It began with motorcycle racing; then the sand drags in an injected, front-engine rail; and on to becoming a NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Top Alcohol Dragster champion. Over the course of decades spent mastering a competitive edge, Duane Shields has done it all. He isn't planning on leaving drag racing anytime soon, but one chapter came to a close this past weekend at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, where the many-time national event winner chased glory from the driver's seat for the final time at a national event.
The first leg of Shields' journey began when he purchased an alcohol dragster in 1996. He licensed through Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School and got to work, but patience proved to be the name of the game as it took a long while to fall into a groove with his new car and team. Shields' first-round win came over a year into his efforts, but then things started clicking. He won his first national event in 1999 at the facility now known as Sonoma Raceway and kept at it.
In an exceptional, standout year of 2002, Shields won the nationals in Houston and Englishtown, and at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park he set the national record for elapsed time with the then-quickest run ever by a blown alcohol dragster, 5.263 at 269 mph. Shields launched his career with a supercharged combination and switched to the A/Fuel variety in 2003. Over the course of his career, Shields claimed 23 national trophies, 37 divisional/regional wins, multiple division championships, and the 2011 Top Alcohol National Dragster championship.
"You know, I've had a great time, but it's time to step out of the driver's seat," said Shields, who is officially retiring from driving but intends to remain active in the sport wearing two hats: that of Shields Racing team owner and also as crew chief overseeing the Muscle Milk Top Alcohol Dragster driven by Madison Payne. "What inspired me the most to make this decision is that I'm getting old, and these cars beat me up."
After a first-round loss in his final national outing, Shields was rightfully a bit dejected, but he was also grateful for the opportunities his career as a driver had afforded, and he looked readily ahead toward the possibility of what is to come for the next era for Shields Racing.
"When Madison became old enough to start driving the class, I watched her go through the process, and I observed her dedication and focus. Seeing her ability to do a great job out there made my decision easier," he said.
In early 2020, Shields and Payne began discussing her driving the car at select events, and she licensed in his Shields Racing Muscle Milk A/Fuel Dragster after the Las Vegas national event in October, clocking a 5.351-second pass at 275.86 to make it official.
"I learned the [Top Alcohol] dragster procedure from Duane, 100%," said Payne. "It worked out really well because Duane is a very patient person, and he's also the type of person that will prepare you by giving you everything that could go wrong. I've already learned so much from him."
Shields and Payne have so far enjoyed success as a team and look for more to come. Payne debuted as a Top Alcohol Dragster pilot with Shields as her crew chief at Atlanta Dragway's final NHRA Southern Nationals in May of 2021, and she won her first trophy in the class at the Phoenix regional early the next year. She was runner-up at the Dallas national later in 2022 and capped the impressive season with a win at the Las Vegas fall race over then-newcomer and the current most-recent winner on the tour, motorsports veteran Tony Stewart.
Shields is happy to continue spending time with family and friends at the dragstrip and confident that he will find a sense of enjoyment out there, even with someone else behind the wheel.
"I've had a great run as a driver, and I've achieved everything I wanted," said Shields. "I'm content to step out of the spotlight. I'm ready."