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.
Since then, though, success has been scarce. In 1997, his rookie year in the category, Randy finished sixth in the Nitro Funny Car standings on the strength of two wins, four final-round appearances and three top qualifying positions. Shelly's season was a disaster of slowness. In 1998, both Andersons have been experiencing dismal seasons. Going into the Mile High Nationals last weekend at Bandimere Speedway near Morrison, neither driver was a blip on the NHRA points screen behind Top Fuel leader Joe Amato or Funny Car master John Force.
The Andersons looked pretty unhappy about it last Thursday afternoon.
Desperate, the team has even hired a new crew chief for Randy: ex-Funny Car champ Jim Dunn. "I don't expect any miracles," the driver said, "but I think we were behind on technology. We can make all the excuses we want, but we were behind. And I think we're going to see some major changes in direction here."
Does that mean a sudden case of fast forward? And a grin on Dad's face?
Maybe not this year. But the children of the father have been around long enough to know what's important in a sport in which impatience can mean danger, and defiance--never at the top of Dad's list--can be fatal. "You have to be comfortable and relaxed in your car," Shelly explains. "At 300 miles an hour, you don't have time to think. If you're stiff or you're scared, you'll get hurt if things go wrong. And they do go wrong. They've gone wrong for me [translation: a sickening upside-down crash at Brainerd, Minnesota, in 1996]. So now I know: You don't have time to think. Your reflexes must take over, because you're relaxed."
It probably doesn't hurt, either, that there's a little nitro in the blood. The stuff passed from parent to child. Even if one of the children was a girl. And Dad always will be the boss.
He looks tan and rested and well, kind of papal now, four-time Indy car champion Mario Andretti does.
But in the four years since his retirement, the fires inside the greatest race driver in U.S. history have not completely gone out. The winner of 100 major races and one of just two American Formula One champions, Andretti still lives life on the apex through his son Michael's campaign on the CART/Indy circuit. And he still slips now and then into the cockpit of a beast.
Two years back he drove a full-blooded Newman-Hass Indy racer as a camera car in the new IMAX film Super Speedway, and in the film's last sequence, he piloted the old Indy roadster in which he began his big-race career. Last month he was reunited, in Goodwood, England, with the famous black Lotus 79 in which he won his F1 title twenty years ago. "I stretched its legs pretty well," he said. "I remembered how to drive it." And since giving up open-wheelers, he's competed three times at Le Mans, putting in his shifts at the wheel of a big sports car.
But at 58, Mario Andretti knows. At the Denver Museum of Natural History the other day, he had this to say:
"Quite honestly, I retired for a very good reason. I thought it was time. It was a difficult call, because when you still feel healthy and you can still get the job done even though you've lost some of the edge, because you can make up here and there--you know that, at age 54, in any competitive sport, you're pushing the envelope. I was fortunate to be in the sport for so long and spared--knock on wood--serious injury. I drove for that long because I really loved it. Because of that, you say: Maybe I could do a little more. But I'm restraining myself from that temptation. So I try to scratch the itch a little bit with some of the long-distance sports-car races."
He stopped for a moment, as if considering the invisible stopwatch keeping track of his life: "I can probably keep that alive for another year or two." And then, he acknowledged, he'll repair to the garage for good.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.