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Original Issue


Consider the burdens that weighed upon 18-year-old Cristen
Powell as she approached the starting line late this morning at
Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. Last night
she skipped her senior prom for Portland Jesuit High to qualify
at the Mopar Parts Nationals. Final exams and graduation were
only a week away, and she knew that when she returned to school
at 7:45 a.m. tomorrow, Mr. Langsdorf--"Some students call him
Langsdork," she says, "but not to his face"--was not likely to
accept as an excuse for unfinished precalculus homework, I was
competing in an NHRA Top Fuel dragster event. Plus, she had to
sing in the choir concert in three days. Finally, wasn't that
defending Top Fuel champion Kenny Bernstein, who began his pro
career a decade before Cristen was born, in the lane opposite
her in this first single-elimination heat?

Why, even Cristen's father, Casey, the CEO of Sequent computer
systems, seemed to have bowed to the odds against her. He had a
board meeting scheduled in London on Monday morning and had
booked himself out on a flight from New York at 4:30 p.m.--the
same time as the fourth, and championship, heat. Cristen, too,
knew what she was up against. "I'm beginning to realize," she
said just an hour before facing Bernstein, "that this is a job."

How many teens have a job that involves driving but not
delivering pizzas? Or go out and smoke four seasoned drivers,
including Bernstein and this year's points leader, 36-year-old
Gary Scelzi? Or cover the quarter mile in 4.849 seconds (239.6
mph) in the final round to earn $40,000 and become the
second-youngest racer ever to win an NHRA dragster event? Casey
raced from 1969 to '73 but never won. "I used to be Casey
Powell," said the father afterward. "Now I'm Cristen Powell's

In a sport in which racers are propelled from zero to 300 mph in
roughly four seconds, Cristen's nitro-boosted ascendance has
been the talk of the pits. On March 21, 1995--one day shy of her
16th birthday and not yet in possession of a driver's
license--the "world's fastest and quickest teenager," as the
back of her trailer bills her, sat in a dragster for the first
time, at the Frank Hawley School of Drag Racing, in Gainesville,
Fla. The three-day course was a present from Casey (Cristen's
parents are divorced), who 10 years earlier had given her
horse-riding lessons for her birthday and had seen her go on to
win the national championship in dressage at age 13. "I traded
in one horse," she says, "for 5,000."

Six months later Cristen, who by then had earned both her
driver's license and her first speeding ticket (81 mph in a 55
zone), graduated to Top Alcohol cars and become the youngest
person ever to earn a No. 1 qualifying position, with a
5.70-second run in Topeka, Kans. She returned to Topeka the next
year and drove to the fastest clocking (5.443 seconds) in the
history of Top Alcohol cars. It was time for Cristen to graduate
to Top Fuel, the fastest dragsters.

As Cristen pulled her chute following her championship run on
Sunday, Casey--who had changed his flight to 7:40
p.m.--reflected on the family racing legacy. "Twenty-four years
ago I ran my last race on this very track, in this same event,
in the same lane," he said. "Blew out my engine in qualifying
and decided to hang up my helmet."

Then Casey gazed at his giggling daughter, the one who has
confounded the grizzled vets of the straightaways to become the
NHRA's youngest female winner in history, but whose black '67
Camaro is in the shop. ("I rear-ended someone and caused a
four-car accident.") He picked up his cell phone. "Cancel that
evening flight," he said, and then mentioned one of the few
things on earth faster than the youngest of his three daughters.
"I'll catch the Concorde in the morning."


COLOR PHOTO: MARK SULLIVAN/THE HOME NEWS & TRIBUNE [Dragster being driven by Cristen Powell]