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Hall of Fame keeps driving Gustin#039;s way

ETNA -- Roger Gustin is starting to run out of Hall of Fames to be inducted.

The Ironton native entered his third such honor in March when he was a unanimous choice of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

Gustin, a former drag racing and Jet Funny Car driver, was also inducted into the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Hall of Fame in 1981 and then the Pro Jet Hall of Fame in 1993.

Even though it is becoming old hat for Gustin, he said it is no less thrilling.

"This is our pinnacle. For anyone in the business it's a big thing. It was exciting," said Gustin. "I never thought about me being in the hall of fame for anything. I'm proud of it. You never get tired of it. I really enjoyed the ceremonies."

Actually, Gustin was elected twice. Drivers must be retired for five years in order to be eligible, but Gustin was nominated and voted into the IDR Hall of Fame after just three years in retirement.

"They called and said I had all the votes and asked me if I had been retired for five years. I said I only had three years and they dropped me," said Gustin.

But when the vote was cast last year, Gustin was the first driver voted into the HOF.

"It was thrilling, but we knew about a month in advance," said Gustin.

Gustin, now 63, actually began his career driving when he was just out of high school in 1957 after graduating from Green Township. He drove a 1949 Chevy at Raven Rock dragstrip in Portsmouth and the Riverside dragstrip in Proctorville.

He got his first big sponsorship break when Proctor & Gamble backed the Lava Machine, the famous Jet Funny Car that traveled 300 miles an hour.

The sponsorship of P&G put Gustin in the spotlight as he did several Lava soap commercials.

His advertising career continued in 1986 when he won the public service Announcement of the Year award for his television commercials urging people to drive 55 miles an hour and use seat belts.

Gustin knows first-hand about how seat belts save lives. A horrific accident nearly cost him his life if not for his seat belt.

In 1992 at Atco, N.J., Gustin's brand new car went airborne after crossing the finish line. The car flipped several times, broke into pieces, clipped a tree, and left him with dozens of broken bones among other critical injuries. He landed in four-feet of water at a lake and nearby drowned before rescuers reached him.

He came back after the crash in 14 months to drive in two races. But the pain was so intense, and the objections from his family so continuous, Gustin elected to step behind the scenes.

There was an offer to take over the management of AutoStar Productions, Inc., which puts on 19 race shows across the country. Don Warner made the offer and Gustin accepted.

Another tragic accident hit the Gustin racing family in May when team driver Jerry Gannon, a native of Franklin Furnace, was killed in a crash while racing a car. The tragedy still weighs heavy on his mind and that of his racing team.

"By no means is it over. He was like another brother. It was a horrible deal. It broke all of our hearts. We've had accidents, but nothing this close. I guess that's the dark side of the business. We want to put that out of our minds. We always know it can happen," said Gustin.

Roger's brothers Bill and Phil Gustin are part of the Gustin Brothers Team. Bill is the manager and runs the shop in Franklin Furnace while Phil is the chief mechanic.

Gustin just finished the Norwalk Super Chevy Show, the 10th such event this year which marks the season's halfway point.

Even though Gustin admits the AutoStar business has him busier than he wants, another business has accidentally developed on the side. And developed is the key word.

Gustin bought some land in the Etna area, a suburb east of Columbus, and he has been in partnership to develop it for new business offices.

"We put a deal together with Time Warner and they put up a communications center which is a cable TV deal. I'm talking to a group that's going into a partnership with some others about a business. It sure beats the stock market," said Gustin.

Roger and Bill Gustin have formed G&G Marketing which is a replacement for Creeper.

"We've actually sold the manufacturing rights to Wang Manufacturing, and we have another contract for another site," said Roger.

"We didn't mean to get into this business. Land is hard to get. People won't sell you property. Right across the road from us is Cumberland Trail golf course and they're building 796 new homes. So we bought 13 acres of land and we've got approval to build nine businesses like banks, insurance office, dry cleaners, and those types of businesses.

"The community needs to support itself. Now they want us to build a day care. We've already put in the water and sewers. We're sitting here waiting for the community to catch up with us."

And while he's waiting, Gustin will stick with what he likes best.

"I'm happy this business came along. It's like an addiction. Racing is not for everybody, but it's what I wanted to do," said Gustin.

Besides racing, Gustin is proud of his three daughters.

Pam Gustin is a teacher formerly in the Ironton City School system, Lee Ann Crawley, a nurse, is in Lexington, Ky., who opened her own business in research medicine, and Valerie Gustin is in Dallas working as an accountant for Exxon Mobil.

"They've all done very well. I guess you would say I'm a very proud father," said Gustin. Jim Walker/The Ironton Tribune