5 seconds going about 130 mph," said King.

"He'll race whenever he can," said Doug, also 19, an admiring sidekick. "Usually it's on weekends like this. If you win there's always someone else wanting to race. You could race three or four a night. Trouble is, if you beat someone, sometimes they want to fight."

"Then go to DUKE CITY, USA," said sidekick Steve, 16.

One doesn't want to race too often, the youths explained, because it is hard on the cars.

They said the races take place on dark stretches of highway in the Washington area usually between the hours of 1 and 4 a.m. A favorite spot, they said, is a quarter-mile stretch just inside the Beltway on 1.295 going from Maryland into the District.

Typically, several hundred hot-rodders gather in the parking lot of a warehouse or shopping center. There is much milling about, bantering, and finally challenges. A bet is made, and a third person holds the money. The two cars that are to race drive off to the starting point with their seconds, referees and spectators tagging along in other cars.

At the statin line a man with a flashlight signals the start. The cars race off, squealing rubber, and the winner is declared by a referee at the finish line. The cards may take another half-mile to slow down from speeds in excess of 100 mph.

There arc perhaps five or 10 races a night like that in any given location, and police say it is nearly impossible to catch the racers, who usually place lookcuts and plan evasion routes in advance.

One Maryland policeman said that because it is so difficult to catch the youths in the act of racing, the police resort to harassment, inspecting the hot cars for safety and minor violations.

The youths resent this treatment, and seem generally to resent the rule of law. "The judges gives you all this bullroar about people getting killed," said one youth not in King's group. "They're playing God. What they're saying is, "We want your flippin' money." They don't care if you die." Insurance at $1200

From the admiring comments of many hot-rodders when King rumbled onto the scene on Saturday night it was clear that he's regarded as one of the hottest racers.

King proudly opened his hood fo a reporter, "I got a 410 positraction rear," he said, "Three dueces, a sixpack, racing cam, racing springs, valve guides, keepers. . ."

King is wearying of the game, though. For one thing he has so many speeding tickets that he said he was on the verge of losing his license. "They got me for 70 in a 50, 130 in a 50, 92 in a 50, 40 in a 30," he said. "I'm gonna sell my car because drag racing ain't for shoot. My license right now is hanging by a thread."

It's an expensive pastime, too.

"You take a $2,000 car and you put $4,000 in it," explained King. "You go out here and maybe when you can you might win $500 racing. You count the times the cops haslsle you and give you lip. You're talking about a $1,000 fine and 30 days in jail if they catch you. Then the insurance company hits you.

"My insurance now is $1,200 a year based on only five points, and now I have 10 points. After the insurance and the cops you gotta pay for gas, I get five and a half miles to the gallon and I'm not done with the motor yet. When you sell it, you've fot mayby $8,000 in a $2,000 car and you'll be lucky to get $1,0000 for it at the most, I've had it."

King paused after this discouraging account, then a show smile spread over his face. "You wanna take a picture?" he said. "I can cover this whole parking lot in smoke. I WILL do it."

"We know we're fools and we're still racing," put in Doug enthusiastically.

But before anything could happen a policeman walked over and reprimanded King and his companions for drinking beer in public. He ordered them to take the under-age girls home immediately.

King was instantly the picture of meek compliance, saying "Yes, sir" and "No, sir."

He and his friends jumped into the red Dart and, with a low rumble, were gone Everyone has one"

In the pleasant, upper-middle class world of suburban Fairfax County there is an entirely different kind of youth culture centering on cars - but one thatt is every bit as much classic Americans as the world of the hot-rodders.

"Every kid who becomes 16 is demanding a car and we're right back to the problem of an affluent society," said Dr. Espinola of Annandale.

He was speaking of his four children and their friends who inhabit a world where automobiles are an accepted necessity of life, but there is often enough money to make them luxuries, too.

The Espinolas live in a large home on a street shaded with old trees. They have three cars in the family when you count their 20-year-old daughter Janet's Vega, and they have a commodious two-car garage.

The Espinolas came here more than two decades ago, settling far from the heart of Washington in what was the wide-open Virginia countryside.

They they watched suburbia grow up around them. They watched the rise of the car culture choke their country roads, and now they have seen their own children clamoring for cars of their own, even expecting them.

"These kids (in the area) are getting cars without deserving it or needing it," said Dr. Espinola. "When my daughter (Janet) graduated from high school she said her friends were given cars and so she expected it, and it's not right."

"Janet thought she'd look out the window after graduation and see a car with a big pink ribbon on it," said his wife, Vera. "She told us the other day she couldn't live without the car. She was raised in the suburbs and the car to her is almost a sense of security. I think this house would fold without cars."

Janet got her car, but her father made her pay for it herself.

Dr. Espinola grew up in a small town in the Dominican Republic in a middle-income family, but he never had a car when he was young.

"I went all through my training in medical schools without a car and I got along beautifully," he said. "But here you can't get along without a car."

Vera recalled the days when they were first married and living in New York City without a car. They couldn't afford one, yet managed to get along fine in the city with its good public transport systems. "Can't you walk?"

As the Espinolas talked, their 16-year-old daughter rushed in and asked, "Hey, Mom, could I use the car to go over to (a friend's house)?"

"Can't you walk?" asked the mother.

"Oh, it's so hot," came the complaint, and the youngster was allowed to use the car.

Another child, a son, had a car of his own before he moved away from home. They also have a 14-year-old daughter.

"You go and look in any high school parking lot around here and there's half of the licensed drivers of the school will be driving a car to school," Janet said.

She said that "almost all the guys I know have one. Some girls get them when they become 16, some when they graduate. For guys it's almost natural for them to get one when they're 16. Either their parents give'em one, or they're handed down from brothers, or they have jobs."

The Espinolas have a Mercedes and a Volvo station wagon, both golden brown in color as in Janet's Vega. They said that once it was amusing when, quite by chance, all three of these cars were parked next to one another at the hospital.

"It was like father, mother and daughter," said Mrs. Espinola, recalling how intimate a part of their lives the cars seemed at that moment. Stealing for fun

Deep in the southern part of the District of Columbia, another kind of youth culture centers on the exciting and often violent theft of automobiles.

"The car was already started and we jumped in," said one young man, laughing as he remembered how it had been to steal his first car.

"I pulled down the gearshift and took off," he said. "I drove up in a field and an older guy said, 'Where'd you get the car?' I said, 'I stole it.' He said he was gonna strip it. We took off all the parts, the tires. We took the CB out. We took the built-in radio, took the speakers out. We took the seats out. We sold all this stuff to a lady."

This youth, less than 15 years old now, is an accomplished auto thief. He agreed to an interview if his name were withheld.

"These are the have-nots," said an adult observer of this scene. "The problem in this area of town is that people look down on people who ride the bus. Young people say it is unhip to stand on the bus. 'Hey,' they say, 'you gotta have wheels.' So the kids steal. It's a very depressing thing."

Another adult observer of the scene said the youths steal cars to get money but also because the act represents an exciting group experience that is part of their lifestyle.

"Usually there are three or four of them and each has a different specialty," said the observer. "One might be a specialist in hot-wiring, another in driving. Sometimes they work on impulse, for fun and profit.

"Radials go for $25 . . . You get $50 for a good chrome pair of wheel hubcaps. If you're having a party, a tire will get you a nickle bag (a quantity of marijuana) and you're all set for a night of smoking and drinking . . ."

The youths described a world in which cars meant power, meant something they could show knowledge about, impressing girls with their fast driving and dangerous exploits.

"These girls, I let them in one time," said the young man of a time when he stole a car. He spoke softly, almost sensually. "They like the way I drive and all that . . . Yeah, they like the way I drive . . ."

He broke out laughing.

The youth said he once spent some months in jail, but not for auto theft.

"I guess I won't steal any more unless someone pays me for it," he said. "A person will walk up to you and say, 'Man, why don't you steal this car for me and I'll give you $100 or $200."

There has been a good deal of violence connected with his thefts.

"When I take cars I drive fast," he said. "You know, one time I was with these guys and they stole a car. They hit a pole and we all jumped out and ran."

Another time, he said, he smashed a stolen car through the front window of a store. Another time he led the police on a wild chase during which the police car crashed through a fence.

One time he was taking a woman's car when the woman appeared and asked, "What are you doing with my car?"

"I punched her in the face," he said. "She fell, then we just took off with that car. We brought it up here and stripped it."