paul mcmahan’s final call

As Paul McMahan stepped out of the trailer, his moist eyes said more than anything he could put into words. The finality was beginning to creep in.

After three and a half decades of chasing around dirt tracks, it was like 2 a.m. at the bar — his last call. It was truly the last time he would climb out of the seat of a sprint car. The last time he would stow away his helmet. The last time he would step out of a racing trailer to meet his fans.

After 35 years, Paul McMahan came back one last time to where it all began for him. Back in 1987, when Steve Kinser won 46 features to claim his eighth WoO title over Brad Doty, the younger of the McMahan brothers won his first winged sprint car race on the tight Placerville Speedway bullring.

That win vaulted him to a championship on the Calistoga Speedway half-mile in Napa Valley and subsequently to dirt tracks across the country with the World of Outlaws and the All Star Circuit of Champions.

But on this Legends Night, Paul and his older brother, Bobby, were greeted like royalty after travelling from their homes in Tennessee to the iron-rich red clay where they both had planted their racing roots.

No racer ever wants to quit. Most don’t get to leave the sport on their own terms. Back in May, Paul McMahan returned to Chico to drive the Clyde Lamar-owned sprint that catapulted him to the national stage. Even then, he was reluctant to call it retirement.

“That was just the last time I would ever drive at Chico,” McMahan said last Saturday night. “But this is retirement.”

Even with all the time since Chico to get used to the idea of quitting, the finality of the night dogged McMahan. “I’ve thought about it all week,” said McMahan. “It’s going to be emotional. Everything I do, I’m doing for the last time.”

Each stage of the night was like a closing chapter.

“This is the last time I will drive up here,” he said, early in the night, referring to the familiar drive up the interstate from Sacramento. “I just ran my last qualifying lap,” he mused later in the night.

Finally, he parked the car for the night, missing the A main by two cars. An overflow of quality cars on a narrow race track spoiled any chance for a fairy tale ending to a long and successful career.

The finality could no longer be ignored or postponed.

“It’s sad, but I did my best,” said McMahan. He was referring to a tough night at the track, but it just as easily summed up the last 35 years.

His body and his doctors told him it was time. He still suffers the effects of a concussion after a hard crash during the Knoxville Nationals two years ago.

“Placerville has always been a special place for me and I always planned to drive my last race here,” said McMahan. “I just thought it would be further down the road.”

The night was also a royal send-off for older brother Bobby, who was Placerville Speedway’s Rookie of the Year five years before Paul’s debut and for their dad, Ron, who built the sprint cars they both drove in the Northern Auto Racing Club to begin their careers.

Between them, the McMahan brothers accumulated about 85 years of racing, beginning in quarter midgets. Older brother Bobby had cut back on his schedule in recent years but ran one race at Placerville last year before joining the rest of the McMahan family by moving to Tennessee.

But for one night, the entire McMahan family, who were once mainstays of the NARC tour, were Californians again, greeted by an overflow crowd of friends and fans who cheered loudly when Paul made a one last drive down the frontstretch to salute them. Another finality in a night full of them.

“It’s emotional because we made so many good friends,” said Bobby McMahan. Paul agreed, saying he was sad but happy at the same time.

They ended the night with a long line of people giving hugs, sending well wishes and asking for autographs — a crowd that didn’t seem to have any end to it at all.

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