Paul Noakes, driver of the Tri Corp Transportation Dragster for Leverich Racing, had one wish for this weekend.
He said, “The biggest message that I’ve got is I hopefully get a round-win so I can at least say one thing on the TV: Don’t give up your dreams.”
The London, Ontario, high school transportation teacher, known almost his entire racing career as an alcohol Funny Car driver, was set to make only his third appearance in the Top Fuel class. But he was seeking his first start.
Noakes will have to wait a bit longer, for the Gatornationals, like so many sporting events throughout the United States, was postponed because of the current health crisis – after he had driven for hours from his home across the Canadian border down to Florida.
So the anticipation continues to mount for Noakes.
He raced Barry Paton’s dragster at the 2015 fall Las Vegas event. He clocked a 4.01-second elapsed time at 310 and qualified 17th. He bumped longtime friend T.J. Zizzo from the field, then Zizzo returned the favor. A couple of years ago, Gary Leverich needed a driver at the fall race at Charlotte. “So,” Noakes said, “he called on me, and we qualified 17th there. I’ve been to two races in Top Fuel, but I’ve yet to race one round of eliminations.”
Maybe this will be his time to shine.
“I was excited to go, because there were only 15 cars – and then two cars entered. So now there’s 17 cars,” Noakes said. But he vowed not to be the odd man out: “It’s not going to be us this year.”
Noakes’ opportunities have come in unlikely ways.
“It’s always been alcohol Funny Cars. I was fortunate – about five years ago, Barry Paton wanted to test his car, and he lives an hour from me. So we went to Toronto Motorsports Park and tested his car. We did five runs in two days. The longest one was to half-track. So that qualified me to get my partial run,” Noakes said. “At that time, Grand Bend had heard that I was testing their car and starting to go through the licensing process. So Grand Bend called Barry Paton and asked him if he wanted to match race the car, just me in the car, on one of their big nights. So they obviously lowballed them with the price. They offered him a little less than what they normally would, knowing that I’d probably step in and put the rest in and that’s exactly what happened. So I ended up doing two 1,000-foot runs at Grand Bend and qualified myself to be licensed.
“So then 2015, when I won my first national event in my alcohol car, believe it or not, one of the crew guys messed up one of my spark plug wires and the car fired and backfired and shut off real quickly. So I was yelling out, ‘The wires! The wires!’ to my crew guys. One on each side saw the wire. One wire was crossed. So they switched it back and they re-fired the car, but when he switched it he kind of messed up the wiring and I’m kind of a neat freak. Everything has to have its spot. All of a sudden, this hand came in and it was Barry Paton. He was standing on the starting line, waiting to watch me run, and he rearranged my wires. He knew exactly how I was. While my crew guys were taking the starter off the car, Barry massaged my car a little bit, and we won that race,” Noakes said.
“My sponsors were obviously very happy with all the media and all the press and everything,” he said. “Barry called and said, ‘The car is available for Las Vegas if you want to drive it,’ and he put a price tag on it. So I had called my sponsors, and they had said it was going to take a couple months to get the OK. But the guy who originally started the sponsorship was in the office of the media guys, and next thing you know, they both split the cost and they said, ‘Go to Las Vegas and race.’”
This ride in Leverich’s car also came because of a snafu.
“He’s got another driver, Joe Morrison, who was supposed to switch over from nitro nostalgia and run his car for four to six races. They had a problem – I guess a bunch of problems with the car – and they did not get Joe his license. So he is going to license on Monday after the race. So they called me, which is very fortunate. I was actually watching the rained out Daytona 500 when Gary texted me and asked me if I was available. That didn’t take me long to reply.”
Noakes said he sold his Funny Car. “I am looking for the next thing,” he said. “I think I’m going to buy a Super Comp dragster for my daughter, but I still have a package where I’m trying to hunt down sponsorships. But I don’t even own a car anymore. So I’m just still trying to find the almighty dollar to see if I could continue racing. That’s what you call not giving up on your dreams.”
It’s a fantastic lesson to drum into his high-school students, but it’s also sometimes easy to say and so hard to do.
“It’s the toughest thing to do, especially when you’re kind of sidelined. I’m trying to say to myself, ‘This is good. You got time on your hands. I can start enjoying things I never enjoyed for 30 years.’ But down deep, I want to go race,” Noakes said.
“I really stepped up my search. I always search for my own car. But now that I’m searching for a Top Fuel car it seems like I have a few more people that may be interested. Nothing’s really big enough dollars. Gary really needs to improve everything – he’s got some really good stuff and he runs down that racetrack fairly well – [is] somebody to step up and make it so he’s got that the best of stuff out there. Instead of going to qualify, he should be trying to go and do what my other buddy, Scotty Palmer, has done. He went from just trying to qualify to [having] a top-half car now.”
Another of his friends has proven himself to be much more than a loveable underdog: Terry McMillen, the man for whom Noakes drove in IHRA competition and plans to compete against in NHRA action.
“I actually raced Terry’s car for a year when he bought the fuel car. He hired me and my crew chief, and I brought my whole race team along because I only raced four to six races. That’s all I could really afford. Terry gave me an opportunity to race. I think it was 2012. I’d have to look that up. But he gave me an opportunity to race the whole IHRA series, and we finished second that year.”
And, like a significant percentage of participants in drag racing, he has carved his place in the sport with a volunteer crew.
“That was something I always struggled with on my own race team. Everyone on my team volunteers like many other teams,” Noakes said. “We worked until literally Thursday and tried to leave at five o’clock, when everybody got off work. Literally, my guys weren’t even going home after work. They were going directly to my house and we would drive. The four years I competed at Reading, Pennsylvania, the NHRA, the guys who were parking me joked every year that ‘You’re the last guy in.’ Every year I went there, I was the last guy through the gates on Thursday because I’d pull in at five o’clock in the morning Friday morning and I’d have to wait in the staging lanes until eight o’clock, when they got there to park me. It’s my favorite track because I went to the finals twice, runner-up twice, won once and I lost first round once there. The ongoing joke was last guy in but last guy to leave.”
He’s just taking more time to live his dream. And now he has even more time to fantasize about it.