In the upper echelon of NHRA Top Fuel drag racing competition, those dragsters are making 11,000 horsepower in order to get down the track at 330 mph. Helping put that power to the ground is Kaylynn Simmons, a clutch specialist for Clay Millican and the Parts Plus team.
From a young age, Kaylynn Simmons knew she wanted to find a way to be involved in motorsports. At just 7 years old, she started racing go-karts and continued to race in different disciplines all the way up through college. However, what really sparked her interest in motorsports was the opportunity to go to a vocational school in high school. She took automotive technology and that introduced her to the University of Northwestern Ohio (UNOH).
“UNOH came in and did a presentation at the school,” Simmons says. “After that presentation, I said I need to go to this college.”
Kaylynn ended up graduating high school at just 17 and the idea of leaving her home of upstate New York for Ohio was too big a move at the time. She decided to go to a local college for business administration for the first two years.
“I loved that part of my life, but I was still missing what I really wanted to do,” Simmons says. “I redid my application for UNOH and went that August and took their automotive, high-performance and their CDL program. It was about a three-year program by the time I was done, but while I was at the school, I also participated in their collegiate motorsports team. They had a dirt team that had two dirt modifieds and four street stocks that the students raced, crewed and drove at local dirt tracks.”
Having grown up as a NASCAR fan, Kaylynn had her mind set on getting into the NASCAR ranks after UNOH. However, several friends who had gotten those NASCAR opportunities told her there wasn’t much turnover.
“I had a friend who went into drag racing and he told me they were actually looking for somebody,” she says. “I had never even been to a drag race. I’d seen them on TV, but had never been to a drag strip. I decided to give it a shot and I got hired at Terry McMillen Racing.”
Kaylynn actually graduated from UNOH on a Tuesday and was at Terry McMillen’s shop on a Wednesday.
“I drove from Lima, OH to Indy and just stayed at my friend’s house,” she says. “That Monday, we were leaving for Las Vegas. I remember the first time the car went down the track and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I have no idea what I got into.’ I was hired as a clutch assistant. At the time, I was only doing tires and helping the clutch specialist put the clutch in the car, so very basic, simple jobs. Eight races in our clutch guy left and I got moved up to the clutch specialist and that’s where I’ve been ever since.”
Kaylynn was Terry McMillen’s clutch specialist for five years until September 2020 when Terry lost his sponsorship with Amalie due to COVID. In mid-February, when all the teams started getting back together, Terry was still unsponsored, so the team had to find other spots for work.
“My team split up. Several of them went to John Force. A couple of them went to DSR. A couple went to Cruz Pedregon. Myself and another one of my team guys were still sitting ducks. Nobody needed a clutch guy and nobody was looking for a car chief and that’s when Clay made the call.”
Clay Millican’s Parts Plus team hired Kaylynn for one race and she took the opportunity. Just two days later, they made her a full-time offer to join the team.
“Myself and my car chief ended up making the move down to Clay’s and we’ve been there for the season and it’s been awesome so far,” she says.
Now that Kaylynn has been in NHRA drag racing for several years, she’s become a big fan of the sport and the fan interaction.
“NASCAR is where I thought I wanted to go because that’s all I knew,” Simmons says. “Now, being in the drag racing side of things, I think what I really love about drag racing is how fan oriented we are. In NASCAR, you can go to the races and sit in the stands, but to be down on pit road and to be up close with the hot pit passes can cost a lot of money. The average, every day, hardcore fans can’t do that.
“With NHRA, every general admission pass is that pit pass. We get to have that relationship with the fans at the ropes up close and personal week in and week out. The fact that they can watch us tear down the car and see what we’re doing as a team, I think really drew me more to the sport once I got there. On top of that, 11,000 horsepower just absolutely blew my mind. For me, it was the wow factor, what went into the car and our relationship with the fans.”
Speaking of opportunities to watch NHRA teams between rounds, Kaylynn is part of a team that puts together the car/engine in just 45 minutes before attempting a run at 330 mph.
“We do time ourselves,” she says. “For qualifying runs, we’ll usually run at 1pm and 5pm. By the time you get back, it’s 1:45-2pm and you have three hours before you’ve got to be up there again. That doesn’t change our turnaround time. For us, we utilize that as practice. We try to go through our turnaround no different than if we’re going from the semi-finals to the finals on Sunday. I think the quickest our new team has done it was around 42 minutes, which was really good for a bunch of new guys who are all coming together.”
Of course, not every tear down and rebuild goes according to plan, but everyone on the team is trained to handle specific aspects of the car to get the job done.
“In an ideal situation, you come back and we pre-prep everything for the run,” she says. “I have eight clutch packs sitting on the counter for the entire weekend. When you start the tear down, you are hitting the same thing – whether it be the same nut or pin or piece of tape or whatever you’re pulling off the car and putting back on – you do it the same way every single time. Slow is fast and eventually the next thing you know you’ve got the car torn down in under 8 minutes for us in the back half of the car.
“We call it a nitro event when you blow the motor up on the track. When that happens, they can stop violently and if a rod gets jammed up in a window of the block or something like that, it’ll stop movement of everything very quickly, which sometimes will cause the flywheel bolts to shear. I’ve come back only one time with the entirety of the clutch flywheel sitting in the bell housing.
“All the little stuff can lead up to things not going smoothly or somebody making a mistake. Our job is to perfect what we do. One time, we were going into elimination rounds and in the first round of the day we had warmed the car up and during the warmup one of the crew guys at that time had put the rear main seal in backwards, which allowed oil into the bell housing. That makes for a bad day for the clutch person.
“We had about 25-30 minutes to get the clutch out of the car because it was soaked in oil and put one back in and get back on the line. Of course, when we warm the car up, we’re seating the clutch, so we ended up having to go up there for the first round of elimination without having that opportunity to seat the clutch again. That was wild.”
Obviously, at this level and with the amount of horsepower NHRA Top Fuel teams are creating, anything can happen. Kaylynn says the team has to be in sync similar to a dance.
“It really comes down to learning to dance the dance with your crew guys,” she says. “Right now, we’re a pretty fresh team, so it’s like beginner dance lessons. We’re starting to learn where everybody is at every moment in time and the verbal cues. When you hear ‘head coming off the car,’ you should know where you are at in your routine based upon somebody else’s routine.”
When it comes to Kaylynn’s job specifically, she says it has been a great experience and is still learning more every race. However, that hasn’t stopped her from thinking about potential future roles.
“I do love the clutch,” Simmons says. “It’s very detailed oriented. Everything has to be so perfect. We change the weight of the fingers down to the weight of your fingernail. My binder is thick of notes that I go through each week to make sure that everything is perfect.
“Once you get stuck in the clutch department and you become a good clutch specialist, you don’t necessarily get the chance to move. I know a lot of clutch guys who have been out here and they’ve literally been clutch guys the whole length of their career.
“I think goals for me, I would love at some point one day to work on cylinder heads. I think they’re very intricate and the same concept within the clutch in that there’s a lot of moving parts between all the clutch levers and weights, discs, floaters, flywheels, all that stuff – it’s the same thing in the heads. You have all the valves and seats and everything that you’ve got to go through and CC each individual cylinder and figure all that out. That definitely interests me.
“As for long-term goals, I think I would love to be a car chief and oversee the whole build of the car and making sure everyone’s doing their job safely and appropriately. But, that’s way down the road and I’d have to visit a couple of departments and work through those departments to get to that point. Right now, I’m pretty happy where I’m at.”
Part of becoming good at Kaylynn’s clutch specialist role meant having to endure some physicality that comes with tearing down the car and putting it back together.
“There are things that I definitely struggle with,” she says. “I carry an 80-lb. clutch pack around and can pull my torque wrench at 180 ft.-lbs., but when we pull a motor out of the car, that’s probably not going to be my job. When we have to work on the trucks, the generators or crawl under the trailers and fix an air line, I’m normally the one small enough to do that. There is physicality involved in the sport.
“One of the first things my crew chief had me do was torque a flywheel in the car. It was 175 ft.-lbs. You’ve got to be able to do that if you want the job. I was in tears because I was pulling on the torque wrench and it’s very awkward because you’ve got the wing tree in the way. I was so mad at myself because I thought I finally made it and now I physically cannot do the job. I ended up getting underneath the car where I had a little more leverage. I can hold myself against the chassis and I got it done.
“Most everybody has been really patient with me because I learn differently and there’s a lot of things that I have to do differently just because of the way I’m built and the way I have to get things done. I’ve been very fortunate to have the greatest people surrounding me who are super supportive.”
As the NHRA season keeps rolling along, Kaylynn says each race is an opportunity to improve her skills and those of her team, but she’s also eager to get a win.
“I would really love to see us get a win just for all of our new guys,” Simmons says. “I want to be able to give that back to them. I remember my first win and everybody that had gotten us there, and now the roles have reversed and it’s given us the chance to lead our team and to help teach them and get them to a win. I want to see a win by the end of the season, if not a few. We’re always down for a few Wallys.”