Four young auto-racing fans gathered by the door of the towering black 18-wheeler and gazed with admiration at the man inside. "So you don't like football no more?" asked one as he handed the man a football card that was at least five years old. On it, No. 7 of the Houston Oilers smiled stiffly in his pose of perpetual readiness. "No, I don't have time for football anymore," the man replied as he autographed the card, "and football doesn't have time for me, either."
And so, Dante Anthony Pastorini Jr., a veteran of 12 NFL seasons, two movies (in one he appeared with Margaux Hemingway and Lee Majors), a tragic boat crash and a nude centerfold, decided to spend even more time in the fast lane...literally. Pastorini became a Top Fuel driver with the National Hot Rod Association and started hurling himself down drag strips at speeds in excess of 250 mph. "A lot of people thought, 'What's a quarterback gonna do in Top Fuel racing with a mechanic [his crew chief, Bobby Rowel who's been away from it for about 12 years?' " says Pastorini. "Hey, we stepped right up and ran with the best of them."
Indeed, Pastorini had been on the circuit less than a month when his Quarterback Sneak nosed out Don (Big Daddy) Garlits (Garlits has won 29 NHRA titles over the last 20 years) in a qualifying heat at the Springnationals in June. Two weeks later, he set a track record of 5.87 seconds at Houston International Dragway during a match race. And at July's Summernationals in Englishtown, N.J., Pastorini clocked a personal best in elapsed time of 5.607, 251.25 mph. "A lot of people figure he's just trying to be in the limelight again," says pit crew member Donnie Couch. "But he's serious."
Serious, perhaps, but not yet sensational. Pastorini, 36, never got beyond the first round in the five NHRA events he entered this year. However, typical of Pastorini's panache, he went out with a flair—make that flare. In his second-to-last race, at Baylands Raceway Park in Fremont, Calif., an oil line collapsed as Pastorini was going through his burnout. "It created a nice, pretty fire," says Pastorini, who escaped unscathed. The real damage was to his engine—and wallet—to the tune of nearly $15,000. Sneak is an '83 Swindahl chassis, 255 inches long, and its supercharged 497 cu. in. Keith Black Chrysler produces more than 2,500 hp, which should be more than enough power to render any car enthusiast delirious. "Once you leave the starting line," says Pastorini, "the G force is tremendous [estimated to be almost three G's], and it throws your head back in the roll cage and you hang on to the steering wheel for dear life. I mean, it's just like you're holding back a lion."
Pastorini first tried his hand at racing as an 8-year-old, driving his quarter-midget car around the backyard of his dad's restaurant in Sonora, Calif. However, other sports kept distracting him. He played shortstop for Bellarmine (San Jose) Prep and was selected by the New York Mets in the 1967 free-agent draft. Unfortunately, 599 other guys were chosen ahead of him that year, so Pastorini enrolled at tiny (enrollment then, close to 3,000) Santa Clara University on a baseball/football scholarship. There he majored in business while he continued to race cars: His green Chevelle Super Sport was undefeated in dozens of races at nearby Fremont. He did find some time to play football. In fact, Pastorini's gridiron achievements were so notable that he was selected in the first round of the 1971 NFL draft, the third choice overall, by the Oilers.
During his nine seasons in Houston, Pastorini led the Oilers to two consecutive conference finals (1978, 1979) and, less laudably, set an NFL record for most fumbles in a season (17 in 1973).
At the same time, his off-field activities also earned him considerable attention. He married actress-Playboy model June Wilkinson, and cracked up a few vehicles here and there. In a May 1977 race at Liberty, Texas, Pastorini's drag boat flipped out of control, plowed into the crowd of spectators onshore, and killed two people and injured several others. Although a grand jury absolved Pastorini of criminal wrongdoing, he retired from the notoriously unstable drag boats and concentrated, relatively speaking, on playing football.
In 1980, the Oilers sent Pastorini to Oakland in a heads-up swap with the Raiders for quarterback Kenny Stabler. Newly divorced, Pastorini showed no sign of tiring of the good life. While in California, he appeared ("acted" may be too charitable) in a movie made for television, posed nude for Playgirl and was arrested for drunken driving. He eventually married Beverly Brieger in 1983.
By this time, Pastorini's football career had already lost momentum. In the fifth game of the '80 season, which ended with the Raiders' record at 2-3, Pastorini broke his right leg. Jim Plunkett stepped in and led the team to the Super Bowl; Pastorini never again had the starting job. He was bounced to the L.A. Rams, then negotiated with a few other teams before finally quitting in August 1984.
"I called the NFL Players Association at four o'clock in the afternoon and said, 'I'm retiring from football,' " Pastorini says. "I called Bobby Rowe at 4:02 and said, 'You wanna go racing?' " Rowe, a former Funny Car driver who had helped Pastorini build and race his drag boat, immediately accepted the offer. "Everybody said, 'How come you're gonna mess with him? He never did nothin',' " Rowe says in an easy Southern twang. "I said, ' 'Cause he's a natural. He's the only man I ever met who knows as much about a car as I do.' "
Despite all he knows, Pastorini considers his rookie year a learning experience. He is continuing to work on a dual-fuel-pump system that should eventually help Sneak's overall performance next season. Inventor Sid Waterman is lending a hand. Pastorini is also hosting a half-hour television show called The Exciting World of Speed and Beauty. Each week, someone involved with speedboats, motorcycles, airplanes or car racing will be featured. The show starts national syndication in January.
Although Pastorini is currently in the fast lane professionally, he isn't there yet, financially. An arbitrator ruled, and a California state court agreed, that the Raiders owe Pastorini $1,050,000, but currently the case is on appeal. Pastorini's trailer, rig and race car, worth about $250,000, were bought on the installment plan. And although Pastorini received $50,000 from a variety of loans, and despite the fact that he makes between $7,000 and $10,000 per match race (he has competed in about 20), he has some pretty daunting expenses. Running the car down the track once, for example, costs an average of $1,500.
Not that Pastorini is panicking. In July, after a particularly disappointing run, Pastorini stood in the back of his rig and lit up a cigarette. He said normally he didn't smoke, except around the racetrack. "It's nerves," he said solemnly. "In reality, I'm a very nervous person." Then he threw his head back and laughed heartily—either at this implausible statement or, once again, at fate.