Top Alcohol Dragster racer Duane Shields
For such an up-and-down season, Shields' overall win-loss mark was a more than respectable 26-14. "[Crew chief] Dana [Hopewell] has a tune-up that's easy on parts, and we have a tight maintenance schedule and not much parts destruction," says Shields, who finished in the Top 10 for the eighth time in the past nine years. "You have to have the right parts and the right people or you're never going to get anywhere. It's a team sport, and it takes time to develop a great group of people like this that can win races and give you a car that's always put together right and safe to drive. They're supportive, and you really need that during the down times, which there were plenty of this year. I didn't have any luck at all until I got to Pomona."
At the season-ending NHRA Finals, Shields had, as he puts it, "nothing but luck." He qualified in the bottom half of the field and drew the second-ranked driver in the country, Joey Severance, who had just swept both the regional and national events at Las Vegas, in the first round. "It wasn't looking too good, and you always know Joey's probably going to cut a light on you, but he red-lighted that time [barely, a with -.004 reaction time]," says Shields, who won all four rounds without ever having lane choice.
"The only thing we did at Pomona was go down the track, but sometimes just doing that every time is more important than anything, and when you win that last race of the year, it stays with you and really keeps you going," says Shields, who lives in Las Vegas but regularly competes thousands of miles from home in the East Region. "Drag racing really takes a lot weeks out of your year. Time just goes flying by. Sometimes, I wonder why I ever even got into it in the first place – I'd have tons more money, that's for sure, if I hadn't. I used to go to the lake, go ATVing, do all kinds of stuff. You start racing ... that's over. Sometimes, you sit back and ask yourself, 'I'm spending how much money to run 5.3 seconds?' It's hard to justify the expense, but in racing, running my convenience stores – anything I do, really – I want to win. I'm competitive. I won my first national event [Sonoma in 1999] pretty early in my career, but it took me years to win another one, and every time you win you wonder if it'll ever happen again."
Shields typically doesn't have to wait too long. He was the only driver to win a national event every year from 2002 to 2012, including multiple titles in 2002, when he was runner-up for the national championship, and 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2011. And he's won big both ways: in both blown-alcohol and A/Fuel dragsters. He set the national record at 5.26 more than a dozen years ago with a blown alcohol car, but won Indy and a championship on nitro.
"The blown-alcohol car was way more fun to drive, but the expense factor was getting out of control, even 10 years ago," he says. "I was looking at if I was going to even continue racing or not. The A/Fuel combination was out there, but I didn't know much about it. We'd already run 5.20s on alcohol, but everybody kept telling me how much cheaper A/Fuel is once you got it figured out, and they were right. I'd never go back."
So how many years does he have left? "I don't know," Shields says. "It's still fun. I know I'm out here for at least a couple more years with Peak. I keep thinking I'm getting toward the end, but I'm still out here. I know one thing: I wouldn't go to a race if I didn't think I could win. Never have, never will."