In the hours before tonight's drawing for a $41 million jackpot, Lotto madness hit fever pitch. Across the Empire State, 21,000 tickets per minute sputtered out of lottery machines from Brooklyn to Buffalo.

Motorists poured in from Canada, Connecticut and New Jersey to place bets in hopes of winning the largest lottery prize ever in North America. New Yorkers fended off cousins in Wisconsin, mothers in Miami, friends vacationing in Europe -- all calling to demand that they go stand in line for them.

Politicians posed for pictures with their tickets. Murder and mayhem were knocked off the front page as the tabloid newspapers featured headlines such as: BET-BUGS BITE and Dreams Run Rampant

Dr. Joyce Brothers wrote a column congratulating the winner, whoever he/she/they may be, but warned darkly, "Happiness is never the result of having more money . . . . Sudden wealth brings a lot of family quarrels."

For $1, a player had two chances to pick six numbers from 1 to 48. To win the prize, all six had to match, in any order, the numbers drawn tonight at an Albany television station. Those numbers were 30, 14, 23, 22, 47 and 17. State lottery director John D. Quinn said it would be late Thursday morning before computers would be able to determine if any winning tickets had been sold.

The jackpot, which will be paid over 20 years, reached record heights because there has not been a winner in the last seven twice-a-week drawings.

Quinn, calling the public response "bananas," said if no one wins tonight's drawing, he will cap Saturday's jackpot at $50 million.

He said the only bigger lottery prize he knows of is Spain's El Gordo, worth $73.5 million last year but shared by thousands of players.

Despite 6.1 million-to-1 odds -- about three times greater than the chance of being killed by lightning -- more than $15 million worth of tickets were sold today -- a new one-day record for the state. The old record was set Tuesday, when bettors wagered $13.2 million.

Total betting was $36.1 million, another state record.

At the World Trade Center today, more than 700 people lined up before a single machine, one of 3,500 Lotto outlets statewide.

Two advertising agency assistants waited in a Lotto line at 42nd Street and Madison Avenue. Their bosses had sent them to play, and gave them money to wager for themselves, they said.

Jodi Ginsberg, 25, said if she won, "I'd buy my company so my bosses could work for me." Annette Sciarrone, 25, had no idea what she would do with the money. "I can't even imagine how much $41 million is," she said.

The 75 people in line at 42nd Street chatted pleasantly, appearing not to mind the half-hour wait. A passer-by yelled over the noise of the traffic: "All you millionaires, I love you! Everyone's a winner!"

Some fantasies were vague, or private. Mike Fabrizi, 72, said he had ridden the train in from New Haven, Conn., to buy $20 worth of tickets. What would he spend the winnings on? He shrugged and said, "I haven't made up my mind yet. I have to win first."

Others dwelled on their dreams. "I'm going to buy cars for all my friends, and maybe a Greek island," said Renee Hodys, 20, a college student.

Thon Ponpetch, 43, said, "The first thing I would do is put it in the bank, then I'd buy a house, buy a Mercedes Benz and then look for another wife to help me spend the money. I don't think my present wife would be able to spend it all."

The Lotto frenzy crossed racial, social and geographical lines. As many people waited for tickets in Harlem as did on the Upper East Side or in the upstate farming communities.

Blurting out that he felt "ridiculous" standing in line for 45 minutes, Lance Hopkins, 36, a marketing executive from Danbury, Conn., nonetheless added, "How many chances do you get to win $41 million?"

A few saw the dangerous side to success. "I'd find an excellent psychiatrist," said Robert Tisdale, an employe of Bamberger's in Jersey City. "I think I'd 'lose it' after winning $41 million."

Journalists threw objectivity to the winds. New York Post political writer Beth Fallon wrote a gushing column about buying a ticket, "my first ever." Dimitris Filios, a reporter for Proini, a Greek-language daily here, was vacationing in Athens when he read about Lotto fever. He called a colleague in New York to ask him to place a $1 bet.

Elected officials responded in character. City Council President Carol Bellamy said she would spend her winnings beefing up her campaign coffers to run against Mayor Edward I. Koch. The mayor told reporters that he would split his winnings with one of his press aides, adding that Bellamy is "a selfish person who does not like to share."

Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, known for his lectures on Christian values, decided to turn the other cheek and not buy a ticket, reducing the pool of potential winners by one. "I wanted to give all New Yorkers a better chance," he said. CAPTION: Picture, Lottery hopefuls lineup in midtown Manhattan waiting to buy their chance for the $41 million jackpot. AP