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Powell's Senior Trip Is Down a Quarter-Mile Strip

May 30, 1997|SHAV GLICK

In Cristen Powell's life, what's a senior prom when you can go drag racing? At the highest level. And win.

The night Cristen passed up her prom at Jesuit High in Portland, Ore., two weeks ago, she became the second-youngest winner of a National Hot Rod Assn. top-fuel championship race, sweeping four consecutive rounds at the Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J.

It was only her sixth national event.

Along the way, she sidelined defending champion Kenny

Bernstein, Cory McClenathan and current points leader Gary Scelzi before beating Bruce Sarver in the final round.

"No matter what happened, after I beat Kenny, it was a day to remember," Powell said. "I never gave the prom a second thought. Actually, I'm not into that much. I'm never around on weekends to go on dates."

Against Bernstein, a five-time Winston champion, she ran 4.742 seconds in elapsed time to his 4.813.

"Then I beat Cory Mac in the second round, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I'll just keep going,' " she said.

She disposed of McClenathan, who has been in the NHRA's top three in four of the last five years, 4.764 to 5.291, and Scelzi, 4.785 to 5.580.

Against Sarver, in her first final-round appearance, Powell got the jump off the line and was pulling away when her engine blew about 200 feet from the finish line and flames spewed out the rear of her fueler. It was violent enough to blow the crankshaft out the bottom of the engine.

"I just kept going," she said, giggling at the thought. "I was way ahead and the fire sort of blew itself out. It looked pretty exciting, but it wasn't all that dangerous."

She won with 239.61 mph at 4.849 seconds.

Powell was 18 years 2 months old when she won. Coincidentally, it was at the same track, 25 years ago, that Jeb Allen won when he was 18 years 1 month old.

"The kids were really blown away by it when I got to school Tuesday," she said. "It had been all over the papers and TV. I didn't get back Monday from the races like I usually do. We were too busy celebrating. It was real cool."

This weekend, however, she will skip the races at Topeka, Kan., to attend her high school graduation.

"It's tough to miss a race, but school is more important," she said.

Next year, she will enroll at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., where she plans to major in psychology.

"Down the line, I'd like to be a sports psychologist," she said.

Next week, the engaging youngster will be testing at Madison, Ill., to prepare for the Pontiac Nationals at Columbus, Ohio, on June 15.

"We need to figure out why our engines keep blowing," said crew chief Jim Epler, who in 1993 was the first funny car driver to better 300 mph. "We lost five of them at Englishtown: two in qualifying and three on Sunday."

Epler and Cristen's father, Casey, had known one another in the computer business in Portland before Epler decided to go racing full time six years ago. They formed a team to support Cristen last year but sold it earlier this season to racing tycoon Andy Evans, whose Indianapolis-based Team Scandia includes five Indy Racing League cars and several Ferraris that run in the Professional SportsCar (formerly IMSA) series, as well as the top-fuel dragster. Evans also owns the Sebring and Mosport road racing tracks.

"It all started last year at Topeka," Epler said. "I had a new car, and when I crashed, I was really discouraged. Casey Powell was right across the pit area from me. Cristen was driving a top-alcohol car at the time. I told him I was tired of racing on a tight budget and said, 'Why don't we combine our sponsors, put Cristen in the car and go for it?'

"One of our sponsors was Royal Purple motor oil, which Andy owns. One day he came around to watch Cristen and decided he wanted to buy our team. I really didn't want to sell, but Andy can be pretty persuasive."

Powell has been racing since the day before her 16th birthday, March 21, 1995, when her father gave her a trip to Frank Hawley's drag racing school in Gainesville, Fla., as a birthday present.

"I'd been driving since I was 15 1/2, when I got a '67 Camaro that I still drive," Cristen said. "As soon as I started driving, I liked the idea of going fast."

Her father had been a successful top-fuel and funny car racer on the East Coast, but never won a national event.

After a couple of years of racing alcohol cars, Cristen made her NHRA top-fuel debut last February at the Winternationals in Pomona. She surprised everyone but herself when she qualified and beat Larry Dixon in the first round before being eliminated by Bernstein.

Although racing did not become part of her life until she was 16, she has always had a competitive spirit.

From the time she was 6 until she was 15, she rode horses in dressage events.

"I was really into horses until I got my first car," she said. "I guess you could say I traded one horsepower for 5,000."

Her next goal is to run 300 mph.

"I hate it when people ask me if I ever ran 300, and I have to say no. It's kind of embarrassing," she said.

Right. All she has done is 296.


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