The lanky Georgian won the first of his five Daytona 200s in 1992. Riding the Muzzy Kawasaki, Russell learned something he would use to great effect for years to come.
"We're out there and we're racing, me and Doug [Polen]," Russell recalls. "Things are clicking, and I just remember following him around drafting him, thinking, 'Let's get this over with because I got this guy.' And that day was when [I thought], 'OK, I got it now. This is my track.' It's weird how that happened. But the Kawasaki was always pretty happy around this place, and we did our homework; we had a good bike. I was on my game better than ever then. That's when it started clicking."
The next year he lost to four-time 500cc World Champion Eddie Lawson by 0.05 second. That was followed by his second win in 1994.
His most famous win would come in 1995. On the second lap of the race Russell inexplicably crashed in the International Horseshoe. Then came the attack: From the back of the field he began picking off riders in bunches with help from the pace car, which he took full advantage of. It wasn't long before Russell was back in the lead and on his way to victory by over 53 seconds.
The Kawasaki years ended abruptly. Russell left the team midseason for the Suzuki 500 Grand Prix team, which was looking for a rider to replace Kevin Schwantz, who decided to retire after the fourth race of the year. The split with Rob Muzzy and Kawasaki was acrimonious, as you'd expect, with the attendant legal action, and was made more bitter by Russell's ultimate lack of success. Still, he has no regrets.
In the middle of the '95 AMA...
In the middle of the '95 AMA Superbike season Russell was given an opportunity of a lifetime: to ride for the Lucky Strike Suzuki 500 Grand Prix team, replacing the retiring Kevin Schwantz. It was a chance he couldn't pass up, and he bolted from the Muzzy Kawasaki team (creating obvious conflict) to ride for almost two years in 500 Grand Prix, carding several podium finishes.
"That was the opportunity of a lifetime for me," he reminisces. "When I started racing-before I started racing-we used to rent all the GP tapes, and we watched Lawson and Spencer and all those guys battle it out and then go out and try to emulate that on the street. But I never had any aspirations or dreamed that I would be that guy. And then when that opportunity came along, boy, I had to jump at it and just see if I could cut it. It was a dream after starting racing to be out there and be a Grand Prix racer. And I always pictured myself on the Lucky Strike Suzuki, funnily enough. It was crazy.
"And then it happened-they called me. I couldn't believe it. So it was more or less a dream come true. Of course it didn't go as well as we would have liked. But I probably wasn't the model racer that I could have been. And I probably didn't eat it, drink it and sleep it like a lot of the guys did, and that showed in my performances; I suffered from it more than anything." His results in his nearly two years with World Championship 500 Grand Prix weren't stellar, but he carded a pair of thirds in 1996, which is more than most former GP competitors can say.
In 1996 Russell was racing...
In 1996 Russell was racing an underpowered Lucky Strike GSX-R750 on Michelin tires at the Daytona 200, and there was no reason he should've been racing at the front. He basically willed himself into contention and came up 0.01 seconds short to Miguel Duhamel (1) in the closest finish in 200 history.
Russell rode a Lucky Strike Suzuki GSX-R750 superbike on Michelin tires in a one-off appearance at Daytona that year. Although the bike's speed deficit meant he shouldn't have been a factor, Russell willed himself into contention. The race's finish was the closest in the history of the 200, but he came out on the short end-American Honda's Miguel Duhamel won by 0.01 second.
Russell returned to World Superbike on the factory Yamaha team for the next two years, and he dominated Daytona during both those years riding a factory superbike that was a different animal from the factory Yamaha superbikes being raced in the States. But for the losses to Lawson and Duhamel by a combined 0.06 second, he'd have won seven 200s in a row.