Alright, so you’re a Dragzine reader, you like to keep up with the latest developments in drag racing, and you might even watch cable television now and then. All this means that, more than likely, you know who Kye Kelley is. The famous TV star who’s ‘made it big’. The guy who brought his full tube-chassis car to New Orleans for a filming of Discovery Channel’s Street Outlaws series and, out of nowhere, became a household name. But as with all things television, there is always more to the story than what appears on the screen.
Kye’s story certainly doesn’t start in a place that fosters mass media stardom. He was born and raised in Magnolia, Mississippi, the county seat of Pike County. Of course when the larger nearby town of McComb is itself the “middle of nowhere”, in his words, that’s not saying much. And yet early on, in and around Magnolia, Kye used any resource available to support and build his passion — racing.
Even before he could legally drive, his first aspirations centered on a 1965 Chevy II Nova that was owned, at the time, by a friend. As Kye recently recounted in a Facebook post, “I bought my first car at age 15 […] on money I saved working two jobs milking cows and bagging groceries — from there it wasn’t a hobby, it was an obsession…” And as many of us know, that obsession — the never-ending process of getting faster — is something very difficult to shake. In Kye’s case, that journey led from the small-tire, small-block Nova to a big-block 1972 Chevy LUV truck, for which he built both the 572 cubic-inch motor and ladder-bar chassis himself.
My biggest fear is being average — I don’t want to be like somebody else, I want to be better.
“That truck was like a wheelie king!”, Kye recalls. To get faster by staying on the ground, Kye sold the truck, acquired a very second-hand 638 in a motor-for-motor trade and, after over a year of chasing block failures, fit the repaired powerplant to a rear-drive 1980’s Dodge Charger. However, with that 638 shoehorned in, the light, short-wheelbase chassis would nearly pretzel itself at every hit … so much so that even bystanders were concerned.
Eventually acknowledging it was more of a death trap than a foundation for a race program, Kye removed the 638 and set out yet again to find a car that could handle his aspirations. And finally, after some time to digest the lessons of two wildly-handling race cars, his browsing on RacingJunk.com led him to a beat-up third generation Camaro.
But before that chapter, some explanation of the man himself would be useful. Indeed, any race car is ultimately an extension of the person or people behind it — without human motivation, the parts just lie still, unanimated. And motivation is something Kye possess in spades. “My biggest fear is being average — I don’t want to be like somebody else, I want to be better,” he emphasizes. Whether in a car, milking cows, or in the industry he entered after high school — petroleum refining — he never seemed to just sit back. As part of the team handling turnaround (non-stop repair work during scheduled refinery shutdowns), Kye’s first role was “fire watching”. As he explains it, the extent of the $10-an-hour job was: “While welders are welding, you just sit there and watch for a fire, you do nothing. And you feel like the most useless person there is.” And if you know Kye, you know he just wasn’t going to be satisfied with that. Indeed, after a little over 10 years there, he had worked his way up to superintendent, with 250 people under him, and running the whole job. It fits perfectly with his character. In this case, just as in racing, “I didn’t want to be average,” he reiterates, continuing, “I didn’t want to be the 50-year-old fire-watcher. I wanted to be the superintendent. I wanted to be on top.”
Of course at that time, while racing didn’t receive all of his time, it still preoccupied his mind and received all of his passion. Truly, it was his release. When home after a turnaround, he and a group of local friends would meet up, joking and challenging each other with whatever’s at hand. Whether that meant shooting dice, hassling someone into a foot race, or grudge racing their cars, it was simply matching up against someone for fun. Well that, and money. And should a lot of money and talk be thrown into a drag race, sometimes it had to be settled relatively quickly, regardless of whether the nearby tracks were open for grudging. So to find streets free of cracks, crevices, and cops the crew traveled from McComb to either Jackson, Mississippi or New Orleans, at the infamous Pad.
In a lot of ways, then, the street scene in Southern Louisiana and Mississippi was like the scene in Oklahoma City before the 405’s top 10 list came about, somewhere around 2006. “Yeah we didn’t have a list,” Kye confirms. “All we had was grudge racing — we bet money and we grudge raced. It was just a fun thing to do.” And after selling off the frame-snapping 80’s Charger, Kye was looking for a way to re-enter this scene with a chassis that actually worked. Or at least looked the part.
I like the street — it’s cut-and-dry. If somebody jumps, they make the call, it’s done. All these other rules that come into it … it’s just something to get used to.
“I didn’t know what the chassis looked like or anything,” Kye says of the car that would become the Shocker. “I just liked the fact that it was a third-gen Camaro with a [VFN] Sunoco hood — that’s the only reason I liked it,” he continues with a laugh. Nevertheless, with this car Kye was going to make sure that it both looked good and functioned well, even if he had to make all the changes himself. Because as he explains, “It looked good from the outside, but… [the chassis] was really a hunk of junk. But it was what I could afford, at the time. So I got that car, and I replaced everything that needed to be replaced, little by little, as I had the money.” At the completion of this process, when the car was finally race-ready, Kye fit his resurrected 638-inch motor to the newly-piped chassis, put fire in the pipes, and put his craftsmanship to the test.
And wouldn’t you know, hard work pays off. The Shocker came into it’s own. “It’s not the best chassis there is, it’s definitely not the baddest car or the safest car, but it’s a car that will work anywhere. … It seems like no matter what I try to do with that car, it never tells me ‘no’,” Kye says with pride. In sum, “It’s not a name-brand chassis, it’s just a backyard piece of junk that works.” So about a year-and-a-half after first finding the car, Kye now had knowledge of the Shocker’s abilities and hard-earned confidence in it’s potential. These two assets would soon pay dividends, given the opportunity about to present itself.
And for Kye, one Facebook post — made sometime during filming of the first season of Street Outlaws — started it all. As he recalls, “They were looking for the fastest people in the South to run. We got a little racing page called ‘NTZ Racing,’ on Facebook. And, Big Chief made a post on there … that’s where it all started. Cory Temple [Moonshine] tagged me, and us and New Orleans came together.” Since Kye and the other southern Mississippi (Natchez area) runners raced frequently in and around New Orleans, it was a natural fit. And ever since he arrived and took part in that first filming at the Pad, his races and results have been known to the world.
Several factors came into play during that initial run of big-money wins against the Oklahoma City crew. In mechanistic sense, one key factor was that same patched-up 638 he was given in trade, years earlier. In a more abstract sense, however, his own self-assuredness made the biggest difference. Indeed, to consistently win stacks of cash larger than this writer will probably ever see, one needs to both wager big and also possess a sufficiently optimistic view of the outcome. Having that degree of confidence might be difficult to understand from the outside, but Kye emphasizes that for him, such expectations aren’t unreasonable, at all. It comes down to the preparations that make it possible, he argues. “I’m out there where the rubber meets the road,” he emphasizes, and goes on to explain, “I do everything myself. So whenever I pull up there and race my car, I know I touched every nut, every bolt. I’m confident because I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve put in the work, I know what the car’s gonna’ do. Now it’s time to race.”
At end of the day, I just want everybody to know that I got my whole heart into this, it’s not a game to me.
And in instances where factors outside of Kye’s own performance and preparation impact the result, the sting is especially painful. Such was the case during the live event filming for Street Outlaws: No Prep Kings, at San Antonio Raceway in January. He was disqualified for leaving the line early — despite video evidence showing the car still stationary when the tree flashed green — in a decision that created substantial controversy in the no-prep community. But for Kye himself, the reaction was simply exasperation. “I put my last dollars into going to this race,” he declares. “I put my whole heart, my everything into going to this race, because I came to win. I didn’t come to hang out! That’s why I take everything so seriously — I’m in it to win it.” Indeed, for someone with so much on the line, there’s simply no ‘wait ‘till next time’ consolation.
Because for Kye and his race program, the transition from street racing locally to traveling across country for track events has been difficult. Even beyond the up-front travel expenses, the costs are dramatically different when it comes to the parts costs involved with running a car hard all weekend and making repairs remotely. As Kye notes, “It costs a lot more money, and I’m on the same budget as I was before… a Magnolia, Mississippi boy budget.”
I’m confident because I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve put in the work, I know what the car’s gonna’ do. Now it’s time to race.
Nevertheless, this opportunity to race for a living is something he cherishes, and will not relinquish without a fight. “That’s like a dream come true,” he explains. “Racing was always my passion, and here it is — it’s my time to shine. I gotta’ keep it going, now.” Even if that means straying from his roots as a street racer and adjusting to a new sort of racing, despite some early hurdles. “I like the street — it’s cut-and-dry. If somebody jumps, they make the call, it’s done. All these other rules that come into it … it’s just something to get used to. Don’t get me wrong, now — I’m not knocking the no-prep series, because it’s a cool thing. I’ve enjoyed being a part of it.” Asked specifically if he’s willing to again enter no-prep races with Discovery Channel and Pilgrim Media Group after the events that transpired in San Antonio, Kye says “Of course. As long as I can keep close with them, I’ll be there.”
And he’ll be there regardless of the cost it takes. Indeed he ruefully explains that even now, “I’m borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. And being competitive by doing it.” So of course he will work side jobs, hustle, or whatever else is necessary for him to compete at his highest level. Because, as should be apparent by now, that’s his only level. “At end of the day, I just want everybody to know that I got my whole heart into this, it’s not a game to me,” he emphasizes, with pride that’s earned from putting everything on the line, every time.