|There appears to be no love lost between Doug Herbert and Clay Millican. They competed before in IHRA and their history carried onto the track at the NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals.(Steve Embling photo)|
Mike Kloeber called it "surreal" watching drivers Clay Millican
Herbert engage in a Top Fuel burndown at the recently completed NHRA
event in Reading, PA. Speaking by phone a few days later from his home
in Chicago, the crew chief for Millican's Werner Enterprises-backed
dragster said he was as surprised as anyone to witness the 67-seconds-
long staging duel. "I had no idea it was going to happen," Kloeber
insisted. "I was just a spectator at that point. I didn't even have a good
perception of time. I knew they were taking a long time, but I had no idea
how long it was until I watched the tape."
To recap: Herbert (a four-time IHRA T/F champion who now races
exclusively with NHRA) and Millican (the defending IHRA T/F champ who's
currently riding a perfect record in IHRA competition this year), were
scheduled to be the first pair down the track in eliminations at Maple
Grove Raceway. But after completing their burnouts and rolling into the
pre-stage beams, neither was willing to stage first. They just sat there
with more than 12,000 combined horsepower straining at the bit and
heating up to near-critical levels. That's when chief starter Rick Stewart --
no doubt recalling Herbert's MASSIVE starting-line explosion at the 1999
World Finals -- decided enough was enough and gave the order through
wild hand slashes across his throat to shut 'em down.
(left) told me the decision to delay staging was Millican's alone. He
also said he doesn't offer Millican any advice once the staging sequence
begins -- even if it lasts more than a minute.
"We're usually quiet on the radio at that point," he explained.
just us, but probably every team out there. It's his (Millican's) car at that point; there's nothing more I can do and I don't think he needs any driving
lessons or distractions from me. About the only time I'll say anything is if
we see something wrong that he's not aware of. Anything on the radio at
that point probably means shut it off."
Coincidentally, Kloeber also mentioned in Reading that he ran one of
largest fuel tanks in the class, prompting speculation that he and Millican
may have planned starting-line showdowns all along, just to outlast the
competition. He dismissed that suspicion by explaining he's always used
large tanks as a means to adjust weight more easily in the nose of the
car, especially with smaller drivers like Millican and before him, Cristen
Powell in the driver's seat.
"It's so much easier and quicker to just put in or take out a
fuel," Kloeber said. "That's why you see me always measuring with a
dipstick. I want to know exactly how much there is so I know what it
weighs to control how high we're going to carry the front wheels. It's
strictly a ballast thing for us; not so we can run longer at the line. That's
just not the way we race."
Regardless, after Stewart gave the signal to abort the run, Herbert
six feet, four inches and 220 pounds of him -- immediately jumped out of
his suddenly silent racecar and approached the much smaller Millican to
vent his displeasure. Werner team owner Peter Lehman (no giant himself)
then came to his diminutive driver's defense in a televised confrontation
with the still-helmeted Herbert, who added more fuel to the fire by
making a crack about Millican winning a bunch of "hillbilly races,"
apparently referring to his 16 IHRA titles.
Meanwhile, amidst the commotion, Kloeber said he was busy conferring
with Stewart, who initially signaled both drivers were disqualified, and
NHRA Sr. VP of Racing Operations Graham Light. Kloeber said he and
Johnny West, crew chief for Herbert's Snap-on Tools-sponsored ride, were
both relieved when Light overruled the decision, reasoning that no rules
were broken, so both cars would be allowed to refuel and race at the end
of the session. Regarding the altercation still unfolding before them,
Kloeber said, "Johnny and I are really good friends and we were watching
it all from behind the TV cameras. We both just looked at each other,
shrugged our shoulders, and waited to see what would happen."
What happened was that while their two teams were satisfied, the rest
the Top Fuel field was up in arms, complaining bitterly about the delay
and about the troublesome twosome even being allowed to continue. The
faster guys particularly objected to what should have been the first pair
out getting to race last. Their contention was that number-eight qualifier
Millican and number-nine Herbert would benefit from a track that would
be better than if they had run first -- thanks to rubber laid down by
competitors -- thereby negating any advantage gained by qualifying on
top of them.
Regardless, Light stuck to his decision and sent Cory McClenathan and
Darrell Russell to the line to resume eliminations. Kloeber said he
completely understood Cory Mac's and Russell's frustration, admitting
he'd feel the same if the roles were reversed. "I honestly felt bad for
them having to go first when they weren't supposed to," he claimed.
"You always want to see someone else go down first."
As luck would have it, though, Mother Nature stepped in with persistent
rain showers just as McClenathan and Russell were about to race,
providing just enough delay for Millican's and Herbert's cars to be refueled
and restore the running order to its original schedule.
The second time around, Millican staged promptly, then strapped a slight
holeshot on Herbert, but Herbert passed the Werner car about the 1,000-
foot mark to take what probably was one of the sweetest victories of his
12-year Top Fuel career. Back at the starting line, Kloeber had already
forgotten the earlier excitement and was concentrating on why his car
dropped a cylinder and ran only 4.772 at 301 mph. "That was
disappointing," he said. "That cylinder was probably worth a tenth to us,
which would have been enough to win."
The story might've ended there, with no more damage done perhaps than
Millican becoming a marked man in NHRA for questionable staging
practices. After all, although neither driver had the "right" to stage last, it
probably would have been prudent for Millican (as the visitor) to avoid
controversy; especially after a similar, though less severe incident with
Herbert at Pomona last fall. It certainly must give pause to Prudhomme,
LaHaie, and Dixon about ever agreeing to the winner-take-all match race
that's been bandied about recently.
But there was still that "hillbilly" comment out there, aimed
at the IHRA
by Herbert, who makes no secret of his disregard for IHRA management.
IHRA president Bill Bader called for a televised apology from Herbert for
his comments and in a roundabout manner suggested NHRA might also
want to look at dealing "properly" with the issue. Herbert, meanwhile,
posted his version of events but no apology to IHRA on his Web site,
although he did say, "nobody has had more fun, made more friends or had
any better of a time at an IHRA race than me. Belive (sic) me the only
problem I have with the IHRA is the top management."