By Steve Baur, Race Pages Digital | Photos by Kevin DiOssi
The Eagle has landed! We’re talking, of course, about Haley James and her new War Eagle Mustang. With three NMRA championships under her belt, Haley James knows what it takes to win — and win big. Returning to championship form after a late-season mishap in 2019 proved difficult for the Indianapolis-based racer during the 2020 season, but by taking one small step here and there, James and her new War Eagle Mustang found their groove and showed that champions always rise to the occasion.
Having already collected two championships in the Coyote Modified class behind the wheel of her capable and well-sorted Fox Mustang coupe, James suffered a sizeable crash during a test and tune session at the NMRA World Finals in Bowling Green, Kentucky, just as her 2019 Edelbrock Renegade championship-winning season came to a close. James had amassed enough points to take the championship, but her proven Mustang coupe chassis was deemed a total loss. The drivetrain, however, got a second lease on life in her new ride, the War Eagle.
James’ father, Dwayne James, was already on the hunt for a suitable replacement chassis within days of the crash and the racer network informed him that there was a rolling chassis in Vegas that might be the perfect candidate.
The car in question was Ronnie Diaz’ 2000 Mustang that the Modfather campaigned for years, and was sold to a buyer out west. B-Team Racing’s Frank Varela, who had turned his fair share of laps in the notchback prior to James taking over driving duties, rolled out to pick up the SN95 Mustang and bring it to New Mexico where the upgrades were completed.
“Kieffer [Simpson] and my dad and I built it in about three months,” James said of the crazy busy timeline to get back to racing. As much as the notchback had safely contained its occupant during the wreck, James’ father took the opportunity to implement additional safety measures in the new car.
The Mustang was already equipped with a fire-suppression system, and James added an additional, and more accessible, interior safety shut-off switch allowing the driver to cut the car’s power from inside the vehicle. Upgrading the seating as well James opted for a Racetech seat offering head restraint wings for better helmet protection.
A few frenetic months after the crash in October of 2019, James debuted the War Eagle, as it was named, at Bradenton Motorsports Park in Florida during the US Street Nationals.
“There were a few new-car gremlins, but since it was an X275 car before, it had gone 4.40s, so we knew it was a good car and wouldn’t have to mess with it a whole lot,” James explained. “I told my dad after the first few hits that I felt I was going for a ride the first few passes. I was definitely learning how to drive again and had a little bit of a mental block.” Even with her temporary disability, James and the War Eagle were quick, posting solid elapsed times in the 4.7-second range, and managing a runner-up finish in Ultra Street at the event.
Right up the road from Florida was the Duck X Productions race at South Georgia Motorsports Park and James’ next event. Unfortunately, it turned out to be more of a test session, though, with James exiting after the first round despite her relatively consistent elapsed time of 4.74 seconds.
The 2020 NMRA season got under way the following month in March back in Bradenton, and with the crisp, cool winter air, the War Eagle soared, qualifying third with a 4.66 hit at 153.30 mph. James improved to a 4.64 over Tommy Annunziata in the first round, but was off-pace against Bart Tobener in the second.
“It was our first .60 run ever and were chasing it for the rest of the year,” James recalled.
After the season opener, countrywide shutdowns putting everything on hold for a few months. The NMRA kept busy reworking its schedule and racing action resumed in June at the rescheduled Commerce, Georgia, stop.
“I was not a driver in Atlanta,” James acknowledged. “My dad was tuning well, but we had to do a couple of converter swaps.” Many teams struggled to get a handle on the hot, tricky track surface and a 5.11 and 15th place in qualifying put the B-Team on the eliminations ladder. A duplicate 5.11 run in the first round was not enough to get past Bob Zelenak and his 4.85 pass.
James entered the relocated NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl of Street Legal Drag Racing at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway excited to be in the car, and the event marked her return to winning form.
She qualified fifth with 4.83 hit at 145 mph, and posted a 4.97 to take the first-round win over Scott Grove. In the second round, James improved to a 4.88 for her win over Jim Ault, but despite taking the starting-line advantage over number-one qualifier Bill Trovato in the third round, her 4.84 was not enough to stay ahead of Trovato’s 4.76 charge.
“Martin [Michigan] was an interesting one,” James told us of the following event where she qualified 19th with a 4.92. “The shifter we have had in the car since 2016; the detents were starting to get worn out, and if I don’t shift it hard, it’ll skip through second and go into third. I shifted straight through to third, and just needed to adjust driving.”
The driver mod proved tricky as James held the 1-2 shift a bit long and tagged the rev limiter, which subsequently caused damage in the Coyote powerplant.
“We spent all night swapping engines,” James explained. “The spare was in Indy, and Nick Correa, Joe Cram’s friend, met us half way to Indy with the engine. We started it up at 3:30 a.m. and I won first round — it was unreal. I’m not normally an emotional person, but I lost it in the car when I won first round. That moment of validation is exactly why you do it!”
That first round was a real barnburner, too, with James driving to a 4.7759 over Jeff Kinsler and his 4.7764 run. She found further redemption in the second round by defeating Trovato with a 4.90, but a 4.84 wasn’t enough to get her to the finish before Jason Spina, would had clocked a 4.72 in the third round.
The next event was the NMCA finals in Indianapolis, and the B-Team qualified sixth with a 4.78 effort. James had an easy first round after Billy Copeland broke, but her race came to an early end in the second round. James edged out Dave Fiscus at the hit, but Fiscus was able to overcome the deficit and squeaked by at the end, 4.75 to 4.78.
A year later and with a season full of racing under her belt, James returned to Beech Bend Raceway for the NMRA World Finals and Holley Intergalactic Ford Festival. There, she reset her personal best elapsed time with a 4.65 at 153.47 mph. The performance put her fifth on the qualifying sheet.
Consistently quick elapsed times pushed her through the elimination rounds, as she defeated Jim Ault in Round 1, 4.66 to 4.99, and she scooped up another helping of redemption with a second-round win over Jason Spina, 4.62 to 6.90. In the third round, she faced veteran racer Joel Greathouse, who was on pace to claim the 2020 Edelbrock Renegade championship, and was a tenth ahead of the entire class throughout the event. James posted a 4.65, but Greathouse was ahead at the finish with a 4.59.
“It was really great to see him win,” James said. “I don’t mind losing to people like Joel. I’ve always wanted to race him — he’s a true-blue race car driver.” Despite her struggles, James’ number of round wins meant she amassed a good bit of points, and she finished third overall at the conclusion of the 2020 NMRA season — quite the achievement given her struggles behind the wheel early on in the season.
Not done racing, James and crew headed back down to Florida the following weekend for the FL2K Race at Bradenton. Unfortunately, the long journey was brought to a quick end when James went -.002 red in the first round.
“We weren’t planning on going to Duck’s race, but we didn’t want to end the season like that and thought it would be pretty dumb to drive past South Georgia Motorsports Park where No Mercy was and not race,” James said of her decision to put a few more laps in after the Bradenton mishap.
“We went two or three rounds there and lost by .004 to Brian Keep. It was so damn close!”
That marked the end of a very busy, very trying 2020 racing season and year as a whole, and with a third-place finish in NMRA points and numerous round wins, James has reason to be in a positive frame of mind going into the off season.
“My worst light of the last four races was an .038. I hope to keep the fire lit over the off season.” With the War Eagle parked indoors during the winter months, James mentioned that it will be getting an updated MoTeC EFI system so they can switch to a coil-on-plug ignition for a little more control and reliability going into the 2021 racing season.
Rising from the ashes of its predecessor, the War Eagle proved it has the right stuff. And perhaps the 2021 season might just see it take that giant leap that take James to the NMRA Edelbrock Renegade championship once again.