Frank Pumphrey knows that being slow has its advantages at Maryland International Raceway. He even likes to kid the other drivers about it.
"He loves having us dragsters chase him," said fellow Super Pro racer Danny Watt, referring to the handicapped bracket racing style that allows a slower car to get off the starting line first. "He says, `You guys could chase me all day long.' "
Beginning tomorrow at MIR, Pumphrey will compete in the first round of the Computech/Bill Mitchell Shootouts. The first three races will be held this weekend, with a $5,000 prize for winning tomorrow and Saturday and $10,000 for winning on Sunday.
About 40 percent of the vehicles in Super Pro are dragsters, which generally run about 2 1/2 to 3 seconds faster than Pumphrey's 1966 Ford Fairlane over the quarter-mile track.
Yet Pumphrey, 34, has found success in his four years of racing, improving from not placing in the Speed Unlimited ET Series to winning the Super Pro Most Improved Racer award with a sixth-place finish last year; he drove one of the two non-dragsters that finished in the top 10.
When Pumphrey was 16, he bought the Fairlane from his aunt, who had driven that car every day on the street. At first, he would race with his friends on Saturdays for fun at MIR, but his love for speed carried over into daily driving. After being hit with some tickets, Pumphrey figured it would be less costly to race at MIR.
The first year he took his Ford off the road, he didn't finish in the points standings. So the next season, he started practicing his starting time every night in his living room with an electronic device designed to get his reaction time more consistent. He also continued to soup up his car, and improved to 14th in 1997 and then to sixth last year.
"I'm still trying to have fun, but now I'm more concerned about winning the championship," said Pumphrey, a Camp Springs resident.
Under MIR`s handicap system, Pumphrey's car benefits from a head start, usually of two to three seconds. The exact handicap is based on a formula that includes a car's horsepower, weight, and speed in time trials on the day of a race.
Pumphrey won this year's second race, but he since has had engine problems and is in 19th place in the Speed Unlimited ET Series. Still, Pumphrey has remained dedicated despite some other priorities -- he got married four years ago, and is currently working on building a house.
Watt, who won the Most Improved Driver award two years ago, said it isn't that unusual for a driver to improve as rapidly as Pumphrey has.
"Not if you put your heart and soul in it. He puts the time and effort in it," said Watt, adding that Pumphrey also "would do anything for you" -- even if he is a little slow. "He's an extremely tough competitor. Just because he's slow doesn't mean he's less competitive. That's the bottom line."
Notes: Last year, rain thinned the turnout for the first round of the Computech/Bill Mitchell Shootouts. The weather looks like it will cooperate this year. Area forecasts as of Tuesday night called for partly cloudy skies all three days, with high temperatures in the 80s. . . . The second and third rounds of the shootouts, scheduled for Aug. 6-8 and Sept. 24-26, again will award Super Pro drivers $5,000 for winning on Friday and Saturday and $10,000 on Sunday. The overall champion, who finishes with the highest point total after the conclusion of the third race weekend, will be awarded $5,000.
CAPTION: Frank Pumphrey, working at F&F Auto Services in Clinton where he is an owner, was named most improved driver at MIR.