Published in The Sun Herald on April 10, 2011
Paul VanderLey is a National Hot Rod Association Hall of Famer that rarely slowed down. Mr. VanderLey passed away on Thursday April 7, 2011 in Gulfport Mississippi after a short battle with cancer.
Whether in his formative years or later in life when he was experiencing great success, VanderLey's singular focus helped him blaze a lot of trails in many forms of auto racing.
"We're glad he didn't suffer long," said son Dan VanderLey, who remained in the family business when he started VDL Fuel Systems in 1998. "He lived a full life and we have some great memories."
Paul was born in Michigan on September 30, 1934. Later, his family moved to Biloxi. As a teenager in 1950, he left Biloxi and moved to Santa Barbara, Calif. It was in Santa Barbara where his lifelong love affair with cars began, first working in an auto shop for racing legend Bob Joehnck.
"Paul was the kid that sat on his bicycle across the street and watched us work on the racecars," Joehnck remembers, "and I guess he was afraid to ask if he could come in. One day I was by myself, trying to push a car into the shop and I hollered at him to help.
"After that, he was part of the scene. Paul got in at the beginning of southern California's racing boom, involved in drag racing and circle dirt track racing. My impression of Paul was that he was a real racer. He didn't care what he drove; he just wanted to go racing."
VanderLey continued to drag race after marrying Kay and returning to Biloxi. He met Don Garlits and Connie Swindle and campaigned one of Garlits' Swamp Rat III top fuel cars before getting a Ford factory ride in their AFX Comets.
In 1964, VanderLey campaigned the Ford Comet with a highlight of winning his class in Daytona, Fla., at NASCAR's Speedweek.
He continued racing dragsters and super stock cars through the 1960s and then partnered with the late Dick Moroso in the '70s, racing Moroso's Corvette in the NHRA. The campaign garnered VanderLey several NHRA Division IV point races, including the NHRA Division IV Modified point championship and the inaugural 1976 NHRA Cajun Nationals.
He also raced super modifieds on southern tracks, such as Mobile, Ala., Jackson, Miss., Laurel, Miss., Birmingham, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla. "It was a traveling circus in those days," Dan VanderLey recalled. "You could make a living at it. Not a very good one, but a living. "All us kids would take our toy cars out of the vans and play. We fought just like the big guys. My first bloody lip came on the backside of Mobile International Speedway. We laugh about it all the time today. That's where we started racing."
In the '80s, Paul VanderLey turned his attention to his engine building business. He partnered with John Callies at Pontiac Motorsports on projects including the Indy pace car, IMSA GTU, IMSA GTP Light and IMSA GTP.
Together, the pair experienced great success including driver and manufacturer championships and a 1986 win at the 24 Hours of Daytona. "Paul had a special ability," Callies said, "to see the air in his head ports and his manifolds that made him better than most. He was instrumental in the development of many of our cylinder head designs."
VanderLey continued to build engines in the '90s and focused on racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He teamed up with Jack Mendenhall, an old friend from his Santa Barbara days, and built a '34 Roadster.
Through testing and running at Bonneville, VanderLey entered the prestigious 200 mph Club. "It's still a big deal today when you get into the 200 Club," Dan VanderLey said.
Through helping a friend Gary Aker, a young GM wind tunnel engineer, Paul VanderLey built an engine for a Pontiac Firebird that set a world land-speed record for a production car, approaching 300 mph.
He stopped racing himself in 2008 in order to help his grandson, Daren "D.J." VanderLey, focus on a blossoming career. "Sometimes it takes the tenacity Dad had to be successful in this sport," Dan VanderLey said.
When it came to life, slowing down was never an option for Paul VanderLey.
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