Two-Time Champion Haley James is Ambitious and Awe-Inspiring

Interview by Mary Lendzion
Photos by the Fastest Street Car Staff

When Haley James was growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she would go to the track to watch her dad, Dwayne James, race.

She learned a lot from the legendary NMRA racer, including what it takes to be courageous and what it takes to be competitive, and then she started setting the world on fire.

She earned championships in NMRA ProCharger Coyote Modified in 2015 and 2018, she earned a win in her debut in NMRA Edelbrock Renegade at the 25th Annual Nitto NMRA Spring Break Shootout at Bradenton Motorsports Park early this year, and she’s picking up even more speed in her patriotic powerhouse of a car.

Read on for more about the determined and diehard driver who also helps turn wrenches on her Mustang, takes welding classes and has touchingly sung “The Star-Spangled Banner” at NMRA events.

WHAT CAN YOU REMEMBER ABOUT WATCHING YOUR DAD RACE WHEN YOU WERE A CHILD?

My earliest memory is of watching him test at Albuquerque Dragway, and because I’m a person who absorbs other people’s emotions, I can remember the ups and downs during that time. That includes the excitement and the disappointment, and the rush from either of those extremes is what made me want to be there. If everyone was happy, it was a rush. If everyone was pissed, it was a rush. I can also remember when my dad wanted to be the first driver to have success with twin turbos, a six-speed and a clutch, and his dream was to go 200-plus miles per hour, and he did that with a 6.87 at 203 mph. I remember being at a friend’s house and getting the call saying he did that, and I burst into tears because I was so happy for him. And, unfortunately, I can also remember when he caught on fire at Bradenton Motorsports Park and burned his face and ankles. When he came home and I saw how badly burned he was, I thought ‘Damn, these cars really can hurt you,’ and it was eye-opening for me on the importance of respecting the power.

HOW DID HIS RACING INFLUENCE YOUR DECISION TO START RACING?

Because I wanted to be there when my dad, and John (Urist) were racing and I was interested in everything that was going on, I really enjoyed how the team felt like an external family and how everyone was focused on one goal. Without him, I wouldn’t know drag racing, I wouldn’t be driving a car and I probably wouldn’t be at the track. His passion for drag racing and how he will fight tooth and nail to be able to participate in it rubbed off on me and became who I am, too. It has been important for me to learn through example.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST STREET-DRIVEN MUSCLE CAR?

It was a 1993 Fox body Mustang with a Hellion turbo kit, and it was quick for a street car. I street-raced it sometimes, and my mom, Sharon, was not happy about that, understandably. She basically told my dad ‘Jesus, you can put her in a race car if you make her stop her street racing,’ which planted the seed and then we ended up selling the car later on to buy stuff for the Mustang that I started racing in NMRA with, so no regrets there.

DO YOU FEEL PRESSURE TO BE AS SUCCESSFUL AS YOUR DAD WAS, OR NOT AT ALL?

I feel pressure to be the best that I can be, and to be good and on-point every time, and that comes from my dad because he expects that from me. I’ve just always had that mentality of ‘Why do something if you’re not going to give it your best shot?’ But what I don’t feel is pressure to win, because it’s not just about winning. It’s about the journey that either leads you there or doesn’t.

WERE YOU SURPRISED WHEN YOUR DAD ASKED IF YOU WANTED TO START COMPETING IN NMRA BY CLIMBING INTO THE MUSTANG IN WHICH YOUR TEAMMATE, FRANK VARELA, EARNED THE 2014 NMRA PROCHARGER COYOTE MODIFIED CHAMPIONSHIP? 

Well, a few months before that, I had gotten into a little bit of trouble and I was grounded. Basically, dad was like ‘If you get your shit together, I have cool stuff planned,’ and I knew him well enough to know that if he said he had cool stuff planned, then he had cool stuff planned and that I should indeed get my shit together. I never took that with a grain of salt.

WAS IT SOON AFTER THAT THAT YOU ATTENDED FRANK HAWLEY’S DRAG RACING SCHOOL, AND WHAT WAS YOUR TAKEAWAY FROM THE DRAG RACING LESSONS?

Going to the school was a Christmas gift from my dad, and there were so many takeaways from it. Frank is an amazing teacher. He explained everything in exactly the right way. One of the things he constantly told us was that we can’t think and react on the tree at the same time, and how you have to just let go of the button and trust that your body is reacting. I think back to that statement the most if I ever start to struggle on the tree.

AFTER THE TRAINING AND TEST PASSES, HOW DID YOUR NMRA PROCHARGER COYOTE MODIFIED RACE DEBUT GO AT THE SPRING BREAK SHOOTOUT IN 2015?

Prior to being in a car at Frank Hawley’s, the preparation involved sitting on a couch with a steering wheel while watching Frank (Varela) on YouTube and trying to emulate everything he was doing in the videos. I had no testing. I needed to have my stuff together, and I needed to know how to stage a turbo car, before getting to the race in Florida. I was terrified that I wouldn’t stage right or that I would blow through the beams. The first pass was the hardest, but after that, it went well, and I was able to achieve a runner-up finish, which was so crazy and unexpected and set the tone for the season.

WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE COMPETITION IN THE CLASS? WAS IT WHAT YOU EXPECTED, OR EVEN TOUGHER?

There were so many good racers. It was nerve-racking and I had to stay on my toes, but right away, I loved racing with them. They felt like family, but I also wanted to kick their asses on the track, and I know they wanted to kick my ass, too. It was definitely competitive, and one of the things that showed me how competitive it was going to be was a staging duel I was part of my very first race driving a car.

AMAZINGLY, YOU EARNED THE 2015 CHAMPIONSHIP DESPITE BEING A NEW DRIVER IN THE CATEGORY. WHAT DID THAT TAKE, AND WHAT DID THAT MEAN TO YOU?

It took a lot and it meant a lot. It took a lot from everyone as championships always do. It took a lot from my dad’s wallet, it took a lot of all of our emotions, it took dedication from the B Team and it took support from the companies that help. It took being 100 percent mentally focused and it took pushing through the trials and tribulations that come with the race car because it is, well, a race car. Most of all, because my dad sold his car before he ever got to win a championship as a driver, I was, and still am, so happy to have the opportunity to be the vessel for him to achieve that. That meant a lot to him, too, because the years spent frustrated, learning through trial and error, paid off and paved the path to being the brains behind five championships between Frank and me.

AFTER A TOTALLY RESPECTABLE SEVENTH PLACE FINISH IN POINTS IN 2016 AND THIRD PLACE FINISH IN POINTS IN 2017, YOU EARNED ANOTHER CHAMPIONSHIP IN NMRA PROCHARGER COYOTE MODIFIED IN 2018. HOW DID THE ROAD TO THAT CHAMPIONSHIP DIFFER FROM THE ROAD TO THE FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP?

It was completely different. We learned a lot in those two years, as struggling is a part of being successful. I had grown up a lot, was weeding out my immaturities and was realizing that my priorities were work, school and racing. I was no longer so rebellious, and that freed my mind up to be a better driver in all shapes and forms. I was more focused and ready to do whatever it took.

THIS YEAR, YOU MOVED TO THE NMRA EDELBROCK RENEGADE CATEGORY AND WON AT THE SEASON-OPENING RACE IN MARCH. WHAT CHANGES DID YOU MAKE TO YOUR CAR AND COMBINATION OVER WINTER? 

The car still has the 5.0 liter Coyote engine built by my dad and I with a Precision 76mm turbo, M&M Transmission Turbo 400 and ProTorque converter, but over winter, we took steel parts on the car and replaced them with carbon fiber, among many other cosmetic things. We went from an air-to-air intercooler to an air-to-water intercooler, and Ivan Varela of 4D Fabrication fabricated and welded the turbo kit and did some chassis upgrades. We also switched to the Smart Wire, brought Traum Pistons on board and are trying some other things, always with the help of Chris Groves at Dyno Edge. Participating in what goes on behind the scenes with the car and not just in the driver’s seat makes me even more driven. I put my own blood, sweat and tears into it, which makes me have more pride in the car and want to do extremely well. It’s great that we won at the race in Florida, but we’re not content with the 4.82 we ran. We’re ready to unleash her and get to 4.60s with the rest of the cars in this trim.

SPEAKING OF 4.60s, WHAT ARE YOUR OTHER HOPES FOR THIS YEAR?

Now that we’re in Renegade trim, we can run Xtreme Street and Ultra Street, so that’s forward-thinking. But as far as hopes for this year, we just want to show that we can be successful in an even faster class among the other good drivers and earn that respect, and as always, we’re going into it saying we want to be competitive and take home another championship if possible.

YOU, YOUR TEAMMATE AND MULTI-TIME NMRA CHAMPION FRANK VARELA, THE REST OF YOUR HELLION RACING B TEAM, AS WELL AS THE HELLION RACING A TEAM, WORK WONDERS TOGETHER. WHAT MAKES YOU TICK?

We’re all passionate about what we’re doing, and we’ll all do whatever it takes to accomplish whatever we’re trying to accomplish. The team is not just there for me in fair weather. They’re there for me when things aren’t going well, too. I appreciate them so much, and I literally trust them with my life because they’re the last people to touch the car or me before I go down track and that’s not something to take lightly.

(Interview from the June 2019 issue of Fastest Street Car)

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