(Written in 2015)
It’s Mid-February in the Midwest and I’m talking to mechanic and crewchief Gary Medley on the phone. Daytona is still a month away, but we’re discussing important stuff–snowblower maintenance and snowblower hop-up techniques. And, also, where to put the piles of snow so that when it melts the water doesn’t flood the lower levels of your house. We agree: the best place to blow snow is onto your neighbor’s lawn, as inconspicuously as possible.
I look at the calendar–2015 already.
Medley is talking–whatever you do, he says, don’t leave any fuel in the snowblower after you use it. The crap gas nowadays will ruin it quick–but instead of listening to his good advice I’m instead thinking: let’s see, 2015–that makes 1994 twenty-one years ago. And just as I’m about to start digressing on the unfathomable nature of time and the tricks it plays, I shake it off and ask Medley the first question that pops into my head.
“Hey, you won the Daytona 200 with Scott Russell in 1994. It’s twenty-one years later. When you think about that race, what’s the first thing you think of, today? The very first thing.”
Medley doesn’t even take a breath to mull it over.
“Scott’s grandma hitting me with her cane,” he says.
“Scott’s grandma,” Medley says matter-of-factly. “She hit me with her cane at that race. I tell ya, it was more relief than anything when we won. I was happy, and I for sure didn’t want to see her if we didn’t win.”
The memories haul ass through my head. Ah, yes. Scott Russell’s grandmother. Retired at age 65 from “the Telephone Company”, Grandma Janice was undoubtedly the biggest Scott Russell fan in existence. And she was not a quiet, behind the scenes supporter of her grandson’s racing. Not at all.
In the early 1990s, Scott’s grandma Janice drove from their native Georgia to many of the US races. She arrived in a gigantic Oldsmobile Delta 88, chain-smoking and listening to the radio. She “long-armed it” to Daytona, Topeka, Road America, Brainerd and Loudon to see her grandson race. And to, as she liked to put it “watch over things”.
Scott’s grandma Janice was already in her late 60s when Russell made the factory Kawasaki team. Scant TV coverage in those days, it could be months before you even saw photos from a race. So, she drove by herself, stayed by herself, needing no help or assistance in getting to the track or while at the track. She drove fast and always made good time wherever she went.
Elkhart? “12 hours.”
Topeka? “21 hours; two stops for gas,” she said.
“She’d just show up,” Russell remembers, “I’d get to the track and see her car in the paddock or see her standing by the tent and that was the only forewarning any of us had that she had left Georgia and had driven to the races.”
Russell’s grandmother, his paternal grandmother, was a rock in her grandson’s life. She also was a tough old gal. At Loudon once, one of Russell’s friends cautioned her about making a wrong turn when she drove back to her hotel room. A left instead of a right and she was liable to find herself in the middle of the party animals who frequented Loudon’s old “Animal Hill”. These people might be under questionable influences, and therefore might say objectionable things that an elderly Southern woman might not want to hear.
Janice scoffed at the warning. Unimpressed, she took a long drag of her scarlet lipstick-stained cigarette and said she’d go where she pleased, thank you. “Nobody tells me where I can and can’t go,” she said.
In the early 1990s, Russell won nearly every 750 Supersport race he entered on the Muzzy Kawasaki ZX7. The next season, at Daytona, Kawasaki planned for a big victory in that support class. Russell was undefeated and a complete over-dog. Winning the 750 Supersport at Daytona was a certainty, the equivalent to a racing “sure thing” if there ever was one.
Kawasaki wanted a big margin of victory, so the team planned for a specific lap time and ran a light fuel load to make the bike as quick as possible. The only problem was that Russell, full of race day vigor, lapped faster in the race than they’d planned, and the Kawasaki used more fuel than they put in it. Russell ran out of gas on the west banking and did not finish. Britt Turkington won the race on a Yoshimura Suzuki.
A near-certain win removed from their grasp, Kawasaki, the team, the sponsors, the rider and supporters were understandably upset. However, there was one additional factor to contend with: Grandma Janice. She was there, witnessed the defeat, and knew why it had happened.
“She is the only person I ever seen stick her finger in Rob Muzzy’s chest and get away with it,” Medley says. “She was furious. We tried to explain to her that the bike was heavy to begin with against the GSX-R and we had to do everything we could to lighten it up. We even put SLOW DOWN on the pit board after we saw Scott’s lap times.”
But this incident lit a fire in Grandma Janice’s own tank. Subsequently, at every race she attended, she made it her job to ask the mechanics, several times, if they had enough gas in the bike.
“One time we were on the grid at Elkhart or Loudon or somewhere actually putting fuel in the bike after the warm-up lap. As we are doing so, I look over from the fuel tank and Grandma Janice is right there with us mechanics, looking over the bike. We are putting gas in the bike and she is still asking if we had enough gas in the bike. “I was like,” Medley remembers, “Grandma, you can’t be out here on the hot grid. It’s not allowed.
“I looked down for a second and I see she has a lit cigarette in her hand. I was like, ‘Okay, grandma, you got to leave now.”
In case you were wondering if there was a generation gap in the Russel family fan club, there wasn’t. Scott Russel’s father, Jack, (son of Janice) was always in attendance too. But unlike Grandma Janice and her imposing presence–or maybe because of it, Jack was a quiet figure, well in the background. He never tried to haggle with the team, or even hang with them. All those Daytona 200 wins and you can’t find him in any victory circle photos. He sat quietly in a folding chair, off to the side, and sought no limelight, the polar opposite of the lady who bore him.
“That’s where Scott got it, I think, from Miss Janice,” Cliff Nobles attests. Nobles has known the Russell family since Scott was 17. His brother, Tripp, raced against Russell in the US and in Europe.
“Grandma Janice was kind of like a rider,” says Nobles. “That intensity. She didn’t suffer any fools and she was not afraid of anyone. She definitely had no fear. Think about it: she was probably in her late 60s and she’d think nothing of driving off alone across several states to see her grandson race. She had a map, her cigs and the radio. She was set. “
In 1993 Russell was defeated by Eddie Lawson in the Daytona 200. Lawson put an unanswerable last-lap draft-pass on Russell for his last career win. After that sound beating Russell soothed himself by winning the World Superbike championship and the 8 hours of Suzuka that same year (with co-rider Aaron Slight).
In March of 1994 Scott Russell returned to Daytona a much different rider, brimming, boiling, with confidence. While he had never been a simpering Walter Mitty, Russell came back from beating Carl Fogarty in WSBK and winning Kawasaki’s first Suzuka 8 Hours even more confident, even more brash. Daytona was his race. So in ’94 he soundly defeated both factory Yamaha-mounted Lawson, and even Troy Corser on a mighty Ferracci 955 Ducati in the Daytona 200.
Because Russell had been racing in Europe for most of 1993, his grandma had been absent from the US racing scene for almost an entire season. But she motored on down to Daytona in March of 1994. And she had not let old transgressions slip from her memory.
“I was doing something on the bike and she started hitting me with her cane, asking if I had enough gas in the bike, if the bike was ready to win,” remembers Medley. “I got up and asked her, again, to stop hittin’ me with her cane, that we had won the world championship in 1993, won Loudon, won Suzuka. We did stuff on a Kawasaki no one had done before. We got this.”
“She said, ‘I know, I know, you just need someone to watch after you,’ ” Medley says.