Written by Ainsley Jacobs
Photography by Kevin DiOssi
In a community that fosters cutthroat competition, it’s easy to become hostile and hardheaded. Haley James, however, has found a way to channel her ambition into tremendous success without losing a trace of her humanity.
Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it was a given that James would find herself immersed in drag racing. Her father Dwayne James, the mad scientist responsible for founding the performance entity known as Hellion Power Systems, had his daughter involved since day one.
“I was always in the back seat of my dad’s fast street cars, and that gave me my first love of speed,” recalled James, who spent countless hours at the track with her dad. “I’m not mechanically inclined, so, at first my fascination was never with the machines—just with speed—but now it’s become more of that because it’s amazing how intricate everything is.”
When James was about nine years old, her father got her a junior dragster that she enjoyed locally at test and tune sessions.
“I was more into seeing how much makeup I could get away with wearing and sneaking 4-inch heels in my backpack to school,” she laughed of her defiant youth. Her dad realized her interests lay elsewhere, so he sold the junior. Eventually, James got her first car, a five-speed manual “POS” Chevy Cobalt. “I don’t know why my dad let me get a Chevy. Maybe it was punishment.”
Later, the patriarch purchased a silver, turbo ’93 Mustang notchback from a Hellion employee and thought it would make a good street car for his daughter since she was getting back into the scene.
“I would take it out street racing with my friends, and I was drawn back into it,” confided James, whose mother, Sharon, wasn’t at all pleased with the turn of events. Divorced at the time, but in agreement their daughter needed to quit street racing, James’ parents put their daughter in a real race car instead.
They subsequently sold the Fox, and fellow Hellion Turbo racer Frank Varela starting thinking of alternate plans for his own NMRA championship-winning Mustang. James was 17 at the time and had gotten into a bit of trouble.
“My dad said ‘stop f*cking up and I have some cool sh*t planned for you,’” James recalled, who took the offer seriously and cleaned up her act. In November, her father told her she would have the opportunity to drive Varela’s old Fox. “And my Christmas present was to go to Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School at the end of December.”
Two weeks after finishing her rain-delayed licensing, James made her NMRA ProCharger Coyote Modified debut in March of 2015. To prepare, her father had her sit in front of the television at home with an old steering wheel in her hands, watching videos of Varela staging, so she could start building her muscle memory before she even got in the car.
“I didn’t f*ck it up the first time!” she laughed of the inaugural on-track experience.
James went on through to the final round of eliminations and scored a runner-up finish her first time out. Her [beginner’s?] luck held, and she continued on to win in Georgia, runner-up in Maryland, win in Ohio and Illinois, and make her sixth final-round appearance in Kentucky with another runner-up, taking three number-one qualifier performances throughout the season as well. Rightfully so, James’ performances allowed her to earn enough points throughout the season that she capped off her amazing rookie year by winning the NMRA ProCharger Coyote Modified championship title as well.
“It was one of those years that’s just crazy and has this magic to it where you’re working hard for everything, but luck is on your side,” remembered James of the good energy that surrounded her, perhaps as a way of the universe communicating that she had found her place, and her purpose. “I was at an age where life falls apart and gets put back together all at the same time. It was crazy to think that I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved it. Looking back, it was hard to appreciate how rare doing what we did was, because it was my reality at the time.”
The ambitious attitude was soon thwarted by what James and her Hellion Turbo “B-Team” crew refer to as her “Bag of Dicks year.” A crushing blow for the ego, reality sunk in and James realized that “you can do everything right, but things can still go wrong and you have to figure it out as a team so you can persevere and get back to winning.” She finished out the 2016 season with an unexpected performance at the NMRA All-Ford World Finals in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where she qualified fourth, went on to win the race, and managed to finish seventh in championship points.
In 2017, James improved and wound up third in points. Then, fate switched things up again and she captured her second NMRA ProCharger Coyote Modified championship in 2018.
“We had been working so hard together, and it really does pay off if you don’t give up—it was a good lesson in drag racing, and also in life,” noted James of the sweet redemption.
The change in her performance wasn’t a fluke though, as James had made some pretty serious changes in her life as well.
“My mentality about everything was flipped, because in those few years I had gotten married and divorced, so I was weeding out my insecurities and found myself more,” she shared openly. She had tried going to nursing school, but realized that wasn’t a viable career path if she was to continue racing and committing so much of her life to racing. “And then I met [boyfriend] Kieffer [Simpson] and his love of drag racing matched mine and it all clicked—I belong at the track. That’s where my people are.”
James ditched the nursing idea and decided to nurse cars back to health instead… she began welding school in the Spring of 2018. Realizing that she had a golden opportunity being handed to her on a silver spoon, she knew it was time to pour all of her energy into focusing on her future and creating her own reality. It was her rebuilding year, her “Domination Tour.”
Being that the NMRA ProCharger Coyote Modified class was being converted to ProCharger Modified Street for 2019, the crew decided to dabble elsewhere.
“Dad thought going X275 racing would be too much of a jump for me and I agreed; I know I’m a good driver, but I’m not ready for that at this point,” James stated responsibly, respectful of her own skills and experience level. “So, we discussed options and if we moved to Edelbrock Renegade, then the car would also be legal for Ultra Street and Xtreme Street and that gave us options to go racing even more.”
With a path determined, the crew quickly began revamping James’ ride. They cut off the entire front end, added bars, fabricated an air-to-water intercooler, and scrutinized every corner of the car to ensure it was up to par. The ’93 Fox’s major makeover meant there was no turning back, and that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Varela’s nephew, Ivan Varela of 4D Fabrication, took on the welding and fabrication. He handled the chassis upgrades, of course, and also built the custom turbo system and manifold using Race Part Solutions components. While it was a custom-designed install, the turbo system will ultimately aid in research and development as a flagship platform for Hellion’s mass-market ready production items.
The engine itself, a 5.0-liter Coyote that James and her father built together and have been running for several years already, received a fresh set of trick, new Traum pistons emblazoned with the Hellion logo on the bottom. They bolted the fresh Coyote back to its three-speed TH400 from M&M Transmissions that gained an innovative new ProTorque U9 converter, and James worked closely with the company to provide development feedback.
“ProTorque has provided us with the best converters we could possibly ask for, and we’ve tried lots of other things,” James confirmed. “M&M is also bad ass and really quick with turnaround time when we need something fast!”
Although the combination was unchanged, the supporting systems were all revamped—especially the wiring. The car was gutted, and all the electronics completely rewired, while a Smartwire system was also integrated so that good ol’ dad can more easily access, manage, and tune the MoTeC engine management system. The interior carpet was also redone, and the finished product yielded a more professional-looking product.
James’ Fox rides on a combination of Racecraft and Santhuff suspension parts with a 9-inch rearend from Racecraft. Framing The Brake Man stoppers at each of the four corners are a set of Weld wheels up front and Billet Specialties wheels out back, all wrapped in Mickey Thompson rubber.
The front end, hood, doors, deck lid, wing, and more, were all replaced with carbon fiber pieces from Schoneck Composites while Optic Armor windows were added to reduce weight even further. James and her father cut and fit everything, but a local body shop, StreetCustom, did the final finishing.
“We decided to stick with the Americana theme,” continued James, who kept the overall appearance of her Mustang the same as it was before for good reason. Understanding marketing and branding concepts, she didn’t want to confuse fans by having to educate her audience about a new look and livery. “Plus, I already have a ridiculous number of things with American flags on them anyway.”
Once the overhaul was completed, the team worked with Chris Groves at The Dyno Edge for the initial baseline setup and then it was off to Florida for the 2019 NMRA season opener.
Unsurprisingly, James rocketed to the top of the qualifying standings at her rookie Renegade race, going 4.819 at 146.65 mph to capture the number one spot.
“Dad has a pretty great knowledge of that type of combination since he had already tuned Frank [Varela] to a few championships,” she said gratefully. “We didn’t expect to come in on top. We thought it would be a slow curve.” But come in on top she did. James went on to capture the Edelbrock Victor trophy and the win with a final run of 4.825 at 146.50 mph to take down veteran driver Joe Guertin in the finals.
Moving on to the second stop of the season in Atlanta, James knew she would be facing stiffer competition with the addition of the Xtreme Street cars at the NMRA/NMCA combo race. Coming in seventh in the qualifying order on her 4.768 at 148.25mph hit and getting a round-one win was respectable enough for the driver, considering she was still getting a handle on things.
Heading on to St. Louis, James and team had a handle on the car’s tune up despite tricky weather conditions.
“We were able to run in the 4.80s, so if we can be consistent in the heat, then we can go better when it’s more favorable,” she noted, happy with where the car was at with its 4.812 at 148.15mph hit in qualifying that once more earned her the number-one honors. When eliminations began, James held her lead and was able to take her second trip to the Aerospace Components Winner’s Circle.
The second half of the season proved more challenging for the New Mexico native, qualifying second at the NMRA Maple Grove race and bringing home a semi-final-round finish. At the Nitto NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl of Street Legal Drag Racing in Joliet, Illinois, the combined Renegade/Xtreme Street field swelled to 20 cars, and James found herself in the lower half of the qualifying sheet. A first-round victory over the NMCA’s Tony Orts was short-lived, as James went out in the second to the NMCA’s Nick McGrath.
Despite these recent setbacks, James still holds a commanding lead in the NMRA Edelbrock Renegade championship points race going into the final race of the season at Beech Bend Raceway in Bowling Green, Kentucky. She’s got an incredible team behind her, and their “work hard, play hard” attitude is one she wouldn’t trade for the world.
“The B-Team loves to have fun, but you’re not welcome if you’re going to just be a groupie. You gotta step up and work,” asserted James, who loves her notorious group and enjoys putting the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional. “My dad’s the glue, and I’m just the lucky bitch that gets to drive.”
Working with her father over the years has been an interesting experience for James, who enjoys the dynamic the two share.
“We yell at each other all the time, but that’s normal for us and then 10 seconds later we’re fine,” she laughed. As she’s gotten older, James has seen her father begin to treat her differently and respect her more as a person instead of a kid. “He’s also my boss, the reason I drive the car, and pays for everything—he’s a big part of my life, so we have to work well together, otherwise it all falls apart.”
While she does respect the legacy her father has built, James doesn’t intend to follow directly in her father’s footsteps and wants to put her own spin on the future.
“He wants me to do more than he was able to, and that’s a normal sentiment that a parent has toward a kid, but with us, it’s drag racing,” she elaborated of the relationship. James admits she doesn’t have the brain for engine building and technical tuning like her dad does, so instead she is focusing on her reputation and career as a driver within the drag-racing community.
Her relationship with her mother, too, is also one based on love and support.
“My mom, Sharon, is not a drag racer or even a fan, but once I started racing she was extremely supportive and makes the greatest efforts to watch all the races and come when she can. She loves me more than she hates the sport, and I appreciate that,” James said. While the two don’t bond over horsepower, they do share a commonality–singing. James has a beautiful voice, which she got from her mother, and is a regular performer of the national anthem at NMRA and NMCA races.
While working with family hasn’t been too much of a challenge for James over the years, one thing has—concentration and focus. She has found that she has to be in a specific place, mentally, before going down the track or she won’t do well. “I’m ADD as f*ck in the car looking around, so I have to remind myself to take deep breaths, pick a spot in front of me that’s not moving, and focus on the process of what I’m about to do,” James admitted candidly, explaining that while it’s certainly tough to do, knowing that about herself has helped her to be “on” more reliably. She has an intrinsic ability to be more self-aware than most that has undoubtedly helped her establish herself as a rapidly excelling driver.
Wise beyond her years with a maturity that’s rare for someone her age, James sees challenges as motivation and is a tried-and-true, tough-as-nails chick that can go toe-to-toe with just about everyone while losing neither her keen perception of the world, nor her rebellious nature. Although she doesn’t know what the future holds–or even what she hopes it will hold—she does know she wants to enjoy a lifetime of being at the track with her family, her team, and her family team.
Owner: Dwayne James
Driver: Haley James
Hometown: Albuquerque, NM
Occupation: Welding Student
Class: NMRA Edelbrock Renegade
Crew: Dwanye James, Brian Warcup, Kieffer Simpson
Car Make/Model/Year: 1993 Ford Mustang
Engine: Coyote 5.0
Engine builder: Dwayne James
Displacement: 302 cubic inches
Cam type: COMP Cams
Carburetor or EFI system: MoTeC
Fuel brand and type: VP C-85
Headers and exhaust: Custom
Transmission Builder: M&M Transmissions
Clutch/shifter/torque converter: ProTorque U9
Rearend: Racecraft 9-inch
Body and/or chassis builder: Ivan Varela, Schoneck Composites
Suspension (Front): Racecraft/Santhuff
Suspension (Rear): Racecraft/Santhuff
Brakes (Front): The Brake Man
Brakes (Rear): The Brake Man
Wheels (front): Weld Racing
Wheels (Rear): Billet Specialties
Tires (Front): Mickey Thompson
Tires (Rear): Mickey Thompson
Aftermarket body modifications: Carbon everything that is legal
Sponsors: 4D Fabrication, Dyno Edge, Work Turbo, Precision Turbo, Race Part Solutions, The Brake Man, UPR Products, Yearwood Performance, ProTorque, HPL Oil, Traum Pistons, NMRA, Weldon, Mickey Thompson, Hellion Power Systems