In a recent episode of “The Racing Business,” host Jason Dukes welcomed Paul Lee, a prominent figure in the world of drag racing, a Funny Car driver and the owner of Wharton Automotive Group. This episode offered viewers a glimpse into Lee’s journey, from his early passion for racing to his current status as a successful business owner and nitro Funny Car driver.
Lee’s fascination with drag racing began in his childhood, thanks to his grandfather’s influence. He recalls a vivid memory from his early years, saying, “My earliest memory is sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders at the racetrack, watching the Top Fuel dragsters run.” This memory would set the stage for his lifelong love affair with the sport.
Paul Lee’s story is not just about racing; it’s about the synergy between racing and business. He emphasizes that drag racing serves as a powerful marketing tool for his brands, including McLeod Clutches and FTI Performance. “Our customers are the ones either racing or sitting in the stands or watching on TV,” he explained. “It’s a perfect marketing tool for our companies to use.”
However, Lee’s Nitro Funny Car team may not be in the Countdown, but their dedication to winning is unwavering. “When we go to race, we’re there to win,” he said. Although they compete in fewer races per year, each one is approached with the same determination. Lee reveals that their budget is designed for racing hard, not just participating.
His journey in racing took shape with the guidance of drag racing legends like “Jungle Jim” Liberman. “That’s what I want to do,” he recalled thinking as a 13-year-old watching Jungle Jim’s awe-inspiring quarter-mile burnout. While he didn’t come from a racing dynasty, Lee’s path was clear: he had to succeed in business to fuel his dream of becoming a Nitro Funny Car driver.
Paul’s determination to race led him to a strategic decision. Seeing that even iconic racers like Don Prudhomme and Shirley Muldowney struggled to secure sponsors, he decided to follow in the footsteps of successful businessmen-racers like Connie Kalitta and Joe Amato. “I knew that I would have to be successful in business if I ever wanted to be a race car driver at the level that I wanted to do it,” Lee explained.
However, Lee’s health journey took a dramatic turn on December 13, 2016, shortly after the PRI Show. He suffered a massive heart attack known as a “widowmaker,” which resulted in complete heart failure. Fortunately, he was at home, and a quick-thinking companion called 911. The proximity of the EMT center across the street from his house proved crucial, as they arrived within four minutes and saved his life.
Lee was rushed to St. Joe’s Heart Institute, where he received life-saving treatment, including stent placement. The heart attack had caused severe damage to his heart. Despite his passion for racing, he had to withdraw from driving due to his weakened heart.
Lee’s heart condition was hereditary, with a family history of heart disease. He emphasized the importance of regular check-ups, especially for those over 50, and encouraged everyone to undergo a stress test and echocardiogram, even if they didn’t have a family history of heart issues. He acknowledged that if he had taken this precaution, his heart condition might have been detected earlier.
After a year and a half of rehabilitation and diligent medical care, Lee’s heart showed improvement. At the time, he had a defibrillator in his heart within his chest. “My heart was so weak, I had to have that in case my heart stopped, it would keep it going,” Lee explained.
After his cardiologist saw the 44-amp magnetos during a scouting trip to the track, he told Paul Lee that they needed to pump the brakes and see if they would interfere with Lee’s defibrillator.
Fast forward, and with Del Worsham’s help, Lee’s cardiologist allowed him to test his heart’s ability to withstand the rigors of driving a race car. First up was starting the car to see if the magnetos affected Lee’s defibrillator while his doctor monitored the heart device with a connected laptop. Lee received the thumbs up, so the next step was to test the car on the track. But the catch was that Lee had to drive with the monitoring system and laptop, hooked up to his defibrillator to keep track of his heart’s reaction.
In January, at the NHRA test session at Firebird Raceway, Connie Kalitta let Lee drive the DHL car. He made three passes in J.R. Todd’s car and recorded one of his fastest runs ever – 3.91 at 321 mph.
“[My doctor] looked at all the heart data, and goes, ‘well, you look good, how do you feel?’ I feel great. He goes, ‘okay, well,’ then he signed off my license, so that’s how that got back to driving again,” Lee explained.
His journey from a life-threatening heart attack to returning to the racetrack is a testament to his resilience and determination. Lee’s story serves as a reminder for everyone, regardless of age, to prioritize their heart health and undergo regular check-ups and stress tests.
Lastly, Lee’s journey from a young drag racing fan to a thriving business owner and Nitro Funny car driver is a testament to his unwavering commitment to both racing and entrepreneurship. His story serves as an inspiration to anyone striving to turn their passion into a successful career.