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Drive : For years, Sterling Taylor dreamed of drag racing. Now he lives that dream. 'I have : gone nowhere near fast enough yet,' he says.


Sterling Taylor sat in his fuchsia, blue and silver Oldsmobile Cutlass dragster, and recalled his father's reaction the first time he watched Taylor race.

"He came back over to the pits and he was as white as a ghost. I am serious, he was white as that fluorescent lamp," Taylor said, gesturing toward the ceiling of the El Rio shop where he works on his car.

"I said, 'What's wrong?' He said, 'How fast were you going when you came by me?' I said, 'Probably about 225 m.p.h.' He said, 'I never had anything come at me that fast in my whole life, and then I stopped for just a second to realize--that's my son.' "

The 45-year-old Taylor said his father has "mellowed" since then and has come to accept that, yes, his son--not the Roadrunner--is zipping down the quarter-mile track. It's a good thing, too, because Taylor intends to make a habit out of this kind of thing.

Taylor, his wife, Linda, his 18-year-old son, Mark, and longtime friend Greg Layton make up the Tri-T Racing team. Any doubts that racing would be a family affair ended when the elder Taylors honeymooned at a drag racing school in Gainesville, Fla., in 1989.

For the past 1 1/2 years Taylor has competed in the Pro Sportsman class, Alcohol Funny Car division. The National Hot Rod Assn. is composed of three classes: Pro, Pro Sportsman and Sportsman. Each class is broken down into several divisions. Some cars run on gas, others run on nitromethane, and two types of cars run on alcohol. The season includes regional and national events.

In his division, Taylor has made his mark. On his one-year anniversary, he won a competition in Palmdale, defeating veteran Lou Gasparelli. National Dragster magazine called Taylor one of 1991's "pleasant surprises."

Two weeks before the NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, the first national event of 1992, Taylor discussed the sport to which he is dedicating most of his time and nearly all of his money.

"This car has written on the back of it, 'Proof positive, dreams can come true.' For 20 years I've just dreamed about this," he said. "My favorite part is getting in this thing, firing it up and driving it. I have gone nowhere near fast enough yet."

Taylor's best speed is 228.41 m.p.h. To approach the 290 m.p.h. he dreams about, he would have to use nitromethane, and that would take a major infusion of money.

Just to remain competitive in his own class, Taylor will need to line up a few dedicated sponsors. He works full time on racing, having put his Tri-T engineering operation, a machinery analysis business, on hold. The steadiest income is from his wife's job as a civil engineer in Encino.

As illustrated by the McDonald's, Jolly Rancher, Valvoline, Castrol GTX Motor Oil, Budweiser, Quaker State, Planters, and assorted other advertisements plastered on dragsters worldwide, participants are at least as concerned about the bottom line as they are about the finish line.

"Winning is great, but it's not everything," Taylor said. "It just means that we recouped a little bit more of our expenses." Pleasing the sponsor, whether by winning or simply by being visible, is essential--especially for those who, like Taylor, have tight racing budgets.

Taylor explained that more money from sponsors means better parts, which means faster times, which means more success, which means more money. It's an intricate chain of events.

The other side of the ledger, however, is simple: No money, no racing. Taylor said it costs him about $1,000 per weekend competition, and it took an additional $2,000 to prepare the car for the Winternationals.

Linda Taylor, who has a master's degree in business administration, heads up the marketing side of the business. Much time is spent searching for sponsors who will provide the needed cash or donate actual necessities, such as tires.

"We watch the Fortune 500 real close," Taylor said. "We're looking for companies we think need the promotion."

Plenty has gone into building Tri-T's image. The car's pop-up roof hatch has the words "Say No to Drugs" on it, which comes in handy during Taylor's many public appearances. Taylor also is involved in community affairs, like last year's Christmas for Children charity drive in Simi Valley. Handshaking and autograph signing are required skills.

"It all kind of ties together," Linda Taylor said. "The more services you provide, the more sponsorship money you'll get, and the more likely you are to go fast."

The car's image is also important. Taylor's Oldsmobile was designed to look good on film. It has been called one of the more attractive cars on the circuit. Of course, looks aren't everything. The Taylors also need spare parts.

Fellow drag racer Cruz Pedregon of Moorpark can appreciate the situation. Pedregon now races for the McDonald's team in the Top Fuel Funny Car category. As he said, money is no object. But that wasn't always the case.

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