- Bill Stephens
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The crowd gathered at the Rush Racing Products pits in the Pro Stock Motorcycle paddock at Gainesville Raceway, waiting patiently for an autograph from drag racing's winningest woman. After several moments, the men, women and children who had been milling amongst themselves in the warm Florida sunshine watching the crew prepare the Rush Racing Products Buell were rewarded when out of her transporter emerged Angelle Sampey, the three-time NHRA POWERade champion.
Taking it all in, just a few feet away in the hospitality area of the team's base of operations, was George Bryce. He was obviously enjoying the attention and adulation bestowed upon the fan-friendly veteran who Bryce discovered while Sampey was attending the class he was teaching at the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School, at this very facility, in 1995.
"Angelle deserves all the success she has had," said Bryce, who this year is reunited with Sampey, serving as her crew chief just as he did between 1996 and 2002 when their Star Racing PSM team dominated the class and won three consecutive titles in 2000, 2001, and 2002. "She's worked hard, fought through some real challenging times in her personal life and still helps to shine the light on this class. Racing with her again is just a blast and any misunderstandings we might have had after we went our own separate ways five years ago are long gone."
Sampey didn't win the 39th AC Delco Gatornationals on Sunday, but she did make the second round of eliminations before falling to Matt Smith.
And Bryce has much more on his plate this season than just working the tune-ups for Sampey. Several transporters away, in the bike pits at the Gatornationals, sat the Drag Specialties/S&S/G-Squared Buell, ridden by Chris Rivas and owned by Bryce and his business partner George Smith. In what might easily appear to be an inescapable conflict of interest, Bryce insists that tuning a motorcycle for one team while the operation he owns campaigns another is working for all parties.
"My deal says that [Rush Racing owners] Kim and Karl Klement have hired me to give Angelle a winning bike," Bryce said. "That's what I'm going to do. My G-Squared team will rely on Ken Johnson to give Chris a Buell he can win with, and I know he can do that. We are separate teams, we have totally separate ownerships, and the only things we share are our performance data. Everyone is fine with this arrangement and it can only help both teams."
Bryce has actually been in this double-barreled work environment before.
"In 2003, I was hired to help Reggie Showers field a competitive team while I was racing my own bike with Fred Collis aboard. Then for several years, I had Matt Smith and Chip Ellis racing as separate riders but both worked out of my truck. And somehow, it all hung together."
But there's no concealing the satisfaction and enthusiasm that washes over the outstanding engine builder and team owner when he talks about joining forces once again with Sampey, a 41-time national event winner.
But times have changed. When Bryce and Sampey tore through the category during their seven previous years together, the pressures of winning championships and the relentless pursuit of the fans and media taught them that they might have been less than totally prepared for the stresses that were ultimately heaped upon them.
"When I think back to when I first started learning about what it takes to win, I wasn't sure I could even qualify at this level," recalled Sampey, who won her first event title in only her fourth Pro Stock Motorcycle start, in 1996.
"But George was the perfect person to not only convince me I could win, but to show me how to do it step by step. Now, he's there for me again and he's still the best at building a winning program."
And Bryce is eager to get started again.
"We reached a bunch of milestones when we first raced together," Bryce said. "I think we'll win even more races this time around and contend for the championship. But I think we both understand that we're going to concentrate on having a little more fun than we did in the old days."
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
2dLaurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders