County racers burning up tracks

By Jeff Birchfield
star staff

   The sweet smell of burning rubber has met the sweet smell of success lately for many Carter County racers.
  No less than a half-dozen Carter County racers have won at Bristol Dragway so far this season, and the county's most noted oval track racer is leading a famous national touring series in points almost halfway through the schedule.
  Two-time Bristol Dragway Motorcycle champion Mike Gill is pursuing a record third title in style, already winning two events in the early season.
  He has found tough competition from Hampton's Allan Elder, who beat Gill in a final round earlier this year. Another Elizabethton rider Don Wilson also bested the 1992 Suzuki of Gill and many other newer bikes, taking his 1987 Harley to a win.
  The youngsters have gotten in on the act as well, with Scotty Johnson from Roan Mountain winning the season-opening race for the Junior Dragster Division 2 class.
  The Division 1 Junior Dragster saw Elizabethton's Jared McKinney crowned as the most recent winner. In fact, the last bracket racing weekend at Bristol Dragway had a distinctive Betsy flavor with Gill winning in the bikes, McKinney in the junior rails and Jason Buckles keeping the hammer down with his 1967 Ford Fairlane to take the Pro Division trophy.
  While all those racers have been racking up wins at the local drag strip, Stoney Creek resident Wade Day is leading the American Speed Association points through 6 of 15 races.
  Yes that is the same ASA touring series that produced the likes of Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Alan Kulwicki, Ted Musgrave and Ken Schrader.
  Driving the No. 96 Appalachian Motorsports Chevy Monte Carlo, Day has been a steady driver with one top five and one top ten finish.
  He has been a busy racer this season, also running in the IPOWER Dash Series (formerly the NASCAR Goody's Dash Series) ranking ninth in series points despite running one race less than many of the drivers on the tour.
  Day recorded top-ten finishes both at the 2.5-mile superspeedway at Daytona in the season-opener and on the 1/3 mile bullring at Hickory in the next series event.
  The Elizabethton driver was pacing the tour's next race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, when he was bumped from the lead midway through the contest. He did wind up with a 16th place finish, but it wasn't the result he wanted.
  Congratulations go to all these local racers for their early season success.
  Sadly on the national scene, NHRA Top Fuel star Darrell Russell lost his life Sunday after a tire blew at top speed sending him into a vicious crash at Gateway Dragway.
  During the last NHRA event at Bristol, I was fortunate enough to get to know Russell a little bit after he spent a long time in the media room on Sunday when rain forced the postponement of the day's racing activities.
  He was a genuinely nice guy and a devoted family man. As a driver, Russell came up through the Top Alcohol ranks before going to Top Fuel. Overall he ended up posting 13 career NHRA wins. He was the NHRA National Rookie of the Year in 2001 and ranked a personal best fourth place in the Top Fuel standings last year.
  He had further added to his resume just the day before the tragic crash, becoming the No. 1 event qualifier at the St. Louis race. More important than the racing accomplishments are how his friends remember him.
  There is an excellent tribute on the NHRA's official website by series media representative Rob Geiger. His fellow racers also remembered Russell as a good racer and a good person.
   "The loss of Darrell Russell has caused a sudden sadness both to me personally and to the entire Carrier Boyz Racing team," said fellow Top Fuel racer Cory McClenathan. "I had come to know Darrell over the past several years and was proud to call him my friend. Our sympathies go out to Darrell's family and friends in their time of sorrow. Darrell, my friend, you'll be greatly missed."
  While it is sad to lose Russell, former Top Fuel champion Gary Scelzi put things in perspective.
   "There are no guarantees in life, and there are no guarantees that you can make a living doing something you love every day," said Scelzi. "Darrell Russell loved what he did and it's unfortunate and sad and it really bothers me, but I've got to say he was doing what he loved. I've been in this position before several times and I keep coming back.
   "So, if that's our destiny and that's what God's got laid out for us, so be it. It's a tragic shame, but Darrell touched a lot of people and that's all I can say. He died doing what he enjoyed."