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Blurred world of high-powered drag racing is very loud, costly

If I'm going to pay $34 a gallon for fuel, I want it pumped into a Rolls-Royce, not a vehicle that looks like a cross between a praying mantis and something you might see rolling across the face of the moon. The trade calls it drag racing. But when the only way you can beat your opponent is to drive an edge so delicate that too much engine thrust can flip you over backwards, maybe a pilot's license should be required.

Once a driver rockets off the starting line, his or her best insurance for the next four to six seconds consists of a crash helmet, flameproof coveralls, a shoulder harness, and a roll cage. If you don't blow an engine occasionally in this sport, you're probably not trying hard enough.

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The popularity of drag racing lies mostly with the under-40 age group, and although it hasn't made any big spash on television yet, it could in the future. The network people consider the sport's explosive action a natural for their zoom lenses and instant replays.

This year's Winternationals at the L.A. County Fairgrounds, the opening event of the '85 season, drew a turnaway crowd of more than 42,500. Tickets cost $20 to $29 for the competition in which Joe Amato took Top Fuel honors with a speed of 261.17 m.p.h.

The first thing you need to get into drag racing is the key to a bank, something that former National Football League quarterback Dan Pastorini only recently discovered after buying his first racer.

For $100,000 a car, you don't even get a clock on the dashboard. Air conditioning is whatever the weather is that day. Tires and brakes can wear out while a driver is asking one of his pit mechanics what time it is.

While California usually gets credit for inventing drag racing, there is ample reason to believe that most of the rest of the country had it at about the same time -- and that it started everywhere pretty much the same way.

As described in the movie ``Heart Like a Wheel,'' which depicted the life of famed drag racer Shirley Muldowney, it typically began as a teen-age lark. Kids with souped-up old cars would mark off a one-mile strip of straight road in an area not too public and race either for neighborhood bragging rights or maybe a new set of sparkplugs. While the police didn't like it, at least the kids had sense enough to stage their races at midnight.

Watching the Pomona Winternationals from a seat in the grandstand without earplugs is a lot like sitting inside a base drum during the William Tell Overture. The noise is incredible; the smell of the nitromethane fuel barely tolerable; and the tiny specks of rubber thrown off by the cars' spinning back wheels often carry into the grandstand. These rubber particles can be mistaken for running mascara on the faces of spectators.

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Once the starting light flashes green and the driver kicks his car into gear, you're talking about going from 0 to 200 miles an hour in four seconds, or six at the most.

Under these conditions, the quarter-mile macadam strip that makes up the race course can disappear faster than a snowflake hitting a steam-warmed manhole cover. The driver has done his job if he can negotiate his run with the front wheels barely skimming the pavement. In other words, the front wheels should lie no heavier on the track than is necessary to steer the dragster.

Too much thrust and the driver has to deal with a possible backflip of his car or an exploding engine, the heat from which once melted Shirley Muldowney's eyelids together. Drivers also have to fight body-frame shudder, blurred vision, and a feeling not unlike a kick in the pants at the start of their journey.

While all of these cars are equipped with excellent brakes, what really stops them is a parachute that is built into the vehicle's tail section.

To some extent, dragsters resemble an old-fashioned New England church steeple laid on its side, with two bicycle-like wheels supporting the front end and two tires nearly the width of barrels supporting the rear.

The way you get into one of these cars is through a liftout panel in the roof. The way you get out sometimes is as fast as you can. Cockpit space is so limited that almost anyone over 5 ft. 7 in. is going to feel uncomfortable. The steering wheel is shaped like a butterfly and the sound waves these vehicles throw off at the starting line can be felt well into the grandstand.

To be successful, sponsors say, you need a super mechanic who can create horsepower and a super driver who can control it. Winners usually end up either pouring their money into new equipment or improving what they have.

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