Anne Proffit pays tribute to a fast and brave NHRA racer whose courage is highlighted by his latest decision.
In late July of last year, the future was looking great for Paul Lee, NHRA Funny Car driver, who had just signed an agreement to run a third flopper in NHRA’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series with Kalitta Motorsports.
Lee, who has more than 10 years professional experience in the nitro class, had driven for Jim Dunn Motorsports and with Worsham Racing and Gary Densham prior to joining Kalitta’s team last year.
After racing in the two final contests of the year, at Las Vegas and Pomona, where he set his best career elapsed time (3.935 seconds at the season finale in Pomona) and best career speed (329.34 mph at Las Vegas), Lee was looking forward to as many as 10 events in a McLeod Racing Toyota Camry in 2017. He intended to drive the same Camry used by Del Worsham to win the 2015 NHRA Funny Car title.
Those plans unraveled in mid-December of last year, just two days after he returned from a trip to the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) trade show in Indianapolis, where he’d been promoting McLeod clutches, flywheels and their essential components. Lee suffered a massive heart attack with 100 percent blockage of his left anterior descending (LAD) artery. Three stents were inserted but there was, his physicians said, significant heart damage as a result.
“I’m very lucky to be alive,” Paul Lee said of this calamity, which is forcing him to retire from the sport. “The paramedics are close to my house and were there in minutes. They got me to the hospital in time for doctors to save my life
“[It’s] the worst kind of heart attack someone can have. Only about one in 10 survive.”
Not for nothing, then, is such an attack dubbed ‘the widow maker.’
New Jersey-born Paul Lee has been a lifelong fan and participant in NHRA drag racing, borrowing his mother’s car at 17 years of age and heading to the local Atco Dragway to satisfy his racing urge. Throughout his career, Lee has earned three Top Alcohol and Funny Car victories, and his need to compete has never been quenched. However, prescribed blood thinners make it unsafe for Lee to continue to drive, hence his retirement.
“It pains me to know that I’ll probably never get to drive again,” said the 59-year-old, “but in reality, I’m happy to still be here. My heart is too weak and will take years to recover.”
The racing operation, on the other hand, will go on and continue to be managed by Kalitta Motorsports. There are sponsor commitments to be fulfilled and the McLeod Toyota Camry will appear at some events, as yet undeclared, during the 24-race campaign. A driver, Lee said, will be announced at a later date and co-crew chiefs Glen Huszar and Nick Casertano will work on the DHL Toyota Camry of J.R. Todd and the Tequila Patron Camry for Alexis DeJoria when not running the McLeod Camry.
Jim Oberhofer, VP of operations at Kalitta Motorsports, had been in discussion about their intended collaboration for about a year before it was announced last July. Having that plan turn to ashes before it had a chance to come into effect was a disappointing blow.
Said Oberhofer: “Kalitta Motorsports was devastated to learn about Paul’s heart attack, but we’re thankful he is still with us. We know how much desire Paul had to compete at the highest level in the sport, so we are saddened he will be unable to continue. Paul is and always will be a part of the Kalitta family.”
Lee and the McLeod company will continue support of Kalitta Motorsports and he’ll continue to own and operate McLeod Racing.
“I’ve made many friends in this sport, both in my Alcohol Funny Car days in [NHRA] Division 1, up to my friends in the professional ranks. I’d like to personally thank Connie Kalitta and Jim Oberhofer and the whole Kalitta organization for welcoming me into their family. I will be forever grateful.”
It takes a wise and smart racer to realize when to hold and when to fold. Dario Franchitti recognized, after his 2013 accident in Houston that he had to stop racing Indy cars; NASCAR’s most popular driver for the past 16 years, Dale Earnhardt Jr., stepped away from the sport for more than half of last year’s season due to concussion complications. Paul Lee is the latest to realize his health is more important than his racing.
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