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BILL DWYRE

Antron Brown favored to win top-fuel title

Two years after an accident in which a race spectator was killed by a tire that flew off his car, Brown is poised to become the first African American to win an auto racing championship.

February 10, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • NHRA top fuel racing driver Antron Brown has a passion for speed.
NHRA top fuel racing driver Antron Brown has a passion for speed. (Mark J. Rebilas / U.S. Presswire )

On Feb. 21, it will be two years since Antron Brown and Susan Zimmer never met and became joined forever. It was Brown's 200th-something National Hot Rod Assn. event, Zimmer's first.

Brown is a drag racer, one of the best on the NHRA circuit. He drives in what is known as a top-fuel dragster, the sexiest class of racing on the 23-event national circuit that begins this weekend at Fairplex in Pomona, and will end with its grand finale right back there Nov. 8-11.

The top-fuel dragster is long and skinny, with a 7,000-horsepower engine behind the driver's cockpit. The rear wheels are huge; the front pair look like your 2-year-old's training wheels. The racer brings to mind the famous column written years ago by The Times' late, great Jim Murray as a preview to an Indy 500. Murray began with: "Gentlemen, start your coffins."

Brown describes his first session in a top-fuel dragster as "mind-boggling," and adds, "There's nothing on the planet to compare to it."

He talks about G-forces as the car leaves the starting line, then more when the clutch engages about halfway through the 1,000-foot course with the car already going 250 miles an hour. They can go from zero to 100 in slightly less than one second.

"We are carrying roughly the same horsepower," he says, "as you'd have if you add up the first five rows of a side-by-side NASCAR race start."

When Brown went to the starting line on Feb. 21, 2010, in a first-round race, he was somebody to watch, already a title contender in top fuel, even though the season had just begun. He was eight days from his 34th birthday, but had been an NHRA veteran in the motorcycle division since 1998. He was a top athlete in New Jersey, even turning in a 10.2-second clocking in the 100 meters, good enough for a shot at the Olympic trials.

But he grew up watching his dad and uncle drag race on weekends, and began riding a motorcycle for NHRA events when a distant relative, former NFL cornerback Troy Vincent, started a team. Brown raced for Team 23, Vincent's NFL number, for 10 seasons before being recruited to move to top fuel.

That was an unusual move, needing a special athlete and personality. Brown was both and was immediately successful, becoming the first to win in Pro Stock Motorcycles and top fuel. That was 2008 and by the time he got to the grand finale at Pomona last year, he might have won the championship, had he not lost a second-round match to Larry Dixon.

As the season begins anew at Pomona, he is favored to win it all this year. That would give NHRA something rare in all of auto racing — a black face in the championship seat. For Brown, the hard work, team support of his crew and the simple joy of prevailing in a national-level competition resonate more than any racial milestones.

He is fond of saying, "I'm just an American."

Zimmer liked racing. She was 52, a receptionist in a dental office in Rice Lake, Wis., and on vacation in the Phoenix area to see family and friends. Two years before, she had lost her husband, a Rice Lake firefighter, to cancer.

Her boyfriend, Jim Lathrop, had been to previous NHRA events and took Zimmer along that day. She was walking near the grandstand as Brown focused on the starting lights on the pole in front of him. Races are won and careers are made in this sport by 1/1,000th of a second, and Brown's athletic quickness at moments such as this was, and still is, exceptional.

The race began in the usual explosion of ear-shattering noise and sensory-challenging blurs. One hundred miles an hour in the first second and the speed would increase 200 mph more.

Then something went wrong. Brown's car vibrated, the left rear wheel came off, his dragster got sideways on the track and flipped over and over. The huge wheel that had separated and was bouncing down the track in the same direction as the flipping car, caught up, hit Brown's car again and used it as a catapult.

The cement wall kept Brown's now fiery car from somersaulting off the track or he would not be with us today. Even then, he hit the wall at 138 mph.

"It's the worst accident I ever had," Brown says. "Somehow, I got through it. When I saw the fire, I got out as fast as I could. I realized everything was moving, that I was OK."

In the ambulance, he was told a woman had been hit by his flying tire. Zimmer had been airlifted to a hospital and died there.

In the aftermath, Brown found Lathrop and they talked.

"It was like four or five times, on the phone," Brown says. "Each time was at least 45 minutes. He helped me, I helped him."

Time passes, but doesn't heal all. Brown is in the prime of his career, pursuing a major goal. But he isn't doing it in a vacuum, certainly not as somebody who blithely puts bad things behind them. He never met Zimmer, but she is there.

"It is the kind of thing that stays with you forever," Brown says.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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