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ESPN.com news services

MADISON, Ill. -- Drag racer Darrell Russell died Sunday after his car broke up while traveling about 300 mph and burst into flames during a Top Fuel race at Gateway International Raceway.

Russell had crossed the finish line on the quarter-mile strip and deployed his parachute when his dragster came apart in the second round of eliminations at the Sears Craftsman NHRA Nationals.

The car rolled to a halt near a guard wall and the fire was quickly put out.

The 35-year-old from Hockley, Texas, was unconscious when he was cut from the wreckage, immobilized with a brace and placed on a backboard. He was taken by helicopter to the St. Louis University Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead about two hours later.

Russell is the first participant to be killed in competition at an NHRA national event since Blaine Johnson died in a crash during a qualifying run in the 1996 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

"I feel absolutely horrible," said U.S. Army Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher, who made a quick trip to St. Louis University Medical Center following his second round loss in Top Fuel only to hear the bad news about his good friend. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Darrell's wife and the entire Russell family. I'm at a loss for words right now."

Schumacher's U.S. Army teammate, Pro Stock Bike rider Antron Brown, was stunned after receiving the word about Russell.

"Total disbelief is all I can say," Brown said. "Darrell was such a great guy and a rising star in the sport. I don't think there was ever a time I didn't see a smile on his face. We will miss him in the worst way."

Sunday's event continued after a 45-minute delay.

Russell, the 2001 NHRA rookie of the year, had six career Top Fuel victories, including the Pontiac Excitement Nationals two weeks ago in Columbus, Ohio.

In his 2001 season, he became the third driver in NHRA history to win in his first start.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Guest AlanS

That sucks...I've been to a couple NHRA events before, actually the Pontiac Nationals mentioned there in the article. We managed to make our way into the staging area, behind the line where the dragster line-up for the race. All I can say that watchin those top fuels take off from the line from that close is absolutely one of the most intense sensations I've ever felt, it feels like you're standing next to the space shuttle taking off. And they're gone in a flash. Yes, just plain crazy.

RIP Darrell.

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The summer nationals are at english town racewa park, NJ. where I use to run my 5.0...

You are right, the top fuel guys is just jaw dropping. loudest thing i've ever heard in my entire life. it rattles your brain and organs. The first time, I was baked out of my mind, and never saw a top fuel guy run ever, I was not prepared for what happened. Shook me and scared the shit out of me. But it's fun after that.

They have this night of thrills, with monster trucks and the jet cars, but the top fuel guys are my favs.

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Guest endymion

I treated a patient at the drag strip in Gainesville about maybe five years ago who burned to a crisp right in front of me. It must not have been an NHRA event, I don't know, I don't follow racing.

This guy was burning an alcohol mixture that produced invisible flames. You couldn't see the flames at all, but you sure could tell that he was burning up.

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