Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- U.S. 19 Dragway owner and manager Tim Pafford admitted he was guilty of pre-judging a year and half ago before he first met former U.S. Olympic figure skating star Tonya Harding at a racing event in Douglas.

But once he took the time to get to know her, what he found was a pleasant surprise.

"She got up in front of this crowd of about 400 people at this dinner they were having for her, and talked about how much she loved the outdoors, loved automobile racing, loved to hunt, and fish. And then she just kind of told us her whole life story," Pafford recalled. "Me, like most people before that night, all I knew about her was all that stuff with the Nancy Kerrigan incident. But after I met her and got to know her some, I told her afterward, 'Maybe I just didn't know any better, but I didn't know what to expect. And I just want to tell you what a delightful, genuine person you are.' "

Pafford, meanwhile, has since parlayed that meeting into a friendship with Harding, who was due to arrive in Albany on Monday night for an appearance at the Dragway on Friday that will feature her competing in a series of races and spending time with fans.

"We're going to put her in a car and turn her loose and let her race," said Pafford, who owned the track from 1993-2001, before re-purchasing it 15 months ago for a second time. "Our races will start at 7 (p.m. on Friday) and (Tonya's) first will be against a local woman, Sheryl Giles, in an exhibition in a street-legal passenger car, then the second will be in a full-blown race car and then she'll end the night by going up against fans on our go-kart track.

"It's gonna be a fun, exciting night."

Of course, it's nearly impossible to mention Harding without mentioning the events of 1994 which sky-rocketed her to fame -- and infamy.

So unless you've been living in a bomb shelter for the last 20 years, let's get it out of the way right now.

Harding, a Portland, Ore., native, is most well-known for the international scandal and ensuing media frenzy that developed during the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships after her top competitor Kerrigan was the subject of an assault on her right leg by a man with a police baton. The man, who was later identified as Shane Stant, was hired by Harding's now ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and bodyguard, Shane Eckhardt, to break Kerrigan's leg before the competition.

And while Stant failed -- Kerrigan only suffered a deep bruise -- she still eventually had to withdraw as Harding went on to win. Both women made the U.S. Olympic team for that year's Games in Lillehammer, Norway, as Kerrigan finished second, while Harding took eighth.

Gillooly and Eckhardt later admitted, and were charged with, masterminding the attack, while Harding pleaded guilty to trying to cover it up.

"You know, all that stuff was a long time ago," began Pafford, "and now she's just living her life, being herself."

And that's what brings Harding, 39, to Albany this week as she plans to take part in an event Pafford said she could one day be a natural at, should Harding ever give it a try professionally.

"I know she's done some racing and I know she enjoys it and would have the capabilities to be very good at it if she wanted to," he said. "She's the kind of person who can accomplish whatever she puts her mind to."

Since her departure from figure skating, which was almost immediately after the Kerrigan incident, Harding has put her mind to a number of things, including acting, singing, pro wrestling, celebrity boxing and the role she's likely most famous for these days as a celebrity guest on TruTV's "The Smoking Gun Presents: World's Dumbest ..."

There, Harding -- along with a handful of other celebrities -- gives regular witty and clever commentary on home videos, usually of criminals caught doing ... well ... fairly dumb things on camera.

"Her life story and all that she's done and all that's happened to her is pretty interesting. And this will give people a chance to come out and meet her," Pafford said of Harding, who also runs her own Web site, tonyaharding.com, which keeps up with her daily life. "When I called her and asked her if she wanted to come back to Georgia and take part in this event, she thought it was a great idea. We're excited to have her."

Pafford said Harding will be around all week, conducting interviews, meeting fans, making appearances and soaking up all that Southwest Georgia has to offer.

"The last time she was here (in Georgia) she went out catfishing to a local pond and hauled in what we think is the largest catfish ever caught by a woman in Georgia," Pafford said. "So she's ready come back and do stuff like that."

If racing is rained out Friday night, the track will resume the same schedule -- and same planned activities -- on Saturday.