Don Maxwell was born in Appleton, WI., November 23, 1944. He got a taste for racing early on when his mother would drag race people from stop lights with her 1949 Plymouth on the city streets of Albuquerque, NM.
In 1962 Don started drag racing himself. The street the racers chose at that time was the road that went past Speedway Park in Albuquerque. On nights when the circle track was running, they would leave the lights on, which would cut into Maxwell’s street racing time. In late 1964, Maxwell bought a ticket to the races at Speedway Park and got his first glimpse of a sprint car.
Meeting up with men such as Jerry Miller, Johnny Capels and Buddy Taylor had its effect on Don. Miller, who was an established star at Speedway Park needed parts made for the upcoming season, so he and Maxwell shared Don’s shop. Maxwell started his circle track career in 1965 at Speedway Park, and won Rookie of the Year. He won his first feature the next season at Amarillo, TX.
Maxwell started building parts for other racers right from the beginning, which in turn helped him to keep racing. He built one or two cars for other racers, charging $500 if they bought the parts. “I have to say, I came along at the perfect time for an innovator. Now it would be hard to make one better, but back then the cars were pitiful,” stated Maxwell. Obviously, Maxwell felt it would be easy to make improvements.
The fact that there was much more money to be made was brought home in the fall of 1966. At a USAC sprint race in Phoenix, Don met Mario Andretti, who took Maxwell to the shop of his Indy car mechanic, Clint Brawner. While Maxwell and Brawner were talking, Max noticed a sprint car with a for sale sign on it. Max asked Brawner how much he wanted for it and Brawner said, $12,500. “That’s when I realized there was more opportunity in this than I was taking advantage of,” said Maxwell.
By 1971, Maxwell was one of the top drivers and builders in the Southwest. He heard that LaVern Nance wanted to get into the sprint car building business, so he made a trip to Wichita, KS. Nance hired Maxwell and they went to work as a full-time builder for the first time. Then Bill Smith of Speedway Motors lured him to Lincoln in February, 1972.
The first car Maxwell built for Smith was a kit car that had never been finished. After Maxwell put it together, it sat in the warehouse until Bill’s son, Carson, got it ready for Lloyd Beckman in 1982. With this 10-year-old “new” car they won the track championship at Midwest Speedway.
Jan Opperman was looking for someone who could build cars the way Opp liked them, and Maxwell was receptive. They joined forces - Maxwell the builder and Opperman the salesman. Some of the other talented individuals that spent time building Maxwell racecars were: Randy Hunt, Tommy Sanders, Doug Wolfgang, Ray Royal and John Singer. It wasn’t long before Maxwell’s reputation began to grow.
With all this talent behind the wheel and on the wrenches, it’s no wonder some of the biggest races in the sport fell to Maxwell’s creations, including the Knoxville Nationals, the Hulman Classic and the Tampa, FL, Wiinternationals, as well as many track and association championships.
One memorable race that Max himself won came at North Star Speedway in Blaine, MN, in 1975. After a rainout at Knoxville on Saturday, Maxwell decided to head to North Star for the regular Sunday night show. He dropped his wife, Sandra, and their young son, Thane, off at the grandstand and Don headed for the pits with the rig. All of the good pits spots had already been taken, so Max, there all by himself, had to unload the car and the trailer without any help in a rather muddy portion of the pits. He managed to push the car up to the line by himself, then jump in and went out and set fast time for the evening.
In the trophy dash, he just missed winning, finishing a close second to Roger Larson. When he came in from the dash, a young man came over and held Don’s helmet while he got out of the car. Don then set to work making a few changes for the heat race, which he won. The young man that had helped Don with his helmet was now at the car with a friend and they scraped the mud off and put fuel in for the feature. Don won the feature rather handily and upon arriving at his pit, in addition to the two guys that had been helping him, he had 20 or so, well wishers who were more that willing to help him get everything packed up and the car loaded back on the trailer, none of whom he knew!
Maxwell brought many innovations to sprint car racing, including the signature hood, which had a lower, more aerodynamic profile than most hoods of the time. Max also came up with the first inboard brakes on sprint cars.
He built the first plastic fuel tanks as well, which brought the cost of a tank from $700 for the old aluminum ones to around $150 for his tanks. The basis for his design is still being used today.
Don and his wife, Sandra, were married in 1968 and they have two children, Donald Thane and Tammy Shubert. He still has his southwest Lincoln fabrication shop, where he can build everything from a street rod to decorative yard fences, as well as building the stage sets for some of music’s biggest stars.