A.J. Russell of Clovis will make his NASCAR debut and history today driving in the Camping World Truck Series in Loudon, N.H.
Russell will pilot the No. 73 Dodge Ram sponsored by Sacred Power Motorsports, owner of the first top-level Native American NASCAR team.
The 28-year-old Russell seemed a perfect fit for Sacred Power Motorsports as a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. His great-grandmother on his mother's side was Cherokee.
This is SPM's first NASCAR trucks race and culminates three years of preparation, yet the crew is scrambling to make it happen.
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"I feel pretty good, but wish we weren't as rushed," Russell said Friday from New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "We just got in a new truck and missed the first practice session setting it up. Since we only logged 68 laps in the second practice, we're still working out the bugs."
Russell and SPM joined forces in 2007. He won the East-West Supermodified Shootout in Concord, N.C., where he met Sacred Power's marketing director, who later introduced him to owner David Melton at an Indian gaming show in San Diego.
"David just wanted his name on the hood of my car at first," Russell said. "Then he decided he wanted to own his own team and things just took off from there."
Russell's dream since age 8 has been to make the NASCAR Cup series or the IndyCar circuit.
"A.J. was always doing something with a motor on it," said his father, Richard. "He hasn't cared what he drives, just as long as he can drive."
Russell cut his teeth on quarter midgets and micros, then graduated to a truck series at Madera Speedway and on to 360 modifieds and supermodifieds. He also tried his hand at Indy Lights, USAC midgets and late models.
Today's 175-lap race on the 1.058-mile oval for Russell will be the longest of his career.
"I've gone that many on shorter tracks, but not that kind of distance," he said. "I got a little hot in the practice, so I'm carrying Gatorade and ice, and I've got an air blower that blows into my helmet."
Russell will be feeling more heat from a field loaded with more experienced drivers, but he is looking forward to the new challenge.
"Being on the main stage is bigger than life. So much going on," he said. "It's a whole other league competing against that caliber of drivers and I'm the low man on the totem pole.
"Expectations for me are high, but we're not worried about the finish. We just want to make it through with all four fenders and tires on."
If today's race goes well, Russell said SPM would want him to race at Las Vegas in October and the last two Trucks events at Texas Motor and Homestead-Miami speedways in November to earn his certification for 1 1/2 miles.
"If I complete that," he said, "then we'll start fresh next year at Daytona."