the last word w/Aaron Polburn

On Clay Millican Tears of a Clown


OK, I will openly admit that I had tears running down my face while watching an NHRA TV broadcast. It isn’t what you think. It wasn’t because something tragic happened during the broadcast. It was something that triggered deep emotions. They were happy tears. Clay won.


(Chris Haverly photo)Over the years I have not hidden the fact that Clay Millican was one of my favorite drivers. He was the multi-time champion of an organization that I was President of. I was always in awe of how he carried himself and treated fans. It was not something he learned. It was a part of his 24-7 makeup. He carried the IHRA banner proudly regardless of where he raced.


I remember going to an NHRA race in Chicago. I wandered the pits in the morning and even though the crowd was thin because of the early hour there was Clay signing autographs and talking to fans. He earned his respect one fan at a time. So, with that in mind here are some of my Classic Clay Moments.


You may know that Clay made his NHRA debut in Chicago driving Peter Lehman’s aptly sponsored Chicago White Sox entry. Under the watchful eye of several NHRA officials, Clay executed a picture-perfect burnout. He backed his Top Fuel dragster up but unfortunately never disengaged the reverser. So, the next time Clay hit the loud pedal the car went straight backwards. The NHRA officials were not amused.


OK, you get bonus points if you can answer these questions: Where did Clay win his first IHRA national event? Who was Clay’s opponent during that historic event? And finally, what happened when Clay jumped out of the car? The place was the Grand Bend Motorplex. The final round opponent was Shirley Muldowney. I was working for TNN on the broadcast team covering pit and winners’ interviews. That leads to the answer about what happened next. Clay jumped out of the car and didn’t shake my hand or hug me. He opted to kiss me full on the lips.


Clay and his son, Dalton, had a special relationship. When Clay wasn’t racing he crisscrossed the southern part of the United States to watch Dalton race his quad. At one indoor event the racing was more like a WWE match and tempers flared on the track and in the stands. It got so bad that Clay jumped from his seat, hopped over the barrier to the arena floor and joined what could only be described as a small-scale riot. During the melee it dawned on Clay that this was not what an IHRA Top Fuel World Champion should be doing so he quit throwing haymakers and bolted for the exit door precisely at the moment security arrived. He never got caught.


One of the greatest promotions we got involved with was a tie-in to the Dukes of Hazzard movie. They were actually the title sponsor of our race in Milan, Mich. Clay was a huge fan and actually hand painted his first car to sort of resemble the iconic General Lee. The Werner Top Fueler had a special wrap and everything was going great until the Top Fuel General Lee did a spectacular blow over on race day. I remember the radio transmission well. “Is Clay OK?”  “Yes, he is fine.” “Then that will make one of the greatest TV commercials ever.” It did.


One of the sweetest ladies I ever met was Clay’s mom. Simply known as Mama she had a wonderful tradition. When the team left for a race she would turn on window lights that adorned her house and kept them on until everyone returned to Drummond, Tenn., safe and sound.


We were at Edmonton and I was in the Pro pits complaining to Clay that we were going to get killed because there were so few people in the pits. I remember Clay saying “I think we better take a walk.” You couldn’t see the track from where the cars were pitted so I followed Clay and was astounded at what I saw. It was no wonder there was no one in the pit because there was nearly 5,000 people watching Quick Rod qualifying. It was our first event ever in Edmonton and the race-starved Canadian fans were not going to miss a thing. In retrospect, it was probably the largest crowd to ever watch Quick Rod qualifying.


Love you, Clay.  Race Safe ... Godspeed



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