Thursday, May 1, 2014
Russell Brown Sr., Portrait of a Legend
The definition of the word legend says "well known" or "a notorious person, especially in a particular field". In the particular field of racing there are many legends and many legendary stories of people but one person in particular brings the definition to life for me. Russell Brown Sr., I have known this man for a very long period of my life and if I were to tell you how long I would give my age away, and we all know that isn't going to ever happen. Russell has legendary status for me because I have never went to a race track where they didn't know his name and have some kind of story to tell or share. Some good, some bad, but ALWAYS interesting. He's a larger than life person. People love him or hate him but the point is, people know him.
Russell was born in Jacksonville, Florida and raised by his grandparents. At 14 years old he started racing in motorcross to which he credited with keeping him out of trouble. Around 14 is also when Russell came to Valdosta to live with his dad who was into racing himself and working on cars with Coot Roland and Harvey Jones along with Frank Taylor and Yankee Smith. Russell got his start from here and began his long career in racing from working with his dad. After a year he decided to move back with his grandparents until he turned 18 in 1970 because he wanted to be closer to his father. The relationship with his father was important for him and listening to him, has a lot to do with the man he has become today. It's something I see a lot of in racing. Fathers and sons. Passing down the love and passion for racing from one to the other. Russell got it from his father and when his own son, Russell Brown Jr. was born, he passed it down to him too.
Russell Sr. built his first car for Skip Pannell which was a yellow #449 and it had Skip winning 8 races at Albany in it. Along with building cars for others, the determined Brown built his own car to race in 1970 and put a motor in it he purchased for $900 from Harry Reynolds. Imagine my look when he said $900 for a motor. Times and inflation have definitely changed the racing world. The first year he drove his own car he finished 10th in the points at Thunderbowl. For those of you who don't know, Thunderbowl is a legend around here where I'm from. Some of the greatest stories and most wildly insane races have happened in the past there. It's closed now but people like Russell carry on the life of Thunderbowl through their stories and photos. Russell started his chassis career with that first car for Skip and has never looked back. It's what he knows and it's what he's good at. He took his grandparents' words to heart and has lived by them since. They told him "If you take a hobby and turn it into a living and make it through the good and bad times, you'll always be successful". That has stuck with Russell to this day.
The thing about Russell if you ever get to know him, is that he never minces words. He gives it to you straight which is a rare thing to find in this day and age. You never have to wonder where you stand with him. Many people call this different things but I call it having a backbone. He's not like a lot of people who fold at the moment it comes down to standing up. It's kept him determined and hungry for more in the racing world. He is also quick to thank those who have helped him along the way. Two men in particular who helped with getting his business off the ground and became lifelong friends for Russell. Danny Evans, who was there for advertising help and getting the word out and Ernie at Southern Racing News whom Russell met at a PRI show in Daytona Beach, Florida. When you're a true friend to Russell he will always be one for you.
Another thing you may not know about Russell is that he has some of the best quotes I've ever heard of when it comes to racing. He's a serious thinker who looks at life as something that should always be looked at as, it is what you make it. He believes in taking what little you have and doing the best with what you got. He doesn't believe respect can be bought. You can't buy Russell and you won't find him selling out to the highest bidder. Money has no value to him. Hard work, talent, and saying what you mean are the things he values. He is of a dying breed today it seems. I respect and admire this in him. If you want his respect you have to earn it. He's old school to his core but he knows how to adapt and change with the progresses in today's racing world. He came from a time and day when you drove by the seat of your pants and adjusted your driving style to the track. No fancy shocks or springs. The most you did was take a caboose spring and put it on the right front, go on the track, and do the best with your talent you could do. These are the days I miss. It separated the men from the boys.
Russell has a drive unlike many others I've known. In the late 90's and early 2000's the Barry Wright Race Cars were the dominant force in the National Late Model Series. Most others could have said there's no way we could beat that but Russell hunkered down and got to work and in 2002 13 of the 14 cars in the series were Russell Brown Race Cars. Barry won every points season until 02 when Russell beat him by 4 points. He didn't give up. He kept going till he made it successful without tons of money or sponsors, just with what he had. It's important for him to not give up. Another important part of his life is his son, Russell Jr. His son has learned at his feet and has become as equal a success as the elder Brown. Russell Sr. is incredibly proud of his son and has shared his most memorable moments with him. The Showdown on the Coast win in 2009 is one of the best trophies he's ever gotten and even though it wasn't a win, the second place finish at the National 100 in East Alabama was the other because he said his son did the absolute best he could and he couldn't have asked him for more than that. He and his son may butt heads some times but they are a complete team. They work in tandem with each other and always respect one another. Russell says "Raise your kids up to learn to do for themselves until they grow up and you learn they're the ones teaching you".
For a two person operation, building 388 cars since 1995 in the new shop and around 108 in the old shop is quite a feat. Not many others can say they've stuck with something for so long through the highs and lows and be as successful. It is what keeps bringing his customers back. The best part of doing what he does is coming up with an idea, putting it on a customer's car, and it being a success. The hardest part, and I see it all the time, is the loyalty aspect. Staying with one guy is almost unheard of today but he values that above just about everything else. He tries to be honest with everyone and sometimes people don't like it but he will never desert anyone. He stays incredibly loyal to his customers. If you want truth, honesty, and loyalty this who you should talk to. If you want sugarcoating you need to go somewhere else. It's not his style and never has been.
Making due with what you have is a big driving point for him. He's had so little sometimes but he's done what he could and he has the trophies to prove what you can do with little. In a day that it's so easy to buy a win or go buy a fancy part he values the day when you took what you had and built off of that. How many people today could actually build their cars with very little and without going to the parts store to buy those new up to date shocks and springs. He is one who lets his ingenuity take over and believe me, he's one who can do so much with what he has in the shop.
Don't let him fool you though. The man has another side to him. One that not many people get to see but I get to witness from time to time. He has a softer side. Now don't fall out of your chair when I say that, I have actually seen this. Do you know what he say about racing as a whole? He says, "Racing people are my family, they have been since I was 14. They're the people who I've trusted to be there forever and they haven't tried to change me.". He takes it seriously when those who are in racing haven't been the kindest because that's family to him, even if you have a problem with Russell he still sees you as his family. Racing is the only life he's ever known and we in the racing community are the people he thinks of as his family. If you ever want to see this other side of Russell you need to see him when Leo or I bring our three year old son Hank around. Russell has always made sure Hank gets cookies and a coke when he's around and my three year old, who is an excellent judge of character, adores this man. When asked where we're going even if we're not going there, Hank always says "We're going to RUSSELL'S!". Russell has a heart and a big one.
Something Russell told me made me a little sad like an era was over. He explained that he was getting older and his son was doing a good job at the shop and that he would be semi-retiring in a few years. He wants to leave the business for his son. Russell is leaving a legacy for him. It will be whatever Russell Jr. wants the business to be but dad knows he's leaving it in the most capable and trusting hands out there. I felt sad because I've known Russell a large portion of my life and I can't imagine him not always being there to give me racing advice or as shocked as some of you may be, life advice. I get an honest opinion from him and I value that above anything. What I think people should always remember about Russell is that, he was always true to himself and who he was. He never made apologies for being him, he built really great race cars, and with what he had at times. Russell, whether you like him or not, has made an enormous impact on the racing community and whether good or bad, you can't think of racing and not think of him. He's a legend. Just remember this also, he's always thought of you as family and for me I will always think of him as family. As a man with a serious, straightforward side who pulls no punches, but also as that man who takes a sweet little blue eyed, blond haired little boy named Hank, and always makes sure he's got cookies and a coke for him and this, this is how I will always remember a racing legend in my mind.