Brian Lambert took part in the occasional street race when he was younger.
A lot of his peers did, too.
Growing up in Middlesex, a town of about 800 near the crossing of Wake, Johnston and Nash county lines, Lambert said a large chunk of the community enjoyed racing and cars, in general.
“I ain’t no innocent bystander,” Lambert said.
But Lambert, now 41, said he hasn’t challenged another car in more than 10 years. Thinking back to when he used to “cut up,” he said he’s lucky he was never hurt.
Lambert said one of his old friends, Garland Earp, wasn’t so fortunate when he died while watching a street race near Middlesex in northern Johnston County on Sunday.
Earp, 39, was one of three killed when a driver veered off Simon Road and slammed into a group of spectators.
The driver, Jimmy Pearce II, 37, of Zebulon, has been charged with four counts of second-degree murder, in addition to assault charges for three others who were injured. Detectives are still looking for another driver from the two-man race who drove away after the crash.
Few details have surfaced about the other driver or how the race was organized. Authorities say that’s not unusual.
The type of pre-arranged, illegal street racing that occurred on Sunday is typically kept hush-hush, put together within hours and over in a matter of seconds.
“It’s an underground thing,” said Lt. Jason Crocker of the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office.
Crocker, who leads the Sheriff’s Aggressive Field Enforcement (SAFE) team, said a group of drivers can organize a race, be tied up for five minutes and scatter before a call even comes in.
“By the time the officer gets there, they’re gone,” Crocker said.
But that’s assuming a call comes in. Crocker, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for 16 years, said it’s rare for someone to dial 911 and report a street race.
Court records show that criminal charges for street races have also been rare in Johnston County. Since 2005, only 40 charges have been filed for misdemeanor “speeding competition” or the more serious “pre-arranged speeding competition.”
Statewide, charges for street racing totaled about 3,000 from 2009 to 2014, compared to more than 7,000 during the previous five-year period, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
In the past decade, charges for the two forms of speeding competitions topped out at nearly 1,800 in 2008, when the State Highway Patrol led the largest illegal street racing bust in the state’s history.
Operation DRIFT, or “Don’t Race in Front of Troopers,” was an operation that led to dozens of arrests and car confiscations, mostly in Wake, Nash, Edgecombe and Guilford counties.
Keith Stone helped organize the large sting operation in the mid-2000s as a lieutenant with the Highway Patrol. Stone, now the sheriff of Nash County, said it’d be hard to stop street racing altogether, but efforts like Operation DRIFT at least makes drivers “look over their shoulder.”
“It’s an illegal activity that needs to stay on the track,” Stone said. “Look at the families it has burdened and the communities.”
For Operation Drift, the Highway Patrol developed an undercover street racing team that infiltrated established groups.
Because street racing is such a secretive enterprise, Stone said it’s going to usually take an undercover operation to catch drivers.
“You have to do them like drug investigations,” he said.
The investigation into Sunday’s street racing crash comes after the event. The State Bureau of Investigation is helping the Highway Patrol find the driver who left the scene.
Some of the Sunday’s race spectators fled after the crash, according to state troopers and other witnesses. It’s unclear if they’ll also be subject to criminal charges.
While officers could possibly stretch a charge of disorderly conduct to spectators, Stone said there’s no specific statute against watching. He said the General Assembly should enact penalties for onlookers.
“If there were no spectators, there wouldn’t be any race a lot of the time,” he said.
The Highway Patrol isn’t sure if betting was involved in Sunday’s race. However, authorities say drivers often aren’t racing only to see who has the fastest car.
A witness said about 15 people were outside after the crash.
Earp, the 39-year-old Middlesex man who died in the collision, was at the race with his 23-year-old nephew, Arrington, who also died.
Earp, who friends and family say was a racing enthusiast, had posted a status on Facebook earlier that morning, one that appeared to allude to Sunday night’s competition.
“Good morning, all u racers what’s up 4 today?” it said. Others soon commented on the post, including several who asked what time it was happening.
Neighbors on Simon Road say this wasn’t the first time drivers have used their street to race. A couple said it happens about three to four times a month. Cars park along a side-street and gather along the roadside the watch the cars whiz by.
Kathy Pitts said she didn’t know anything about the races but was dumbfounded when she heard Earp was involved. She worked with him at Stallings Brothers Holdings, a trucking and convenience store company based in Middlesex.
Pitts said she knew Earp, like many others in town, enjoyed cars. She said a yearning for who has the fastest car often drives the competitions.
“When we grew up, it was dirt tracks and everybody had fun,” Pitts said. “Time evolved, and people don’t have places to go anymore.”
“Garland was like the Pillsbury Doughboy,” she added. “He was always smiling and always happy. He was just a good young man.”
Staff researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.
Street racing charges
Across North Carolina, charges for “speeding competition” and “pre-arranged speeding competition” totaled about 3,000 from 2009 to 2014, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
About half were dismissed, 418 returned guilty verdicts, 221 ended with prayers for judgment and 489 ended with pleas to a lesser charge, such as improper equipment.