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June 20. 2013 11:02PM

Allen Lessels on Motor Sports: Pros, amateurs hit the line

Street dragsters line up before qualifying at New England Dragway in Epping on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

EPPING -- The starting line of a drag race can make for interesting times.

"A lot of people think you get in and hit the gas and it goes straight," said Top Fuel drag racer Morgan Lucas. "It often doesn't. Depending on the setup, sometimes it's violent and it feels like the car is a can of paint in a paint shaker. It rocks the car pretty good. Or it's like a bull riding competition and you only have to hang on for a short period of time: But it's not easy to do it."

Lucas and the rest of the drivers in the National Hot Rod Association Mello Yello Drag Racing Series rock their way onto the dragstrip at New England Dragway this afternoon for the inaugural NHRA New England Nationals.

The amateurs, the local and regional racers who are running in assorted Sportsman classes — among them drivers from Salem and Manchester, Dover and Weare — owned the track on Thursday.

Lucas and John Force and Antron Brown and the other heavy hitters of the NHRA start their two days of qualifying in four divisions — Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock Car and Pro Stock Motorcycles — today at 4:45.

Lucas sat near his shiny Geico/Lucas Oil dragster and described having to be mentally tough to handle those starts and other aspects of drag racing before heading off to a series of off-track interviews on Thursday.

And yes, there is a very close connection to his sponsor. His father and mother are Forrest and Charlotte Lucas, who founded and developed Lucas Oil products, a major player in motor sports and other endeavors.

The company bought the naming rights to Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Indianapolis Colts, several years ago.

Morgan, 29, started racing on the series in 2004 and was a career-best fifth in points in 2005 and last year won three events and finished seventh overall.

"My target after being seventh last year is the top four this year," Lucas said.

One key is avoiding first-round losses.

Qualifying today and on Saturday determines the 16 cars that will move on to elimination rounds on Sunday, starting at 11 a.m.

Get through the first round and you have a top eight finish.

"To be honest with you, there are so many good cars and the competition is stiff, we're kind of on the Dale Earnhardt Jr. model," Lucas said. "We want to keep getting good finishes and keep putting ourselves in position to win."

Good finishes require good starts.

"You have to be mentally strong, strong enough to box out distractions," Lucas said. "It's about reaction time and hand-eye coordination and making good decisions. When it shakes, you have to know how to react and have it be second nature."Patrick Kelliher of Manchester and Lauren Cultrera of Dover — amateurs who were on the track on Thursday — appreciate the mental side of the starting line, too.

"You have to be completely and totally focused," Kelliher said. "Hesitate and it's over. You get to the line and you let everything else go away. It's all you think about. Everything else flushes away. It's kind of relaxing, believe it or not."

Kelliher, 31 and a former football player at Manchester Memorial, races an '81 Camaro in the Stock division.

Cultrera, 27, competes in a dragster in Super Comp against the likes of her brother, Kyle, 23, and Rob Hyatt of Salem.

"Once you pull up to the line, it's you, the car and the tree (the Christmas tree of lights that send the drivers off)," Lauren said. "Everything else disappears."

She and her brother followed their father, Steve, into the sport. Kyle, a student at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, has been racing since he was 16.

Lauren got a later start.

"I went to my first race when I was three weeks old," she said. "It's always been part of my life, but I guess I wanted to go to college and get a big girl job first."

She went to school and works at Salmon Falls Family Healthcare in Somersworth as a medical assistant.

She's in her third year racing and has big-time aspirations.

"I'd love to make a career out of this," Lauren said. "It's way more fun participating and being out there with everyone I grew up with, than it is watching."; on Twitter @allenlessels

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