VOLUME XXI, NUMBER 3 - MARCH, 2019
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Editor & Publisher
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ET DRAG RACING
Words by Tom McCarthy
Photos by Tom McCarthy and Ron Lewis
At 53 most men are well established in life, looking ahead to retirement in another 10-15 years, with visions of going fishing or finding peace and quite to fill their days. But such is not the case for Clay Millican of Drummonds, Tennessee. “If I could step on the loud peddle 52 weeks a year I would” he quipped recently in an interview and the gleam in his eye told me he was not joking. That’s not practical of course but if the budget was there and the pieces of the puzzle fit, I’m sure more often than not he would be dressed in a Simpson firesuit ready to race. He simply loves what he’s doing.
Clay is “living the dream” if ever there was a man to do so in the world of NHRA Top Fuel racing. There was a time not long ago he was a forklift driver working for Kroger Supermarkets, spending his days moving pallets of groceries from point A to point B. During that time in his life he raced in Sportsman Eliminator classes and enjoyed it immensely, hoping -- in fact dreaming -- one day of stepping on the loud peddle of a 10,000-HP NHRA Top Fuel dragster. For this man, his dreams and perseverance paid off in spades as today, this is exactly what Clay Millican does for a living: he’s racing NHRA Top Fuel cars.
His life now is a far cry from where he once was racing in Modified Eliminator, wondering if he might break-out next pass or where is the money going to come from to get to the seasonal Divisional race. He has bigger things to concern himself with now, like where did his team go and can his new crew get it together virtually overnight to continue his push for NHRA prominence in a league of super heroes. In NHRA drag racing, things get complicated competing at drag racing’s highest levels.
Last year Clay and his team had their best finish in NHRA Mello Yello championship points racing. They finished third in the annual Countdown to the Championship. That’s up from a sixth-place finish the year before that and 10th the year prior. Clay’s improvements were incremental and all was going according to plan until the later stages of 2018 when an opposing NHRA fuel racing team bought out his core element of crew members. One day he had a well-oiled experienced team, championship contenders, then “poof” they were gone.
He describes the situation like this: “The people that were here had an offer from somewhere else and they left and that allowed me to get back together with one of my best friends.” This is exactly how Clay looks at his current situation. A negative becomes a positive if you look at it from the right perspective.
Straightline Strategy Group now owns the dragster and has put several other racers under their marketing umbrella as well, including Matt Hartford, Paul Lee, Janette Thornley and Jeff Lutz.
Millican and his previous crew from 2015 forward amassed three NHRA national event victories, their first coming in Bristol, TN, in 2017. Then two more followed and most importantly the annual championship points climb incrementally was there: 10th, 6th and 3rd in succession. Clearly his team was going the right way, but that was then and this is now.
His old friend he has now realigned with is his former crew chief, Mike Kloeber: the man he amassed 51 Top Fuel car wins with in IHRA competition. The man he won six straight IHRA Top Fuel championships with. Reuniting this team may be exactly what he needs to really live the dream at a new level – the NHRA level.
Mike Kloeber (left) returns as Millican’s crew chief while Jack Wyatt serves as car chief.
Millican and Kloeber firmly believe they can do this. Where does he want to see them by the end of 2019? “Well I can tell you this, we want to finish better than we did last year, and I’d prefer it to be two spots better, that would be a perfect season. We want the opportunity to have a legitimate shot at the championship.”
Clay has a deep appreciation for his opposition who beat him last season, “What happened last year, with Steve Torrence and his team, we may never see that again. That team didn’t get near the credit it deserves for the accomplishments it achieved. To win that many rounds in consecutive succession was un-freaking-believable.”
Millican gives credit, where credit is due, he knows how hard it is to win at this level. He is the winningest T/F car driver in the history of IHRA drag racing and upon coming into NHRA competition, he amassed three wins in four seasons. Can he win again as he once did during his IHRA years?
Clay responded to that question with “I would say yes. But, can I become the winningest driver ever, in NHRA history, I don’t know, I don’t know if I have enough years left in me to do that. Can I become an NHRA champion; absolutely. We have to maintain the sponsorships and create the opportunities, the rest will follow.” Clay has realistic goals for his team this year, “Our goal is to win some races and to go into the Count Down in the top five, and we will let the chips fall where they may in the final races.”
Mike Kloeber admitted he had a little catching up to do with technology when the season began.
Millican and Kloeber were out in the first rounds at the first two events of 2019, but made it to the finals at the third.
Clay has some unfinished business to attend to in NHRA drag racing and that’s a big part of his motivation right now. “Mike and I have done and accomplished most everything you can think of in drag racing. We won six straight world championships, we have elapsed time and mile-per-hour records, you name it we have done it. But the only thing we haven’t done is, win an NHRA National event championship in Top Fuel. That’s our unfinished business.”
To do this Clay and Mike are now massing their championship team they will slay dragons with. Team building is easier said than done. According to Kloeber, the key to this new team equation is the recent addition of Jack Wyatt, a former F/C driver and team owner in his own right, to Clay’s Parts Plus/Strutmaster team. Kloeber and Millican have put Wyatt in charge of getting the new team to gel.
“They’re not quite there yet, but they are getting there rapidly,” Kloeber commented. “One of the reasons we have risen to where we are is the people we have brought to the team. Like Jack Wyatt, he’s now managing the crew. Jack has done much of the training of the new guys. He’s been around a long time and he’s very effective at what he does.”
Crewman Daniel Mayorquin
Crewman Nick Hines
“My job is to manage everything, but not micro-manage everything,” Kloeber elaborated. “Jack is a very good coach, a mentor to these young guys working on our team. I can’t emphasize enough how important Jack Wyatt is to our operation.”
Millican agrees, “He’s an amazing guy, he came from no money, he built and crafted everything he has, he ran his own Funny Car operation; he’s done it all, now he’s teaching the next generation. Jack is an amazing drag racer and for a drag racer to say that about another drag racer, that should tell you something.”
While team building is currently the most important aspect of the pit side of the racing operation, it’s what happens on track that matters most.
“One thing that won’t ever change is who turns on the win light,” Kloeber said. “It’s not who has the fastest car or who has the quickest elapsed time, it’s who turns on the win light. I don’t care what it runs as long as the win light comes on.” No truer words were ever spoken.
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