Young and Fuelish

Another day at the office: Shelly Anderson slams her foot down and the ground shakes. The stench of tire smoke and the sting of burning nitromethane shoot into the crowd. Almost 6,000 horsepower--enough to drive an ocean liner--leaps into the rear wheels, and five G's of force smash Shelly deep into the seat padding. She steers straight and true and less than five seconds later roars to a top end of...what? Three hundred and sixteen miles an hour? Three eighteen and change? She's become one with a fire-belching red, white and blue smear of magnesium thirty feet long. Lightning itself couldn't catch her. Couldn't catch her brother Randy, either.

But there's no outrunning Dad.
"He's the boss," Shelly says. "He's always been the boss."
"I'm an employee," Randy Anderson adds. "I'm paid by my dad. I get a weekly paycheck, and I leave the rest of the financial stuff to him."

As any true gearhead can tell you, Shelly and Randy Anderson are the only brother-and-sister act in big-time drag racing. Their dad is Brad Anderson, who in the 1980s drove his Alcohol Funny Car to three national championships. And it's clear that they're trying to live up to a legend.

"Can't be easy," another NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series driver says. "We travel a lot [23 tour stops in ten months], but it's a small world. Especially for them."

So small, in fact, that both Andersons drive for the Parts America Motorsports team owned and operated by their father. So small that Shelly competes in a Top Fuel Dragster while Randy campaigns a Top Alcohol Funny Car. That way, they never have to meet in the fast lane. There's too much old sibling rivalry for that--and too much affection. "We've never raced against each other, and we never will," Shelly says. "My dad made sure we drove different types of cars."

"I can assure you," Randy adds coolly, "that if we raced in the same category, we wouldn't be sitting here together right now."

She is 32, he is eighteen months older, and they are both strikingly good-looking people with searing blue eyes. They were born in Denver and raised in Southern California, the ultimate hotbed of American car culture. But don't expect to hear any tales of flaming youth on the freeways from either Anderson. "Before I drag-raced, I never street-raced in my whole life," Randy says. "Never even considered it. Until I had a race car and did it the right way, I never gave it a thought. Look at it that way and I guess it's kind of strange that I do what I do."

Any concerned relative ever point out that drag racing can be, well, dangerous? "Are you kidding?" Randy laughs. "Never. It runs in our family."

So does the spirit of fierce competition. Shelly still shoots her brother a look when she recalls how he used to knock her off her bike when, at seven and eight years old, they competed on two wheels. But there were no automotive shenanigans in her adolescence, either. "We weren't allowed to," she says bluntly. "Neither of us ever drove until we had our permits, and we never drove without our parents until we had our driver's licenses. If we'd ever been caught street-racing, we would never have gotten near drag racing. Dad told us that. He was very strict, so I don't think we ever misbehaved."

What the Anderson kids did do was hang around drag strips with their father, first polishing the car, later working on the crew. "I don't know if we've got nitro in our blood," Randy says, "but we were definitely born with racing. I've been going to the races as long as I can remember."

Was it pre-ordained, then, that the next generation of Andersons would wind up going to work in flameproof suits?

Only if you were a boy. "Our parents wanted us to do what we wanted. If we wanted to be lawyers, doctors or plumbers, that would have been fine with them," Randy says. "My mother always made that clear."

"Not my dad," Shelly interjects. "He didn't want me to race. Girls can get hurt, boys can't--that kind of thing. It was Dad, and that's fine. But he made me find a sponsor first. And he made me graduate from college. He was really different with me."

But once Shelly Anderson got to the strip, she found that racers are racers. "I'll tell you," she says. "Drag racing is very, very fair. Very open. We put on our helmets and go racing--it's not a gender thing at all."

She is one of five women to win an NHRA event in the professional ranks; the pioneering Shirley Muldowney (subject of the movie Heart Like a Wheel), Lucille Lee and Lori Jones preceded her. In her fifth season, 1996, Shelly scored wins at Richmond and Seattle, set an NHRA national speed record in Texas (316.23 miles per hour) and finished eighth in the Winston Top Fuel points. She was also interviewed on the Leeza TV show and for feature stories in USA Today and Cosmopolitan. Dad was awfully proud.

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