Feb. 17, 2008 — -- Movies like "The Fast and the Furious," along with video games, have tapped into the popularity of street drag racing -- but a deadly crash this weekend highlighted the dangers of the illegal sport.
When a car plowed into a group of street-racing fans, who were obscured by a tire smoke cloud, eight bystanders died and five others were injured in Accokeek, Md.
The small-town tragedy is not the first time illegal races have ended in tragedy, and across the country law enforcement officers are handing out more tickets to people who are driving souped-up cars, citing them for noise or pollution violations.
They hope to send a message to the adrenaline-seeking street racers, who often race each other late at night on roads that are deserted.
But illegal street drag racing isn't limited to the cover of darkness. It also is popular during daylight hours, where cars speed through traffic in what is called rush-hour racing.
"I would consider it as close to an epidemic as possible," said former street car racer Bryan Harrison. "It is expanding and becoming more dangerous."
No national numbers or statistics exist on the occurrence of street drag racing, but nearly 100 people die annually in California alone, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. During the past decade more than 50,000 drivers in the state have pleaded guilty to participating in illegal speed contests.
Yet, this hasn't stopped a bevy of young people from being attracted to illegal racing.
"The average racer is about 16 to 21-years-old; so they have that feeling that they are invincible," Harrison said.
Travis Hand was one of the teenagers attracted to the dangerous game. Only one month after getting his license, the then- 17-year-old Hand participated in a race that killed a young mother.
"I have to live the rest of my life knowing that I took someone's life, which is worse than any of the jail time," he said. "You can't take that back."
Critics have pointed fingers at movies and video games for adding to racing's popularity and the YouTube phenomenon hasn't helped either.
Eager street racers boast of their accomplishments by posting them online. Even a family member of one of this weekend's t crash victims said he enjoys the races. David Johnson, the brother of injured inspector Craig Simmons, still described the races as good, clean fun.
"It's like a football game or a basketball game or whatever, any other sporting event -- excitement, people, noise and somebody pulling for somebody to win," said Johnson, whose brother suffered a broken leg and head injury.
However, other families who have lost a loved one to street racing don't share Johnson's fond view of it or its participants.
"We'll never see them finish high school; get married; have families of their own," said Janet Moore, who lost her two young children to an alleged street race in a Los Angeles suburb. "I was angry. The whole family is angry. We are just now probably coming to grips with what has happened."
For thrill seekers and the crowds they draw, Harrison founded a program in 26 states that works with police to move the street racing to regulated tracks. The goal of Evo Street Racers is to simulate the rush, but not the danger, of illegal street races.
"Not only are we saving lives, but we're also letting people know that there are options and they are fun options," Harrison said.