CLERMONT, Ind. - Darrell Russell blasted onto the Top Fuel scene last season, becoming the third driver ever to win his professional debut, the first of two wins in seven final rounds during his impressive 2001 Rookie of the Year ...
CLERMONT, Ind. - Darrell Russell blasted onto the Top Fuel scene last season, becoming the third driver ever to win his professional debut, the first of two wins in seven final rounds during his impressive 2001 Rookie of the Year campaign.
Entering 2002, the expectations were high for the 33-year-old from Hockley, Texas, who won three division championships in a Top Alcohol dragster before his coming out party in the nitro-ranks. However, Russell was unable to repeat the amazing start he experienced in 2001. It has taken a tremendous team effort to resurrect what seemed like a lost season.
The Bilstein Engine Flush dragster team will try and maintain their remarkable turnaround as they try for the crowning achievement in NHRA competition - winning the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, Aug. 28-Sept. 2, at Indianapolis Raceway Park. The $2.2 million race is the 17th of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
Since taking over the driving duties for team-owner and legendary Top Fuel competitor Joe Amato at the beginning of 2001, Russell has been in the spotlight of attention whether he wanted to be or not. It just came with the high profile job of replacing and driving for an icon.
"There was a tremendous amount of pressure I put on myself," said Russell. "I knew of Joe's past success and that I had some very big shoes to fill. With what Joe Amato has done for drag racing, I wanted to hold up my end of it and really come out here and prove to people, and to myself, that I was capable of taking over the driving of the dragster."
It appeared that Russell was on his way to being labeled the 'one-hit wonder' after he encountered the dreaded sophomore slump to begin the 2002 season. The Amato-owned team opened the season with three straight first round losses, followed by a second round loss and another first round defeat, leaving Russell more than 300 points behind Larry Dixon who had jumped out to an unprecedented start.
Entering the fourth race of the year (Las Vegas), Amato decided to make some changes, hiring tuning veteran Wayne Dupuy to turn the season around. While changes during the year can be difficult to adjust to, Dupuy and the rest of the team have not disappointed.
Following a runner-up finish to Dixon at Bristol, Tenn., Russell lost in the first round at the next two events and then he scored his first win of the year at Topeka, Kan. The victory catapulted Russell from ninth to sixth in the standings and seemed to give the team some needed momentum.
The Western swing proved to be the turning point of Russell's season. In the 12 possible rounds of eliminations a driver can win at the three events (Denver, Seattle, Sonoma, Calif.), Russell amassed a 10-1 record in eliminations. He won the first two events of the Swing and made it to the semifinals at the final event, losing to eventual race winner Doug Herbert for his first elimination round loss since St. Louis.
"The whole team is starting to work together," said Russell. "It takes time when you make huge changes like Joe had to make. You can't just waive your magic wand and everything starts to work again. It takes time to develop discipline and that chemistry, but it is definitely coming around.
"There is no reason to think this team will let off one bit. We had one of the best cars at the drag strip on the Western swing and if not for a few thousandths of a second in Sonoma, we might have done even better than we did. I think it's impossible to think of this Bilstein Engine Flush team as anything but a contender."
Another step in the right direction for the Bilstein team would be to visit the winner's circle at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. Winning at Indianapolis can be the defining moment in the career of any NHRA driver.
"I was fortunate to win Indy in '97 in an Alcohol dragster and it's something you never forget," said Russell. "It is one of those wins that I constantly replay in my memory. It's the Super Bowl of drag racing. There are some guys out there that would turn in all their wins for a win at Indy."
A victory at Indianapolis Raceway Park would narrow the gap between Russell and the top two competitors in the category, current leader Dixon and defending NHRA Top Fuel champion Kenny Bernstein.
"Our goals are definitely to try and chip away and get up into the third position in the point standings," said Russell. "Then get there and see what it would take to chip away at second place. I think Bernstein is almost 300 points ahead of us and that's a lot of ground to make up in only eight races. And you know Bernstein is going to be right there with us going rounds and it is going to be hard, but definitely worth taking a shot at."