Madison Payne was unhurried in answering the question of when she first realized she wanted to race, yet she was without a hint of trepidation in her response. Quietly confident, considerate, and grateful, Madison’s method of maneuvering her first interview as a drag racer appeared to mirror how she handled her graduation from daughter and granddaughter of drag racers to piloting a car of her own.
There was a moment of silence on the line as the 19-year-old paused to consider her response.
“I always knew it was going to happen, I just never knew when I would get the opportunity,” said the driver who licensed in Super Comp just last year. “I was having so much fun being out there with my family that I was never in a real rush.”
As a child, the Southern California native entered less than a handful of NHRA Jr. Drag Racing League events, but they didn’t capture her attention the way the big cars did – a possible side effect of early exposure to ridiculous amounts of horsepower. The first of two children born to Jay and Shelly Payne, the youngster watched her parents campaign racecars in an array of challenging categories known for keeping drivers on their toes and spectators on the edge of their seats.
Mom Shelly cut her teeth in an alcohol dragster before graduating to Top Fuel, where she was nearly perfect in final rounds. To date, the only driver to defeat Shelly in a dragster final of any kind is Larry Dixon (Phoenix 1995). Shelly also raced Pro Mod alongside Jay, who owns an assortment of championships and right about four dozen national event trophies, mostly claimed during a very productive segment of his career as an alcohol racer.
At the root of all this is Madison’s grandfather, Brad Anderson, No. 33 on NHRA’s list of 50 Greatest Racers. The patriarch of the family was a regular winner and multi-time Top Alcohol Funny Car national champion. Brad Anderson Engineering products have been part of a steady stream of victories and titles for drivers who aren’t part of the family tree for decades, though children Shelly and Randy both enjoyed successful careers as drivers with his proven equipment.
“My grandpa is so genuinely excited I’m racing Super Comp,” said Madison. “He wants me to move up to Top Dragster – or anything, really, that he can build parts for. I’ve learned a lot from him in racing and in life. He’s one of the smartest people I know; he can watch a run and see what I have to change to improve or make it faster. The way he thinks blows me away.”
Super Comp to A/Fuel
When Madison was ready to settle into the driver’s seat at the age of 17, she signed up for Tom Bayer’s School of Drag Racing in Fontana, Calif., and licensed.
“Mr. Bayer is a really good teacher. The first day, we didn’t even get in the car,” recalled Madison, who went through the school in June of 2019. “He just explained everything that I would need to do. When I got in, I didn’t have any questions. Having a great teacher and being able to follow all of the procedures is a lot different than actually winning in Super Comp, though. For the most part, everyone in that class is super good, and that’s what I like about it. There are so many competitive cars and drivers that it really helps you learn and become more competitive yourself.”
Her first race was the divisional event in Woodburn, Ore., and the very next weekend the family traveled to Sonoma Raceway and hunkered down for a trio of events. By race two, the second-half of a divisional double header, Madison had a round win in her pocket. She made her national event debut there the following weekend and picked up two more round wins, and at the NHRA Finals in Pomona, she got a glimpse of three more win lights during eliminations.
Madison kicked off 2020 with another fourth-round finish in Pomona, this time at the season-opening Winternationals, and contested a total of 14 races between divisional and national events. The highlight of the year, though, was licensing in the Shields Racing Muscle Milk A/Fuel Dragster usually piloted by Duane Shields.
The two had a discussion early in 2020 about the possibility of Madison driving the car for Shields Racing at select events the following season, and the conversation between friends turned to forward momentum by season’s end. Madison licensed in Shields’ A/Fuel dragster after the Las Vegas national event in October with a 5.351-second pass at 275.86 mph.
“It was really fun,” she recalled. “I was told I made too long of a burnout on my first pass, so that was kind of funny, but overall it took my breath away in a good way. I knew what to expect, and I knew it was going to go a lot faster, but being prepared in your mind and actually going through it are two very different things. I was so upset after that first pass because I didn’t think I did a good job backing up or staging, but Duane’s team came up honking and shouting as I was getting out of the car at the other end. They were all so supportive, and it was really nice.”
Madison learned the ins and outs of the Top Alcohol Dragster procedure from Shields, whom she describes as a very patient person. By the time she got into the car, she felt prepared for anything that might happen.
After getting the initial pass under her belt and shaking off some unexpected nerves, Madison says that all she felt was excitement.
“Before my third pass, my dad was in the lanes getting ready to test the Funny Car,” she said. “That was really cool for me, all of the alcohol Funny Cars and dragsters being there. I was in the lanes with these people I’ve always watched from my dad’s tow car, and for them to be suiting up around me, it was like, this is real. This is happening.”
With roots so deeply entrenched in drag racing, one would expect that Madison expects to be part of the program for a very long time, if not the remainder of her life. She readily admits that she is game to drive anything, but only when the time is right.
“I think it would be really fun, and I would enjoy any opportunity – but as of right now, I wouldn’t want to race a nitro car,” she said. “I definitely want to get more seat time in the Top Alcohol Dragster. I want to practice a lot more and get super comfortable in that car first.”
Pro Mod has her interest as well, and Madison explains that she’d like to get into a Top Sportsman car at some point to get a handle on that type of set up first.
“My parents are okay with anything that makes sense for me as a student and financially,” said Madison, who is currently studying Business Administration via online courses until the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have been lifted. She is committed to Louisiana State University.
“As long as I’m safe about it and respect the car, I’ll have their full support no matter what I drive,” she continued. “They’ve driven pretty much everything, and between my parents and my grandparents, I’ve been given great tips that have helped me a lot. I don’t think I would have gotten this kind of education otherwise, so I do kind of have an advantage in that sense.”
Madison is reasonable and perhaps a bit more rational than a typical 19-year-old when it comes to thinking about what’s in the future. She does not expect that anything will be handed to her, and she does not intend to take any shortcuts.
“I really like the opportunities within racing, and I’d really like to be able to race for as long as possible, but I still want to go to college and get a degree in something else,” she said. “I don’t want to be stuck. Growing up in racing, I know how difficult it is to afford to do it or to find a ride, and I don’t want to put all my eggs in that basket.”
Before the 2021 season fires up, Madison will be scouting a Super Comp car of her own to replace the 8.90 rail she currently rents from Bayer. She’s also eager to get more seat time in the Shields Racing Top Alcohol Dragster to be fully prepared for the West coast events she’ll race with the team.
Jay was slated to retire at the conclusion of 2020, but since the racing schedule was stunted due to COVID-19, he plans to push his retirement out and race a few more times next year. Madison’s younger brother, Toby, licensed in Super Comp this year and raced four events, including the Las Vegas national, so he’ll be joining the Payne Family Racing roster in 2021 as well.
“I was really having a blast with Super Comp, and it definitely feels more serious now,” she said. “As of right now, I’m still pretty excited.”
On racing as a family:
“The kids probably play the least important roles in our family’s racing. I used to help work on my dad’s Funny Car, but after I started racing Super Comp there were a couple of times I couldn’t help out…. and then I got fired. Now my main focus is Super Comp, and I’ll help out if they need anything, but for the most part…. I’m still fired.”
“I don’t get nervous in Super Comp; I put my helmet on, and people usually leave me alone. But before my first pass in the Top Alcohol Dragster, I was super nervous. That was a new feeling to me. Once I made that first pass, I wasn’t nervous anymore. I could just focus on the procedure.”
On her brother, Toby, racing:
“He’s doing pretty good. He’s one of those kids who doesn’t let things bother him. We’ve already seen it; people playing games on the starting line doesn’t really affect him at all. It’s kind of funny.”
“Ashley Force Hood was someone I looked up to my whole life. I was probably the most annoying kid. My mom used to babysit her, and she used to babysit me. When she was racing Top Alcohol Dragster before fuel Funny Car, I would walk right into the pit area and sit in her lounge while they were trying to accomplish things. I loved her so much. She could never get rid of me at the races.”
“I’ve been trying to learn how to play basketball better, because my brother is really good at it and gets cocky when he beats me. For the most part, I just like to bother my family. I’ll randomly show up at my grandparents’ house and eat all their ice cream.”