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 yard.
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."