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 dad."
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 am 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."