Kaylynn Simmons had never even been to a dragstrip, let alone shown any interest working in drag racing. But life can sometimes move in unexpected directions – and Simmons definitely didn’t see this coming.
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #155, the Women of Power Issue, in April of 2020.]
With dreams to work in NASCAR, Simmons was set to graduate from UNOH in Lima, Ohio. But when Rob Wendland, who had just joined Terry McMillen’s Top Fuel team as crew chief, came calling with an opportunity, Simmons jumped completely into a new world.
The only problem? She graduated on a Tuesday and needed to be in McMillen’s shop on a Wednesday.
“I graduated on Tuesday, was in Terry’s shop on Wednesday and left the next Monday to go to Vegas for the spring race,” Simmons remembers. “I had never been to a dragstrip. The most I had known was Erica Enders’ drag racing movie (on Disney). I respected it, but it was never in the realm of things I imagined doing.”
To say it was a major learning curve would be an understatement, but Simmons persevered, established a strong rapport with Wendland and is now entering her fifth year on the team. It’s a far cry from being hired straight out of college, in part because she had a CDL and could drive one of the haulers.
But after starting as a clutch assistant – fully admitting she knew very little about a Top Fuel dragster clutch – Simmons impressed everyone with a thirst to learn and a willingness to work.
She became the lead clutch person that offseason and has become an integral part of McMillen’s successful one-car team, making Simmons a definite success story in the sport with one incredible journey as well.
“For me, I knew my work ethic was there. I’ve always pushed to make sure I was on time, do my best and work as hard as I could,” Simmons says. “Being straightforward with (Wendland) was big. If I didn’t know how to do something, I told him. It was a big learning curve, but I’ve never quit or given up on anything. I knew I was going to find a way for myself.”
It certainly wasn’t easy, as Simmons jokes she had to “go through Rob Wendland’s boot camp.” But adhering to a tight ship and displaying an impressive work ethic had an impact on Wendland.
The team had a breakthrough together that first year, and McMillen has enjoyed the best run of his career, winning his first career Top Fuel race, winning the U.S. Nationals and advancing to the Countdown to the Championship for the first time. It’s been a fulfilling journey for Simmons, who has thrived in her role.
“For me, I found the passion watching Terry’s career evolve,” Simmons says. “To be there for Terry’s first win, it was amazing. But that has been my passion working for a single-car team, trying to help get Terry to new standards every day. This group of guys, they’re like my brothers, like my family.”
Simmons’ unconventional path has served as an inspiration to others, especially as a female working on the clutch for a contending Top Fuel team.
Growing up in the small town of Jordan, New York, Simmons started dirt-kart racing when she was seven years old. She enjoyed plenty of success racing through high school, but found herself as one of just a few females racing.
Determined to have an impact in motorsports, Simmons has become a role model for many, and she’s enjoyed every part of that responsibility.
“To have girls message me on social media or talk to me at the track or ask how do I get to where I’m at, it’s just awesome,” Simmons says. “It’s more normal and accepted than ever before for females to work in this industry, so if I can bridge that gap, it’s pretty cool.
“I’m just fortunate Rob took that chance on me. I have no intentions of going anywhere and it’s really been awesome.”