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Drumming up the good life

Drummer Nigel Olsson is still easing down the yellow brick road of his dreams, backing rock icon Elton John and driving sports cars on the finest racetracks in England and the United States.

'I count myself lucky every single day,' says the cheerful drummer, whose accent betrays his northern England origins. He's been with Elton John since 1969 and living in the United States since 1972.

Pace cars are as close as Olsson gets to racing these days.

'We were playing in Charlotte, N.C., on the sad day (stock car racer) Dale Earnhardt died,' he explains, 'and Elton came into the dressing room, pulled me aside and said, 'Nige, are you still racing?' and I said, 'Yeah.' And he said: 'I'd rather you didn't. Go ahead and drive the pace car as long as you stay up front.'

'Of course, he's never been at Monterey (Calif.) when you're leading a vintage Formula One grid into Turn 1 at 90 miles an hour Ñ and they're all over you!'

Olsson is a shadowy figure behind the wheel of a ritzy Porsche or Ferrari sports car at Baxter Auto Parts Portland Historic Races, held at Portland International Raceway each year. At the 2003 races recently, he sat down for a moment to talk about rock 'n' roll and racing.

Olsson has played for Elton John over three periods in the last 30 years: from 1969 to '74, 1980 to '84 and 2000 to now. In between, he's had successful bands of his own but nothing approaching the juggernaut that is Elton John.

Olsson and bassist Dee Murray joined the Spencer Davis group Ñ the seminal British band that spawned Stevie Winwood Ñ in 1969 after having U.K. hits with Plastic Penny.

When Spencer Davis broke up, Olsson and Murray backed John on his live '11-17-70' album, later becoming the backbone of his '70s hit machine that included the platinum albums 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' and 'Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.'

These days, touring with John is a huge enterprise, he says. The tours can last up to two years, and the band has three identical sets of equipment in different parts of the world to avoid post-Sept. 11. 2001, shipping issues.

'It's still exciting,' he says. 'There's still that rush, and people are taken aback that I get so nervous the whole day before the show. I don't know why; I'm not frightened of dropping a drumstick, and it's not like I don't know the songs!'

One thing that drives John is his charities, Olsson says, recalling a recent white-tie event at the superstar's London home that raised 2 million pounds ($3.2 million) for AIDS research.

Rock 'n' roll and racing go hand in hand, Olsson says, with musicians and drivers on one hand and enthusiastic fans in the stands.

But rock 'n' roll and racing cars don't overlap, he says:

'When I'm driving a Ferrari Daytona, I don't need a stereo in it. I just wind down the window and listen to the engine. That's music to my ears.'