“I built my first full-fledged race car when I was probably 19 years old.”
The young, passionate dreamer that built that first car couldn’t foretell the future and just where all his labor of love would lead. He just knew this thing called drag racing was something he had to do.
Fast forward a couple of decades and South Carolina’s Russell Miller has spent little time in the driver’s seat in recent years. Before his son was anywhere close to being legally able to compete, Russell stepped out of the seat and put Tylor in. Tylor drove down the dragstrip in a street car at eight years old and never looked back. Now Tylor and his sister, Brooke, are both very successful drivers. In her junior dragster, Brooke went 20 for 23 rounds in the spring of ‘17, going to four finals in a row. As driver of the Pee Dee Fleet/Andy McCoy Race Cars/Rage Fuel Systems Pro Boost team, Tylor needs little introduction. His most recent successes include a win at the PDRA North-South Shootout.
It’s no surprise this family is fielding incredibly successful drivers, looking at their history in — and passion for — the sport. But what did come as a surprise, even to Russell himself, was that he would one day be credited as saving one of the country’s most historic tracks.
In March of 1987 an underestimated Bill Kuhlman made a fateful run at Darlington Dragway that permanently inked him and the track in the history books. He would take his homebuilt, nitrous oxide-assisted third-generation Camaro through the traps at 202.24 mph to become the first doorslammer to make a quarter-mile pass over the double-century mark.
But in recent years the track, once a marquee stop for national series, has deteriorated, and, under bad management, was on the verge of collapsing. Insert the gung-ho and determined Russell Miller.
Four years ago Miller bought out one of the then-partners in Darlington, but quietly stepped out when he could tell the current situation wasn’t something he needed to devote time and energy to. Things continued to go south for Darlington and when the term of the lease came due, the lessee wanted out.
“The community came to me and asked me to step up and re-sign the lease and fix the place. I said no. My life is pretty complicated as it is,” explained Miller, who owns and operates Pee Dee Fleet in addition to fielding the race team with Andy McCoy and Mike Kopchick. “I didn’t need something else. But I helped by being active in trying to find somebody else to take it over. We never could find anybody that was interested. So in a last minute effort to save the place, I made a deal and restructured the lease to have some room for me to try to fix the place up.”
The takeover occurred in December of 2015. Miller knew that running Darlington could not be his job alone, but that didn’t stop him from going full force in revamping the historic facility.
The community came to me and asked me to step up and re-sign the lease and fix the place. I said no. My life is pretty complicated as it is. – Russell Miller
He quickly began rebranding the track, standing on its storied past in promoting the facility as The Legendary Darlington Dragway. Miller also blasted and painted all the buildings, groomed the grounds and pressure-washed years of stains off the concrete stands. He replaced all the asphalt from the 330 to the quarter-mile, but plans to take it back up and make the first 660 feet concrete.
“We made some huge investments for some small gains, but in the long run those gains mean a lot because we had great events and cars were fast, the track was smooth, and people will return. That’s our main goal.
“What put the icing on the cake,” Miller emphasized, “was when I hired Jimmy Bradshaw. This guy is a beast. Period. He knows how to promote a track, knows how to prep a track, how to treat people, knows the rules. He’s just an unbelievable find for me.”
Although the two had never met, Maryland native Jimmy Bradshaw sent Miller a Facebook message about possible involvement at Darlington. The two began conversing and Bradshaw decided to make the trip south to meet Miller and look over the track.
We made some huge investments for some small gains, but in the long run those gains mean a lot because we had great events and cars were fast, the track was smooth, and people will return. That’s our main goal. – Russell Miller
“After that conversation, I called Jimmy up the next morning and offered him the job. Turns out he had a similar experience. He was over in Florence checking out the area and ended up at Huddle House off I-95. He got into a conversation with an older gentleman that was seated next to him. My name came up in conversation. I don’t know who they were talking to, but that gentleman said, ‘I know Russell. Those are great people.’ That is what made Jimmy decide to come work for me.
“It’s a cool story.”
It was just over one year ago that Bradshaw began managing Darlington. In that time he and Miller have grown from strangers to like brothers. “In every conversation I have with Jimmy, he can start a sentence and I can finish it or vice versa. We are dead even in every way the way we think. We have not had one cross conversation between us. We think exactly the same. My wife, Dee Dee, and Dana, which is his wife, often joke they married the same guy.”
This makes it easier in not only managing the day-to-day aspects of The Legendary Darlington Dragway, which Miller admits he stays out of, but also in working toward the overall vision for Darlington’s future. Miller and Bradshaw agree they want Darlington “to be the best drag strip in the country. Period. No matter what it takes to get it.”
“It’s evident in Jimmy’s work ethic and my financial contribution that we’re committed to doing that,” Miller emphasized. “We own five radial records right now. Those are records that every track in the country would die to have because that’s really the only record that the drag strip is just as responsible for as the car is. The track has to be absolutely on point for them little tires. Stevie Jackson went down there in the finals and went a 3.71 and I think Barry Mitchell went a 3.73 or .74 and that was the quickest side-by-side pass in history, along with the fastest 315 radial pass in history. We were first in the threes in the 275 class and we hold the mile an hour record in both 275 and 315. So that’s five radial records we own here at the track.”
The track is also home to X275 and Nitrous X elapsed time records.
Although under Miller’s tutelage Darlington has secured records and enjoyed many successful events ranging from Street Outlaws, to the third largest bracket race in history, to major touring series like the PDRA, Miller’s favorite moment at the track is a personal one.
“When we went that 3.68 at our own track, that’s hands down the greatest moment since we’ve been here,” Miller confessed. “It’s a little bit of a selfish moment, but it reflects two successes. It was our race car going as fast as it did on our own track that was prepped by us. So we were in total control of that whole run happening.”
Miller is rightly proud of what the race team and the track team have been able to accomplish. In addition to Bradshaw and a few other new hires, several Darlington Dragway employees have been there for years. Z-Man, the starter, and Cory, who works head of staging, are both longtime employees, and Crystal has been a fixture at Darlington’s ET booth for over 20 years.
“We’re trying to raise the bar for drag strips across the country,” Miller asserted. “When you go to a drag strip, it needs to be a certain caliber. Yet, a drag strip, in my opinion, is not ever going to be a big money-maker. So for people to make a living out of a drag strip, they have to run it real lean, which leaves it like anything else; if you don’t feed something, it gets weak. Fortunately, I fix trucks for a living, so I don’t look to Darlington Dragway to make a living. Nor do I look for it in the next 10 or 15 years to make me any money. But what it does, it gives me, this community, series, all these guys a place to go and do what they love to do. I’m a drag racer. Darlington Dragway for all intents and purposes is owned by a drag racer. And your drag racer-owned tracks are always going to be your best, because they’re not doing it for the money. They’re doing it for the love of the sport.”
We’re trying to raise the bar for drag strips across the country. – Russell Miller
“For any drag strip to survive, it has to cater to everyone,” Miller added. “You’ve got four or five different sectors in drag racing. At the top are your professionals — your PDRAs; they’re doing it on a professional level; they’ve got people full time; they’re usually well funded. For those guys, you’ve got to give them a great, safe track with a great facility that’s properly staffed with rescue vehicles and all the amenities you need. Then, you have bracket racing; we host big money bracket races and a very, very healthy IHRA Super Series. Then you’ve got grudge racers — the outlaw guys. Then you’ve got your weekend warriors — someone that’s got a fast street car and just wants to go make passes and just have fun.
“Darlington Dragway has something for every facet of drag racing. The only way you can survive is to cater to all of those. You can’t water one down. You can’t be only a grudge track; you can’t be only a professional track; you can’t be just a bracket track. You gotta’ be all of them. Nobody wants to see the same show week in and week out. If you’ll look at our schedule, it’s all mixed up.
“We’re also a great test facility. You see the likes of Troy Coughlin, Rickie Smith, Chip Ellis, Tanner Gray, Greg Anderson. All these names are coming to Darlington to test. What makes a great test facility is having somebody like Jimmy that can give them the track they need and make it consistent so they have a nice wall to push off of. What happens in the test world — and I fell victim to it a few times myself — is you go to a track, it’s just a test session to them, so they just throw you out there on the track as is. That doesn’t do race teams any good. It teaches them how to run on a crap track, which isn’t what they’ll be on when they go to an event. So you’ve got to duplicate the track they’ll be racing on.
“If NHRA racers are testing, Jimmy will give them a moderately tight track, because that’s what you’ll get at NHRA. If he knows you’re racing PDRA, he’ll give you a tight track. If he knows you’re going to Lights Out, he’s going to give you a sticky track. You watch people that test at Darlington: Tanner Gray went straight to Topeka and won the race. Stevie Jackson tested at Darlington, went straight to Topeka and won the race. Chip Ellis tested at Darlington, went to Indianapolis, won the race. Lyle Barnett, the fastest Leaf Spring car in the world, tests at Darlington, dominates everywhere. The Shadow tests at Darlington, went to the finals at Lights Out. You give them a place to test that can duplicate where they’re going and they will kick butt.
“That’s why, in my opinion, Darlington has the reputation it’s got. We get it. And we’re giving racers what they need to be able to race efficiently, effectively and safely.”
The Legendary Darlington Dragway may have a famed past, but, thanks to Miller, that’s not the end of its story. The near-closure of the track was just a page in the book, and a new chapter is beginning — one that’s sure to be nothing short of legendary.