Because the sport is so loud, because it involves so little
geometry and because it's over and done with in a blur, drag
racing appears easily mastered: Just floor the car's accelerator
and hope to hell that your parachutes deploy. But watching Larry
Nance's intense preparation before a race, it is immediately
clear that there are as many subtleties to this sport as to any
other. "Literally thousands of things can go wrong," says Nance
as he tightens the valves on his engine. "The difference in
times between the top guys and the guys who don't qualify can be
hundredths of a second, so one little glitch can mean everything."
Moments later, amid a black cloud of nitromethane, methanol
exhaust and burned tire rubber noxious enough to trigger an EPA
alarm bell, Nance maneuvers his long body into the driver's seat
of his Pro Stock car for a trial run. His time of 7.001 seconds
and top speed of 197.41 miles per hour seem fast enough, but as
he emerges from his car, the look he gives his crew member, Kirk
Gisi, is one of profound concern. Nance's assessment of his ride
is peppered with words like Gilmer belt, magnaflux and dry sump.
Asked to simplify his explanation, Nance graciously complies:
"Basically, I should have gone faster."
Say this about Nance, the former NBA All-Star with the Phoenix
Suns and the Cleveland Cavaliers: He is hardly a former athlete
who has a difficult time adjusting to life outside the public
eye. "If it works out, this is something I wouldn't mind doing
for the rest of my life," says Nance, 40, who lives in Akron and
still works for the Cavs as a part-time scout. "A lot of guys
get done playing basketball and don't know what to do with
themselves, so they keep looking to fill that void. I feel lucky
that I've found something that gives me the same rush as being
in a playoff game."
Nance comes by this midcourse correction honestly. His late
father, Mack, worked as a truck driver and mechanic in Anderson,
S.C., and Larry fondly remembers whiling away lazy afternoons
tinkering on cars that were up on blocks in the family's front
Nance was the Suns' first-round pick out of Clemson in 1981 and
won the NBA's inaugural slam dunk contest three seasons later,
beating Julius Erving in the finals. Around the same time, he
discovered the Firebird Raceway outside Phoenix. As word of
Nance's infatuation spread, the Suns' brass tried desperately to
persuade the star forward to limit his high-speed drives to the
hardwood. "Larry was a great player and is still one of my
favorite guys," says Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, who was then the
team's general manager. "But his love of cars and driving fast
sure scared the heck out of us."
Unbeknownst to his employers, Nance purchased a street rod and
then a Camaro dragster. The plan was simple: A friend would
transport the car to Firebird, and then Nance would sneak in and
take a quick spin. "I got busted bad, though," he says with a
wide grin. "One day this camera crew was out at the track
filming, and they came up to the car and asked what I was doing.
I said, 'Oh, I'm just watching.' The only problem was that I was
strapped into the car at the time."
After chronic knee injuries forced Nance to retire from the
Cavaliers in 1994, he formed the Catch-22 racing team, a nod not
to the Joseph Heller novel but to the number on his NBA uniform,
which now hangs from the rafters in Cleveland's Gund Arena. With
blessings from his wife, Jaynee, and their children--Casey
Marie, now 9, and Larry Jr., 6--Nance launched his second career
in April 1996 at the International Hot Rod Association's All Pro
Winter Nationals in Darlington, S.C. He ended up taking first
place with a top speed of 202.79 mph.
The win convinced him that he could compete at the sport's
highest level. "Just like I wanted to play basketball in the NBA
and not the CBA, I decided to move up to the NHRA," says Nance,
who has finished in 25th place in the point standings for the
last two years. "I thought that Catch-22 was going to take the
racing world by storm."
What he soon found was the real Catch-22 of the NHRA: economics.
In the monetary sinkhole of drag racing, where an engine costs
upward of $100,000, a chassis costs another $80,000 and tires go
for $350 apiece, only a driver subsidized by a major sponsor can
compete full time. Sponsors want to see results before they
invest a small fortune in a driver, but unaffiliated racers have
inferior equipment and fewer crew members, and are thus at a
nearly insurmountable competitive disadvantage.
Nance, who has invested more than $1 million of his own money
into his need for speed, has several "associate agreements," as
he calls them, including a recently signed pact with the
automotive parts company Mopar, but he is still looking for
major sponsorship, typically around $800,000 annually. "It makes
all the difference in the world," he says. "For example, guys
with sponsors can buy five or six engines, so they can make a
lot of practice runs. Well, I have only one engine, which I
can't afford to wear out, so the first run I make is in the
qualifying rounds. I thought with my basketball name and the
exposure I get at the track, it would be easy to find a sponsor.
But it's tough, because companies first sponsor NASCAR teams,
then they look at Top Fuel cars and Pro Stock is a distant third."
In addition to his quest for a major sponsor, Nance is faced
with the more exigent task of jamming his 6'10", 230-pound frame
into the cockpit, which makes him look as if he's driving a
bumper car at the county fair. In a sport in which the top
competitors are roughly the size of jockeys, Nance's car is
customized to accommodate his build. Even so, he drives with his
knees practically rubbing against his chin. "I'm only in the car
for a few seconds, so I can handle it," he says, "but being this
big definitely helped me more in basketball than in this sport."
Aside from his height, Nance is also an anomaly at the track
because of his race. Oddly, the only other black Pro Stock
driver is Tom Hammonds, a forward for the Minnesota
Timberwolves, who, competing in the circuit's summer events,
finished 1998 ranked 29th. Not only does Nance claim that he has
never encountered any trace of racism at the track, but he also
bridles at the suggestion that the folks in the bleachers are
mostly sunburned Bubbas whose idea of higher math is beef jerky
plus Dr Pepper equals breakfast. "I know the sport has sort of a
redneck reputation, but it's really not like that at all," says
Nance. "I've met some of the most classy people I know through
racing, and I enjoy the fans wherever I go."
The admiration is mutual. Nance is a popular attraction and has
endeared himself to the other drivers, too. "When he first
started competing in NHRA events, we all figured Larry couldn't
have been all that good a basketball player, because he has
absolutely no ego," says Jim Yates, the world champion driver in
two of the last three years. "It wasn't until we saw him in the
car that it became clear that he is a great athlete. He has
unbelievable hand-eye coordination, and he has some of the best
reaction times out here."
Unfortunately for Nance, in pro drag racing, racers who don't
make it past the qualifying rounds earn no prize money. Only the
16 drivers in the finals make a check. So far this season Nance,
who is driving a 1999 Dodge, has qualified for the first round
once and earned $4,000.
That, however, doesn't deter Nance and his Catch-22 team. At
least until the money runs dry, he has no intention of slowing
COLOR PHOTO: ED NESSEN
"I've met some of the most classy people I know through
racing," Nance says.
"I feel lucky I've found something that gives me the same rush
as being in a playoff game."