From humble hometown roots to a rapidly accelerating trajectory that’s poised to propel them to the top, brothers DJ and Ryan McCain have already made their mark in the sport of drag racing but are relentlessly pushing to advance their futures even further.
Growing up in North Augusta, South Carolina, just minutes from Carolina Dragway, the famed “House of Hook,” the McCain brothers would often go to the track with their father, Lester, to watch him race and help out as needed. Competitive by nature, they both were also heavily into video games in their youth. By their mid-teens, though, it was time for the young men to transition into real-world competition.
DJ, now 29, cut his teeth driving his father’s IROC Camaro. Powered by a big-block Chevy engine on nitrous, DJ never ran it on the bottle but had such a blast that he put together a Mustang of his own while he was in high school. “I ended up LS-swapping it and started drag racing that,” he explained of his early days spent at Carolina Dragway’s weekly Thursday Night Thunder test-n-tune events and local bracket races. “It evolved from there. I started driving other peoples’ cars and was good at it, so I got known for being a driver.” He went on to attend the University of South Carolina, starting as an engineering major but finished his degree in Information Technology instead.
Ryan, now 25, took his first stab at the dragstrip behind the wheel of DJ’s “Public Enemy” Mustang. Although he loved it, Ryan was also heavily into football and running track year-round throughout high school. His track talents earned him a scholarship to Coastal Carolina University, and – not wanting to risk injury through racing – opted to put his education ahead of driving. His intense studying, training, and travel schedule (which culminated in Ryan receiving dual degrees in both I.T. and Business Administration) ultimately set him up for a similarly demanding lifestyle in racing.
With their educations and careers serving as strong foundations to bolster their racing efforts, the brothers’ first foray into the limelight was on the grudge and no time circuits. “It was really big in the area, especially at Carolina Dragway with locals like Stevie ‘Fast’ Jackson and Tony Bynes, and our pops,” shared Ryan. Small block shootouts were also incredibly hot at the time, so DJ and Ryan decided to build a car and try their luck.
“We wanted to get the shortest wheelbase car and the biggest motor that we could,” said DJ, who found a 1971 Datsun 1200 on Facebook and decided to try something crazy just to prove the naysayers wrong. “We had a few Mario-themed cars before that, so we named it ‘Bowser’ and people loved it.” Originally built to be a rotary car but received by the McCains as a roller, the unconventional and diminutive entry was quickly fitted with a V8 Chevrolet LS engine and a generous serving of nitrous oxide.
“Bowser” made its debut in late 2017 and began clocking sub one-second 60-foot times. With Ryan managing the tune-up, DJ went on to earn the Carolina No-Time Small Block Nitrous championship title three years in a row in 2018, 2019, and 2020. They also took home the win at the prestigious Duck X Productions Lights Out 10 event in 2019 in SBNOS with “Bowser” and scored a big $20,000 payout when DJ drove the “Nemesis” Mustang to defeat J.R. Gray and his “Jason X” Fox body that same year, plus many other impressive wins and accolades.
After such tremendous success in the no-time and grudge world, the brothers transitioned to class racing in the X275 and Limited Drag Radial ranks with their Datsun. “We wanted something that was more of a challenge and to prove we could compete there, too,” noted DJ, eager to try his luck with some of the quickest cars in the country. “At the DXP Sweet 16 race [in April of 2021] we runnered-up in Limited Drag Radial and went out in the semi-finals in X275 on a red light.” At such a huge event, it’s an accomplishment just to qualify – let alone go rounds so two separate classes.
“It’s been the hardest thing we’ve ever done. X275 is a shark tank,” affirmed Ryan, who expected the degree of difficulty after having watched the class for years but especially likes having a schedule to work off of instead of waiting around to race. “I usually manage our cars at each race – ‘Bowser,’ ‘Black Plague,’ and ‘Nemesis’ – plus others that I tune for, so I get stressed. It can be overwhelming.”
The brothers’ amazing work ethic has not gone unnoticed. In addition to winning on Discovery Channel’s “Street Outlaws: New Orleans” show with their “Super Mario” Mustang, they’ve also been fortunate enough to receive mentorship and opportunities from some of the biggest names in the industry.
“Billy Stocklin helped me out tremendously in high school and college, and Kenny Hubbard is my right-hand-man,” stated Ryan, grateful for the generous help he has received. Rubbing elbows with top-caliber tuners of the NHRA nitro and Pro Mod ranks, as well as Steve Petty, Jeffrey Barker, J.D. Campbell, among others, has accelerated Ryan’s knowledge and skill so that he’s able to stand on his own and will one day return the favor to those who follow in his own footsteps.
For DJ, having established himself as a top driver-for-hire has opened doors he never dreamed would be possible. “I’ve driven Lizzy Musi’s ‘Aftershock’ Camaro, and that was a really big thing,” said the young man who has been positioned as Musi’s stand-in for when she can’t make it. “We also have helped crew for Kye Kelley at ‘No Prep Kings’ events.”
Although he stays busy driving about half a dozen cars each year, including the “El Toro,” “Vendetta,” and “The Wizard” no-time grudge cars, DJ also manages a successful career as a software systems engineer but his long-term goal is to drive professionally. “I grew up always wanting to drive a Pro Stock car – tight racing and shifting gears would be a challenge, but I recently fell in love with NHRA Top Fuel,” he elaborated on his eventual goal of getting into the wildest ride in drag racing.
Meanwhile, Ryan is already pursuing his dreams of being a full-time tuner and crew chief with responsibilities to nearly two dozen clients at any given time. “There’s a lot of pressure, both externally from clients and internally from pushing myself to do well,” confessed the talented tuner who hopes one day to manage an NHRA Pro Mod or Pro Stock team and “be stressed seven days a week.” He has collaborated on many builds, too, such as the late Josh Webb’s epic “Black Gold” small-block nitrous 1968 Camaro.
DJ and Ryan have mostly worked with nitrous-assisted entries so far, given that’s what they grew up with, but they are venturing into the world of forced induction. “We do have a boosted car in our camp,” said DJ, and Ryan agreed that one of his next projects will likely be “a ProCharger or screw-blower type deal since the power management is similar to nitrous, from what I gather from [Steve] Petty and [Billy] Stocklin.”
Wherever they wind up, working together is a given and the brothers put family first. Watching their father set the foundation of respect and family, with their mother, Rhonda, showing her support, gave Ryan and DJ a strong sense of community and loyalty. Their pit area is always a bustling compound full of family, friends, and racecars. There’s an intrinsic level of trust that comes with working with each other, and they get along surprisingly well considering how much time they spend traveling, working, and collaborating with each other.
“That level of trust can cost us sometimes,” laughed Ryan, who remembered one particular grudge racing instance where he told DJ not to lift. “I wanted to win so bad! I wicked it up pretty hard and figured the wheelie control would catch it if the car came up, but it didn’t. DJ listened to me and almost wrecked as a result.”
That drive to be the best is something that keeps both DJ and Ryan hungry to grow and to be respected by the greats. “Watching Steve Jackson race against my dad… if he can do it, so can we. We want to be bigger than small-block no-time grudge racers. We want to venture out and spread our wings – go to Duck’s and race against the best in the world,” asserted DJ.
Together, the McCain brothers are undeniably already on the right path towards greatness. From driving to tuning, they’ve proven they can be successful in grudge racing, no-time racing, heads-up class racing, no-prep, and more, and have shown that they can adapt to any situation at any level. “It feels like it’s happened quickly, but it really hasn’t,” DJ added of what is perceived by many to be the brothers’ “overnight success” but has actually taken a tremendous amount of dedication over the years. “We’re still not where we want to be, but we’re definitely on the road that we want to be on to get there.”
Going from small-block no time grudge racers with a knack for trash-talking to professional class racing contenders and respected tuners with multiple huge wins already on their résumés, DJ and Ryan still have plenty left to accomplish and plenty others to inspire to follow their leads.