Drag racer, Paul Lee, shows us that with a love of racing and a head for business, you can make it across the finish line.
To paraphrase racing legend A. J. Foyt, “When I began seeing drivers carrying briefcases instead of helmets, I knew the sport was in trouble.” Paul Lee may be that driver carrying a briefcase, but he has his helmet in the other hand. He’s proof that success in racing and business isn’t mutually exclusive.
A 13-year-old kid hanging over the fence at Atco (NJ) Raceway witnessing “Jungle Jim” Liberman make one of his patented monster burnouts followed by a 0-to-60-mph starting line return, well, he’s hooked. Paul Lee knew at that moment he wanted to drive a nitro Funny Car. As his love for the sport matured, it became clear that if he wanted to make it to the big leagues, higher education would be the path he’d need to take.
“A long time ago, I felt that the days of making it as a hired gun driver were over. When I saw big names struggle to get sponsorships or driving jobs, I knew I was going to have to take a different direction to obtain my goals.”
While racing a series of sportsman entries he graduated from the prestigious Ivy League Wharton School of Business and later obtained his MBA and law degree from Rutgers University. To most, becoming an attorney is plenty for a life’s goal, but to Paul it was merely the means to the end. Having the tools to succeed in business would allow him to control his own racing destiny.
In ’88 Paul, who also is an expert skydiver with more than 1,500 jumps, took a major step towards that goal by fielding his own alcohol flopper. For the next six years, excluding a break for grad school, he honed his driving skills in alcohol competition, including a stint with Nick Boninfante’s fabled East Coast Funny Car Circuit, hitting all of the strips in the Northeast. In addition to driving for himself, he wheeled Ed Parker’s legendary Cape Codder and a series of J&B Motorsports entries. The highlight of his alcohol career came in 2004 when he garnered three NHRA TAFC national event victories.
The following year, he and J&B Motorsports made the considerable leap to nitro, selling the alky flop to Brian Freisen. His transition to the pros was seamless. Much is made of Del Worsham and Melanie Troxel pulling double duty, well, Paul did the same at the ’05 U.S. Nationals and Chicago events, driving both the J&B nitro Funny Car and Brian Freisen’s TA/FC.
From 2006 through 2008, he drove the J&B nitro Funny Car and the Paul Richards nitro Funny Car at IHRA events, making five final round appearances, before finally teaming with veteran tuner Paul Smith. During his successful tenure with Smith he scored his first pro win at the IHRA Northern Nationals at Milan Dragway, defeating Dan Wilkerson in the final. During this period, his “day job” was that of chief financial officer for Boninfante Performance Racing Clutches, purveyor of clutch parts to professional racing teams throughout the world.
One of their customers was “Big Jim” Dunn, a fixture in nitro competition since his days at Lions. They struck a deal, and in 2010 Paul buckled himself into Dunn’s racer. Coincidentally, the ’60s movie, Funny Car Summer, featuring Jim Dunn, was another of the other driving forces that lead to Paul’s career choice. This duo has gelled from the get-go, and even though they face the daunting task of taking on the “factory” teams, no one looks past them to the next round when Paul comes to the line.
For 2011, Rislone Fuel Injector Cleaner signed as a major sponsor with Paul and Jim Dunn Racing. They’re joined by Canidae Pet Foods, Kimco Scooters, WileyX Sunglasses, Lincoln Tech, and notably, McLeod Clutches.
As stated earlier, Paul knew in order to be successful in racing he needed to also achieve success in business. He made a major move in 2008 with the purchase of McLeod Clutches from B&M Transmissions. One of Paul’s first moves was to reinstall clutch pioneer Red Roberts, who founded the company in ’71, back into the business. Purchased in the middle of the ’08 economic meltdown, Paul has managed to increase sales and profits throughout the past three years, when those competitors around him are floundering. An aggressive marketing campaign has included McLeod’s involvement with NHRA as a major sponsor for Stock and Super Stock competitors.
In addition to a complete line of single- and dual-disc clutch systems for high performance street and racing applications, McLeod has recently directed its expertise into the transmission business. The development team spent almost three years creating this unit. The impetus behind the build came from the muscle car community that wanted a beefy, five-speed overdrive transmission that doesn’t require them to hack their cars up to make an aftermarket trans fit. McLeod was smart enough to design this transmission (named the M-800) as a modular unit, so it is a five-speed bolt-in replacement for the Muncies, T-10s, A-833 Mopars and Ford Top Loaders. The gears are all forged steel, it’s a 32-spline output shaft, it bolts to your stock bellhousing, and features a 2.95 first gear and a .63 fifth gear. McLeod has so much faith in this transmission that it puts a one-year/12,000-mile warranty on it. Five speeds, stronger, lighter and no cutting required—we have a winner.
In addition to his racing and business career, Paul is the co-director of the Science of Racing, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting to teens the importance of making positive choices in life, including the continuation of their education. “I’m a firm believer that young people today need as much education as they can get to become competitive in today’s economic environment. I recommend that students find their passion, set goals and get the right education to achieve your goals. If you can live your passion, you will never work a day in your life.”
Paul Lee is helping to set the tone for what it will take to succeed in this new era of drag racing.
Text by Pete Ward
Photos by James Drew, Richard Brady; courtesy of Paul Lee