Champion drag racer unassuming for someone living life in the fast lane
By day, Sue Campbell is secretary for the Rantoul Area Chamber of Commerce. On weekends, she's the Rantoul Rocket, a legend in the drag racing world.
Little girls and boys run to get her autograph. They can buy two different miniatures of the car she races, a 1941 Willys.
A regular winner on the Superpro tour, she won the 1999 Hot Rod Nationals in Indianapolis.
Four years ago, she won the World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova.
She is one of two women – ever – to capture the World Series of Drag Racing.
Campbell stands in the bright lights of a quarter-mile race track in Joliet. She dons a jet-black uniform decorated with yellow flames, and a helmet, equipped with a radio headset. She uses the radio to talk to her husband, mechanic Roger Campbell.
"We talk to each other the whole time," he says.
She slips on her racing gloves while Roger checks for oil leaks and tire pressure. He reads the weather and determines how much oxygen is in the air. He types the info into his laptop computer to predict how fast the race car can go.
Campbell began hanging around tracks at 10. She went every week with her dad, Leonard Hylbert, to sprint car races in Fremont, Calif.
"My dad loved racing, and everyone in the family had a favorite driver," Sue said.
Her dad never imagined his daughter would become a race car driver.
"Maybe I am a little old-fashioned, but I always thought racing should be left to the fellas," Hylbert said.
When the career Navy man retired in 1976, they moved to Paxton and he took over the family farm at Ludlow.
"I was used to the busy traffic out in California," Sue said. "Everything seemed 15 to 30 miles away in Paxton, so I got pretty good at speeding my car."
Campbell climbs into the candy-apple red car about five minutes before the race. She straps herself in with a five-point harness and fastens a neck brace.
As she rolls the windows all the way up, she glances at the man she is about to race against. It's stifling hot inside the car, and she sprays ice water on herself. She hears a familiar voice speaking to her on the radio.
Sue started working at Chanute Air Force Base as a dispatcher and bus driver for the motor pool. It was there that she met a young auto mechanic who drove a candy-apple red Model A car.
"I thought, 'Oh, my goodness,' " she said. "Roger was shy ... and we never spoke for five years."
In 1984, the Air Force asked Sue to help drive a convoy of 30 school buses from Chanute to Kentucky. Roger got the same assignment.
"I got lost, and Roger had to come looking for me," she said. "We fell in love after that."
On dates, they went horseback riding and canoeing. They got married in 1987.
Sue backs the Willys into a small pool of water. She spins the tires to heat them up to 190 degrees (and make the car go faster) and locks the front brakes. Soon the tires are spinning at 150 mph, and smoke is surgingfrom behind the car. She can smell the tires burning.
"There's so much tire smoke building up, I can hardly see," she says.
One day a friend of Roger's, Clifford Nell of Paxton, gave him a pile of junk parts from a 1941 Willys street rod two-window coupe.
"Folks had been shooting at the parts with a shotgun," Sue said. "They were useless to everybody except for Roger."
At a car show in Indianapolis, Sue admired another 1941 Willys.
"You know that pile of steel we have in the shop?" Roger said. "We can use those parts to build one just like it."
It took eight months.
"We ate, drank and slept with that car," Sue said. "When we didn't have the replacement parts, Roger would make them."
He added enhancements like a 555-cubic-inch 990-horsepower supercharged engine and an alcohol injection system.
A 1941 Willys could barely reach 60 mph – Campbell's could go 160.
The race is just about to begin. Sue eases off the brakes and rolls forward to about 20 feet behind the starting line. The hot, wet tires become sticky and bond with the concrete.
She doesn't get nervous.
"I've learned if you start getting worked up, you'll lose a race in a heartbeat," she says.
The light changes. The crowd roars.
Sue drove her 1941 Willys to and from her next job at Caradco for five years.
There she became friends with Jason Jarrett, the son of NASCAR driver Dale Jarrett, who drove for the window company. When Jason came to Rantoul, he asked her for rides in the Willys. He gave her fast-driving tips.
Soon, she raced fellow workers after hours on the highway back to town. She beat Mustangs and Corvettes and got so many moving violations she lost her license and insurance.
Roger entered her in her first drag race in 1992 at Charleston.
Sue lost. And cried.
"I was so embarrassed, but when the day was over, I realized I could get good at this."
Sue puts the Willys into gear and floors it. The front tires rise 4 feet from the ground as the car goes from 0 to 100 mph in two seconds.
"Generally, all I can see is the sky and the guardrails," she says. Roger directs her on the radio.
"I'm like an astronaut in the command module, awaiting directions from Mission Control," she jokes.
After Charleston, the Campbells traveled the Midwest drag racing circuit every weekend.
They drive a beat-up pickup truck they called the Hillbilly Hilton.
"When we come to town, we look like the Jed Clampett family," she said. "All we need is a rocking chair on top."
At 160 mph, the car is belching fire. The roar of the engine is so loud that Sue barely can stand it.
"The biggest thing I can sense is the feeling of my heart beating wildly," she says.
The 1941 Willys crosses the finish line first – defeating her opponent by a foot.
"If you are going to be in the winner's circle, you'd better bring your A game or go home," she says.
For several years Sue's father didn't like his little girl racing.
"I had to watch a dozen of her races before I was comfortable watching her," he said.
When Sue won the World Series of Drag Racing, her dad walked up and told her he felt proud of what she had become.
The Rantoul Rocket's eyes filled with tears recalling the moment.
"It was as if I was 10 years old again," she said, "watching the races with my dad.
"Life had come full circle."