MADISON, Ill. -- In a tragic turn of events which stunned the NHRA POWERade community, Top Fuel driver Darrell Russell died in a second round accident on Sunday while racing Scott Kalitta at the Sears Craftsman Nationals at Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis.
It was the first fatality at an NHRA national event since Blaine Johnson was killed at the U.S. Nationals during Top Fuel qualifying in 1996. Racers in all four professional categories somberly completed the event with a palpable sadness enveloping the entire facility when news of the death of the popular, upbeat, 35-year-old native of Hockley, Texas, was announced.
"That kid was as good as they come," said 12-time Funny Car champion John Force, who had considered hiring Russell two years ago when Force was contemplating the addition of a Top Fuel team to his Funny Car operation.
"Some people say that drag racing isn't very dangerous because we don't go around corners like they do in NASCAR," Force said. "These cars out here are making 10 times the horsepower of those NASCAR machines. When you're traveling that fast and something goes wrong, you don't need a corner to get into serious trouble. We loved Darrell and we love his family and he's loved where he is right now."
Gary Scelzi, who switched from driving a Top Fuel car in 2002 after experiencing four serious mishaps in Top Fuel, was influential in getting Russell's team owner, Joe Amato, to hire Darrell in 2001. Russell rewarded Amato with a sixth place points finish that year and was voted the NHRA's Rookie of the Year.
"Darrell was a good friend," said Scelzi as he accepted his trophy after winning the Funny Car class on Sunday.
"We raced together in the alcohol classes and we raced each other in Top Fuel. He was someone who never said anything negative about anyone or anything. He was just like me in that he loved racing out here and he was loved by everyone. He's going to be missed for a very long time. My heart goes out to his wife, Julie, and the entire Russell family down in Texas."
Russell's accident occurred just as he was crossing the finish line after he had been defeated by Kalitta. The racecar eventually skidded to a stop in the shutdown area after breaking into three pieces as flames erupted around the cockpit. After being cut from the mangled chassis, Russell was transported to St. Louis University Hospital where he was pronounced dead late Sunday afternoon.
The NHRA POWERade tour now takes two weeks off before resuming the schedule at Bandimere Speedway outside Denver, Colo., for the 25th Mopar Mile High Nationals. For the drag racing community in general, the respite will be a welcome one as the tragic events of Sunday, June 27th, can be placed into perspective.
Our sincerest condolences and sympathies are extended to the family and friends of Darrell Russell. His youthful enthusiasm and tremendous driving talents will indeed be missed.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.