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Drag Racer Puts New Meaning to 'Growing Up Fast'

November 26, 1987|SHELDON ITO | Times Staff Writer

A fast car. A car crouched low in front but high in the rear like a sprinter in starting blocks, its engine crackling like thunder, its fat tires ready to gobble pavement.

A lot of American boys just dream of having that kind of car. Richard Gottlieb, a 17-year-old Beverly Hills High School senior, isn't just dreaming.

On weekends, he often can be found behind the wheel of an 1,100-horsepower, 1987 Pro Stock Camaro drag racer, blasting through quarter-miles in 7.64 seconds at 186 miles per hour

More than a rich kid with a $100,000 car, Gottlieb is by far the youngest driver in one of drag racing's most competitive circuits: National Hot Rod Assn. (NHRA) Pro Stock.

Bob Lambeck, a former NHRA record-holder who coaches Gottlieb, said "R. J.," as the teen-ager is often called, is driving extremely well for someone his age.

"I've been driving these cars for 25 years, and I can't do nearly as well as he is doing," Lambeck said.

At the NHRA Winston Finals in Pomona recently, Gottlieb posted times of 7.69 seconds and 7.64 seconds in the standing quarter-mile, good enough to rank him 27th out of a field of 38.

But, in a sport where a few thousandths of a second separates winners from losers, the efforts were far short of the 7.56 it would take to reach the 16-car elimination round.

"Every time I go out there, I learn more and more," said Gottlieb during an interview at his family's Beverly Hills home. "For as long as we've been doing it, we've been doing it well, but we're constantly getting better."

Gottlieb said his racing career started when his father, Dan, a Beverly Hills contractor, took him to the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Sonoma for his 16th birthday.

The two became hooked on racing after that. Dan, who grew up racing against friends in Chicago, bought a 1971 Boss Mustang to race in the NHRA's Super Stock division. He took it to Lambeck's machine shop in Northridge and soon thereafter the Lambeck-Gottlieb racing team was born.

"I've always really liked cars," said the younger Gottlieb, photos of a Ferrari Daytona and Lamborghini Countach hanging behind him on his bedroom wall. "(But) all of this with the drag racing kind of grew and grew. I never thought when I was 15 that we were going to get this far."

Gottlieb is the top driver for Lambeck-Gottlieb, racing in the Pro Stock division. His father, Lambeck and driver Ralph Van Paepeghem race the team's three other cars in lower divisions.

"He's a better driver than I am," said Dan Gottlieb, 47, at the pit area in Pomona. "He uses good judgment, which, for 17, is hard to find."

He motioned toward the red Pro Stock Camaro with "R. J. Gottlieb" painted on the window. "He's driving this car as good as you can ask," he said.

R. J. may be even better at stock car racing. In September, driving a 1969 Camaro powered by an 800-horsepower engine, he beat six other drivers in the 25-mile Los Angeles Vintage Grand Prix at Willow Springs.

Earlier that month, he placed second in a field of 60 cars in a 125-mile open-road race in Mexico, the La Carrera Classic.

Gottlieb said he would have won if it weren't for fuel problems, explaining that a clogged fuel line starved the engine and cut his speed.

"The car would top out at like 130 or 140, whereas the beginning of the race we were hitting 190," he said.

"We were actually in the lead in the beginning, then, when we slowed down, a car passed us and we missed first place by two seconds," he said. "That was kind of depressing, but the next one I think we should win."

Like many high school seniors, Gottlieb said he is unsure of what he wants to do with his life. He said he will apply to UC schools and probably take business courses in college.

Professional racing, he said, is a difficult career.

"It's something I would do if I had the chance," he said. "But whether I could ever make a living at it or not, I don't know."

"Pro stock is real competitive," he said. "Most of the guys there, that's how they make their living. That's all they do. After the race, they go home and take apart the engine, and their lives are just getting five more horsepower out of the engine. But that's what wins races in pro stock."

He said he is just thankful for the opportunity he is enjoying now, racing against the pros.

"There are a lot of people who want to do it, but never get the chance," he said. "I talk to most of my friends and their parents don't even want to buy them a fast car. Not that it's too expensive or anything; it's just that they think it's too dangerous or something.

"The fact that my dad would let me do this and be so enthusiastic about it, I think it's great."

Apparently his mother is not quite as enthusiastic. The sport's dangers may have been impressed upon her after Gottlieb walked away from a crash in Mexico earlier this year. A steering part had failed and sent his Camaro into a cliff at 140 miles an hour.

Asked what his mother thought of his racing, he replied, "I think if it was up to her, she'd prefer me not to, but she came and saw this last race up in Willow Springs. For her, it was pretty exciting because I won.

"But I guess being a mother, she's a little apprehensive. Every time I go, she says, 'Oh, be careful' and all that."

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