PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ At 15, Cristen Powell decided to switch from horses to horsepower, from dressage to dragsters. Two years later, she's barreling down the strip at more than 300 mph in the major leagues of drag racing.

The 17-year-old high school senior has become the biggest draw on the National Hod Rod Association top-fuel circuit. Wherever she goes, she's mobbed by autograph-seeking fans.

``I'm telling you, she cannot even walk through the pits anymore,'' said Jim Epler, owner of Powell's Royal Purple racing team. ``She's probably the biggest thing to hit drag racing in a long, long time.''

Powell saw her first drag race at age 12, when her father, Casey Powell, bribed her to go to the races at Pomona, Calif., with a promise that the trip would include a stop at Disneyland.

``I was bored to tears,'' she said. ``I wanted to go to Disneyland.''

Powell's sport in those days was horse riding. At 13, she was the U.S. Dressage Federation national championship, competing against riders nearly twice her age. But as she grew older, it was time for something faster.

She saw the movie ``My Cousin Vinny,'' and loved the way Marisa Tomei's character knew so much about cars.

``When I was 15 1/2, I bought a '67 Camaro,'' she said. ``My dad and I would drive it around. I was into hot rods. My dad liked that. So he started teaching me how a motor works.''

Powell wanted to drag race, so her dad, who did some drag racing himself before becoming a multimillionaire as founder of Sequent Computer Systems, sent her to Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School, then in Gainesville, Fla. Her first time down the drag strip was a memorable one.

``I was scared to death,'' she said. ``But even though it was pretty scary, it was really exhilarating and exciting. At first it was `Oh my gosh, get me out of this.' But by the end of three days, I was used to it.''

The second day of the three-day school, Powell celebrated her 16th birthday. She was alone behind the wheel of a dragster before she even had her Oregon driver's license.

Already, she was telling her father she was going to race top-fuel dragsters. He didn't discourage her.

``I have tried over the years,'' he said, ``to let her know there isn't anything she can't do if she puts her mind to it, and she believes that.''

After she got her drag-racing license, she competed the rest of the season in the Super Comp class in a car her father bought. Late in 1995, she and her father persuaded Marshall Topping to sell them the alcohol-fuel dragster he had driven so successfully in recent years.

Last year, she competed in 32 races.

``It was really hard work,'' she said. ``I was one of the mechanics on the car and I had to juggle it all with school.''

In Topeka, Kan., on the same strip where she had made her debut a year earlier, she set a national alcohol dragster elapsed-time record of 5.44 seconds, with a top speed of 264 mph.

``People say she's fearless but that's not true,'' her father said. ``She has the right level of fear. But one of the things that really allows her to compete is her composure. Nothing rattles her.''

Through last year, Powell had competed at her father's expense. But this year, Epler, an old friend of Casey Powell's, decided to put his own racing career on hold and put together a team, sponsored primarily by Royal Purple Motor Oil, with the teen-ager as the driver.

In her first competition, the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., she qualified, then won her first race before losing to defending Winston Top Fuel champion Kenny Bernstein in the quarterfinals. Bernstein's time was 4.62 seconds; Powell's was 4.64. At the time, it was the closest side-by-side race in top-fuel history.

Last week in Gainesville, Powell qualified, but was beaten by eventual winner Joe Amato in the first round.

It was in Gainesville that her close friend Topping was seriously injured in a crash. Epler said every safety precaution is taken with Powell's car, and her father is philosophical about the dangers.

``I probably worry more about her driving to school,'' he said. ``I know statistically there's a higher likelihood that she'll be hurt outside of a race car rather than in a race car.''

The other top-fuel drivers, skeptical at first, have been won over by the teen-ager's warm, respectful personality.

``I think a lot of them at first were like, `This is crazy,''' she said. ``Now they've kind of accepted me into the crowd. ... If I was an adult male and some little girl stepped into one of these big cars, I'd say, `I don't want to drive next to a little girl. She might crash.'''

Powell isn't the youngest top-fuel driver ever: In the 1960s, a driver lied about his age and was only 17.

Powell, however, is the only one to legally drive in top-fuel competition at age 17. The rules were changed this year to allow anyone to drive if they turn 18 this calendar year.

Powell's age, gender and winning personality have combined to make her a star before she's ever won a top-fuel competition.

But with all the attention, she's glad to come home between races, to her big house on the banks of Oswego Lake in suburban Portland.

``I love it,'' she said of her new life in the big-time, ``but sometimes I just need a bit of time to hang out with my friends. I am only 17.''

End Adv for weekend editions, March 15-16.