IHRA driver Chris Russo living life of a real superhero
A firefighter by day and Pro Mod racer by night, Russo recalls tragedy of September 11th and its impact on his life
It has been eight years since the attacks on September 11th brought New York City and the United States to its knees.
Utter chaos reigned and the security once felt by millions was gone in an instant.
Men and women crossed the Hudson that morning never to return again, their cars collecting dust in parking lots for months following the attacks.
Moments passed, but time seemed to stand still as many watched in horror as their entire world came crumbling down around them.
On that fateful day some lost valuables, some lost jobs and some lost everything.
Over time the feelings experienced on that day slowly melted away. While the memory remains in the hearts of the nation, the emotions felt on September 11th have disappeared as life slowly returned to normal.
For some, however, that day is not just a distant memory. It is not a day that is remembered and mourned just once a year.
For some, September 11th is a day that will always remain frozen in time. As life goes on the memory of that day hangs in front of millions who are constantly reminded -- whether by the death of a loved one or simply by passing the site on a daily basis -- of the horrors of that early morning in September.
And perhaps no one understands what that day means more than Chris Russo.
A 16-year veteran with the Montclair Fire Department in Montclair, N.J. Russo and his company were among the first to cross the Hudson into New York City moments after the attacks on September 11th.
When he is not saving lives, Russo spends his days working on his supercharged '63 Corvette and traveling the country racing with the International Hot Rod Association as a professional drag racer. In his rookie year Russo already has one win and is third in the world in the highly competitive Pro Modified category.
But his time behind the wheel sometimes serves as more of an escape than a passion as 240 mile-per-hour, six-second passes on the quarter-mile help ease the pressures of life as a firefighter.
And to some extent, his time as a fireman has helped shape who he is both on and off the track.
"As crazy as it sounds, the fire department has helped me as far as racing goes. When you go to work it is an immense amount of pressure on you. There are always high stakes and you learn how to deal with pressure and how to work under those conditions," Russo said. "When you have been in burning buildings and when you have car accidents and people are counting on you to save their lives that makes what I do out here in a race car seem pretty insignificant.
"But after a while you learn how to relax and how to get through any situation and I can take that and bring it over to the racing end. I feel like I can handle any situation out on the race track."
Without a doubt one of the events that helped shape Russo's life was his involvement in the events surrounding the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Russo's station in Montclair is located just 15 miles from Ground Zero, and he and his company were among the first to cross into the city on that fateful day.
"The whole city was on lockdown so we actually floated over on a boat across the Hudson. I was in the Marines and it looked like we were going to war because we were floating over on this boat and it was just a giant haze of dust and debris over the whole city," Russo recalled. "We were all fired up about finding people and saving people and unfortunately, when you got there and you saw the size of the whole thing and the severity of it, at that point you knew it was more of a recovery than a rescue."
For days Russo and thousands of rescue workers went without sleep as he and the crew of Engine Company No. 3 manned the empty firehouses of New York City and assisted in the cleanup of the collapsed buildings.
"It was mass confusion and chaos on the day it happened. Not only were we working at the site, but we took turns manning the firehouses in New York City as well because it is the city that never sleeps," Russo said. "Even though the towers came down you still had house fires, car accidents, people trapped in elevators -- someone needed to take care of the rest of the city -- so my department and a bunch of others pitched in and covered their firehouses.
"When we actually got to the site we went in with high expectations, but when you physically get there and you see 25 stories of rubble -- and there aren't too many 25 story buildings across the country -- when you see all of that twisted steel and pieces of phones and pieces of doors you kind of have a good idea that even though you are hoping to rescue someone it just wasn't going to be that kind of operation."
As the week went on and the severity of the situation continued to mount, Russo learned that of the thousands of people who lost their lives on that day one was a dear friend of his from a station inside the city.
Tom Foley was a member of Rescue Company 3 in the Bronx and was one of the first people inside the building after the attacks.
"Tom was an elite firefighter. He was part of a rescue company in New York that consists of the best of the best," Russo said. "They are the ones you call when there is a special rescue or when there are spots where no one knows that to do -- they call Rescue 3.
"His team was one of the first called in that day. He wasn't even supposed to be working; he was leaving to go home when the call came in. He was supposed to be gone. Instead he jumped on the rig and never came back."
Russo knew Foley through years of competitive power lifting. They traveled the country competing in meets and had developed a close bond during their years spent at the gym and on the road.
"I lost a really good friend on that day. Along with drag racing I power lift competitively and we became very close during that time," Russo said. "He was a young, vibrant guy and I don't get to see him anymore. His family doesn't get to see him anymore.
"This tragedy affected this area more than people realize. People in this area knew people who didn't come home that day. You knew people who worked in the tower, firemen, policemen, there are a lot of people who worked in the city and you never get a chance to see those people again."
In the weeks following the tragedy Russo and millions of others tried to return to daily life, but some were left with a constant reminder of what they had lost.
"I remember coming home and seeing cars parked in the parking lot around here and the same cars were parked there for a while," Russo said. "People who took the train into the city just never came home. That is when it really struck a lot of us."
But what is lost is never forgotten and in the years since 9/11 Russo, his friends and the family of Tom Foley helped turn tragedy into something positive. Along with a yearly power lifting meet held in memory of Foley, they have developed a scholarship in his name.
"We keep Tom alive in our hearts and we raise a bunch of money year-round for the scholarship," Russo said. "Still, as good as that sounds and as great as that is, at the end of the day everyone still misses him."
Ironically, despite all of the heartache and tragedy that surrounded the September attacks, the events on 9/11 are what got Russo into racing.
When things finally returned to normal for the 42-year-old fire lieutenant out of Cedar Grove, N.J., Russo decided it was high time he quit dreaming about racing professionally and make it a reality.
Russo had always had a fascination with racing dating back to the first time he saw his friend's father's Nostalgia Funny Car as a child, but he never had an outlet for his interest.
Growing up in the city, racing wasn't exactly the most popular thing to do. Combine that with the fact that no one in his family had ever put four wheels on a race track, and Russo had an uphill battle into the racing world.
"My father said I was crazy for throwing away all of this money, but as a young kid I just wanted the fastest everything," Russo said. "From Hot Wheels to go karts -- I always liked the idea of going fast. I really liked the idea of going out and trying to make your car faster than every else.
"My other big influence was my good friend whose father was a racer back in the 60s and 70s. I saw his Nostalgia Funny Car sitting in his garage and he told us stories about when he raced and that definitely got me interested in racing.
"I owe a lot of this headache and hardships to him," Russo said with a laugh.
Russo had a love of racing smoldering inside him, and when the opportunity finally came to get behind the wheel of his first big-time race car he simply could not refuse. And ironically, as mentioned, the situation surrounding his current ride had everything to do with the attacks on 9/11.
"The guy who ran my current Pro Modified car was from Sweden. The car was built in Sweden and his crew came over and they raced, but when the attacks took place on September 11th his wife told him he had to get out of the U.S. because it was dangerous over here," Russo said. "So he left the car and I was fortunate enough to pick it up for a very reasonable price and I started racing."
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Russo spent the next few years working on his car and getting it ready for its IHRA debut, racing with regional racing organizations in anticipation of unveiling the car on the national stage.
"I knew I couldn't race with the IHRA at that point because it is true that the IHRA is the best of the best, and at that point I just didn't have the financial means to do it, along with the right parts and pieces," Russo said. "It has been a slow process and even though I am kind of a rookie in IHRA I am not necessarily new to Pro Mod racing.
"But this is the first year I felt confident enough to run the whole season against the likes of Ed Hoover, the Al Billes cars and all the rest."
And surprisingly, even to Russo, is how quickly the team adapted.
After missing the season opener and then breaking the car at the second national event, Russo finally made his debut in Dallas.
And what a debut it was.
Russo qualified second and eliminated some of the best in the business, including defending world champion Kenny Lang, on his way to his first career IHRA Ironman.
"This is the first year we have had enough money to compete and we are just excited to run a majority of the races. In no way did we ever think we would win a race," Russo said. "To win in Dallas meant a lot and it shows the potential that this team has."
Using that momentum, Russo has climbed to third in points and hopes to cap his first full season of IHRA competition with a top-five finish.
"I am just taking it one step at a time. I never thought that I would have a car fast enough to qualify for an IHRA Pro Mod race. It's funny how it works," Russo said. "Once you qualify for one you say 'I would like to win a round' and once you win a round you want to go out there and win a race. It is something that builds up in you. I just have to thank NGK Sparkplugs, Fast Lane Race Cars and United Electric of Myrtle Beach for giving me this opportunity."
From a mild-mannered race car driver during the day to a firefighter by night, Russo has developed a near superhero status in his community.
While it may seem like a stretch to compare Russo to such fictional characters as Superman, the reality is that the only real difference between the two is that while Clark Kent spent his days working at a desk job, Russo is traveling 240 miles-per-hour in less than six seconds on his days off.
But driving a race car is only a small portion of his life. Russo derives real satisfaction from seeing the look on the faces of those for whom he is able to make a difference.
"When people see the fire department coming they are always relieved and happy. It is a job that is very rewarding and a big part of my job is that I am able to make a difference," Russo said. "Being a fireman also allows me to race and that is something I have always wanted to do at a high level. When you have a 9 to 5 job it is hard to race on the national event scale, but with the fire department it allows me to do what I have to do so that I can get out there and race with the IHRA."
From saving lives to entertaining thousands of fans each year, it is clear Russo is not your average run-of-the-mill driver.
What he is is an American hero and he, like millions across the country, continues to put his life on the line for the safety -- and entertainment -- of us all.
So the next time you see Russo -- or any member of the military, police, fire or rescue units of this country -- remember to say thank you.
And don't be surprised if you see a cape dangling from the back of their uniform.
After all, they are the real superheroes of this world.