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An Unlikely Hero: Sportsman Standout Dennis Mitchell Humbled to be Named into IHRA Hall of Fame

Friday, 23 July 2021

Success is not given, it is earned.

That old adage rings true across most disciplines, but it especially holds true in the world of drag racing. Drag racing is a sport all about mechanical prowess, the ability to adjust on the fly, and driver skill behind the wheel.

Few consistently master all three areas of the sport, but for those that do, their legacy lives on even today. Dennis Mitchell is one of those drivers that truly knows about success.

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Mitchell is a five-time International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) Modified Eliminator world champion, with a sixth title driving in the short-lived Factory Modified category. He has 20 national event victories and countless IHRA divisional wins, which ranks him among the five most successful drivers in both championships and victories in the sportsman categories. For that and many other reasons, Mitchell was selected to the inaugural IHRA Hall of Fame class as the IHRA celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021.

“It is a great honor to be chosen as a member of the IHRA Hall of Fame,” Mitchell said. “I remember those IHRA days and the people, especially Ted Jones, Robert Leonard, Bob Frey and Jeff Byrd from Winston. I remember a lot of the people and their families. It was a close-knit group back then and a lot of fun.”

Mitchell was born in Madison County in Alabama in July of 1943 and has lived in Huntsville, Alabama for the past 58 years. When he wasn’t racing, Mitchell spent much of his time working in machine shops before starting his own shop in his hometown in the late 80s, where he worked until his retirement in 2020.

But while Mitchell was a talented artist in the shop, it was no match for his skill behind the wheel.

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Mitchell’s journey in motorsports began in 1963 when a track opened not too far from his hometown in New Hope, Alabama. Mitchell took his streetcar – a 1963 ½ Ford Galaxie with a 390 engine – to the strip and gave the straight-line sport a try for the first time.

“I took my streetcar out to that local strip and decided to give it a try. I was not very successful, but I had a lot of fun,” Mitchell said. “After a couple of years, I decided to build a gasser. I chose a 1950 Henry J (B/Gas). That car was not very successful in the beginning, so I decided to completely rebuild the car again and it became a big winner locally. Next came a 1958 Corvette (D/Gas) which was also very successful locally.”

After a number of years being the proverbial big fish in a small pond, Mitchell decided to step it up a notch in 1978. He bought a Chevy Vega (C/G and C/A) from IHRA Pro Stock racer Keith Albritten and, after another year of local success, decided to give points racing a try.

Mitchell’s first foray into the world of the IHRA was far from ideal, with weather dealing a blow to his first-ever points paying event. Not long after, Mitchell turned his hesitation about racing at the national level into his first Ironman trophy.

“In 1979, the very first IHRA points race I competed in was Gulfport, Mississippi, in February. I set a record for C/Gas in that event, but it was very cold and got rained out,” Mitchell said. “The race was rescheduled for the next weekend, but I was hesitant about returning. My friend told me, ‘They’re not going to send you a postcard and tell you that you won’ so I decided to return and things changed forever with a win there.

“A few weeks later I decided to go to the WinterNationals in Darlington where I qualified number 33 out of a 64-car field and won my first national event. We continued to attend races and ended up winning the Modified Championship, plus the overall Sportsman Championship, in 1979.”

With a divisional win, a national event win, and a championship all in his first year, Mitchell was poised for success like few who came before him.

In 1980 he built a Chevy Monza (C/A) and won the Modified Championship that year, adding additional championships in the class in 1985 and 1987.

One year later in 1988, when former IHRA president Billy Meyer decided to simplify sportsman drag racing by eliminating the popular Modified, Super Stock and Stock eliminators, Mitchell adjusted by taking hold of the brand-new junior Pro Stock class known as Factory Modified.

Factory Modified was created to retain the traditional heads-up format of drag racing and eliminate handicap racing with the intention of simplifying the races and attracting the attention of American automobile manufacturers. The class was also designed to act as a feeder class for the Pro Stock division in the same way that the alcohol classes provided a stepping stone to nitro racing.

Mitchell opted for Factory Modified over the redefined indexed-bracket system or racing NHRA. That year, Mitchell once again proved to be a quick learner, taking the title in the first year of the class.

With the Factory Modified category lasting less than three years, Mitchell returned to the Modified Eliminator category in 1991 with a 1990 Chevy Cavalier (C/G and C/A) and added his sixth and final championship in 1998. His final victories came during the 2000 season at Cordova, Illinois, and Rockingham, North Carolina.

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During his illustrious career, Mitchell racked up 20 national event victories and countless divisional wins. Known for dominating with his stick-shifting door cars in a class where most contended in automatic dragsters, Mitchell made a name for himself as one of the best to ever get behind the wheel. And he did it all with his family by his side cheering him on – and preparing the car.

“I have a wonderful wife, Adonna, and two daughters, Tresa and Karen. Without them I would not have gone anywhere,” Mitchell said. “My daughters were my crew. Both were mechanically knowledgeable and made most of the decisions from round to round. They were the best crew anyone could have wanted.”

More than 20 years since he last graced a victory lane with the International Hot Rod Association, Mitchell’s impact on the sport is still felt today, making him a prime candidate for the inaugural IHRA Hall of Fame, joining such names as Clay Millican, Rickie Smith, Anthony Bertozzi, and Mike Boyles.

Last modified on Friday, 23 July 2021

 

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