Slapped across the dashboard of John Tanner's race car is a simple, yet effective, caution for a young man accustomed to hurtling around race tracks at 160 miles per hour. There, scrawled on a piece of duct tape, is the word SMOOTH -- as in easy on the brakes, careful in the corners. Smooth, as in be patient in traffic. Smooth, as in look out for that wall.

And, based on his performance so far in the Barber Saab Pro Series, the taped reminder could just as well describe the career of the 23-year-old native of McLean, Va. -- as in, smooth sailing.

If all continues to go as planned, Tanner might well reach his goal of becoming what is believed to be the first driver from the Washington area to secure a ride in the Indianapolis 500. His optimistic target date is the 1993 classic.

"With the right financial backing, that is very realistic and very attainable," said Tanner, who graduated from McLean High School in 1986. "It teeters on getting the sponsorship because it's so expensive to sponsor an Indy ride."

After dominating the Barber Formula Ford circuit the last two seasons with a staggering 17 firsts and nine second-place finishes in 36 starts, Tanner graduated to the Barber Saab series and has continued to excel.

After six races, Tanner reached the season's halfway mark as the leading American driver (fourth overall) with 38 points and $10,900 in prize money.

In addition, his career received a major boost recently when his consistent performance attracted the attention of New Jersey entrepreneur Gene Pope. Subsequently, Pope has taken the financial burden off Tanner's parents by agreeing to bankroll Tanner for the remaining eight races of the season. Such sponsorship is said to run in excess of $100,000.

"I had seen a lot of fast racers but some of the fast guys were: A, lunatics; B, didn't have their heads on straight; or C, if they got any inkling that I might be there for support, they were all over me like a bad rug," said Pope. "It was obvious to me that this one was going to make it. He's going to make it because he really wants this."

Tanner quickly rewarded Pope's confidence. At Topeka, in his first race under the Pope Racing Group, Tanner qualified on the front row and led the 21-lap race for the first 17 laps before finishing second.

The sponsorship "had a lot to do with it. He's already decided that I'm worth having so it takes the pressure off me to perform. Then I can actually perform better," said Tanner, who was the 1989 Midwest Series Champion in Formula Fords. "I'm unbelievably happy. There are ways to get sponsorship and then there are these Cinderella stories. This is one of them."

The story actually began when Tanner became interested in racing while growing up in Northern Virgina. And, despite living in an area more familiar with stock car racing, he gravitated towards open wheel racing.

"I think there's more excitement in open wheel racing," said Tanner. "In NASCAR they bump and touch. You can't do that in open wheel racing. You have to be more precise, more perfect. There is less room for error."

There have been few errors. After high school he attended the Jim Russell, Bob Bondurant and Skip Barber driving schools and two years of Formula Ford success led to his debut last fall on the Barber Saab circuit. He has finished in the top 10 in nine of 11 races since and even a high-speed introduction to the wall in this season's first race in Miami failed to dampen his confidence.

"My problem in Miami was inexperience with street courses and driving a little too aggressively. I learned another lesson," said Tanner, who is splitting his time between Sebring, Fla. and Elkhart Lake, Wis., while employed as a mechanic at the Skip Barber Racing Schools. "I wish there was another way to learn these things."

He has since finished in the top 10 of every race and will continue his pursuit of his first Barber Saab victory July 1 at Watkins Glen, N.Y. But the articulate and introspective driver feels he is coming closer to his ultimate quest.

"When you're driving a race car, the person that usually goes the fastest is the person that drives closest to perfect. It's that challenge to drive the perfect lap," said Tanner, who is coached by former national driving champion Peter Kuhn. "When you start out the only thing you have to drive on is instinct. But the more you learn and the more experience you have, the more you drive on information."

He feels he is gaining valuable experience in the Barber Saab series and plans on moving to the American Racing Series next season before securing an Indy ride the following year.

Kuhn isn't one to cast doubt. "I think {Indy} is a very realistic goal. The key thing is the ability to fund your race car," he said. "John is a naturally skilled driver. He doesn't have to work hard to go out and drive a race car fast . . . He strikes me as the kind of person that can pull this thing off."

But should he begin to waver off course all he has to do is look down in his cockpit for a quick reminder of both his racing style and career promise. "Every time I look down at the dashboard I see the word 'smooth' and it reminds me because that is so important," he said.