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Drag Racing

To Tell the Story of a Drag Racer, I Had to Take a Lot of Turns

While writing a profile of the Grammy-winning nostalgia funny car racer Nancy Matter, it was easy to get sidetracked.
Nancy standing in Texas Motorplex
Elizabeth Lavin

Back in September, Tim Rogers forwarded me an email from a woman named Nancy Matter. She wrote that she had a crazy story about how she went from a successful career as a mastering engineer, working on Grammy- and Academy Award-winning albums for Walt Disney Studios, to winning drag races and opening her own diesel repair shop in Lewisville.

When I gave her a call, I had no idea how many twists and turns her tale would take. Hint: it involves childhood abuse, biker gangs, a resurrected father, and a paranormal connection to Chris Kyle. You can read the full story from the March issue, “A Quarter Mile of Redemption,” here. It is online today.

What you won’t find in the feature is a full accounting of the byroad that I discovered while trying to track down how Nancy came to drive her nostalgia nitro funny car under the banner of the American Valor Foundation, raising money for the nonprofit established by Chris Kyles’ parents. It didn’t make sense to me at first: she’s not a vet, and she didn’t know Chris. She’s not even a native Texan. And Chris, as far as I know, never raced cars. So what gives?

Turns out the connection was a Denton businessman named Tony Ryan, who has a crazy story of his own. Hint: it involves a Saudi sheik, two country music stars, and a double amputee helicopter pilot. Here’s the bit that I had to leave out about Tony:

Tony owns a Denton-based company called TD Data-Link Controls. It’s an automation company, meaning it provides the equivalent of smart home technology to national commercial properties. He basically helps Walmart turn the lights off and on and manage the thermostat. He has done well for himself, which means he can afford toys of the high-speed, high-caliber variety.

He never served in the military himself, but he was born in 1960 to a father who, at the age of 17, hitchhiked 100 miles to Wichita, Kansas, to enlist after watching a war movie. He taught Tony to ride motocross when he was 4 years old so they’d have something to do together; the criss-crossing of dirt bikes reminded the pilot of dogfighting. When Tony was 6 years old, his father left for Vietnam and served for seven years as one of the first forward air controllers the U.S. military ever had, flying a little prop plane low and slow to draw enemy fire.

Tony would turn on the news after school every day and hold a photo of his dad up to the TV as Walter Cronkite flashed photos of the day’s dead. He dreamed of being a fighter pilot like his dad, but after becoming a professional motocross rider as a teen and getting injured his senior year of high school, the Air Force told him he’d never get to fly. So he went to college and started his career instead.

Somewhere along the way, Tony became friends with Aaron Tippin, the country music singer. One night, Aaron told Tony he was having dinner with Dana Bowman, a vet who had started a wounded warrior foundation. He invited Tony to come along.

Aaron met Dana when they went through Bell Helicopter training together, and the two had become fast friends. Dana was a U.S. Army Ranger, Special Forces. In 1994, when he was jumping with the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army demonstration and competition parachute team, he collided with his partner during one of the jumps, killing him on impact. They were going so fast that when Dana’s partner’s arm hit Dana, it severed his legs in mid-air.

Read that last sentence again.

The military medically retired Dana, but once he was healed he fought for reinstatement and became the first double amputee ever to be reinstated to active duty. He’s currently the only double amputee helicopter instructor pilot in the world.

Tony went to one of Dana’s events and met the warriors. “I just fell in love with it,” he says. “I didn’t get to serve my country the way I wanted to, and this is my way of giving back. So I actually went to my office and I cut a large check, and I came back and I said, ‘Hey, not only do I want to join forces with you, but I want to support as well.’ ” He’s been involved with the Halo for Freedom Warrior Foundation ever since.

The nonprofit’s slogan is, “It’s not the disability, it’s the ability,” and a primary focus is suicide prevention. A Weekend to Remember, its annual event, was held this past weekend. Activities included NASCAR driving, tandem parachuting, helicopter repelling, night bow fishing, and hog hunting. The final evening’s gala was at Circle R Ranch in Flower Mound.

Tony may not be a vet, but he’s been waging a battle with cancer for the last few years. When I talked with him on the phone a few months ago, he said he’s lost 75 pounds and he doesn’t have the strength and stamina to do what he used to. But he told me to look up a video of a song by country music singer Ryan Weaver, who is also a former Black Hawk aviator and U.S. Army officer. Called “No Second Chances,” it was inspired by Tony. And Tony’s in the video.

It all just goes to show: there’s seldom a straight narrative when it comes to people who live these speed-based lives.

Ryan Weaver's video for "No Second Chance" features Tony Ryan doing what Tony does best.


Kathy Wise

Kathy Wise

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Kathy Wise is the editorial director of D Magazine. A licensed attorney, she won a CRMA Award for reporting for “The…