DAN PASTORINI : RIDING THE BULLET : Now That He’s No Longer a Pro Quarterback, He’s Back With First Love--High-Speed Racing

Times Staff Writer

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.

Next for Pastorini was a four-car match-race series last weekend at Bandimere Speedway, a two-lane strip of asphalt that was cut from the side of a hill in a grassy valley about 20 miles southwest of Denver. About 10,000 fans were there on a moonlit Saturday night, many of them lured by Pastorini and the Quarterback Sneak. Fans milled around the car, parked next to its all-black 18-wheel tractor-trailer that Pastorini helps drive from race to race and back home to Memphis. Pastorini’s white T-shirt was smudged with grease and dirt. He packed his own parachutes, designed to slow the car down from 240 m.p.h. to about 70 m.p.h. when normal brakes can take hold. He meticulously measured out his own fuel mixture, seeking the proper combination of nitro and methane to coax 2,500 horsepower from the 580-cubic-inch engine.

The matinee-idol looks of the aging quarterback are still evident, but there were no groupies around his car.

“This,” he said, pointing to Quarterback Sneak, “is my lady now. I don’t have time for anyone else. A race car is a time-consuming thing. If I’m not working on it, I’m looking for parts, or I’m helping haul it, or I’m getting ready to race it. My hands haven’t been clean for six months. Football was different. There always seemed to be plenty of time for women. Too much, sometimes.”

Pastorini got the Quarterback Sneak off the starting line impressively, but the high altitude seemed to bog down the three-year-old car at the far end of the strip. He lost first to Mark Prudhomme of Bakersfield, and to Gene Snow, a veteran who takes time off from his Texas oil business to race.

Pastorini ran a 6.22 at 220.58 m.p.h. It wasn’t good enough as Prudhomme ran 6.02 and 233.76, and Snow was quickest with a 5.81 and 243.24 m.p.h.

“This is a difficult track to figure, because of the altitude and the atmospheric pressure,” Pastorini explained. “It’s a mile high, but sometimes the weather conditions make it seem like it’s a lot higher than that. How you mix the fuel is really critical. We just bogged down. You could hear her start blubbering.

“We’ll be back here at the end of July for the Mile High Nationals, so we looked at tonight as a learning process. We have a lot of match races scheduled, but we need to look impressive at the nationals to get the attention of potential sponsors. The ’86 budgets come out in the next couple of months, and we hope some big company sees us as a marketing vehicle. You can’t run these cars with your own money and stay in business long. We’re like everyone else, we need some serious backing. Today we’re working on a shoestring. Sometimes I think we have the wrong name for the car. It ought to be the Labor of Love.”

The next race: NHRA Summernationals this weekend at Englishtown, N.J.

The Pastorini racing dream began in 1957 in the back of his father’s restaurant in Sonora, a Central California gold-mining town.

“I was 8 when I got my first race car, a little quarter-midget. We had a rodeo arena behind the restaurant, and when my dad quit putting on rodeos, he built a little race track. It probably wasn’t more than 100 yards long, but I loved it. He had to drag me from the track when I was supposed to be at Little League practice.

“Dad used to call me ‘Barney Oldfield’ because I was so hyper on racing. My midget was purple, and he called it the ‘Purple People Eater.’ The racing bug has never left me. I have followed the whole car scene for as long as I can remember. Someday, I’d like to get a couple of guys together and go run Le Mans. And I’d like to run a stock car in NASCAR. I like all kinds of racing. I’m in drag racing because you’ve got to start somewhere, and this is what I know best.”

Pastorini got raves as a baseball pitcher and a football quarterback while attending Bellarmine Prep in San Jose and the University of Santa Clara, but on Saturday nights you could find him at Fremont Raceway running his stock Chevy, a 396 Chevelle, on the drag strip.

In 1976-77 he raced unlimited jet drag boats and was the first driver to break the 9-second barrier with a 8.91-second run at Lake Ming, near Bakersfield. Before he retired, Pastorini had lowered the mark to 8.26 in a 136 m.p.h. run at Waco, Tex.

“Running on the water at 136 is about like 250 on the land,” he said.

Pastorini retired from boat racing after an accident in which his boat careened onto a crowded beach at Liberty, Tex., and killed two people. “Something happened with the steering, and the boat went through the lights sideways. It threw me out of the cockpit and underneath the deck. I was just a passenger (in a runaway boat.) I had no control over where it went.”

Three years later, after Pastorini obtained the Blue Max top fuel dragster from Raymond Beadle, he announced that he was going to race Garlits at Orange County International Raceway on Feb. 23. But the Oilers obtained an injunction preventing him from driving a race car. The claimed it was too dangerous, and a conflict of interest.

“That was about the time my football career began to bottom out,” he said. “I’d been with Houston for eight seasons, and we’d been to the AFC championship finals two years in a row when they traded me to the (Oakland) Raiders for Snake (quarterback Ken Stabler). After I broke my leg, it was all downhill.”

Pastorini started the first five games for the Raiders in 1980 before breaking his leg. The accident opened the door for reserve quarterback Jim Plunkett, who took over and led Oakland to the Super Bowl championship. When Pastorini’s leg healed, he was not called on and was not even activated for the Super Bowl. He watched the game from the sidelines, in street clothes.

“When I got cut from the Raiders, I caught on with the Rams,” he said. “That was a real mistake for both of us. I was no more ready for that team than the man in the moon. It was a big adjustment, pretty much like starting all over. I’d had nine years at Houston and knew what was expected of me. Then I get to L.A., and Ray Malavasi has a whole different idea of the game. After that I bounced around, losing interest in football every day. I was going to play for Dick Vermeil, a guy I really admired, in Philadelphia, and then he up and quit.

“I figured I had one last chance last summer when Bum (Saint Coach Bum Phillips) invited me down to New Orleans for a six week preseason training camp. I thought I might have one more year, but they they brought in Richard Todd, and they had Snake, and Bum told me he couldn’t bring me to camp. I knew that was the end of my football career.”

The first phone call Pastorini made was to Bobby Rowe in Memphis. Rowe was an old boat racing associate who had once been a championship funny car driver.

“I asked Bobby if he wanted to go racing,” Pastorini recalled. “When he said yes, I told him to start hunting around for a top fueler and something to haul it with. We bought the Dago Red operation from Frank Taylor, painted the rig black and sold the race car to (former boat racing champion) Eddie Hill. Then we turned around and bought our car from Gene Snow. I wanted his because he’s a guy with broad shoulders so I could squeeze into the cockpit.”

The result is Pastorini Racing Inc.

“There’s a lot that’s similar to football, in the way you have to plan and be constantly thinking, always looking ahead,” Pastorini said. “A run only lasts a little over 5 1/2 seconds, about as long as a play lasts in football. You have to be aware of everything going on around you--the way a quarterback does. You’ve got to make so many adjustments, reflexes really. You’ve got to have an ear for what’s going on in the engine, and when something’s not right with the car, you have to feel it in your butt.”

The car is a 1983 model built by Al Swindahl, who also built cars for former world champion Shirley Muldowney and current champion Joe Amato. It recorded a 5.44-second run in winning the 1983 International Hot Rod Assn. championship with Richard Tharp driving. Snow bought it last year and then sold it to Rowe and Pastorini.

“We’re finding out things about it every day,” Rowe said. “We found a stress fracture in the front end, so we had a new one put on. For a team that’s only been together six months ago, and two of us working full time in other jobs, I think we’re coming along. I have my crankshaft business in Memphis, and Donnie (Couch) lives in (Diamond Bar) California and is a sales rep. He comes to races on weekends. That leaves Dan and Larry to maintain the car between races.”

Couch, who has been around dragsters for 14 years as a mechanic for Billy Meyer, Tom McEwen and other winning drivers, said he helped out one week and found Pastorini’s intensity so contagious that he decided to stick with the team.

“I can see why he was a leader on the football field,” Couch said. “He’s a rookie in our line, but he has that quality that makes you want to work your tail off for him.”

“I’m a full-time professional racer,” Pastorini said. “Unfortunately, part of my life is still involved with football. With Mr. Al Davis, specifically. If he paid me the money he owes me--more than a million bucks--it would help the car. And my frame of mind.”

Pastorini says he has not been paid since 1980 on a contract he signed with Houston, but that Oakland assumed when he was traded that year.

“That man (Davis) is trying to ruin my life. We took the contract to arbitration and a federal mediator decided in our behalf. Then Davis appealed it to the California Supreme Court and lost again. But he still hasn’t paid me a dime. Now he’s appealing again. It’s a shame a man can’t honor a contract. A man should be as good as his word and his signature. It seems unfair as hell to me. I’m a little guy getting nothing, and he’s sitting there making interest on my money. He treated me like dog dirt in Oakland. When I broke my leg, he looked at me like it was my fault.”

(An attempt to reach Davis to get his reaction to Pastorini’s comments was unsuccessful. A Raider spokesperson said there was “no way” to reach Davis.)

“I worked my butt off for 14 years for that money,” Pastorini said. “You get deferred compensation and you think you and your family are sitting pretty good and then you can’t collect it. It’s frustrating. Now I have to liquidate what assets I have to keep going. I’ve got my place in Steamboat Springs (Colo.), and my house in Houston up for sale. Right now, I’m living in Memphis with Bobby (Rowe).

“One thing’s for damned sure: I will survive.”