In a matter of seconds, a lonely stretch of rural road in the middle of the night can become a raceway.
Drivers in souped-up Hondas and Ford Mustangs line up side by side, kicking up clouds of acrid smoke as they spin their wheels to warm the tires. Street-racing fans, sometimes several hundred, crowd the shoulder, summoned by quick cell phone calls. Wheels squealing and engines roaring, the racers tear off in sprints that can reach 120 mph.
Then, as quickly as it formed, the race dissolves, fans and drivers slipping away into the night before the police arrive.
"Once you get into it, it's hard to get out because of the thrill," said 20-year-old Cyril Pittman Jr., who put a more powerful engine in his 1992 Honda station wagon and used to go up against other street racers at a Maryland industrial park until the police shut them down. "You get excited. You feel an adrenaline rush."
Racing in the streets has been going on practically since the automobile was invented and has long been celebrated in song and on film, from James Dean's "Rebel Without a Cause" in the 1950s to the chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected rock anthems of Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s and recent movies like "The Fast and the Furious."
And despite stepped-up patrols, speed bumps, the seizure of cars and the risk of deadly accidents like the one that killed eight spectators in Maryland on Feb. 16, authorities around the country are often helpless to prevent street races.
"This is something that has gone on for a long time. I don't see it stopping," said Matt Jewell, president of the Maryland Street Racing Association, which organizes races on tracks but does not condone illegal races on public streets.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 804 people were killed in racing-related crashes between 2001 and 2006. California had 188 of those deaths, with Texas second at 128.
Big increase in 2006
After declining in the first half of the decade, street-racing deaths are on the rise again, climbing roughly 35 percent from 111 in 2005 to 150 in 2006, NHTSA said.
In the Maryland accident, a motorist who was apparently passing through plowed into a crowd of people who had gathered on a remote stretch of divided highway in the darkness to watch a race in this town about 10 miles from the nation's capital.
Some Maryland lawmakers said they plan to introduce legislation that would allow Prince George's County authorities to use cameras to catch speeders and discourage street racing. County officials also said they plan to step up patrols of known race sites.
"You've got a group of people who are secretive. They gather, and within 30 seconds they move out. It's been very difficult for our police department" to stop racing, said Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson.
Other cities and states have tried to put the brakes on street racing, with mixed success.
In California, authorities seize cars and have them publicly crushed at junkyards. A state law makes street racing punishable with prison time, and some jurisdictions make it illegal even to watch a race.
In Washington state, some communities have installed short speed bumps on stretches of roads popular with racers to keep drivers from building up speed. Kent, near Seattle, even invited drivers to bring their cars to the relative safety of a track and compete against police cars. Not many showed up.
"The thrill of it all, in part, is getting away from the police," said Kent police Officer Paul Petersen.
Many racers are in their teens and early 20s and drive imports that can be fitted with nitrous oxide tanks that give the engines more power. But older fans and drivers are also drawn to the sport, often preferring older domestic models like Mustangs.
Of the eight people killed and at least five injured in the Maryland crash, the youngest was 15, the oldest 61.
Mark Courtney, a 33-year-old among those killed, was into cars and racing, according to his family. "Whenever it was going on, he'd get a call saying there's a race. He loved it. That was his hobby," said his brother, Wayne Courtney.
Street races can be spur-of-the-moment or more organized events. In some cases, trash talking between drivers hanging out in a parking lot can lead to a race. ("We shut 'em up and then we shut 'em down," as Springsteen sang in "Racing in the Street.") Drivers sometimes come from several states away, pulling their cars on trailers.
Often more than just pride is on the line — thousands of dollars can be wagered.
Spotters with flashlights watch for other cars, then signal the drivers when it is clear. Then the cars speed away, usually for a quarter-mile race. Once the cars peel out, fans sometimes spill into the road to watch them go, despite the risk of getting run over.
Many former street racers have moved to tracks where they can race or watch for a fee. At Maryland International Raceway, known as Budds Creek, drivers can race on a closed track with safety equipment nearby. Spectators are kept at a safe distance.
But street racing fans say many drivers, especially the younger ones, don't want to pay $20 to race when they can do it for free on the roads. Tracks in colder climates generally shut down for the winter. And the thrill is just not the same when it's legal.
Pittman stopped going to the industrial park races after a shooting, and quit racing in the streets altogether after three wrecks, including one last year in which he ran into the back of a truck and broke a bone in his neck.
After that, his mother put her foot down.
"It caused me to obey the speed limit," he said sheepishly.