You wouldn’t be able to blame Paul Lee if he’s just happy to be here. Not because he’s back doing what he loves after suffering a massive heart attack, though, sure, that too. The McLeod Funny Car made its debut at the Arby’s NHRA Southern Nationals (race seven on the calendar) and advanced to the second round.
Just like that, Lee got a round win under his belt. He returned to action at the Route 66 NHRA Nationals and qualified for the toughest field to date; and one of the most difficult fields in recent memory. He’ll start in the No. 15 position after a Saturday night run was thrown out due to a centerline infraction. That doesn’t change what’s becoming indisputable: The McLeod Funny Car is a really nice piece.
Lee got back into a Funny Car in Phoenix for the first time following his heart attack. He drove J.R. Todd’s Funny Car while the future world champion was still getting his feet wet in the short wheelbase category. Those handful of passes with Kalitta Motorsports were meant to confirm what doctors told him he could do: drive again.
“I was anxious because I didn’t know how my heart was going to react,” said Lee. “I had done a lot of rehab and the doctors said I was going to be fine and they had a heart monitor hooked up to me and all of that but just the… anxiety of knowing what I went through and my heart has damage. It’s never going to be 100 percent again. There’s nothing you can really do to prepare for that, you just have to go drive it.
“The first lap after my heart attack, driving J.R.’s car, there was anxiety there for sure and my heart rate was up; we know it was because we had it hooked up to a heart monitor. But after that first one everything just started to feel natural again.”
One thing that helped him feel comfortable: Kalitta Motorsports. Lee has been around for a long time. Long enough to have friends in a lot of places in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing community, but that team made him comfortable. Jim Oberhofer, a mainstay at Kalitta for many years, now tunes Lee’s Funny Car. Many of the crew members on the car worked with Oberhofer and are now working with Lee at the newly formed Straightline Strategy Group. Everything fits together in a way that works for Lee.
“He’s a lifelong friend of mine and a lot of the crew members were friends of mine so that really helped me,” said Lee. “A lot of those guys were confident in me just like I had confidence in them. That really meant a lot to me.”
While Oberhofer calls the shots, there’s a special team dynamic that plays a role in the McLeod Funny Car’s early season success. The Funny Car is parked in Don Schumacher Racing’s garage and the team formed a technical alliance with the Rahn Tobler-tuned NAPA Auto Parts Funny Car right out of the gate. That partnership, which is a two-way street, got the team off and running.
“Every part you see here is something we bought from Don Schumacher,” said Lee. “The only thing we didn’t buy from them is something that they didn’t have available.”
“The way we’re doing it is that whatever Tobler says, that’s what we’re doing. He’s a proven champion. He’s a many time world champion. I wouldn’t question a single thing he has to say. He hasn’t just helped us out as a team, but me as a driver. He’s told me several things that I’m sure he’s told Capps before, too. That’s really been invaluable.”
That’s a great position to be in, and there’s still a lot of season to race.