Witnesses said about 50 people were gathered before dawn along Route 210 as two car spun their wheels, kicked up smoke and sped off, said Prince George's County police Cpl. Clinton Copeland.
Fans had spilled onto the smoky, dark roadway to watch the cars drive away when a white Ford Crown Victoria unexpectedly came up from behind and smashed into them.
"There were just bodies everywhere; it was horrible," said Crystal Gaines, 27, of Indian Head, whose father was killed.
Police interviewed the Crown Victoria driver, but no charges were pending, Copeland said. Authorities were looking for the drivers of the two cars involved in the race.
The combination of the smoke and the dark morning likely meant the unsuspecting driver could not see the crowd, police said. A tractor-trailer that came by shortly afterward may also have struck someone on the roadside as it tried to avoid the crash scene, according to investigators.
The Crown Victoria, which had a crumpled hood and a partially collapsed roof, ended up down an embankment with one of the victims lodged inside.
Bodies covered by white sheets lay in the road and on the shoulder across a 50-foot stretch of the road later Saturday morning before they were removed by the medical examiner.
Shoes were strewn about in the grass, and pair of dark skid marks scarred the highway.
"It's probably one of the worst scenes I've seen," Copeland said. "This is a situation that could have been avoided, and it's a very tragic situation."
About 50 people were watching the race, Gaines said, and she saw the Crown Victoria approach without its lights on. She grabbed her daughter, pulling the girl to safety. But her father, William Gaines Sr., 61, had a broken leg, and was not able to get away in time. Afterward, she found his body on the road.
"He wasn't breathing; he wasn't moving," Gaines said. "His body was in pieces."
Her brother, William Gaines Jr., was also there. The car came through so fast that "it just ripped people apart," he said.
"I didn't even see the car. All I heard was stuff breaking," he said.
Police could not confirm whether the car that struck the crowd had its lights on.
The victims' ages ranged from their 20s to 60s, police said. Seven people were pronounced dead at the scene, and an eighth died later at a hospital. Police said a body found in the car was one of the spectators and not a passenger, as they had previously assumed.
Route 210 is a thoroughfare with two lanes in each direction and traffic lights about every 150 to 200 yards. The road is flanked by some businesses but has little traffic in the early morning, Copeland said. The speed limit is 55 miles per hour.
John Courtney said his brother, Mark, 33, of St. Mary's County, also was among the dead. He identified his brother from a digital image police had taken.
"He liked going to the race track, watching races," Courtney said. "It's going to take a toll on my family for a long time."
Marion Neal feared her 42-year-old brother was among the dead and was awaiting images from the police.
"It's a tragedy," she said. "I don't like racing, but that was his hobby."
Police said that street races are not uncommon on the stretch of road, but that most occur in the summer and involve motorcycles. But relatives said some of the victims often went to see races held late at night on isolated stretches of road.
"It's a problem," said Denee Hines, whose mother owns a hair salon only a few hundred feet from the site of the accident. "Everyone knows about it, but I've never heard of it getting this bad."