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Pomona not a drag for Austin and crew

On a shoestring budget, Mike Austin and his drag-racing crew could go one of two ways:

They could hang with the big boys.

They could hang themselves.

In a series of events on one of the sport's grandest stages, the unsung underdogs from Medford scripted a pretty fair success story.

Their shoestring became a lifeline.

Austin, who owns Lad Automotive, took his top-alcohol dragster to the National Hot Rod Association Winternationals last week at Pomona Raceway in California.

He endured a frustrating start, smoking the tires on his first run, then, after attaining his goal of qualifying for the elimination rounds, avoided serious damage when a parachute was slow to open.

Austin lost his first-round match in the NHRA's season-opening event, but it earned him &

36;1,700, which will go a long way toward financing the team's next race in Las Vegas the first week of April.

In a business in which one six-second pass costs roughly &

36;1,000, the role of finances can't be overstated.

Financially, it's been tough just trying to make it in that class, admits Austin, who bought his dragster in 2001 because it was the only way he was going to gain experience as a driver. It's a pretty wealthy class, but we do the best we can with what we have. We have the smallest trailer in the class and the smallest crew in the class.

And, arguably, the most incentive.

Austin, 34, has raced all manner of cars since 1984 and started his drag-racing career with a bracket dragster at Southern Oregon Dragway.

He got his first big break in 1993, when John Shoemaker of the American Eagle Racing Team in Sacramento, Calif., enlisted him as the crew chief for his top-alcohol dragster.

He did that for five years and continued to race his own cars ' the bracket dragster and in the Volkswagen class in which he first began.

However, Austin yearned to race his own top-alcohol dragster.

So he bought a car.

He enjoyed enough success in 2001 and last year to land parts sponsorships from Otten Distributing and Crane Cams. That helps, as will funds he'll receive for exhibitions this summer at Southern Oregon Dragway.

But the team, which plans to compete in only three national events this year and a handful of divisional races, was at a crossroads early this month as the Winternationals approached.

Austin and his crew ' Jim Young, the clutch man; Ronnie Mankins, the bottom end the motor's left side; and Jorge Malfabon, the bottom end and the motor's right side ' first decided against going to Pomona without more sponsorship.

When it didn't happen, they went anyway.

We figured we had to be out in front of everybody, says Austin. It would be worse to just sit at home. We've been working with some sponsors and trying to let them know how hard we we're trying. Sitting at home wasn't the way to show them that.

They and their 26-foot enclosed trailer, which was hitched to the back of a pickup truck, atop which sat a camper, pulled up to the gate of famed Pomona.

And they got heckled.

They ask what class you're in, and you tell them top alcohol, and they look at you and say, 'What class?' says Austin. That's the worst part, but we're used to it.

Austin's team stayed at the track in the camper. Some racers stayed in fancy motor homes, others at hotels.

We live at the races when we go, says Austin.

They pulled in Tuesday afternoon and put the finishing touches on the car until the first qualifying run Thursday.

The 21 cars in the class were allowed three passes each. The 16 with the top times advanced to the elimination rounds, where they'd go head-to-head with another driver.

We hardly ever make all three qualifying runs, says Austin, citing the cool grand it costs for each run.

Engine parts ' rods, pistons, blower belts, valve springs and rear-end gears ' take a beating.

They're only good for so many runs, says Austin. Each part has to be cycled out in so many runs or it'll break. We have to keep a stringent maintenance program on it. That's how we're able to keep doing it. We work extra hard on maintaining the car so it doesn't blow up.

There are other pitfalls, as Austin and Co. found out on their first qualifying run.

The car was tuned up aggressively, says Austin, meaning it overpowered the track.

The wheels spun and smoked but stayed put.

You get thoughts in your head, says Young, that something's not right. But it was only our first pass. With all the stuff that we changed on the car, we were doing our best guess at that point. We weren't too disappointed. We knew we could make changes and do better than that.

They needed a big second run the following day in the hope of avoiding having to make a third pass.

They re-tuned the rig and Austin blazed to a 5.65-second run, surpassing 250 mph.

The dragster had never gone faster.

We were pretty excited, says Young. At that point, it looked pretty good that we would be qualified. That was a big relief to all of us.

They were in 13th place.

As a precaution, Austin got at the back of the staging line and prepared for a final pass while his crew monitored the rest of the runs and stayed in radio contact.

Another run wasn't necessary. They qualified 15th.

In the first round of eliminations, Austin got the jump off the line against Tony Bartone of New York, but Bartone had the faster car and one the match with a time of 5.375 seconds and 265.27 mph.

Austin's numbers were 5.644 and 250.64, but his run didn't end smoothly. His first parachute was slow to open, forcing him to deploy a second. He missed the turn that takes drivers off the track and headed straight for the sand pit that stops runaways.

At the last minute, I was trying to decide whether to avoid the sand pit and make the turn or go into the sand, says Austin.

He did the latter but had the presence of mind to shut off the engine before plowing into it.

That saved the engine, says Austin, who never before had had such a finish.

Based on his strong showing at the Winternationals and previous success, Austin entered negotiations with another sponsor this week.

The shoestring might be getting longer.

We have a really good team, he says, and with the right backing, we could really give these guys a run for their money.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail