POMONA, Calif. -- Outgoing Top Fuel champion Antron Brown and Top Alcohol Dragster "Comeback Kid" Shawn Cowie are the 2013 recipients of CompetitionPlus.com's Mike Aiello "Spirit of Drag Racing" Award.
CompetitionPlus.com owner Bobby Bennett and 2010 recipient Jack Beckman made the presentation Sunday at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, just before eliminations of the Auto Club of Southern California Finals.
The award -- presented for the first time to both a professional racer and a sportsman racer -- honors Aiello, a former standout college athlete from Houston and Texas Tech University who was a longtime drag-racing fan and former National Hot Rod Association Pro Stock crew member. The honor commonly is referred to as "The Spirit of Drag Racing Award."
Aiello spent his final years confined to a wheelchair after a workplace injury. Despite physical hardship and severe mobility limitations, he not only attended drag races but made dozens of friends among racers, crew members, and media with his positive outlook and unselfish behavior. Aiello passed away December 29, 2006, at age 39, at Santa Monica, California.
The Mike Aiello Award recipient is someone who has persevered and remained positive in spite of hardship, and both Brown and Cowie have done that in their racing and personal lives.
Brown, 37, driver of the Matco Tools Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing, hasn't found that a series title makes everything easy. In only his second elimination round as Mello Yello Drag Racing Series champion, he rode out a violent accident at the season-opening O'Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.
That crash came on the heels of another one the previous November at the same track. He wore gloves at the 2012 season finale to protect his burned hands as he waited out the Countdown to the Championship drama that went down to the final run of the season. He claimed the first Mello Yello-branded Top Fuel crown and became the first black driver to win a major U.S. auto-racing championship.
The former Pro Stock Motorcycle competitor already had experienced unpredictably fury from a Top Fuel dragster. Brown was a powerless passenger at Phoenix during the second NHRA race of the 2010 season when the wheel assembly ripped off the left rear of his car and sent him and the car over the wall, on its side and on fire. A female spectator was struck and killed by one of the tires.
Following the freakish accident, Brown, a man of faith, found solace from the classmates of his children at Bethesda Christian School in Brownsburg, Ind. A charismatic personality with his playful laugh and boundless enthusiasm, Brown had spoken at the children's chapel services, encouraging their spiritual growth. They returned the favor, and proved that the power of prayer and the power of caring are stronger than any ghastly circumstance, sorrow, and confusion.
"For the first time in my racing career, I was in something that you couldn't control," Brown said soon after the accident. "It happened so fast. I was trying to do things and (the car) did not want to respond to my correction. I'm a true believer in faith. It still weighs heavy on my heart a lot.
"What picked me up is that every single classroom in that school, every single student, wrote me a card. They put different Scriptures in them. It was like God talking to me through those kids. These were kids ministering to me," Brown said. "That's when I knew it was going to be all right. Everything happens for a reason, and sometimes there's some strange reasons. But it just uplifts us and carries us to a different place."
The Chesterfield, N.J., native, who lives near Indianapolis with wife Billie Jo and their children Arianna, Anson, and Adler, was nearly speechless when he learned he was the honoree. Beckman had enlisted Brown to help in the presentation, and Brown ended up announcing his own name.
"I'm speechless. I'm literally . . . man . . . Wow. You got me, Jack," Brown said. "This is almost like winning a championship."
Once he composed himself, Brown said, "It's a big family out here. I love this sport to death. I have a great passion for drag racing. I love my time out here. It's a blessing to be out here.
The comeback story -- and feel-good story -- of the year centers on Canadian Top Alcohol Dragster driver Cowie, the 31-year-old Surrey, British Columbia, resident who had been critically injured in a motorcycle accident April 9, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn.
His victory this July at Seattle's Pacific Raceways was less a triumph over final-round opponent Garrett Bateman than it was a triumph over injury and odds. A 20-year-old drunk driver (who was later convicted) struck Cowie on Interstate 40 as he rode a motorcycle, exploring the city in before attending the drag race at Charlotte, N.C.
Cowie suffered a broken neck, back, and pelvis, a crushed ankle, and legs mangled so severely doctors thought they would have to amputate one. Medical experts told Cowie he might never walk again and definitely wouldn't race again. But he proved them wrong July 14, winning the Division 6 race at Woodburn, Ore., from the No. 1 qualifying position. Seattle's victory was his second in 18 days.
With his father, Ron Cowie, and his wife, Taylor, on hand, Shawn Cowie accepted his trophy from Bennett.
As he and Brown posed for photos, Bennett told them, "You win the Wallys for being great drivers. You win this award for being great people."
Cowie told Ben Kuzma of The Province newspaper of Vancouver, B.C., "I just appreciate waking up every morning.
"I was told so many times that I would be lucky to walk again, and it was a goal of mine to prove everybody wrong," Cowie told Kuzma. "I always wanted to get back in the car, but they kept telling me that would never happen. It was a rough road."
He said even after he had been transferred from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center at Nashville to the Royal Columbian Hospital at New Westminster, B.C., doctors "still wanted to amputate the leg. It was an ongoing fight with the surgeons, and I couldn't live with myself if I just said cut it off."
Family, friends, and the drag-racing community rallied around Cowie, who said, "There has been overwhelming support. My family has been there and my crew. And my wife, Taylor, has been there every single day. People have support stickers on their cars, and I see them driving around Vancouver all the time. It blows me away.
"There are people up there watching out for me right from the accident scene to now," he said. "There's a guardian angel cheering me on."
Sunday it was his crew and fans gathered at the racetrack who applauded his recognition with the Mike Aiello Award.
John Force Racing crew chief John Medlen received the inaugural Mike Aiello Award in 2007, followed by Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson (2008), Pro Stock's Mike Edwards (2009), International Hot Rod Association racer and journalist Michael Beard (2010), and NHRA Funny Car racer Jack Beckman (2011). Last year's honoree was IHRA President Aaron Polburn.
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