Paul Mcmahan
Paul McMahan, shown in 2021, will enter the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame on June 1. (Paul Arch photo)

Paul McMahan — Hall Of Famer

As a young quarter-midget racer, Paul McMahan’s only career goal was to make a living driving a sprint car.

“When I started racing, being in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame wasn’t even a goal, and I never really thought about it until the day they actually called me,” McMahan told SPEED SPORT. “As a racer, you never think you do enough be included among those who are honored in the Hall of Fame. It was something very unexpected, but it’s very, very special to me.

“I never thought about it, to be honest. You just go out and you want to win races, compete and at the end of day, if I didn’t get in, I got to live my dream of driving a race car for a living for 25, 30 years. This is just the icing on the cake.”

Jan McMahan has been her husband’s biggest supporter since they were married in 1993, and she’ll be the first person he thanks during his Hall of Fame induction speech on June 1 in Knoxville, Iowa.

“If it wasn’t for her raising my two kids and letting me go out and live a dream, when she was sitting at home for most of the kids’ lives, all of this would never have happened,” McMahan explained. “She was always the one taking care of the family, making sure we had everything and supporting me all the way.”

Like many racers of his generation, McMahan grew up in the sport.

“Racing has been part of my life since I was born,” he said. “My grandfather raced full midgets after the war and then my mom raced three-quarter midgets and my uncle raced modifieds and sprint cars out in California.”

Growing up in Elk Grove, Calif., McMahan was only 5 years old when he started racing a quarter midget, and he eventually earned a national championship in the small, open-wheel cars. However, it was a chance meeting that truly ignited McMahan’s desire to be a professional sprint car racer.

“That’s what I wanted to do from the time I was 8 years old. We were at Bob Clauson’s house, he was Bryan Clauson’s grandfather, and Danny Smith, Rick Ferkel and Steve Kinser were there for a barbecue. The Outlaws came to West Capital back then, and just hanging out with those guys was something I wanted to do.”

From the beginning, racing was a family affair for McMahan and his older brother, Bobby.

“My mom and dad got me started with my grandfather, who built quarter midgets,” McMahan recalled. “My grandfather got me through my younger years and then it would have to be my brother, Bobby, who helped me. He was racing before me and I was able to ask him questions. He helped me a lot with different parts of racing for the first few years.”

Paul McMahan in victory lane in 2010. (Paul Arch photo)

California’s strict age requirements relegated McMahan to the quarter-midget ranks for more than a decade.

“I ran quarter midgets from 1976 to 1987,” he said. “I started in sprint cars when I was 16, but there were only two tracks in California – Placerville and Chico – where I could run and that’s where I raced until I turned 18.”

Still short of his goal of racing for a living, McMahan eventually became a frontrunner at tracks up and down the West Coast. He claimed the 1995 sprint car title at Calistoga Speedway and was runner-up to NARC champion Brent Kaeding in both 1994 and ’95.

“Before I went on the road, the last job I had was in 1996, at a little machine shop in California,” McMahan said. “Then, I was hired to drive the Beef Packers car.”

Paul and Jan McMahan eventually settled near Nashville, but Paul spent a majority of the next two decades on the road, heading to the next sprint car race. He won 27 times with the World of Outlaws but struggles to find an answer when asked about his greatest achievement in the cockpit of a sprint car.

“Winning the Brad Doty Classic in 2014 was very special to me,” he finally responded. “Brad was my hero growing up, so to win his race was very special. I can’t pinpoint just one thing because there are so many little things that stand out.”

But like most race car drivers, McMahan has a vivid memory of the big race that got away.

“It was the last Historical Big One at Eldora in 2003, $100,000 to win. I can’t remember where I started but I drove to the lead,” said McMahan, who was driving for car owner Dave Helm at the time. “Had a $5 part, a cam button stripped. The fuel pump and power steering all run off the cam, and when the cam button stripped, I lost power steering and lost power to the motor. I was in position to win a big race, but plugged it into the fence and went upside down. That was one I thought I had a very good shot of winning and it got away from me.”

McMahan says the most fun he had during his career was in 2010 when he drove for Kasey Kahne Racing.

Paul McMahan (51) battles Steve Kinser in 2013. (Paul Arch photo)

“The guys I had with me and being teammates with my best friend, Joey Saldana, was probably the most fun I ever had,” McMahan recalled. “Joey and I traveled up and down the road together. If the wives weren’t with us, we were together in the same truck and the crew guys I had – Matt Hummel, Justin Adams and Rob Beattie – we just had a good time.”

Drivers can be hard-headed and sometimes make career decisions that later need to be revisited.

“Looking back, when I left the CJB team in 2015 wasn’t the smartest thing, but I wouldn’t change it either. They wanted me to be a certain person and I wasn’t going to change who I was to do that with the teammate they were bringing in,” McMahan explained. “I would be very cordial and work with whoever I got, but I’m not going to go have a beer with them either and that wasn’t something they wanted to hear.

“And I wasn’t going to change who I was to do that. I probably could have handled it a little bit better, but when you are hard-headed and stubborn like I am, I’ve always done things my way and sometimes that wasn’t the best way – but it was my way.”

McMahan scaled back his racing activities in 2018 when he was hired as a sales representative for QuickCar Racing Products. He ran primarily All Star Circuit of Champions events along with premier races such as the Knoxville Nationals.

It was during the 2021 Nationals that a preliminary night crash and the resulting concussion essentially ended McMahan’s driving career.

“After I got hurt in ’21 with my concussion, I tried to go do it in ’22 just because I didn’t want to end my career on being hurt,” McMahan shared. “I went and tried, but couldn’t do it the way I wanted to do it.

“The headaches after the races were really bad and lasted a long time. And I couldn’t see real good to the inside of the track. I thought I could still kind of do it, but I didn’t want to do something where I made a mistake or something happened with me where I got dizzy and caused someone else to crash.

“Once I tried that and it didn’t work, I was fortunate to go to Placerville and end my career where it started. That was a night where it didn’t matter what happened or how I finished. It was a salute to the people in California, my family and all of the fans I had out there to say thank you and have one last hurrah.”

That night was a royal send-off as both McMahan brothers hung up their helmets.

“I retired and I don’t plan on ever getting back in one,” said Paul McMahan, who continues to deal with issues caused by numerous concussions. “I still get dizzy. Some people go their entire career without having a concussion and I had way too many.”

A telltale indicator that a sprint car driver is truly retired is when he sells his motorhome. McMahan says he went one step further.

“I actually gave that to somebody,” he said. “The last time I drove it (to the Short-Track Nationals in Little Rock, Ark.), the transmission went out on the way home. I parked it and it sat. Finally, I donated it to some family.”

Paul and Jan McMahan have two children – Brayden and Kylie. Brayden was married in November and grandchildren are now part of the family.

Paul McMahan (51) battles Steve Kinser in 2013. (Paul Arch photo)

“I’ve got one on the way that will be here in October and the girl he married had two kids already, so I’m getting a third one,” McMahan said.

At 53 years old and headed into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, Paul McMahan is adjusting to “retirement.” He says he enjoys his job, claims to do “a lot of fishing” and stays in touch with a select group of racing friends.

“We’ve got a group of friends that we get together with. We go on vacations as a group and we stay in touch,” McMahan said. “I still work at QuickCar so I’m still in touch with racing. I get to go to Knoxville and we are around the same group of people — we camp together, barbecue and have a good time. I’ve got a group of probably 10 to 15 people that I met racing 20 years ago and we’re still friends.”

The one thing missing is time with the fans.

“No matter how bummed I was about the racing, when the fans came down to the pits, they can tell you a story, they tell you about the first time they met you or something, and it always brought a big smile to my face,” McMahan recalled. “A big thank you to all the fans that have supported me by buying T-shirts and memorabilia. If it wasn’t for them buying my stuff, I probably couldn’t have gotten up and down the road for as long as I did.”


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