COMMERCE, Ga. -- When Larry Nance, the basketball player, went head to head with brutes Kevin McHale, Charles Barkley and Dennis Rodman, he could rely on his reflexes and relentless determination to get by.
All that no longer is enough for Larry Nance, the drag racer.
Thirteen seasons in the NBA, three of them as an all-star, taught Nance how to survive and win the nightly battles in the paint.
His new career as a Pro Stock driver in the National Hot Rod Association hasn't been as easy. It takes more than muscle and guile to win a quarter-mile race. It takes experience, preparation and a thousand moving parts, including the driver, working in perfect unison.
''I haven't been a success, in my opinion, but it hasn't stopped me from working,'' Nance said. ''I've always set high goals in basketball, and I have high goals in drag racing. It's a little rough right now, but I'm not going to turn my back on it.''
When Nance retired from the NBA, he didn't opt for a cozy seat on a television set or a country club membership. His legs and body grew tired of the 82-game regular season, but the emotional rush to remain in the fast lane never waned.
He tinkered with racing during his first six-plus seasons with the Phoenix Suns, owning a Super Gas Chevrolet and a Pro Modified, but someone else did all the work.
After he retired, he climbed into the driver's seat, a great accomplishment considering he's 6-foot-10.
''It's as best it can be,'' Nance said of his fit inside the U.S. Marines Olds mobile Cutlass. ''None of the cars are built for a tall person. The way I do it is, I jack the steering wheel up to make room for the knees and legs. It's not very comfortable, but I don't have to do it very long.''
On a good day, the ride lasts less than seven seconds.
The Powerade Drag Racing Series, which makes its annual stop at the Atlanta Dragway this weekend for the Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals, now is Nance's full-time job. ''I've spent a lot of money, my own money, on racing,'' he said. ''I have a lot of love for high-performance cars. The thing is, unlike basketball, there are no advantages other than how hard you work. Right now, it's a lot of work.''
Although Nance has the financial backing of the U.S. Marine Corps, he's actively looking for associate sponsorships that can buy extra horsepower and qualified help.
He's already taken big steps. He's purchased a new Jerry Bickel-built Chevrolet Cavalier that's supposed to be more aerodynamically competitive than his Olds. But that car won't be ready until after the races in Atlanta.
Nance, a product of Clemson Uni versity who spent the second half of his professional career in Cleveland, also lured noted engine builder Richard Maskin and crew chief Taylor Lastor to his team, Catch 22 Racing.
All of that came together last week at Bristol, Tenn., when Nance qualified for the elimination rounds. Although he lost his first-round match with V. Gaines, it was a necessary baby step in a frustrating learning process.
''Our first goal was to qualify," Nance said. "Now it's to qualify consistently. Then it will be to win races. Now that we're working at qualifying consistently, it allows me to think about things that can make me a better driver, things like reaction time.''
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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