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Evansville
Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Dueling Dragsters

Doug Duell doesn’t remember where or when he lost the drag race—and his temper. But he does remember that he was ticked off. He wasn’t screaming or yelling or throwing his helmet. That isn’t in his nature. But he was upset.

His father, longtime Evansville businessman and veteran drag racer Dave Duell, was unsympathetic.

“You should just quit!” Doug, a 44-year-old Newburgh resident, remembers his father telling him. “If losing is eating you up this much, then you should just quit racing. Think about it. Most people never win a race in their whole life; they lose most of the time. This is supposed to be for fun. If losing one race is tearing you up like this, you aren’t having any fun.”

Doug couldn’t believe what he was hearing. How could he—an ultracompetitive guy—quit the sport he loved? But then he realized that his dad was telling him that his attitude, not his car, was the problem. And he knew that he had to listen to his dad, who had been a finalist in the 1968 National Hot Rod Association’s U.S. Nationals and knew what he was talking about.

DOUG, LIKE HIS FATHER BEFORE HIM, competes in amateur leagues with thousands of others of people who race for the fun of it. They are throwbacks to the origins of drag racing: Friday night contests featuring two drivers screaming down a deserted street.

Despite their humbler appearance, nostalgia cars have the same ground-pounding power as their cousins with better paint jobs. Accelerating to 135 miles per hour in a quarter-mile will get anyone’s attention. “Basically, in six seconds, I’m going 110 miles an hour—literally twice as fast as a person would consider a fast street car,” Doug says. A good nostalgia drag car can outpace the modern Dodge Viper—something Doug well knows, since he owns a 2001 Viper.

Doug has understood the excitement of drag racing for decades. His father, then working for the Chrysler Corporation, had competed in the 1960s and early 1970s, often with young Doug watching from the sidelines. Dave was a successful racer, a record-holder in his class and a winner of multiple events.

“It was fun,” Doug recalls, “because there was some travel involved, usually every other weekend, and I got to see a lot of neat cars that were really in their heyday.”

Back then, auto manufacturers sponsored drag racers by giving them parts. The arrangements “gave the companies a good test bed,” Doug says. The glory days of drag racing ended when the gas price spikes of the 1970s killed the market for muscle cars, which were replaced by less sexy but more economical automobiles. Dave’s bosses gave him a choice: stay involved with drag racing or move up the corporate ladder. With a family to support, Dave chose his career.

He moved to Evansville and bought the dealership that is now Evansville Chrysler Kia Mazda Volvo in 1979, which Doug now co-owns with his brother Greg and his mother Sharon. After putting his business on solid ground, Dave returned to drag racing in 1991 and helped build the sport’s nostalgia classes (generally made up of cars manufactured between 1961 and 1968 that are modified with contemporary safety and speed equipment—“a lot safer and a lot faster” than the originals, Doug says).

“It took him a couple of years to start doing well,” Doug says of his father’s reentry into drag racing after being away for nearly two decades. “It’s hard to dominate—and just to be competitive, it takes some practice.”

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Doug’s wife Anne, like his mother Sharon, lets her husband race without too many concerns.

Anne “likes the cars and enjoys them, but she doesn’t worry about me doing it,” Doug says.

“It seems like it’d be an unsafe sport, but it isn’t—the sanctioning bodies have a lot of regulations,” he says. “My mom’s been around [racing] her whole life, so I guess you’d say she’s tolerant of it.”

Neither woman attends every event—“it’s more of a participant sport,” Doug says—but that’s fine: Doug doesn’t go to every golf outing his wife plays either.

DAVE WAS NOT ONLY a winner, he was a giver, too. He was a longtime president of the Santa Clothes Club, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and gave clothing to thousands of Tri-State children every year. In 2004, Dave’s charitable work earned him the Boys and Girls Club’s highest honor.

“When I came to Evansville in 1980, I had never been involved, nor, I’m not sure, ever given anything to charity,” Dave told the Evansville Courier & Press in a 2004 interview. But the late community supporter Bill Brooks convinced him to join the Santa Clothes Club, beginning a record of civic involvement that led Dave to join the Ivy Tech Foundation board and Junior Achievement.

Dave died last December of complications from lung cancer. Doug has picked up some of his community involvement, and now serves on the Santa Clothes Club board. “When my dad passed away, I wanted to be a part of it,” he says. “It’s been a learning experience for me—the work and complexity of the telethon and other fundraisers throughout the year, and the challenges that a charity such as that faces as they try to maintain what they’ve achieved in the past and try to grow.”

And Dave’s affection for the sport lives on through his son, who now is racing his father’s 1964 Plymouth Fury station wagon named the “Drag’n Wag’n.”

“The first time I drove it, I took it up to Chandler [Motorsports Park] to test it for the first time,” says Doug, who also races a 1967 Plymouth Barracuda he rebuilt and restored himself. “I was very tentative at first, but very excited to do it. It’s a very well-known race car and a very good race car. The Barracuda is a good car, but the wagon is special. When I hit the throttle, it felt so good. Everything worked so well.”

The wagons have an advantage over sportier cars. “The key [to drag racing] is harnessing the power through traction,” Doug says. “Dad figured out the wagons are heavier in the rear, so they have more traction.”

DOUG DUELL IS BOTH a fierce competitor and a dedicated businessman. Most days, he spends 12-hour days at the dealership—and then he’ll sometimes work on his cars until midnight. He has no crew and does everything himself. He says it’s relaxing.

“I built [the Barracuda] as a show car, but I found myself migrating into racing more and more,” he says. “There is just something about the business of cars. You love the excitement and the adrenaline. It is the same with racing. When you hit that throttle in the race car, it’s like someone rear-ended you. It would scare most people to death.

“The first time you do it, you definitely have butterflies. I’ve made three thousand drag runs, so now I find it relaxing. I’m as relaxed going 135 miles an hour as I am driving down the Lloyd Expressway.”

The hours Doug spends driving to and from races allows him to relax and to think. Towing the car and equipment down the road, he contemplates his dealership and all the responsibilities he has there. Driving home, he analyzes the race.

HIS FATHER’S ADVICE about racing for the fun of it has paid off, and these days Doug is no stranger to winning. On June 18, he took first place in the Chrysler Classic Series in Columbus, Ohio. The victory was a special moment. “[The race was on] Father’s Day and Columbus was dad’s home track in the ’60s,” says Doug.

Another even more precious memory was made in a June 2003 race in Bowling Green, Ky., when Doug went head-to-head with Dave in the finals. Doug won—by four thousandths of a second.

“The chances that two people who are close to each other meet in the final are nearly non-existent,” Doug says. “I remember it like it was yesterday. It felt really good, but again, I had to approach it like it was any other race and just another opponent.”

Doug is looking forward to one event in particular this season. In a tribute to his father, the Dave Duell Classic will be held during the Monster Mopar N/SS Nationals Sept. 8-10 in Madison, Ill., across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

Doug requested the promoter offer a purse of $5,000 for a win in the event—a hefty prize for an amateur competition. “Everybody wanted to do something special this year,” Duell says. “One of the things that generates excitement is a big prize. The promoter didn’t hesitate; he just did it,” Duell says.

It would be really special if Doug won in the Drag’n Wag’n.

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