DENVER — Athletes switching sports is not too unusual. Ellsworth Vines and Althea Gibson went from tennis to golf, Eric Heiden from speed skating to cycling and Bob Hayes and Renaldo Nehemiah from track to football.
But professional football to top fuel drag racing?
Dan Pastorini, 13 years an NFL quarterback, retired from football last August and the next day launched a career at drag racing's top-of-the-line level. Now every weekend, and sometimes on warm, summer evenings in between, Pastorini straps his 6-foot 3-inch, 200-pound frame into the envelope-like cockpit of a long, black dragster that catapults him down a quarter-mile stretch of asphalt at speeds upward of 245 m.p.h. On the sides of the 250-inch missile are the words Quarterback Sneak. On the front of the cockpit, in big block letters, is the word Dante .
Dante Anthony Pastorini, 36, is on a new high--and this one has nothing to do with women, booze, blitzing linebackers or 70-yard touchdown passes. Pastorini is still living life in the fast lane, but the lane is a drag strip, not a night club.
"This isn't something new, as far as I'm concerned," Pastorini said as he wiped the dust off his new car, as proudly as if it were a new Ferrari. "Racing is something I've wanted to do since I was 8 years old. It's just that I finally have the time to concentrate on it. It's definitely not a lark; it's serious business to me."
Pastorini's biggest problem is credibility. Many people, when they hear about him turning race driver, don't take him seriously. He knows it. He tells this story:
"I was down at Baton Rouge for the Cajun Nationals with my elbows knee-deep in grease when a National Hot Rod Assn. official came up and said, 'Are you Dan Pastorini?' I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'I'll be darned. I expected to see you drive up to the starting line in a stretch limo, get out wearing a white driver's suit with sequins on it, and a blonde on each arm. I thought you'd step in the machine, drive it down the track, get back in the limo and be gone until the next run.' "
His first open competition run in a top fuel dragster was only last May 4 in the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships--the old March Smokers Meet--at the Famoso strip north of Bakersfield, Calif. But already Pastorini and his crew of Bobby Rowe, Donnie Couch and Larry Cook have impressed insiders with their professionalism.
"I've got to say I'm impressed at this point," said Gary Beck, a two-time world top fuel champion. "I watched him while he was racing at Bakersfield, and he looked good. He's taking it easy, not rushing anything, and he's keeping a good pace so that he can get his feet on the ground."
Pastorini posted his fastest time at Bakersfield, when he qualified fourth in a 30-car field with an elapsed time of 5.76 seconds at 245 m.p.h. He lost in the first round to Ron Smith of Renton, Wash., after both ran identical 5.91s.
"What's riding that fast feel like?" Pastorini said rhetorically. "It's like riding on a bullet. There's nothing else like it."
At Columbus, Ohio, for the NHRA Springnationals, Pastorini lined up for a qualifying run, and saw Don Garlits, at 55 the guru of drag racing, lined up beside him. Pastorini ran a 5.86 and got to the line first.
"It was like the first time I ever played (Joe) Namath," Pastorini said. "I know qualifying means nothing, as far as winning or losing, but I got the same thrill out of it as I did the first time I beat Namath. That was an exhibition and didn't mean anything, either, but both gave me a tremendous personal feeling of achievement."
Garlits apparently liked what he saw, but he also had a word of warning for the newcomer.
"He's coming along nicely," Garlits said. "One thing I recommend: he should always be really careful, especially while he's learning. These cars can get real mean on occasion. He hasn't been out of shape yet or had the car in trouble. You can tell a lot about a driver under those conditions. But so far, so good.
"He's not really consistent yet off the starting line, but that could be because he's worried about the car, making sure everything's all right, things like the gauges. I'll go out on a limb. All things being equal, unless he comes into a situation where everyone breaks or red lights, I say it'll be another year before he wins a big race. I think he'll go a few rounds at the big NHRA national events, but it'll be awhile before he's able to consistently deal with the Becks and Garlitses. He's off to a good start, though."
Two weeks ago, in Houston, where Pastorini worked for eight years as the Oiler quarterback, he made the biggest splash of his racing career. Pastorini set a top fuel track record of 5.88 seconds at Houston International Raceway--a track rarely used for top fuel dragsters--in beating Buddy Warren in a match race.