Ray Kelley is entering his fifth year living his dream, and the 49-year-old self-described thrill seeker will do it in an even bigger way in 2021.
Kelley pilots the Game X Change jet dragster, a partnership that has been in place for a couple of years. But the sponsorship will grow substantially this year, leaving Kelley the chance to provide an even bigger flame-filled show.
"Having that kind of sponsorship allows us to do a lot of cool things," Kelley said. "We're able to burn a little more fuel, put on a massive fire show, and get the fans involved. We're there to put on a show, and we want to do everything we can to give them a memorable experience."
Kelley's been a standout in that regard, delivering a thrilling show last year in Dallas at the Texas NHRA FallNationals.
He's excited to do even more in 2021 with his growing partnership. Kelley owns his own construction business and has built 87 Game X Change stores across the MidWest, which helped birth the partnership.
Kelley has also learned to be a master when it comes to promotion, and there's no denying his passion for jet cars. That love dates back more than four decades when he saw his first jet car go down the track at Cecil County Dragway in Rising Sun, Md.
"I saw that fire come out, and that was it," Kelley said. "There were jet cars and jet trucks, and it was just unbelievable. The biggest thing was just the rumble you hear after it passed you. There's something about that jet engine screaming at you, it's just awesome."
Kelley goes the extra mile trying to recreate that magic with fans when he performs, going a little longer than most when it comes to the extreme fire shows before the runs.
He's also active in the pits, conversing with fans and explaining the incredible power of his jet dragster. Being front and center on the NHRA midway and performing in front of a national-event audience only adds to the excitement for Kelley.
"We have a lot of fun doing it, and people love the car," Kelley said. "We've tried to take it to the next level, trying to replicate the professionalism of a Top Fuel team. When it works out and you're on that midway and running in front of a large crowd, that's what you love."
Kelley learned the art of showmanship driving for the KC Jones Racing and their "Team Steam" jet car lineup. He raced at several top-level events before Kelley made the move to put together his team. Equipped with a General Electric J85 aircraft engine, Kelley's jet car produces about 12,000 hp and 8,500 pounds of thrust.
But Kelley is more concerned about putting on an unforgettable show than those numbers. He's built a strong jet car capable of great runs, but his main goal — especially when the jet cars often close a qualifying day at a NHRA national event — is leaving fans with a lasting memory.
"Seeing the fans' reactions, it's almost a bigger rush than actually driving the car," Kelley said. "You're doing something you know they love, and to have the opportunity to entertain them, you can't beat that.
"You pull up to the burnout box and see all those people against the fence, it's awesome. It charges us up, and when everybody is paying attention to see the show we can put on, it's phenomenal. That's our moment to shine."