Racing the Pinstripes

A drag race is over in a matter of seconds but fielding a successful NHRA Top Fuel dragster is a “seven-day-a-week job,” according to John Maddox, chief mechanic for the Gwynn/Steinbrenner Racing New York Yankees Top Fuel dragster.

The name “New York Yankees” evokes many things: tradition, winning and dynasty, to name just a few. Last year, the Yankees’ well-known and often controversial owner, George Steinbrenner, put the Yankees name – and winning tradition – on the line in the world of Top Fuel drag racing when he formed a partnership with former driver Darrell Gwynn to field a Top Fuel dragster bearing the Yankees name. Formed last August, the Gwynn/ Steinbrenner Racing partnership also includes Hank Steinbrenner, George’s son; and Darrell Gwynn’s father, Jerry Gwynn, who serves as team general manager.

Darrell Gwynn, NHRA top alcohol dragster world champion in 1983, was one of drag racing’s top drivers until a 1990 racing accident left him partially paralyzed. He also lost his left arm below the elbow in that accident, but continues to run the team’s day-to-day operations. The Gwynn team won four times on the 1999 NHRA circuit but lost its sponsor for the 2000 season.

In stepped the Steinbrenners, with Hank serving as the family’s point man. In an interview with USA Today just after the partnership was formed last year, the elder Steinbrenner admitted he didn’t know too much about racing but that his son was quite interested in the sport. Hank Steinbrenner also runs his father’s thoroughbred racing operation.

The NHRA Top Fuel season runs from the first week of February to early November and features races at tracks all across the country. Getting the team and its equipment to the track falls to Maddox and Steve Zelem, an engine specialist. Maddox and Zelem also serve as team transport drivers.

Truckers News caught up with Maddox and Zelem at the Pro Racers Truck Wash in Sacramento, Calif., in early August as they were making their way to the Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., for the Fram Autolite Nationals. The previous weekend, the team had raced in the NHRA Northwest Nationals in Kent, Wash. John Cox, owner of Sacramento Theatrical Lighting and a longtime NHRA enthusiast, provided the truck wash for team transporters. Several other team rigs graced the lot, just off a busy industrial area near downtown.

Team chief mechanic John Maddox (left) and engine specialist Steve Zelem do double duty as team transport drivers. “We work seven days a week with hardly any time off,” Maddox says, but he loves his job.

“We’re different than other racing circuits like NASCAR, IRL or CART,” Maddox says. “Steve and I are actually mechanics that drive the truck. We don’t have team truck drivers per se. We actually work on the cars. As soon as we get everything unloaded, we go right to our duties on the racetrack.”

That makes double duty for the two, Maddox says, “But considering we only run about 35,000 miles a year, it’s not that bad.”

The transport trailer is the team’s heart. It holds two race cars, one “completely assembled and ready to go” and another car that is “basically a chassis with all the electrical components and everything else in place.” The backup is bolted to the upper wall inside the trailer.

The trailer also holds all the tools they need, according to Maddox. Even when they are back at home base in Florida, they keep all their tools on the trailer. “The trailer backs up inside the shop and we work out of the trailer just as we would at the track, because it’s set up as our shop. That way, we don’t have to move equipment in and out. We know right where everything is.”

A machine shop occupies the front part of the trailer and includes a valve grinder, lathe, clutch grinder and other key equipment. The car is stored on ramps in the top back of the trailer while other equipment and supplies take up the rest of the trailer.

Maddox, who lives in Davie, Fla., where the team is headquartered, has been “on the road full-time racing for 8 years,” he says. He’s worked for other teams and also drove the transport while with the Camel team. “I’ve always had my CDL,” he says.

Gwynn/Steinbrenner Racing’s New York Yankees NHRA team transport sports Yankees pinstripes. “Since we’re on the road, we wear road colors,” chief mechanic/driver John Maddox says.

The car, trailer and truck, a Kenworth T2000, all sport the Yankees logo and pinstripes – white on dark blue, their road colors, according to Maddox, since the team is always on the road. “Our motor coach wears the home colors, blue pinstripes on white.” The distinctive Yankees paint scheme attracts extra attention, Maddox says. He travels with a good supply of Yankees baseball hats and team brochures to give out along the way between races. “The scale guys are always wanting hats,” he laughs.

So far, the dragster team isn’t doing as well as the baseball team. While the defending champion New York Yankees seem on their way to another playoff appearance, dragster driver Mike Dunn finds himself currently ranked fifth in the Top Fuel standings. But, Dunn, who had several career victories in NHRA, holds the fastest (331.6 mph) and quickest (4.495 seconds) times under the NHRA’s new 90 percent nitromethane rule this year.

Maddox says the team was working hard to gain ground in the standings. He says the elder Steinbrenner has been to a couple of races this season while Hank has attended several. Meantime, with the truck washed, there was another race to get to.

At the Sonoma race Dunn won his round 1 elimination heat on the last day of racing, only to fall to Kenny Bernstein in round 2. Bernstein, driving the Budweiser King dragster, went on to win the competition.

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